Clear and Present Danger
The Obama administration is about to discover that the terrorists detained at Guantánamo are there for good reason.
Dec 1, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 11 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
On Sunday, November 16, CBS News's 60 Minutes broadcast the first interview with President-elect Barack Obama. The exchange touched on a wide range of topics, from Obama's distaste for college football's computerized selection of a national champion to his plans for changing course in economic and foreign policy. At one point, Obama was asked about the terrorist detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He responded:
I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantánamo, and I will follow through on that. I've said repeatedly that America doesn't torture and I'm going to make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world.
The president-elect's comments were not surprising. He had often promised on the campaign trail to close Guantánamo. And in the days before the 60 Minutes broadcast, anonymous officials from his transition team had let the press know that the president-elect would deliver on his pledge. They cannot yet say what the Obama administration will do with the 250 or so detainees still being held, but according to the Washington Post, the new team will review the government's files on each detainee and make a determination case by case.
Whatever happens to the detainees, the important point for much of the commentariat is that Guantánamo will be shuttered. For Guantánamo's many critics, the facility long ago became a symbol of all that is wrong with the Bush administration's conduct of the war on terror-from its cowboy-like unilateralism to its alleged widespread torture and abuse of terrorist suspects. That many dangerous enemies lurk in Guantánamo's cells has often been a secondary concern, if a concern at all. Thus, when President-elect Obama spoke of regaining "America's moral stature in the world," he was endorsing the widespread perception of Guantánamo as an American sin that originated in the Bush administration's overreaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
This perception, however, was always skewed. The new administration will soon discover from its review of the Guantánamo files what motivated its predecessor: The scope of the terrorist threat was far greater than anyone knew on September 11, 2001. But for the Bush administration's efforts, many more Americans surely would have perished.
This conclusion is based on a careful review of the thousands of pages of documents released from Guantánamo, as well as other publicly available evidence. In 2006, the Department of Defense began to release the documents to the public via its website. The files had been created during the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT) and Administrative Review Board (ARB) hearings held for nearly 600 detainees. This unclassified cache includes both the government's allegations against each detainee and summarized transcripts of the detainees' testimony. Although the documents were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Associated Press, the intelligence contained in the files was largely ignored by the mainstream press for more than two years. Thus, the New York Times reported only the day before the recent presidential election that the files contain "sobering intelligence claims against many of the remaining detainees."
Indeed, they do. When the Obama administration reviews the Guantánamo files, here is what it will find.
THE HIGH VALUE DETAINEES
The most dangerous men currently incarcerated at Guantánamo are the 14 "high value" detainees. The Bush administration gave them this designation because they are uniquely lethal, having planned and participated in the most devastating terrorist attacks in history. Their collective dossier includes, among other attacks, 9/11, the American embassy bombings (August 7, 1998), the USS Cole bombing (October 12, 2000), and the Bali bombings (October 12, 2002). They are responsible for murdering thousands of civilians around the globe, from the eastern United States to Southeast Asia. Had they not been captured, they surely would have murdered thousands more.
The 14 were originally held not at Guantánamo, but at even more controversial black sites. And the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that have sparked international outrage were principally designed for them. One may doubt the necessity and morality of these techniques, including waterboarding, while still recognizing a fundamentally important point: The 14 high value detainees are not ordinary criminals, but perpetrators of an entirely different order of evil.
It is because of these men, in particular, that the Bush administration initiated the preventive detention regime of which Guantánamo is a part. Processing them as mere lawbreakers would not have advanced the war on terror. To read them their rights and provide them lawyers would have been to throw away their intelligence value. It would have allowed them to carry to the grave many details of still active terrorist plots. The Bush administration chose a different route-harsh interrogations designed to ferret out al Qaeda's current operations before it was too late to stop them or capture those involved.
