There are two competing versions of former Guantanamo detainee Sami al Hajj’s story. The first, which has long been endorsed by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and many other journalists/activists, portrays Hajj as an innocent Al Jazeera journalist who was wrongly swept up in the post-9/11 world. The second, compiled by intelligence analysts at Guantanamo and other foreign governments, sees Hajj as a longtime extremist and al Qaeda member who used his job at Al Jazeera as a cover for his more nefarious activities.
A recently leaked assessment of Hajj, authored by American analysts at Guantanamo, has been used to buttress the first version of Hajj’s story. The authors of the assessment noted that Hajj was transferred to Cuba, in part, because American officials had suspicions about Al Jazeera’s “newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, including the network’s acquisition of a video of [Osama bin Laden] and a subsequent interview with” bin Laden. (This was just one of five reasons Hajj was transferred to Guantanamo, according to the document.)
The same document notes that analysts believed Hajj had information about Al Jazeera’s “associations with al-Qaida leaders and activities in support of Islamic militant groups.”
Although the press has noted that the leaked file includes allegations of Hajj’s ties to terrorism, including al Qaeda, most journalists could not be bothered to fully report on the file’s contents. Here, for example, is the full paragraph that appeared in the New York Times’s April 24 account:
A journalist’s interrogation: The documents show that a major reason a Sudanese cameraman for Al Jazeera, Sami al-Hajj, was held at Guantánamo for six years was for questioning about the television network’s “training program, telecommunications equipment, and newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo, and Afghanistan,” including contacts with terrorist groups. While Mr. Hajj insisted he was just a journalist, his file says he helped Islamic extremist groups courier money and obtain Stinger missiles and cites the United Arab Emirates’ claim that he was a Qaeda member. He was released in 2008 and returned to work for Al Jazeera.
The phrase “including contacts with terrorist groups” is a bit off the mark. The phrasing used in the file is (as cited above): “including the network’s acquisition of a video of [Osama bin Laden] and a subsequent interview with” bin Laden. This is an important difference.
One of the main reasons U.S. authorities suspected Hajj of serving al Qaeda while working for Al Jazeera was his consistent ability to get access to high level al Qaeda and Taliban members—even after the September 11 attacks.
Hajj even allegedly met with the mastermind of 9/11: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “photo-identified [Hajj] as an al-Jazeera correspondent whom he met at the Kandahar al-Jazeera office,” the leaked file reads.
In October 2001, Hajj also interviewed Abu Hafs al Mauritani, a top al Qaeda leader and long-time bin Laden confidante. Abu Hafs disappeared shortly thereafter. Mohamedou Slahi, a top al Qaeda recruiter whose detention has been controversial because of the methods used to interrogate him early on at Guantanamo, told authorities that Hajj “was the one who did the last known interview with Abu Hafs al Mauritani in Kandahar prior to Abu Hafs’ disappearance.” Slahi added that Hajj “should be knowledgeable about the probable whereabouts of the al Qaeda [members] who fled from Afghanistan after the American invasion.”
And top Taliban officials trusted Hajj to conduct interviews with them, as well. Hajj interviewed the Taliban’s “Treasury Minister, the Minister of Electricity Omar Tayyib Agha, who was the secretary to Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, [and] the Minister of Foreign Affairs Wakil Ahmad Mutawkil.”
Hajj’s many advocates would undoubtedly portray his string of interviews and meetings as simply the result of entrepreneurial journalism. But for al Qaeda watchers in several governments, it was part of a pattern. Hajj had built up an extensive dossier prior to his capture.
This brings us back to the second narrative on Hajj – the one constructed by intelligence analysts who had to piece together Hajj’s story from a variety of sources.
The Jihad in Chechnya