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Gitmo's General

The U.S. can't risk releasing detainee Ghassan Abdullah al Sharbi.

12:00 AM, Mar 18, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Last week, a D.C. district court dismissed a lawsuit brought on behalf of a Guantánamo detainee named Ghassan Abdullah al Sharbi. The 34 year-old Saudi told the court that he did not want to proceed with the case, which was originally brought by al Sharbi's father to challenge his son's detention. So, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan granted al Sharbi's wish, leaving it to the Obama administration to decide his fate.

It is not surprising that al Sharbi did not want to challenge his detention at Guantánamo. He is a remorseless terrorist. And at the time of his capture, al Sharbi was admittedly plotting future attacks on American and allied forces in Afghanistan. It's possible that he was prepared to do much more. Al Sharbi is, after all, one of the select al Qaeda members tasked with receiving flight training alongside the September 11 hijackers.

Al Sharbi was captured on March 28, 2002, when American and Pakistani officials raided top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah's safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan. At least ten current Guantánamo detainees were netted in the raid. Authorities also found various bombs and the equipment necessary for manufacturing them.

Al Sharbi was interrogated by Pakistani authorities and then turned over to the United States. American interrogators then began piecing together the details of al Sharbi's al Qaeda career. They learned that he was close to Zubaydah--so close that his fellow Guantánamo inmates would later call him Zubaydah's "right hand man." For years, Zubaydah ran al Qaeda's Khalden camp, which graduated hundreds of terrorists, in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Zubaydah was also a key facilitator for al Qaeda's attempted millennium bombing of the LAX airport in California as well as other attacks around the world.

In early 2002, Zubaydah was plotting attacks against American forces in Afghanistan and possibly a terrorist attack inside Israel. Zubaydah was also involved in al Qaeda's post-9/11 plotting against the American homeland.

Zubaydah and other top terrorists selected four al Qaeda members to receive specialized training on improvised explosive devices (IED's). Al Sharbi was one of the four selected, as were the recently released Binyam Mohamed, the convicted terrorist Jose Padilla, and another Guantánamo detainee named Jarban Said Bin al Qahtani. The four were initially going to be dispatched to Afghanistan where they could put their IED skills to use.

Al Qaeda's plans for Mohamed and Padilla changed, however. According to U.S. government documents, Mohamed and Padilla were repositioned for an attack on American soil. One of the plots considered by senior al Qaeda terrorists involved the use of a "dirty bomb," which is comprised of loose radiological material.

As Gordon Cucullu explains in his book Inside Gitmo: The True Story Behind the Myths of Guantánamo Bay, al Sharbi translated the dirty bomb instructions for Mohamed and Padilla at an al Qaeda safe house in Lahore, Pakistan. Whether or not Mohamed and Padilla intended to attempt a dirty bomb attack, or some other operation on U.S. soil, is not known. Senior al Qaeda members allegedly discussed a range of options for Mohamed and Padilla, including an attack utilizing natural gas lines inside Chicago apartment buildings. Both Mohamed and Padilla were captured before they could commence any attacks.

Al Sharbi has been rather forthcoming about his involvement in al Qaeda's plotting against American forces in Afghanistan. Cucullu reports that during an administrative review board hearing at Guantánamo al Sharbi brazenly stated: "I'm going to make it easy for you guys I fought against the United States. I took up arms. I'm proud of what I did." Cucullu also says that Michael Bumgarner, the former commander of Camp Delta at Guantánamo, once teased al Sharbi about being a mechanical engineer. Al Sharbi, who speaks English fluently, responded: "Knock it off, Bumgarner. You know I'm an electrical engineer. I'm a bomb maker!"

But did al Qaeda have something more planned for al Sharbi?

In the 1990s, al Sharbi studied at Embry Riddle University in Prescott, Arizona. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. During his time in Arizona, al Sharbi was friends with a man named Hani Hanjour. Al Sharbi and Hanjour were among a group of Arab men who raised the suspicions of a local FBI agent when they all started taking flight classes. The agent famously sent a memo urging further investigation to bureau headquarters in July 2001, but the FBI did not act on its own agent's tip. Less than two months later, Hanjour piloted and crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

While Hanjour was preparing himself for the September 11 attacks, al Sharbi was attending al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden visited one of the camps where al Sharbi trained "about ten times," according to a memo produced for al Sharbi's combatant status review tribunal. And during that time, according to the 9/11 Commission report, al Sharbi swore bayat (an oath of loyalty) to the terror master.