It is not clear from the early press reports whether the Obama administration will continue preventive detention in any form. Some accounts suggest that the president-elect wants to abandon it entirely, rather than reforming it. During the campaign, Obama said he wanted to return to the way we did things in the 1990s, when terrorists were put on trial after the fact. "And, you know, let's take the example of Guantánamo," Obama said. "What we know is that, in previous terrorist attacks-for example, the first attack against the World Trade Center-we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial. They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated."
This is not true. The chief bomb designer for the 1993 strike on the World Trade Center, Ramzi Yousef, was eventually detained years after the attack and was then convicted, and imprisoned. But the man who mixed the chemicals for the bomb, Abdul Rahman Yasin, is still at large, having fled to Saddam's Iraq shortly after the bomb left a crater several stories deep in southern Manhattan. More important, Obama's comment misses the fundamental lesson of 9/11. The successful prosecution of some of those responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing, as worthwhile as it was, did little to disrupt the broader terrorist network, which grew exponentially between 1993 and 2001. The best evidence of this is the fact that Ramzi Yousef's uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ("KSM"), continued to operate unmolested long after his nephew was confined at a maximum security prison in Colorado.
KSM is the best known of the high value detainees imprisoned at Guantánamo. According to the 9/11 Commission, he first proposed to Osama bin Laden the plot that grew into the September 11 attacks, and he was involved throughout the operation. KSM has also admitted involvement in dozens of other plots and attacks, including providing some of the funds for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Members of KSM's family have been at the heart of al Qaeda's conspiracy. Another of KSM's nephews, Ammar al-Baluchi, is a high value detainee at Guantánamo. The government's files note that Ammar was a "key lieutenant for KSM" during the September 11 operation.
Ramzi Binalshibh, one of KSM's 9/11 coconspirators, is another high value detainee at Guantánamo. He was al Qaeda's chief liaison between the hijackers living in the West and more senior terrorists, such as KSM, who resided in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Al Qaeda central needed Binalshibh to coordinate various details of the plot. And the hijackers, including their ringleader, Mohammed Atta, relied on Binalshibh for both advice and cash. Some of the money Binalshibh provided the hijackers came from another high value detainee, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi. During the week prior to 9/11, four of the hijackers returned unused funds to al-Hawsawi.
If the new administration follows the vision set forth by candidate Obama, terrorists such as KSM, Binalshibh, al-Baluchi, and al-Hawsawi will be tried in our federal courts with the same constitutional protections as American citizens including the presumption of innocence. But trying elite terrorists for their crimes does nothing to expose the unconsummated plots they had already set in motion at the time of their capture. Had the Bush administration taken this approach, it is likely that America would have failed to stop many al Qaeda terrorist operations that were in fact foiled.
For example, in his autobiography, At the Center of the Storm, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet explained that KSM's interrogation led to the arrest of an entire cell that was plotting destruction. The same day KSM was detained in 2003, another terrorist named Majid Khan was picked up. During his interrogation, KSM admitted that Khan had recently passed along $50,000 to operatives working for al Qaeda's chieftain in Southeast Asia, a man known as Hambali. When interrogators confronted Khan with KSM's revelation, Khan confirmed it and said that he gave the money to an agent of Hambali named Zubair. Khan gave his interrogators Zubair's telephone number. Shortly thereafter, Zubair was taken into custody and gave up information that led to the arrest of yet another operative nicknamed "Lilie." According to Tenet, Lilie then provided information that led to Hambali's arrest in Thailand.
Khan, Hambali, Zubair, and Lilie are all high value detainees at Guantánamo. They were plotting the "second wave" of attacks on America when they were captured. According to the Guantánamo files, Zubair and Lilie were both chosen to be suicide hijackers in an al Qaeda attack on Los Angeles. They had also plotted against targets in Southeast Asia under the direction of Hambali. Hambali was responsible, in part, for planning the 2002 Bali bombings (killing more than 200 people) and a series of attacks on 30 churches in Indonesia on Christmas Eve 2000 (killing 19).
