The trial by military commission of top al Qaeda operative Abd al Rahim al Nashiri is set to commence today at Guantanamo. Nashiri’s time in U.S. detention has been controversial because he was one of only three senior terrorists waterboarded by the CIA. Nashiri was subjected to other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) as well.
There is no material dispute over Nashiri’s al Qaeda role. Nashiri’s claim before a Guantanamo tribunal that he was merely pursuing various fishing endeavors with the assistance of Osama bin Laden is laughable. Nashiri’s style of fishing actually involved ramming explosives-laden boats into U.S. warships and oil tankers. The failed attack on the USS The Sullivans in January 2000, the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, and the attack on the merchant vessel Limburg in October 2002 were all masterminded by Nashiri.
But Nashiri’s plotting did not end there, according to a leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment, as well as other sources.
Nashiri was exploring a range of possible attacks when he was captured in 2002. How many of these plots were in the advanced stages is uncertain. But with an experienced terrorist like Nashiri at the helm we can be certain at least some of them would have progressed had Nashiri remained free.
The leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Nashiri, dated December 8, 2006, describes him as “one of al Qaeda’s most skilled, capable, prolific operational coordinators” with a “proven ability to plan and carry out attacks against the US, its interests and allies.” Nashiri is “linked to as many as a dozen plots to attack US and western interests.”
JTF-GTMO provided this summary of Nashiri’s plotting:
Detainee masterminded the October 2000 attack against the USS Cole and the October 2002 attack against the merchant vessel (M/V) Limburg. From at least April 2001, detainee directed maritime and land-based terrorist attacks, many targeting US military interests, to include (but not limited to) a plot to sink a US warship or tanker in the Strait of Hormuz (SoH) intended to block the Strait; a plot using an explosives-filled airplane against western warships at Port Rashid, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE); a plot to blow up the US Embassy in Sanaa, YM; maritime attacks in the Red Sea and off the coasts of al-Hudaydah and Aden, YM; and a disrupted maritime operation targeting US, United Kingdom (UK), and other NATO ships and submarines in the Strait of Gibraltar (SoG).
Other targets are mentioned in the leaked file, too, including the UK embassy in Sanaa, Yemen and a “major petroleum facility” in Saudi Arabia. Some of these plots had apparently been halted, including the planned attack in the Strait of Hormuz.
When Nashiri was first captured, the CIA turned its attention to uncovering the details of Nashiri’s extensive plotting. An investigation by the CIA’s inspector general, who was no apologist for the EIT program, found that Nashiri did in fact give up actionable intelligence. The IG report reads:
Because of the litany of techniques used by different interrogators over a relatively short period of time, it is difficult to identify exactly why Al-Nashiri became more willing to provide information. However, following the use of EITs, he provided information about his most current operational planning and [REDACTED] as opposed to the historical information he provided before the use of EITs.
None of Nashiri’s plots, according to the IG, appear to have been “imminent” at the time of his capture. Then again, this is a myopic way of viewing Nashiri’s plotting. Al Qaeda cells often have more than one plot in the works at any given time. A plot becomes “imminent” quickly. In Nashiri’s case, his minions had already performed surveillance on several possible targets, researched the logistics of the proposed attacks, and even acquired explosives.
It was only a matter of time until Nashiri attempted another attack, even if we cannot be sure which target would have been next.
How Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda Worked
The idea that al Qaeda had a #3 leader tasked with directing all international terrorist attacks has rightly been criticized. Al Qaeda’s structure was far more horizontal than that. Osama bin Laden had several terrorists managing international terrorist operations – and they often did not know the details of what the other al Qaeda managers were planning. This structure allowed bin Laden’s underlings to compete to see who was the most ruthlessly effective.
The leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Nashiri provides good examples of this dynamic, especially with respect to the relationship between Nashiri and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM).
Nashiri told authorities “that he dealt directly with UBL without any intermediaries.” Moreover, Nashiri “and KSM mutually agreed to avoid each other’s operations just in case either was arrested.” Nashiri saw himself as a “more senior” al Qaeda member than KSM and therefore “did not have to answer to anyone regarding financial matters and the spending of al Qaeda money.” The hint of internal al Qaeda rivalries offered in the JTF-GTMO memo was somewhat typical – with various terrorists jockeying for seniority and power.
