By Ian Simpson
ARLINGTON, Virginia (Reuters) - A suspected al Qaeda fighter held at Guantanamo Bay U.S. military prison could return to extremism if freed, a Pentagon assessment said at a parole-style hearing on Tuesday, but the man's defenders contended he was no threat to the United States.
Ghaleb Nassar al-Bihani, a 34- or 35-year-old Yemeni, is suspected of having fought in Afghanistan for the al Qaeda extremist group, according to a U.S. Defense Department prisoner profile. The U.S. military is unsure of his exact age.
A Defense Department profile read at the televised hearing of the Periodic Review Board contended that one of al-Bihani's brothers was a member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and six brothers had fought in Afghanistan.
His family has close ties to high-ranking al Qaeda members "and almost certainly would induce YM-128 to reengage in extremist activities if he were repatriated to Yemen," the profile said, using al-Bihani's inmate number.
Al-Bihani was captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay in January 2002. He has expressed fear of returning to the Middle East and has said he wants a life outside of jihad, or Islamic holy war, but it is unclear if he really wants to give it up, the profile said.
Speaking on al-Bihani's behalf, his personal representative from the U.S. Navy said he had been a cook in Afghanistan. He had received training similar to that of a U.S. Army private and fell short of being a threat to the United States.
His lawyer, Pardiss Kebriaei, said al-Bihani had chronic health problems and was willing to return to Yemen or Saudi Arabia. But he preferred to be sent to a third country, such as Qatar, Spain or in Latin America, the lawyer said.
During the 22-minute public portion of the hearing, al-Bihani sat at a table flanked by his representative, lawyer and a translator. The bearded, balding al-Bihani was dressed in a sand-colored prison shirt and made no comments.
The review board was not shown. The hearing was transmitted via closed-circuit television to a viewing site near the Pentagon.
Bihani's hearing before the Periodic Review Board was to re-examine whether he should still be held without charge at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military prison in Cuba, or be transferred.
The review board is designed to help close the prison. About 70 of the 154 inmates cannot be prosecuted for various reasons, but are considered too dangerous to release.
The Periodic Review Board was set up in October. It has heard three cases involving suspected Yemeni bodyguards to Osama bin Laden, an al Qaeda founder killed by U.S. commandos in 2011.
It has ruled one man eligible to be sent back to Yemen and said a second should continue to be held. The panel has not decided the third case.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and James Dalgleish)