In addition to serving as an intermediary between KSM and the Hambali crew, Majid Khan was involved in other post-9/11 plots. Khan, who lived in Baltimore for years, was planning to smuggle explosives into the United States. He wanted to target gas stations and landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge, and he recommended to KSM that a truck driver living in Ohio named Iyman Faris could help. Faris, who had trained at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, had begun preparations for these attacks. But within weeks of KSM's and Khan's capture, Faris was identified and arrested. Months later, Faris was convicted of providing material support to al Qaeda and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Another of Khan's accomplices, a Pakistani named Uzair Paracha, was also arrested just weeks after Khan and KSM. In late March 2003, authorities raided Uzair's apartment in Brooklyn. There they found a number of incriminating pieces of evidence linking Uzair to Khan. In 2005 Uzair was convicted, and in 2006 he was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.
Uzair's father, Saifullah Paracha, is a current resident of Guantánamo. Although he has not been designated a high value detainee, he clearly consorted with terrorists. Saifullah is reportedly a multimillionaire who owns a Pakistani media company and a textile business, which exported goods to the United States. Al Qaeda wanted to use Saifullah's textile business to smuggle explosives into the United States. Saifullah also offered his media company's services to Osama bin Laden for the production of al Qaeda's propaganda.
KSM and Khan were not the only high value detainees to give up crucial, life-saving details during their interrogations. In March 2002, Abu Zubaydah was captured at his safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan. In At the Center of the Storm, Tenet says that Zubaydah unwittingly gave up information that led to the capture of Ramzi Binalshibh on September 11, 2002. At the time, Binalshibh was plotting an attack on Heathrow Airport in London. At least several of the detainees at Guantánamo were captured along with Zubaydah at his safe house in 2002, and they too were involved in al Qaeda's post-9/11 plotting. For example, Zubaydah intended to use one of them in an attack on Israel.
The greatest success of the Bush administration is that it stopped all of this, and more, from happening. The continental United States was under attack from an enemy unlike any other this nation has ever faced. There was no easy legal precedent or historical analogy. In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration had to make up new rules as it went along. Critics are free to charge that the administration went too far. But the Obama administration may rapidly discover that treating the terrorist threat like any other matter in federal court, as candidate Obama proposed, is not only unrealistic but also dangerous.
It is true that the courts have had some notable post-9/11 successes, such as the convictions of Uzair Paracha and Iyman Faris. But those individuals were found out only because the Bush administration employed new methods to fight terrorism. Perhaps the Obama administration can achieve the same results without using the interrogation techniques employed by its predecessor. But it would be foolish to think that the government can eschew interrogations outside of the federal criminal justice system entirely. Going forward, the new president will need to approve at least some proactive measures if he is to stop al Qaeda's next attack.
Moreover, waging the war on terror requires more than just stopping individuals such as the 14 high value detainees. Tens of thousands of terrorists mean this nation harm. And over 200 of them remain at Guantánamo.
THE TERROR NETWORK
The high value detainees are the sharp tip of a very long spear. The threat they pose is relatively easy to identify. But the Obama administration is sure to ask: How dangerous are the other detainees?
Most of the 800 detainees held at one time or another at Guantánamo have been released or transferred. According to published reports, approximately 250 remain. Who they are is not entirely clear. The Pentagon has not released an official list.
In October, the New York Times published an online database listing 248 current detainees, in addition to the 14 high value prisoners. The Times compiled this list through an exhaustive search of articles and other publicly available information. THE WEEKLY STANDARD has performed a similar review. While the list generated by the Times probably includes a handful of detainees who have been released or transferred, it appears to be mostly accurate. In any event, it is the best available.
The Department of Defense has released files for all but 6 of the 248 detainees on the Times's list. We reviewed all of the unclassified documents for these 242 detainees as part of a comprehensive six-month study. Here are our findings.
