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Falling for the Spin of the Gitmo Bar

Why do reporters keep whitewashing the records of al Qaeda detainees?

Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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On March 27, the Christian Science Monitor published an article (“Defending due process for Guantánamo detainees”) extolling the virtues of the attorneys who have rushed to the defense of the detainees. It portrays the attorneys as engaging in a noble defense of “due process” rights in the face of widespread threats and criticism. Undoubtedly the attorneys have faced criticism from some corridors, but for the most part they have been lionized in the press, leading to hopelessly skewed media coverage in which dangerous jihadists are presented as lambs and the U.S. military and government as villains. 

Falling for the Spin of the Gitmo Bar

The Monitor story featured attorney Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, who has represented, pro bono, a number of Guantánamo detainees. One of his clients is a former detainee named Juma al Dossari. He was captured near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in December 2001, transported to Guantánamo, and held there until being repatriated to Saudi Arabia on July 15, 2007.

Colangelo-Bryan says he and al Dossari quickly became friends, engaging in playful banter about the attorney’s cheapness and single life. During one meeting early in the relationship, the Monitor reports, “They told jokes, talked about women, [and] shared childhood stories.” Colangelo-Bryan even made sure on one occasion to bring his friend a cheesecake from Junior’s, a well-known Brooklyn eatery, all the way to Cuba.

The Monitor’s readers are told little of why Dossari was being held at Guantánamo. He was, the story says, “rumored to be an al Qaeda recruiter in Buffalo, N.Y., a jihadi in Chechnya, [and] a member of a Muslim fighting force in Bosnia.” But there is supposedly no reason to worry about any of this because:

When Colangelo-Bryan opened the files, he didn’t see much to prosecute. “There were no transcripts of phone calls that had been intercepted involving [Dossari]. There were no photographs of him with bin Laden. There were no fingerprints on incriminating materials. There was really nothing that any judge would consider reliable evidence,” he says.

But according to the FBI, Colangelo-Bryan’s summary is false. It’s true there is no picture of Dossari with Osama, but few al Qaeda members have ever been awarded that privilege, and it is absurd to claim that such evidence is required. The FBI file contains plenty of other evidence against Dossari, including the testimony of convicted al Qaeda trainees. 

Juma al Dossari’s story is intertwined with that of Kamal Derwish. In 2001, the two men convinced a group of Yemeni-American men attending a mosque in the Buffalo area to travel to Afghanistan for training at al Qaeda’s notorious al Farouq camp, whose alumni include some of the September 11 hijackers. Dossari and Derwish’s recruits came to be known as the “Lackawanna Six.” (In actuality, the duo convinced at least seven Buffalo-area recruits to travel to Afghanistan for training. Six of the seven were apprehended and pleaded guilty in U.S. courts to providing material support to al Qaeda.)  

According to a summary prepared by the FBI, and obtained by The Weekly Standard, it was Derwish who first showed the Lackawanna men the path to jihad. His recruiting strategy was twofold. First, Derwish criticized the men for their Westernized habits and lack of knowledge of Islam. There was only one way, he said, for them to make amends for their transgressions against the faith. They needed to participate in jihad: specifically to travel to Afghanistan for training. Just a few months at a training camp could save the men, they were told. Derwish said he had received such training himself, in an idyllic camp surrounded by trees and a waterfall. 

Second, Derwish portrayed the world as embroiled in a conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim forces. He showed the men propaganda tapes highlighting atrocities committed against Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya, saying that the women in Bosnia even pleaded for birth control so that they would not have to witness their children being murdered. Derwish told his new recruits that he agreed with Osama bin Laden, particularly on the issue of American forces stationed in Saudi Arabia. He harped on President Clinton’s faults, America’s relationship with Israel, and pointed to al Qaeda’s bombing of the USS Cole as an example of American vulnerability. During a military commission held at Guantánamo, three members of the Lackawanna Six testified that while in Afghanistan they were shown a video produced by Ali Hamza Al-Bahlul, Osama bin Laden’s onetime chief propagandist, glorifying the Cole attack. 

