The Magazine

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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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.

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