On Sunday night, CNN ran part of an interview with a Uighur named Khalil Abdul Nasser. Until just a few days ago, Nasser was detained at Guantanamo. Nasser's transfer to Bermuda, along with three of his fellow Uighurs, has caused a storm of controversy on the tiny resort island. So, Nasser wanted to quell any doubts about his innocence.
Regarding allegations that he attended a terrorist training camp, Nasser (speaking through a translator) said: "This is not true, because I have never been in any kind of training camp."
Nasser added, "The U.S. courts confirmed this that I have never been a terrorist or trained for a terrorist, so this is just [an] accusation against me."
A few moments later, CNN re-printed this statement from Sabin Willett, an attorney that represents Nasser and his fellow Uighurs.
"Neither the classified nor the unclassified U.S. government documents on these men, and I have read every page, contains any allegation that they ever had any Al Qaeda link or were in an Al Qaeda camp. The Bush administration never alleged in any court filing that they were in an Al Qaeda camp."
Neither Nasser's denials, nor Willett's statement, are true. And while it is easy to demonstrate that their words are false, requiring only a few minutes of research to do so, CNN did not provide any alternative view.
Take Nasser's denial of the allegation that he received training at a terrorist camp. He did not always dispute this. During his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) at Gitmo, Nasser freely admitted that he once trained at the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement's (ETIM's) Tora Bora training camp.
The transcript of Nasser's CSRT session at Gitmo, who was then known by his alias, Abdul Helil Mamut, is readily available on the New York Times's web site. (See here.) A U.S. military tribunal alleged: "The Detainee arrived at the Uighur Tora Bora training camp on 17 June 2001." Nasser responded, "That's correct. The name Tora Bora is used in the accusation, but it is not correct." (He later claimed he may have arrived earlier in June of 2001.)
Other Uighur detainees held at Gitmo, like Nasser, said they were not familiar with the name Tora Bora. It may be that the camp was not known to them as the "Tora Bora training camp," as described by the government. But, that is clearly where they were. Their descriptions of the camp match it precisely and, as described below, Nasser admitted he was in the Tora Bora mountains during the beginning of the U.S. bombing campaign in 2001. Nasser also admitted he was at the Tora Bora facility, after initially disputing its name.
The military tribunal continued: "The Detainee received training on the AK-47 while at the Uighur Tora Bora training camp."
"Correct. I was there. I don't know if it was the AK-47. It was an old rifle, and I trained for a couple of days. I went to the camp to train because the Chinese government was torturing my country, my people, and they could not do anything. I was trying to protect my country, my country's independence and my freedom. From international law, training is not illegal in order to protect your freedom and independence. I did it for my country."
Nasser was likely trained at the ETIM camp for more than a "couple of days." He conceded that he arrived at the camp during the first couple of weeks in June 2001. Nasser was there when the American-led bombing of Tora Bora began months later, after the September 11 attacks. So, he was there for a matter of months.
The tribunal claimed: "The Detainee was at the Uighur Tora Bora training camp when it was bombed by US/Coalition forces in October."
"Correct. I went there before the things happened in the U.S. One night while we were sleeping, bombing started. There was fire everywhere. We started to escape. Should we have stayed and been killed by the bombs? We stayed there since before 9/11, and then they came and bombed us. We did not have any problems with the U.S. Economically, socially, culturally, they are not [our] enemy. We have nothing against the U.S."
Statements such as this one have been used by the Uighur detainees' proponents to suggest that they never posed a threat to America, or the West, because they are only interested in attacking the Chinese government. But this is false, despite the claims of ETIM trainees such as Nasser.
The ETIM (otherwise known as the Turkistan Islamic Party, "TIP"), is a known jihadist organization dedicated to building a radical Islamist state in Central and South Asia.
There is at least some evidence that the organization has already plotted against American interests as well. The State Department has reported that "two ETIM members were deported to China from Kyrgyzstan for plotting to attack the US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan as well as other US interests abroad" in May of 2002. The State Department also noted that ETIM members "fought alongside" the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
But if you only listen to the Uighurs' attorney and the Uighurs' denials, as CNN did, you would not know that the ETIM, its Tora Bora camp, and its trainees, including Nasser, are connected to al Qaeda and the international jihad.
In fact, Sabin Willett's claim that the U.S. government never alleged the Uighur detainees had "any Al Qaeda link or were in an Al Qaeda camp" is flatly wrong. The government's descriptions of the camp vary in the case files prepared for the Uighurs. And the files don't always relay that the government believes the camp was funded by al Qaeda and the Taliban. But, contrary to Willett, the government has pointed to the ties between the ETIM, the Tora Bora camp, and al Qaeda.
For example, in the CSRT summary of evidence memo prepared for Hozaifa Parhat, who was also transferred to Bermuda, the U.S. government alleged:
The training camp was provided to the Uighurs by the Taliban.
East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) operated facilities in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in which Uighur expatriates underwent small-arms training. These camps were funded by Bin Laden and the Taliban.
The memo prepared for Parhat's tribunal can also be found on the New York Times's web site. (See here.) So, it should have been easy for CNN to fact check Willett's claim and provide a counterpoint.
The Uighurs' proponents have tried to deny that the camp was funded by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. They claim that the allegations of ties between the ETIM's camp and al Qaeda are based solely on reporting provided by the Chinese government, which is hardly the most reliable source. But this denial is not credible for a number of reasons.
First, Tora Bora was a key stronghold for the Taliban and al Qaeda, so much so that they retreated there after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. It is implausible that Nasser and the ETIM could train there without their tacit endorsement, at the very least. The ETIM also operated a safehouse in Taliban-controlled Jalalabad that was used to transit Uighurs to the Tora Bora camp. Nasser, according to the U.S. government, stayed at this guesthouse before arriving in Tora Bora in June 2001.
Second, as mentioned above, the ETIM has openly declared its allegiance to al Qaeda in its propaganda videos. Is it really hard to believe that al Qaeda sponsored their Tora Bora camp when the ETIM's members stand in front of al Qaeda's black flag proclaiming their dedication to jihad? Some ETIM videos have shown its members training in the new al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds of Northern Pakistan as well.
Third, and most importantly, at least eight of the seventeen Uighurs who were detained at Gitmo at the start of the Obama administration have admitted that the Tora Bora camp was run by a terrorist named Abdul Haq. The Obama administration's Treasury Department has designated Haq an al Qaeda terrorist, citing his role in al Qaeda's Shura (consultation) council since 2005.
Nasser did not say who ran the Tora Bora training camp during his CSRT session. But it is clear, based on the testimony of at least eight other Uighurs, including Hozaifa Parhat, that Abdul Haq ran the camp.
There is no real material dispute, then, that the camp was run by an al Qaeda terrorist. And Nasser lived and was trained at this camp.
A statement by the Uighur detainees' attorney and Nasser's newfound denial do not change these simple facts.
CNN, like most other news organizations, could not be bothered to do some basic fact checking of the Uighurs' story. If the news channel had, then perhaps it would not have presented their claims unchallenged.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.