While the 242 detainees may be less important than operatives at the level of KSM or Ramzi Binalshibh, it is clear that a number of dangerous individuals reside at Guantánamo. One such is Mohamed Qahtani, the terrorist who was selected by al Qaeda to become the "20th hijacker" on 9/11 but was turned away from the Orlando Airport by a suspicious immigration official. Qahtani is a member of a group dubbed the "Dirty Thirty," who were captured by Pakistani authorities while attempting to flee Afghanistan. They include a number of bodyguards for Osama bin Laden. At least several of the "Dirty Thirty" terrorists remain at Guantánamo.
But how should the Obama administration weigh the intelligence against Guantánamo residents who lack even Qahtani's high profile? We have identified four red flags the Obama administration should look for in the Guantánamo files. This methodology bears some similarities to that employed by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point in its study of the documents generated by the CSRTs at Guantánamo. Our study reviews those files, as well as the more comprehensive documents produced during the ARB hearings at Guantánamo. The new administration, of course, will have access to both of those sets of documents, as well as to the classified information on each detainee.
RED FLAG 1: Evidence that a detainee was committed to waging jihad, or holy war, against the perceived enemies of Islam is our first red flag. Jihad was a powerful motivation for many of the Guantánamo detainees, who traveled hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to get to Afghanistan. The Guantánamo files confirm that al Qaeda operates an extensive recruitment and indoctrination network stretching from the heart of Arabia to the mosques of Europe. Veteran jihadists, along with Islamic clerics, often act as recruiters, enticing the willing with heroic tales of fighting Allah's war. The recruiters frequently make travel arrangements, paying for recruits' travel and suggesting common routes to Afghanistan (mostly through Pakistan and Iran). Sheikhs also support al Qaeda's recruitment network by giving fiery sermons and issuing fatwas (religious edicts) calling for Muslims to support the jihad in Afghanistan against the United States, just as they called earlier for jihad against the Soviets, then the Northern Alliance. The call for jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya has also been a powerful recruitment tool, with wannabe jihadists sent first to Afghanistan to learn how to fight.
Of the 242 current detainees identified by the Times, our review found at least 116 (48 percent) to be allegedly connected to the jihadist recruiting network. This includes both recruiters and those recruited or inspired by the network to wage jihad. It does not include detainees who decided on their own to wage jihad or were inspired by other means including al Qaeda's propaganda.
One recruiter now at Guantánamo, a Mauritanian named Mohamedou Slahi, is particularly noteworthy. Slahi swore bayat (an oath of loyalty) to Osama bin Laden in 1990. He then trained at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan beginning in January 1991, followed bin Laden to Sudan, and later relocated to Germany. There, he recruited Ramzi Binalshibh and three 9/11 hijackers to al Qaeda's cause. The four recruits first traveled to Afghanistan for training at Slahi's urging. Slahi also spent some time as the imam of a mosque in Montreal. During Slahi's stint in Montreal, he allegedly facilitated al Qaeda's "millennium plot" against the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Ahmed Ressam, the would-be LAX bomber, was captured while attempting to cross the Canadian border en route to California with a car full of explosives. Slahi most likely mentored Ressam during their time together in Montreal.
RED FLAG 2: On their way to join the jihad, most al Qaeda and Taliban recruits stay in guesthouses. The Obama administration should look for connections with these establishments in the Guantánamo files. The unclassified documents confirm that they are located throughout Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. The word "guesthouse" may sound innocuous at first blush, but not just anyone can gain admittance. The guesthouse operators usually require that a known al Qaeda or Taliban member vouch for those who wish to stay there. And new residents are typically required to turn in their passports or other identification papers, sometimes receiving a new identity, before being shuttled off to a training facility or the front lines. The guesthouses also provide rudimentary religious and weapons training and act as staging facilities where jihadist fighters regroup between missions.
Of the 242 current detainees identified by the Times, our review found that at least 146 (60 percent) are alleged to have either operated or stayed in an al Qaeda or Taliban guesthouse.