Derwish then brought in the man the recruits would call “the closer”: Juma al Dossari. He had been an imam at a mosque in Bloomington, Indiana, and had a reputation as a “fire-breathing imam,” former FBI special agent Tom Fuentes told me. Dossari harped on how his fellow Muslims must fight for their religion, and members of the Bloomington congregation were increasingly concerned by Dossari’s jihadist agenda. In early April 2001, Dossari left Indiana on a Greyhound bus for Buffalo. 

Dossari built upon Derwish’s narrative for the Buffalo recruits. He blamed America for the atrocities committed against Muslims in Bosnia, even though the Clinton administration actually intervened in the conflict on the Muslims’ behalf. Dossari openly referred to Osama bin Laden as his “sheikh.” During a picnic at Tifft Farms Nature Preserve in Buffalo, he described the Arab regimes as illegitimate because of their relationship with the United States. It was all standard al Qaeda fare, but coming from Dossari’s lips it proved decisive. His sermons and personal intervention convinced the Lackawanna men to travel to Afghanistan.

After the September 11 attacks, Dossari himself fled to Afghanistan. He told members of the Lackawanna Muslim community that he planned to fight with the Taliban. The FBI found that both Dossari and Derwish had fought in Bosnia and Chechnya. Dossari had also been arrested more than once because of his ties to terrorism. After the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, for example, he was detained by the Saudis. It is not clear whether he played any role in the bombing or was just swept up in raids against extremists who were thought to be sympathetic to the bombers. 

Despite all of this, in 2007 the Bush administration sent Dossari to Saudi Arabia, where he was enrolled in the House of Saud’s rehabilitation program for jihadists. This was done over the FBI’s objections. “They were card-carrying members of al Qaeda,” Peter Ahearn, who was the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Buffalo field office, told me. The evidence against Dossari was so strong that the FBI “wanted Dossari back in Western New York to try him.” Ahearn insists the U.S. government could have “convicted him without much difficulty in a New York minute.”

The Christian Science Monitor cited Dossari’s transfer as indicative of his innocence. But there is no causation in the release. Dossari was one of more than 100 Guantánamo detainees who were placed in the Saudis’ custody. U.S. authorities continually evaluated most of them to be threats, but the Saudis kept lobbying for their release. The decision to transfer these men was in the end a political calculation, not a judgment on their guilt or innocence. More than two dozen of the 100 former Guantánamo detainees sent to Saudi Arabia have since returned to terrorism.

All of the Lackawanna Six received prison sentences, and some have since been released. Another of the men Derwish and Dossari convinced to travel to Afghanistan for training, Jaber Elbaneh, was arrested in Yemen and convicted of being involved in al Qaeda’s operations. Elbaneh has been in and out of Yemeni custody, having previously “escaped” from prison.

On November 3, 2002, Kamel Derwish was killed in Yemen when he was riding in a car with Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, who was suspected of playing a role in the USS Cole bombing. The car was struck by a Hellfire missile from a CIA Predator in Yemen after an intercepted satellite phone conversation pinpointed al-Harethi’s location. Four other suspected al Qaeda militants were also killed in the strike.

Dossari, though, having passed through the rehabilitation program, lives in Saudi Arabia and has reportedly married. He denies any involvement in al Qaeda’s terror network. He claims, for example, that he traveled to Bosnia in the 1990s not to fight, but merely to seek a blonde Muslim wife. In August 2008, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Dossari in which he detailed his supposedly horrible experience at Guantánamo. The Post, like the Monitor, did not provide the story on Dossari’s troubling past. On November 2, 2008, Dossari was introduced to British prime minister Gordon Brown during a tour of the Saudi rehabilitation facility. The man who called bin Laden his “sheikh” shook hands with Brown.

And Joshua Colangelo-Bryan continues to advocate on Guantánamo detainees’ behalf. One of his clients, Abdullah Majid al Naimi, is on the Defense Department’s list of “confirmed” recidivists. Al Naimi and five other Bahrainis represented by Colangelo-Bryan, including Dossari (who was the only one sent to Saudi Arabia), have been released from Guantánamo. In 2007, he crowed to the Gulf Daily News: “While Guantánamo’s system of indefinite detention without due process remains in place, at least these six men are not subject to that system any further. Of course, they were subject to it for far too long.” The DoD’s entry on al Naimi today reads: “Arrested in October 2008; involved in terrorist facilitation; has known associations with al Qaeda.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.


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