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Canada's Gitmo Dilemma

Six detainees seek refugee status north of the border.

11:00 PM, Feb 4, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Over the past several weeks, the Canadian press has reported that at least six detainees currently held at Guantanamo are interested in seeking refugee status north of America's border. But the Canadian government should be wary of accepting them. Canadian officials should carefully evaluate their cases, including the unclassified files the U.S. government has released for each of them. Three of the six detainees have especially troubling ties to al Qaeda. And there is no question that one of them is an exceptionally dangerous threat.

Consider the case of a Mauritanian named Mohamedou Slahi, who spent only a few months of his pre-Guantanamo life in Canada. During his hearings at Guantanamo, Slahi expressed an interest in returning to Canada. It would be surprising, however, if the Obama administration set him free. There is little doubt that Slahi was an important al Qaeda recruiter, who operated in the West for the better part of a decade.

Among Slahi's most notorious recruits were four of the September 11 conspirators, all of whom were members of the infamous Hamburg cell. According to the U.S. government's unclassified files and the 9-11 Commission's report, Slahi arranged for Ramzi Binalshibh, al Qaeda's point man for the September 11 operation, and three of his cohorts to travel from Germany to Afghanistan so that they could train in al Qaeda's camps and swear allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Binalshibh's three friends were Mohammed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah--the suicide pilots of American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, and United Airlines Flight 93, respectively.

Along with Binalshibh, Shehhi and Jarrah met with Slahi in late 1999. They followed Slahi's instructions on how to get to Afghanistan for training and who to meet with along the way. Atta followed Slahi's instructions as well, and all four the future hijackers left for Afghanistan in November of 1999.

The rest is, unfortunately, history.

After recruiting the Hamburg cell, Slahi left for Montreal the next month, in December of 1999. There, he began attending a local mosque where he was tasked with reciting the daily prayers and met an Algerian immigrant named Ahmed Ressam. Within weeks of Slahi's arrival, Ressam was arrested on the Canadian-U.S. border in a car packed with explosives. Ressam was en route to the LAX airport, where he hoped to take part in al Qaeda's planned millennium bombings.

The U.S. government has long suspected that Slahi activated Ressam's cell for the millennium plot. The government's unclassified files note that Slahi is "a suspected facilitator of the failed millennium bombing conspiracy." Shortly after Ressam was detained, Canadian and U.S. authorities began investigating Slahi, but they did not have enough evidence to arrest him. Feeling the heat of the investigation, Slahi left Montreal in January of 2000--just a short time after arriving there. He was later questioned by various governments and eventually detained in Mauritania in November of 2001.

Slahi's detention at Guantanamo has been controversial because of the interrogation techniques used on him. Lt. Col. Stuart Crouch, the prosecutor who was charged with seeking Slahi's conviction by a military commission, decided he could not move forward with Slahi's prosecution because the evidence was tainted by these techniques. But this does not mean that Slahi is an innocent. Crouch himself told the Wall Street Journal in 2007, "Of the cases I had seen, [Slahi] was the one with the most blood on his hands."

And while Slahi denied many of the allegations against him during his hearings at Guantanamo, he made some important admissions as well. Slahi admitted that he swore bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Osama bin Laden, and was trained in al Qaeda's notorious al Farouq camp.

Slahi's denials at Guantanamo are also not credible. For example, Slahi admitted that he transferred a large sum of money that was linked to al Qaeda, but claimed he did not know it was for terrorist purposes. Slahi claimed he moved the money for a cousin who called him from a satellite phone linked to Osama bin Laden, but Slahi says he did not know bin Laden was involved. Slahi's cousin is Abu Hafs the Mauritanian--a senior al Qaeda theologian and long-time spiritual advisor to bin Laden.

Another current Guantanamo detainee who reportedly wants to relocate to Canada is an Algerian named Hassan (Ahcene) Zumiri. Like Slahi, Zumiri was involved with Ressam, the would-be millennium bomber. Zumiri and Ressam were, according to the U.S. government's unclassified files, personal friends.

Ressam told U.S. authorities that Zumiri gave him $3,500 (Canadian) and a video camera just before he left Montreal for Vancouver in late 1999. It was in a Vancouver motel room that Ressam built his car bomb. Obviously, the money and camera are suspicious gifts. The U.S. government has alleged that the money was for financing Ressam's plot and the camera was to be used for surveillance of the LAX airport.

