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All the News that Fits

The story of one former Guantánamo detainee is far more complicated than the New York Times lets on.

5:15 PM, Jan 6, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The majority of the media's coverage of Guantánamo has been decidedly one-sided. Consider, as the latest example, the New York Times's account of Muhammad Saad Iqbal's story, which was published on Tuesday ("An Ex-Detainee of the U.S. Describes a 6-Year Ordeal"). Iqbal was a detainee at Guantánamo from 2002 until late last year when he was transferred to Pakistan. The Times's version is based almost entirely on Iqbal's word and, importantly, ignores most of the troubling allegations the U.S. government made against him. You would never know from reading the Times's article that Iqbal was accused of plotting to kill a U.S. official in Indonesia. There is no hint of the fact that Iqbal himself admitted to consorting with terrorists. Instead, Iqbal is portrayed as an obvious innocent who was wrongly tortured.

As with nearly all terrorism-related matters, there is ambiguity. The full truth of Iqbal's life may be impossible to piece together. Nevertheless, let us consider the available evidence found in the U.S. government's unclassified files, which were produced online by the Department of Defense and then republished by the Times in its own online database. Despite being freely available, the Times ignored most of the files' contents when reporting on Iqbal.

Here is a more complete version of Iqbal's story.

By his own account, Iqbal is a world champion at reciting and singing the Koran. Indeed Iqbal's full name is given as Hafez Qari Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni in the government's unclassified files. "Hafez" is, in actuality, not a name at all, but instead an honorific meaning one who has committed the entire Koran to memory. Similarly, "Qari" means one who is skilled in reciting the Koran according to prescribed rules. During his testimony at Guantánamo, Iqbal claimed he had won awards in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Iqbal explained: "In 1992 I won the World Championship for the recitation of the Quran. I got that reward in Jakarta, Indonesia. In 1996 I won [a] gold medal from government of Pakistan. In 1998 I won [the] King Fahd Award."

Iqbal's award-winning skills were highly sought after. He claims to have performed somewhere between 100 and 1,000 times, and made "regular" appearances on Pakistani television. During his performances, he consorted with the elite of the Pakistani world, including A.Q. Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program. Iqbal even had his picture taken with Khan.

However, in late 2001 Iqbal made a trip to Indonesia that led to his arrest. And this is where the Times's account really misses the mark. The Times makes it sound as if Iqbal was merely a braggart who boasted to some companions that he knew Osama bin Laden and that he could make a shoe bomb in order to make himself sound more important. The Times cites a lone anonymous intelligence official to back up this claim. But that is not what the U.S. government believed. In fact, Iqbal's own testimony at Guantánamo draws the Times's version into question.

According to the U.S. government's unclassified files, Iqbal was involved in an al Qaeda plot against an American official working in Jakarta. Iqbal denied this allegation, claiming he was simply taking care of some family business. But in the context of his denials, Iqbal also made some curious admissions. And a close examination of his story reveals a number of troubling details.

According to Iqbal, his father died in February of 2001 and he traveled to Jakarta in November of that year to square away his father's affairs. During his testimony before the ARB at Guantánamo, Iqbal explained that his father was a scholar at the Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University and was given honorary diplomatic status by the House of Saud. Because the university had a branch in Jakarta his father worked there from 1992 until 1998, during which time he established a second family. It was that family Iqbal claims he was visiting from November 18, 2001 until January 9, 2002, when he was arrested by Indonesian police.

Apparently, Iqbal was detained after he was fingered as the accomplice of a known al Qaeda agent. During his time at Guantánamo, Iqbal did not deny meeting four al Qaeda-affiliated operatives in Jakarta. But, and this is where Iqbal's testimony is especially fishy, he claimed he tried to get away from them when he learned they were plotting attacks.

During his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT), Iqbal admitted he was "introduced to four terrorists in Indonesia," including Habib Rizq, the president of an organization called the Islamic Defense (or Defenders) Front (IDF), which is affiliated with al Qaeda. The Times claims that the IDF is "an Indonesian urban-based organization" and is "not banned in Indonesia and has not been connected to any terrorist attacks." But this is not true. The IDF is known to attack nightclubs, bars, brothels, or any other establishment that offends the organization's deeply Islamist sensibilities. To describe the group as merely an "urban-based organization" is, therefore, misleading.

In fact, during his testimony at Guantánamo, Iqbal admitted that the IDF leader he met, Habib Rizq, was "also the guardian of the al Qaeda organization in Indonesia" and had telephone conversations with Osama bin Laden. Moreover, Rizq and his comrades were planning terrorist attacks. Iqbal explained to his Guantánamo tribunal that he could not remember the name of one of the IDF-affiliated persons he met, but he did remember that the IDF was "getting [this] person ready for some terrorist act."