Two guesthouse operators still in custody at Guantánamo warrant special scrutiny. The Rabbani brothers, Abu Rahman and Mohammed, operated a series of guesthouses for al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission report says that the hijackers responsible for securing the planes on 9/11 stayed at a guesthouse that KSM requested Abu Rahman to secure in Karachi, Pakistan. They were then deployed to the United States. Other 9/11 hijackers stayed at the Karachi guesthouse as well. One Guantánamo file notes that Abu Rahman "identified 17 of the September 11, 2001, hijackers" as having stayed at his guesthouse. He was also able to identify several of the terrorists responsible for the August 7, 1998, embassy bombings as men he had assisted. Mohammed Rabbani, according to the Guantánamo files, assisted the retreat of 50 to 60 al Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan in December 2001.
RED FLAG 3: The Taliban's Afghanistan was a hub for terrorist training, and the Obama administration should look for evidence that a Guantánamo detainee received or provided training at one of the many facilities operated there by either the Taliban or al Qaeda. Prior to 9/11, both al Qaeda and Taliban trainees mingled at training facilities throughout Afghanistan. Some of these camps, such as the infamous al Farouq, offered basic training for those wishing to fight. Other camps, such as bin Laden's Tarnak Farms, were reserved for more specialized terrorist training. Recruits who traveled to Afghanistan could learn everything from how to operate an AK-47 to how to use poison or construct a truck bomb.
Of the 242 current detainees identified by the Times, our review found that at least 174 (72 percent) were either trainers or trainees. In a few instances, this training took place outside of Afghanistan, in, for example, Bosnia or Pakistan.
Al Qaeda's trainers are typically drawn from the ranks of the most experienced fighters. One current Guantánamo inmate, a Saudi named Ahmed Zaid Salim Zuhair, fought in Bosnia in the 1990s and later became an instructor at al Farouq. When captured, Zuhair had in his possession the watch of an American named William Jefferson, who worked for the United Nations in Bosnia and who was shot to death on November 21, 1995. One Guantánamo file notes that Zuhair "is believed to be responsible" for Jefferson's death. The Bosnian Supreme Court convicted Zuhair in 2000 for his participation in a car bombing in Mostar on September 18, 1997. But he was not imprisoned. Instead he remained at large, teaching others his methods for mayhem.
Another trainer in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, Noor Uthman Mohammed, was the deputy in charge of the infamous Khalden camp. Khalden was operated for years by high value detainee Abu Zubaydah and graduated many famous recruits, including three of the 9/11 hijackers. After the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Noor fled to Faisalabad, Pakistan, where he stayed in a safe house that Zubaydah operated. Noor was detained alongside Zubaydah, as well as several other current Guantánamo inmates, in late March 2002. One Guantánamo memo notes that Zubaydah was planning to use Noor in an operation against Israel at the time of their capture. During his Combatant Status Review Tribunal, Noor admitted that he was a trainer at Khalden and that he knew Zubaydah, but claimed that none of this had anything to do with al Qaeda. Noor's quasi-denial is meaningless-it is beyond dispute that Khalden was part of al Qaeda's elaborate pre-9/11 training infrastructure.
Terrorist training in Afghanistan was so commonplace that some current Guantánamo detainees have actually attempted to use it in their defense. Binyam Mohammed is an Ethiopian who lived in the United States briefly before moving to the United Kingdom in the 1990s. Mohammed has refused to participate in his hearings at Guantánamo, but one file notes that he admitted to his "personal representative" (provided to each detainee to represent his interests) that he had traveled to Afghanistan to gain the skills necessary to fight in Chechnya but had no other involvement with al Qaeda.
The government believes he was up to much more. According to the Guantánamo files, Binyam met a number of high-ranking al Qaeda officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They had tasked Binyam with attacking targets inside the United States. At one point, Binyam and José Padilla, who has been convicted on terrorism-related charges in a U.S. court, apparently investigated the possibility of detonating a "dirty bomb" (made with radioactive material) in the United States. This allegation has proven controversial as detractors say there is no evidence that Binyam or Padilla was even close to constructing such a device. But what is not widely appreciated is that the dirty bomb plot is just one option they discussed with senior al Qaeda terrorists. They also explored a wide range of possible targets and modes of attack, from striking U.S. subways to setting apartment buildings on fire using ordinary gas lines. Both Binyam and his would-be accomplice were caught before any attack could be attempted. Padilla, an American citizen, was captured in Chicago and underwent interrogation using highly controversial methods. Binyam was captured in Pakistan and claims that he, too, was tortured.