After leaving the camp, al Sharbi sought out another friend who had studied in Arizona named Hamdan al Shalawi. The 9/11 Commission found that Shalawi had been prepared for a "Khobar Towers"-type bombing in Saudi Arabia, raising the possibility that he and al Sharbi were considering a similar operation to the one executed by Iran and Hezbollah in June of 1996.

In November 1999, Shalawi was also involved in a disturbing incident inside the United States. Shalawi and another operative named Muhammad al Qudhaieen were detained after the flight crew aboard a cross-country American West flight reported that Qudhaieen had attempted to enter the cockpit. Both men claimed that Qudhaieen was simply looking for the bathroom. After the September 11 attacks, the FBI raised the possibility that their actions were part of dry run for al Qaeda's greatest day of terror.

Al Sharbi's ties to a 9/11 hijacker, Shalawi, Abu Zubaydah and Osama bin Laden raise the possibility that he could have been tasked with a plot more deadly than IED attacks. At this point, it is difficult if not impossible to know what exactly would have come of al Sharbi if he were not captured in March 2002. We do know, however, that he is proud of his al Qaeda role.

During his combatant status review tribunal at Guantánamo, al Sharbi was defiant. "I did not come here to defend myself, but [to] defend the Islamic nation, this is my duty and I have to do it," he said. Al Sharbi then proceeded to launch into a diatribe condemning America. Some commentators have claimed that al Qaeda does not hate us for our values or for who we are, but merely because of our supposedly skewed foreign policies in the Muslim world. But that is not al Sharbi's view.

During his rant, al Sharbi first condemned Christianity, capitalism, and America's tolerance of homosexuality. Al Sharbi explained:

I found the accusation against you to be many. I will try to count those accusations but they were many so honestly I did not count. It starts from being the infidel against god and [his prophets] and you being against Jesus Christ and making him a god and the son of god and he is [merely] a prophet that was sent like Moses, Abraham, and Mohamed . . . .You left religion or the faith of god and the only thing what was known was Sunday. Well some of you, not all of you, know god only on Sunday and some don't know god at all. You adopted this religion you call democracy and based on this religion being the head of capitalism . . .

Capitalism is a revolution and the money is in few people's hands. Ninety percent of the money in the world is in the hands of ten percent of the people thanks to capitalism. . . . even in your country a father cannot forbid his son to sleep with another man or have sexual relationship with another man under the name of human rights . . .

Only after this tirade did al Sharbi mention his objections to America's foreign policies, including its support for Israel. And then he simply repeated many of the talking points commonly used by al Qaeda terrorists. At the end of his tribunal session, al Sharbi began chanting: "May god help me fight the infidels or the unfaithful ones."

Al Sharbi's unapologetic jihadist ideology has made him a popular figure among his fellow inmates at Guantánamo. In Inside Gitmo, Cucullu explains that al Sharbi holds so much sway with other detainees that he is nicknamed "The General." Officials at the camp have even sought his help in managing the other detainees' often hostile behavior.

The detainees have caused frequent problems for guards and other staff members. In an attempt to calm them, security officials have granted al Sharbi and other key leaders certain concessions. In return, camp officials believed that al Sharbi would be more helpful. And, at one point, he appeared to be wholly cooperative. For example, al Sharbi clearly did help calm some detainees. He even warned Guantánamo officials of a suicide attempt by some of the detainees. Only later, however, was it discovered that al Sharbi himself may have helped organize the suicides of three detainees.

It is now up to the Obama administration to decide how to handle al Sharbi's case. The new administration apparently wants to release or transfer a large number of detainees. But given al Sharbi's unrepentant terrorist ties and disturbing connections to senior al Qaeda members it would be surprising if he were not kept in U.S. custody.

And the new administration can learn something from the al Sharbi matter. Some detainees at Guantánamo will stop at nothing to kill Americans. Had al Sharbi not been captured and detained by the Bush administration he surely would have remained a key al Qaeda terrorist.

In this vein, Cucullu cites the experience of Colonel Michael Bumgarner, the former commander at Camp Delta. "I worked real close with Ghassan [al Sharbi]," Bumgarner wrote. "He helped me a lot in keeping calm in the camps. But he always made it clear, if he had the chance he would kill me."

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