Suspiciously, Ressam would later recant his allegations against Zumiri in a letter to a U.S. district court judge. Ressam claimed that Zumiri had borrowed the money and the camera from him, and neither was intended for use in the LAX plot. Ressam claimed that he initially made the allegations against Zumiri because he was in "shock" and suffered from a "severe psychological disorder."

It is not clear what Ressam's motivation was for sending the letter. He did not deny that he and Zumiri had exchanged cash and the camera. He only denied that the exchange had anything to do with the millennium plot. Ressam also tried to distance Zumiri from terrorism, in general.

But, the U.S. government does not believe that Zumiri is an innocent who just happened to assist an al Qaeda terrorist at the wrong time. The government's unclassified files include a host of allegations concerning both Zumiri and his wife. Zumiri spent several years living in Canada, during which time he and his wife were allegedly involved in a variety of illicit activities, including credit card fraud. But the U.S. government charges these criminal activities were part of Zumiri's terrorist career. Zumiri allegedly traveled on fraudulent passports, stayed in various al Qaeda guest houses en route from Canada to Afghanistan, had ties to al Qaeda's Algerian affiliate, and trained in an al Qaeda and Taliban terrorist camp in Afghanistan.

Zumiri was eventually captured by Northern Alliance forces in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in December of 2001. Tora Bora was, of course, a terrorist stronghold. Al Qaeda and Taliban members were ordered to retreat to there after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began in late 2001.

Zumiri's wife was also detained at some point. According to the U.S. government's files, she had in her possession $13,000 and "a mini-computer containing [the] addresses/telephone information of al Qaeda figures." Zumiri denies knowing anything about his wife's curious pocket litter.

A third Guantanamo detainee who reportedly wants to live in Canada is Djamel Ameziane. Like Zemiri, Ameziane is a native Algerian who spent several years living in Canada in the 1990's and reportedly wants to return there should he be freed. The U.S. government's unclassified files for Ameziane do not include as many troubling allegations as the files on Slahi and Zemiri. However, the files on Ameziane do include some important allegations that Canadian officials should consider.

The U.S. government alleges that Ameziane met a Tunisian recruiter at a mosque in late 2000. This Tunisian gave Ameziane "1,200 to 1,500 Canadian Dollars and told him to go to a guest house in Kati Parwan, Afghanistan," the unclassified files note. The government's files note that Ameziane described "the majority of boarders in the house" as "Taliban fighters," who were waiting for "training or resting after returning from the front lines."

Not just anyone can gain admittance to a Taliban guesthouse. Usually, recruits need a certified Taliban or al Qaeda member to vouch for their commitment and to certify that they are, in fact, a jihadist. This is a standard security protocol that both the al Qaeda and the Taliban employ. It limits the ability of spies and enemies to infiltrate the terrorist network. And if one does make his way into the jihadists' safe houses, then the man who vouched for the spy must answer to his superiors for allowing an enemy into their ranks. This provides an additional level of security.

According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Tunisian recruiter Ameziane met in Montreal may be an experienced al Qaeda handler named Raouf Hannachi, who reportedly recruited Ahmed Ressam for al Qaeda as well. In the mid-1990's, Hannachi himself was recruited into al Qaeda by another senior al Qaeda terrorist named Abousofian Abdelrazik, who is a designated terrorist under Executive Order 13224. Abdelrzik was, in turn, closely associated with Abu Zubaydah, the senior al Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Ressam fingered as the senior al Qaeda member in charge of the millennium plots.

Thus, it is entirely possible that Ameziane was recruited by the same Canadian-based network that served as al Qaeda's forward base of operations for the millennium plot. It is not clear what Ameziane was doing in Afghanistan. The U.S. government's unclassified files do not indicate that he is suspected of fighting or training in a terrorist camp. Instead, Ameziane allegedly "wanted to go to Afghanistan because he believed the Taliban had created the only country which was truly Islamic," and he "wanted to live somewhere with only Sharia Law." It is possible that he was a new recruit or serving some other function for the Taliban or al Qaeda. It is also possible that the U.S. government has more information on Ameziane's activities in its classified files.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began in late 2001, Ameziane allegedly retreated to Tora Bora. From there, he illegally entered Pakistan and was arrested. Ameziane escaped from Pakistani custody when the bus he was being transported in was hijacked and overturned by its riders. Ameziane was injured in the bus incident and captured a short time later. He was then turned over to the United States and detained at Guantanamo.

Canada's government would be wise to deny Slahi, Zumiri, and Ameziane the privilege of immigrating. In all probability, all three of these Guantanamo detainees pose a threat to both Canadian and American security.

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