This compartmentalization was not maintained at all times, but it appears to have been the norm. In 2002, for example, “KSM learned of the disrupted plan to attack the military base in Gibraltar and was upset with [Nashiri] as KSM had no idea that any such planning was underway or that any operatives had been directed to Morocco in support of any such plan.” Another senior al Qaeda terrorist, Saif al Adel (who is still at large), “was upset with KSM as he also was unaware of the plan and assumed KSM had directed it without coordinating with him.”
The leaked file tells us something else about Osama bin Laden’s management style as well. Although, of course, he demanded loyalty from his subordinates, bin Laden permitted dissent. For instance, while plotting the attack on the Cole Nashiri received a phone call from another senior al Qaeda terrorist known as Khallad, who told Nashiri that bin Laden wanted the Cole bombers “replaced.” Nashiri wasn’t pleased. He “was angry about this decision and went to Afghanistan immediately to talk to [bin Laden] and explain that changing operatives would set things back.”
The JTF-GTMO file continues: “Prior to departing for Afghanistan, detainee gave his two operatives in Yemen instructions to carry out the attack on the next US warship that entered the port. Two-to-three weeks after detainee returned to Afghanistan, USS COLE was attacked by his operatives.”
It is not clear how this dispute was resolved, but clearly bin Laden did not view Nashiri’s dissent as an unpardonable sin. Nashiri swore bayat (an oath of loyalty) to bin Laden and therefore was personally obligated to abide by bin Laden’s orders. Still, he was able to disagree with the terror master. It should be noted that other senior al Qaeda managers, such as KSM, did not swear bayat to bin Laden right away. (KSM did not swear bayat until after the 9/11 attacks.) Some, in fact, never did. It is a common myth, however, that bayat was necessary for one to be considered a full-fledged al Qaeda member.
This brings us to another of al Qaeda’s senior terrorist managers: Abu Zubaydah. Like Nashiri and KSM, Zubaydah was subjected to the waterboard. Some have argued that Zubaydah wasn’t really an al Qaeda member, but instead an independent actor. The evidence for this thesis is thin and often taken out of context. There is a mountain of evidence against it. First and foremost is Zubaydah’s extensive knowledge of al Qaeda’s inner workings. It is inconceivable that Zubaydah would be trusted with such detailed knowledge without being a member of al Qaeda’s inner circle.
The leaked JTF-GTMO file notes that Nashiri first met Zubaydah in 1993 at al Qaeda’s Jihad Wal Camp near Khost, Afghanistan (AF). Zubaydah continued to work with Narshiri during the course of the next nine years. In April 2000, for instance, Zubaydah reportedly facilitated the travel of Nashiri and another Guantanamo detainee named Fayiz al Kandari from Peshawar, Pakistan to Afghanistan.
(Earlier this year, CNN.com published a whitewash of al Kandari’s pre-Guantanamo career. See here for an analysis. Al Kandari’s alleged travel with Nashiri, facilitated by Zubaydah, is yet another piece of evidence placing al Kandari in al Qaeda’s orbit.)
In late 2001, Zubaydah attended an “informal meeting” of senior al Qaeda leaders in Zormat, Afghanistan. Also in attendance were KSM and Saif al Adel. Shortly thereafter, “[a]round January 2002,” Zubaydah “facilitated” Nashiri’s travel to Pakistan from Afghanistan “with a group of 10-15 mujahideen.”
At some point after he was detained, Zubaydah described Nashiri’s operations to American authorities. The JTF-GTMO file reads:
Abu Zubaydah reported that detainee is an al Qaeda operative who reported directly to UBL. Abu Zubaydah stated detainee headed his own al Qaeda group comprising most (sic) Saudis and Yemenis, which was responsible for conducting operations outside of Afghanistan, similar to KSM. Abu Zubaydah has known detainee since 1993, and added that it was well known detainee has excellent contacts within both the Yemeni tribes and Yemeni security services. These contacts provided travel documents and cover for extremists. (Analyst Note: These contacts contribute to detainee’s risk if he is handed over to Yemeni officials.)
The part about Nashiri having “excellent contacts within…[the] Yemeni security services” is especially noteworthy. For years, press reports have pointed to collusion between Nashiri and military/intelligence officials inside Yemen. This collusion is reportedly part of what made Nashiri’s operations so successful.
The Final Act: Trial By Military Commission
The main focus of the media’s attention on Nashiri will be the military commission proceedings at Guantanamo. This is understandable, although this is just the third and presumably final act of Nashiri’s story. The first act was Nashiri’s role in al Qaeda’s jihad against America and the West. The second act was the American military and intelligence community’s response, which included controversial interrogation techniques designed to elicit al Qaeda’s secrets from senior terrorists such as Nashiri.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.