The Blog

The Stories Ex-Gitmo Detainees Tell

5:44 PM, Jan 11, 2012 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

According to another leaked JTF-GTMO memo, KSM’s brother, Zahid Shaykh Muhammad, was the director of the LDI office in Quetta, Pakistan. KSM also ran an “education center” inside a refugee camp affiliated with the LDI inside Pakistan. KSM’s center specialized in jihadist indoctrination. A note from one JTF-GTMO file reads: “The LDI has been involved in Afghanistan since the early 1980s, and had supported the training camps and extremists there for many years.”  

When Boumediene was captured years later, in 2001, he allegedly had “Arabic language documents with the letterhead for Lajnat al-Dawa al-Islamiah (LDI)” in his possession.

Boumediene traveled around the world in the years that followed his work at the Hira Institute. On December 28, 1999, he was arrested by Algerian authorities “because his Algerian passport had expired and his passport contained a Pakistani visa.” Boumediene denied ever having gone to Afghanistan and he “was subsequently released when the Algerian government issued a blanket pardon to Algerians previously involved with al-Jabha al-Islamyah Lil Inkaz, aka (Islamic Salvation Front), aka (FIS).” The FIS is a known Islamist extremist party. Some members of the FIS went on to join the Armed Islamic Group – or “GIA” (an acronym of its French name), a known al Qaeda affiliate.

Indeed, Algerian authorities continued to suspect that Boumediene was a member of the GIA. In September 2001, according to the JTF-GTMO threat assessment, Boumediene was “included on an Algerian government list of Algerians residing in Bosnia who were suspected of having terrorist ties to the GIA and al Qaeda.” Also on that list were other members of the Algerian Six and a man known as Abd al-Qadr al-Mukhtari, who headed the Mujahideen Brigade in Bosnia during the 1990s war. The brigade has known ties to extremists and terrorists, including al Qaeda. It is not clear if Boumediene served in this brigade or not. JTF-GTMO analysts could only find a lone reference to his possible participation in the brigade in a State Department profile of Boumediene.

Bosnian authorities also named Boumediene as one of 25 Algerians “suspected of involvement with terrorist organizations abroad or involved with humanitarian organizations suspected of providing logistical support to terrorist groups.”

Which brings us back to Bensayah Belkacem – the Algerian Six member who was initially denied his habeas petition – and the issue of what, exactly, the Algerian expatriates were really doing in Bosnia. After Belkacem was arrested, Boumediene admittedly hired a lawyer for him. Boumediene claimed, according to his JTF-GTMO file, he did so without even knowing what the charges were against Belkacem. Boumediene similarly tried to downplay his ties to other members of the Algerian Six.

The most important allegation levied against Belkacem is that he worked with top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. A D.C. district judge initially denied Belkacem’s habeas petition based, in large part, on his ties to Zubaydah. For some unknown reason, the Obama administration decided to drop this allegation against Belkacem when defending against his appeal. It may be the case that Zubaydah’s controversial interrogations, which included waterboarding in 2002, led the Obama administration to avoid the issue of Belkacem’s ties to Zubaydah during court proceedings. In any event, those ties were important enough to justify Belkacem’s continued detention during the first habeas proceedings.

The JTF-GTMO file for Belkacem recounts his ties to Zubaydah, including a suspicious phone call in September 2001. Many of the details come from Zubaydah himself, during his time in custody. (While Belkacem refused to be forthcoming in U.S. custody, according to JTF-GTMO, Zubaydah was far more “truthful.” There is no evidence that Belkacem was subjected to coercive interrogation techniques such as those used on Zubaydah.) According to Zubaydah, Belkacem asked for help, and Zubaydah told Belkacem “he would be able to find work in Afghanistan similar to his work in Bosnia.”

JTF-GTMO analysts interpreted this call thusly: “It is assessed that [Belkacem] was requesting safe-haven assistance from [Zubaydah] and continued employment in terrorist operations in Afghanistan.” The call may also have indicated, according to JTF-GTMO, that Belkacem “was about to take part in a terrorist attack.” (Again, evidence indicating a well-developed plot against the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo, or another target, is dubious.)

Zubaydah also told authorities that he first met Belkacem in 1993 or 1994 and that, after Belkacem was released from a communist prison in Afghanistan, Belkacem stayed in one of Zubaydah’s guesthouses in Pakistan. Belkacem allegedly told Zubaydah that he was heading to Bosnia to wage jihad.

Belkacem returned to Afghanistan in 1997, according to Zubaydah, and stayed there until 2000. Zubaydah “attempted to use [Belkacem] during this time as a contact to procure passports,” the JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Belkacem reads. During a debriefing, Zubaydah referred to Belkacem by an alias, Abu Majd. Belkacem denied using this alias when questioned about it by officials, but interestingly even Belkacem’s wife identified him as “Abu Majd.” Apparently, therefore, Zubaydah and Belkacem’s wife were in agreement on Belkacem’s alias.

The file on Belkacem is filled with other pieces of intelligence tying him to extremists and terrorists around the globe. For instance, the leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment on Belkacem reads: “[Belkacem] possessed numerous phone numbers linking him to [Osama bin Laden’s] operational network in Afghanistan and the global Sunni extremist network, including [Zubaydah’s] phone number which was found in his pocket litter.”