RED FLAG 4: Finally, the new administration should look for evidence of participation in hostilities in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Of the 242 current detainees identified by the Times, our review identified at least 112 (46 percent) who are alleged to have participated in hostilities. The bulk of these fought on the front lines in Afghanistan against either the Northern Alliance or American forces. But this count also includes detainees who were involved in terrorist attacks or were senior operational commanders in charge of deployed forces.
One detainee, Mohammed Fazl, was the Taliban's army chief of staff. He surrendered to the Northern Alliance with a force of more than 1,000 soldiers. The government's file on Fazl notes that he "was responsible for widespread atrocities against noncombatants."
In sum, 227 (94 percent) of the 242 detainees we studied in detail had at least one of the four red flags outlined above; 181 (75 percent) had two or more red flags. Ultimately, however, this methodology is intended only to be suggestive. There are many other factors the Obama administration should study when weighing its options. Collectively, for example, the detainees have extensive ties to Islamic charities that are known to be al Qaeda fronts. And many of the remaining inmates have interacted with senior al Qaeda officials, including Osama bin Laden. Only a careful review of all of the intelligence on the detainees, classified as well as unclassified, can illuminate just who these individuals are and what they were up to at the time of their capture.
The new administration will also have to contend with the roadblocks that have frustrated its predecessor's efforts to send detainees back to their home countries. Approximately 100 Yemenis, for instance, remain at Guantánamo, but as one file notes, "Yemen is not a nation supporting the Global War on Terrorism." Terrorists detained by Yemini authorities have a pattern of finding their way back to the battlefield.
When President-elect Obama spoke so confidently of closing Guantánamo on 60 Minutes, he had a receptive audience. For years, the dominant story in the media has been the excesses of the Bush administration. Amazingly, much of this narrative was written by self-interested former inmates and the detainees' attorneys. They are always eager to provide journalists with statements about the evils of Guantánamo.
Throughout the controversy, the Bush administration has made only minimal efforts to engage its critics or explain its actions to the American people. As a result, coverage of Guantánamo has been one-sided, and the intelligence contained in the thousands of pages of unclassified documents has largely been ignored. The full story of the Guantánamo detainees remains to be told.
The faults of the Bush administration go beyond its strange failure to make its case to the public. Its refusal to release a complete list of the remaining detainees is an example of secrecy taken too far. Its use of techniques of dubious legality and morality to extract information is rightly questioned. And the military commissions approved by President Bush have proceeded at a snail's pace-only two detainees have been tried.
Obama will probably end the military commission system. He has suggested that he wants to try some of the detainees in a civilian court. But trying the most dangerous terrorists, such as the 14 high value detainees, in a civilian court will give them a forum in which to grandstand. Classified information, which may be necessary to convict them on some charges, will be difficult to protect in such a setting. It is possible that the Obama administration will create a special national security court to handle some of the cases. This is not a bad idea.
When the Bush administration sent the first detainees to the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay in 2002, it was improvising-understandable in a situation without precedent. The captured jihadists and terrorist agents were not conventional prisoners of war, and they were not ordinary criminals. In the ensuing seven years, the administration failed to replace its stopgap measure with an institutional response seen as legitimate. Bush's successors should remember, however, that he took the steps he did in the context of a war against enemies who are still seeking to attack our homeland. President Bush, whatever his faults, protected America after September 11, 2001. Shortly, it will fall to President Obama to do the same.
Thomas Joscelyn is the senior editor of the website Long War Journal. Jonathan Church assisted in the research for this article.