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Sunday, September 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Muslim Army chaplain detained in terror war

The Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A Muslim chaplain at the U.S. military base in Guantánamo who counseled suspected terrorists and taught fellow troops about Islam is the first known U.S. soldier to be detained in the U.S.-led war on terror.

Army Capt. Yousef Yee, a 34-year-old with a thinning buzz-cut who converted to Islam after being raised as a Christian, arrived at Guantánamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba last November. His job was to teach fellow troops about Islam and counsel detainees suspected of links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime or the al-Qaida terror network.

Military officials said yesterday that Yee — who was born James Yee but later took the Muslim name of Yousef — was detained on Sept. 10 in Jacksonville, Fla., after returning from Guantánamo. He has not been charged.

A Justice Department official said the military had opened its investigation of Lee before he left Guantánamo and that he was searched upon arriving at the naval air station in Jacksonville. Investigators found what appeared to be sketches or diagrams of the prisoner facilities at Guantánamo, the New York Times reported.

Investigators are looking into the possibility that he was sympathetic to prisoners there and was preparing to aid them in some undetermined way.

"That's the fear and the suspicion that the Army is pursuing," the New York Times quoted a Justice Department official as saying.

The Times also reported that the FBI executed a search warrant at a Miami apartment that apparently was used by Yee.

Before Guantánamo, Yee, who is married, had been stationed at Fort Lewis.

The camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo holds mostly foreigners captured in fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Most of them are Muslims, and the military has provided them with Islamic clerics since the camp was established.

The prisoners are held under strict supervision but are given such religious amenities as copies of the Quran and prayer rugs. As chaplain, Yee arranged to have recordings of the ritual calls to prayer broadcast through the camp, and to reassure the prisoners that their food was prepared according to Islamic dietary guidelines.

As an Arabic-speaker, Yee also counseled the detainees and advised them on religious matters.

In an interview conducted with The Associated Press in January, Yee refused to answer questions about the depth of his involvement with the detainees, who then numbered 650, and now stand at about 660 — mostly men but at least three teenagers from 43 countries.

When asked if he was sympathetic to the prisoners — some of whom have been held in Guantánamo for nearly two years without charges — Yee was silent and showed no emotion. When asked how his faith affected how he viewed the detention mission, he gave only a cursory answer.

"I'm here to provide spiritual services to the detainees and to the troops," Yee said, speaking of his teachings on Islam to U.S. troops at the base. He also offered Friday prayer services at the base.

Yee is being held at a military brig in Charleston, S.C. — the same place where officials are holding Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American-born Saudi who allegedly fought with the Taliban, and Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member charged with plotting to detonate a bomb.

"He had daily access to the detainees," said Capt. Tom Crosson, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command in Miami, who confirmed the military was holding Yee in South Carolina. "He is the first U.S. soldier that I know of to be detained and held since the war on terror began."

This year, Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar, a 32-year-old Muslim, was charged in a March grenade attack in Kuwait that killed Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone, 40, and Army Capt. Christopher Scott Seifert, 27, and injured 14 others.

Akbar, however, was not accused of terrorism. He was charged with premeditated murder and attempted murder.

In the sprawling Camp Delta — the high-security prison where the men are held — Yee was seldom out of earshot from armed guards or interpreters contracted to help with interrogations. But sometimes, he had one-on-one access to the detainees, officials said.

Yee, of Chinese descent and reportedly from New Jersey, converted to Islam from Christianity in 1991 after his military studies at West Point. He left the Army for Syria, where he received religious training. He returned to the U.S. military soon after.

When asked during the January interview why he converted to Islam, Yee instead spoke of Islam's diversity.

"One of the strengths of our culture is diversity," Yee said.

"A lot of people don't know Jesus is part of Islam but Muslims believe he was a prophet," Yee said. "Surely people can be more open-minded."

Yee arrived at Guantánamo at a critical time, when officials were trying to jolt the interrogation process into high gear. He was also there during a time when U.S. officials came under increasing pressure to either charge the about 660 men or release them.

Yee was always vague about whether he was involved in interrogations.

Since the detention mission began, Guantánamo has had at least three Muslim chaplains, the first being Navy Lt. Abuhena Saif-ul-Islam, who in 1999 became the Marines' first Muslim chaplain.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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