Why is all this important with respect to the New York Times’s op-ed contributor, Lakhdar Boumediene? U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that Boumediene was a member of Belkacem’s al Qaeda cell in Bosnia. Boumediene and his advocates, of course, deny this. But if Boumediene, who laments Belkacem’s detention at Guantanamo in his Times op-ed (“…I share my story because 171 men remain there. Among them is Belkacem Bensayah, who was seized in Bosnia and sent to Guantánamo with me. ), was in fact a member of an al Qaeda cell in Bosnia headed by Belkacem, then his Times piece is disinformation.

U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that Belkacem, Boumediene and other members of the Algerian Six intended to join the fight in Afghanistan in late 2001. Belkacem, who applied for a visa at the Iranian embassy in Sarajevo in October that year, allegedly planned to transit Iran en route to Afghanistan and encouraged his compatriots to do the same.

Boumediene, for his part, never admitted to any of this, despite all of the “torture” supposedly used on him. Boumediene “has provided partially truthful, yet incomplete accounts of his history and timeline,” the JTF-GTMO threat assessment of him reads. Boumediene “has consistently denied involvement in terrorist organizations or plots of any kind against the US.” The file continues:

He has denied membership in the GIA and affiliation with Bosnian mujahideen despite reports indicating the contrary. [Boumediene] maintains he never met or barely knew the other members of the “Algerian Six,” which has been proven false based on subsequent reports.  

A New Recruit      

In his op-ed, Murat Kurnaz says he simply wanted “to learn more about Islam and to lead a better life.” Kurnaz adds: “Some of the elders in my town suggested I travel to Pakistan to learn to study the Koran with a religious group there.”

Kurnaz’s own mother, however, worried that he “was brainwashed” by a man named Ali Miri at the Abu Bakr Mosque in Bremen, Germany. This, and other details about Kurnaz’s recruitment, can be found in a dossier compiled by German authorities. The leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Kurnaz tells the same story.

In his self-serving book, “Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo,” Kurnaz claims that he was asked about Ali Miri during his interrogations at Guantanamo. Kurnaz denies that Ali Miri had any nefarious intentions, calling him “nice” and “my friend.”

The German dossier describes Miri as a “preacher of hate.” And the leaked JTF-GTMO file for Kurnaz adds more detail, calling Miri the “spiritual leader in the al Qaeda associated Bremen Cell and at the Abu Bakr Mosque frequented by” Kurnaz. The file continues: “Foreign source reporting illustrated suspected ties between German-based extremists to include Ali Miri, detainee, Zammar, Mohammad Atta, and admitted senior al Qaeda facilitator Mohammadou Ould Slahi.”

Mohammad Atta was, of course, the lead hijacker for the 9/11 attacks. Zammar is Mohammed Zammar, who helped recruit Atta and the other suicide hijack pilots in Germany. And Slahi is a notorious al Qaeda facilitator who helped guide the hijackers to Afghanistan for training.

It is obvious why both German and American officials were concerned about Kurnaz’s friends in Bremen. Zammar reportedly played a role in recruiting Kurnaz as well. According to the JTF-GTMO threat assessment, Zammar explained, once in custody, that Kurnaz “was sent by him to Afghanistan for terrorist training ‘just like Atta’s group before him.’” The implication was, according to JTF-GTMO analysts, that Kurnaz “was to possibly be groomed as a suicide operative.”

Regarding his jaunt to South Asia shortly after 9/11, Kurnaz writes in the Times: “I was 19 then and was naïve and did not think war in Afghanistan would have anything to do with Pakistan or my trip there. So I went ahead with my trip.” But his involvement with Ali Miri, Zammar and others would suggest otherwise.

Kurnaz was supposed to travel to Pakistan with a man named Selcuk Bilgin. On October 3, 2001, according to the German dossier, Bilgin told German authorities that Selcuk “is following a friend to Afghanistan, in order to fight.” Bilgin’s wife also confirmed that the pair wanted to go to Afghanistan. Bilgin was arrested and could not make the trip with Kurnaz. But he was eventually released and a subsequent German investigation revealed that Bilgin continued to recruit impressionable young men for jihad. The JTF-GTMO file for Kurnaz notes that a “foreign government service identified” Bilgin “as the leader of the Bremen jihadist cell.”    

Throughout his trip, Kurnaz relied on an extremist group named Jamaat Tablighi ("JT") to facilitate his travels. Kurnaz has portrayed the JT in an entirely benign light. While the JT does some missionary work, it is also a major front for al Qaeda and the Taliban. It has been used as a cover for terrorist operatives repeatedly. JTF-GTMO analysts found: “Association with the JT is a common extremist cover story that detainees have used to hide their actual activities and associations, as well as association with and receipt of assistance from groups such as the LET [Lashkar-e-Taiba].” JTF-GTMO analysts concluded that Kurnaz “probably stayed with LET members and received training at LET-sponsored guesthouses.” The LET is a notorious terrorist organization closely allied with al Qaeda.

Naturally, none of these details make their way into Kurnaz’s op-ed. JTF-GTMO analysts listed numerous reasons for doubting Kurnaz’s version of events. As intelligence analysts, they were trained to probe inconsistent or illogical narratives. Former Guantanamo detainees routinely rely on the fact that the same level of scrutiny will not be applied by the press.

JTF-GTMO deemed both Kurnaz and Boumediene “high” risks to the U.S. and its allies and recommended that they remain in the Defense Department’s custody.

However, ex-Gitmo detainees do not have to commit terrorist attacks to damage American interests. It is much easier for them to win the public relations war.

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

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers