On Sunday, December 7, a U.S. military medical aircraft landed in South America, to deliver six jihadists from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to Uruguay. For more than a dozen years, these six men had been held as dangerous enemies of the United States. Suddenly, Uruguay treated them as refugees, even victims, and the Obama administration didn’t object.
In a statement on December 5, two days before their arrival, the president of Uruguay, José Mujica, condemned the United States. “We have offered our hospitality for humans suffering a heinous kidnapping in Guantánamo,” Mujica wrote. “The unavoidable reason is humanitarian.” The Obama administration didn’t dispute his characterization and instead offered thanks on behalf of all of us. “The United States is grateful to the government of Uruguay for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay facility.”
In Uruguay, the controversy over the Gitmo six continued to swirl more than a week after their arrival. So Mujica held a press conference. “I never doubted, just by using my common sense, that they were paying for something they never did,” Mujica said of the former detainees, according to the Associated Press. “We considered this to be a just cause and we had to help them.”
Mujica made public a document that he said was authored by the State Department. Dated December 2, it is signed by Clifford M. Sloan, President Obama’s special envoy for closing Guantánamo. After listing the six detainees who would be transferred to Uruguay, the document reads: “There is no information that the above mentioned individuals were involved in conducting or facilitating terrorist activities against the United States or its partners or allies.”
Mujica portrayed the document as vindication for his “blame America” rhetoric in taking in the six men. But the document published online (just one page from a longer file) is carefully worded. It is also misleading.
If by “terrorist activities” the State Department means spectacular attacks like those that occurred on September 11, 2001, it is technically correct. But there are plenty of worrisome “terrorist activities” that fall short of that standard. The State Department document doesn’t exonerate the six detainees or portray them as innocents who were wrongly detained, as Mujica did. It does not say the men were unconnected to al Qaeda at the time of their capture. That’s because the State Department cannot honestly make such representations.
Publicly available documents, including secret Joint Task Force-Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessments that were leaked online, paint Uruguay’s newest residents in a far more troubling light. JTF-GTMO, which oversees the detention facility, deemed five of the six to be “high” risks, who are “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies.” It recommended that all five high- risk detainees remain in the Defense Department’s custody. Only one man was determined to be a “medium” risk, who “may pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies,” and JTF-GTMO recommended that he be transferred out of DOD custody.
The intelligence in JTF-GTMO’s files connects all six to senior al Qaeda operatives, including Abu Zubaydah, who remains in custody at Guantánamo. A common myth holds that Abu Zubaydah was not really a full-blown al Qaeda member at the time of his capture in late March 2002. But there is abundant evidence, including in the leaked JTF-GTMO files, that this is an absurd reading of history. Numerous reports situate Zubaydah at the epicenter of al Qaeda’s operations when he was finally tracked down in Faisalabad, Pakistan.
Four of the six men—Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, Ali Husein Shaaban, Abd al Hadi Omar Mahmoud Faraj, and Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab—were members of what JTF-GTMO dubbed the “Syrian Group.” They allegedly belonged to a terrorist cell run by Abu Musab al Suri, a senior al Qaeda ideologue who is thought to be in the custody of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. They fled Syria for Afghanistan, where they were enrolled in various terrorist training camps affiliated with, or run by, al Qaeda.
According to the JTF-GTMO files, at least three of the four—Ahjam, Shaaban, and Faraj—stayed in a guesthouse that Zubaydah funded. There, JTF-GTMO’s military intelligence analysts assessed, they received “suicide operations training provided by” an al Qaeda leader known as Sheikh Issa al Masri. Sheikh Issa was responsible for indoctrinating numerous jihadists prior to and after 9/11. Issa’s specialty was convincing young men that suicide attacks are divinely mandated.