Iqbal admittedly spoke at length with another of the terrorists he met at a "classy hotel." Iqbal claimed this terrorist was named Hani Yahya Saqqaq, or more simply, "Yahya." Iqbal admitted further that he tried to impress Yahya. "I accept the fact that I showed actions in Indonesia to portray that I was a high level person," Iqbal explained. For example, Iqbal showed Yahya the picture he had taken with A.Q. Khan after one of his recitations. Iqbal also explained that he had heard Osama bin Laden warn Muslims not to fly on non-Muslim aircraft. Importantly, Iqbal told Yahya of bin Laden's warning in late 2001. At the time, al Qaeda was plotting its second wave of attacks against the American homeland. Al Qaeda intended to utilize hijacked aircraft originating from Southeast Asia, including Indonesia.

After this, Iqbal claims, Yahya thought he "was such a high level person" that he began to divulge the details of his terrorist plotting. Here (copied verbatim from the government's transcript) is how Iqbal described his conversation with Yahya during one of his hearings at Guantánamo:

After that, he explained to me that one year ago, he tried to blow up the American embassy in Jakarta. Then he took me to see the President of his organization. The name of the President is Habib Rizq. When I went there, I saw approximately 50 to 100 people sitting in rooms and they were having a meeting. I asked, what are these people doing over here? He told me that the New Year is coming and the actions we are taking, the terrorism acts; we are having a meeting about that. He asked me for economic help. He also told me that he has a group of people from Indonesia to Pakistan to fight against the Americans. When I found out about this, that these were very bad people, I tried to get away from them. They are many other points; if you want, I can also explain those.

Iqbal elaborated:

"[Yahya] told me they were planning to blow up two hotels on New Year's. An American Ambassador had a program in one of the hotels. He also introduced me to his father who was responsible for three schools that trained terrorists. When I found out about all these things, I was trying to get back to Pakistan. It is obvious that I went to Indonesia and Jakarta after ten years and I don't know anyone over there. The only people I know over there is my mother and brother. If I have committed any crime, I am ready for the punishment, but I know that I am innocent. That is why I am here."

But the U.S. government did not believe Iqbal was an "innocent" who just happened upon ongoing terrorist plots. The government's summary of evidence for Iqbal's ARB hearing alleges he played an active role in al Qaeda's plots. And why would Yahya divulge the details of his group's plotting to Iqbal so easily? Can it be that the terrorists Iqbal met were swayed to give away their secrets to an outsider based solely on a photograph and a lone warning relayed secondhand? Or, perhaps Iqbal really was an inside man, which is what the U.S. government believed.

In its summary of evidence memos for Iqbal, the U.S. government alleges that he "asked an unidentified confidant where and with whom a United States government official would be on New Year's Eve." Iqbal "wanted to know if there were protective officers with the government official and if they were American," because he stated "it was better to kill one U.S. Government Official than 100 Americans." And, the U.S. government claims, Iqbal "speculated that something big was going to happen during a meeting with other al Qaeda operatives" in December of 2001.

Thus, the U.S. government did not think that Iqbal was merely bragging about his terrorist ties. He was accused of taking an active role in al Qaeda's terrorist plotting.

There is more to Iqbal's story. He is not the only member of his family allegedly involved in terrorism.

The U.S. government claims that a member of Iqbal's family was "a leader of the female section of the Al Ikhwan Al Muslimoon Group," which "has been identified as an Islamic extremist group in Asia." Iqbal denied knowing anything about this family member, claiming that it must be the daughter of his father's second wife. Iqbal did admit, however, that his grandfather (his mother's father) was "a leader" of the Jamaat Tablighi, for which Iqbal also performed his Quranic recitations.

Historically, the Jamaat Tablighi has been an Islamic missionary organization. But as the government's files note, the organization has become increasingly radicalized and used as a cover for al Qaeda agents traveling abroad.

The Times story alleges that Iqbal was abused and tortured while in American and Egyptian custody. After being arrested in Indonesia, Iqbal was sent to Egypt via rendition. It is a safe bet that he was, in fact, treated harshly while there. The Egyptians do not treat their detainees with kid gloves. Thus, the Times has every right to question the necessity and efficacy of rendering terrorist suspects, which is controversial to say the least. However, the Times goes too far by allowing such controversies to color all aspects of its story, leading it to ignore the more troubling aspects of Iqbal's account and the U.S. government's allegations.

On the one hand we have the story put forth by the Times: Iqbal was an innocent bungler who was mistakenly arrested and tortured by the U.S. and its allies in the war on terror. On the other hand, we have the allegations of the U.S. government, many of which are actually supported by Iqbal's own freely-given testimony. Even in the context of his denials Iqbal cannot help but admit that he consorted with terrorists who were actively plotting against American interests.

Iqbal denies playing any active role in the IDF's and al Qaeda's plots.

It is left to the reader to decide if his story rings true.

Thomas Joscelyn is the senior editor of the website Long War Journal.