The government of Malaysia made a curious announcement this week: Yazid Sufaat, a known al Qaeda operative, and four other alleged terrorists have been released from jail. It is not clear why Malaysian authorities thought it was time to set them free. Malaysia's home minister, Syed Hamid Albar, simply declared, "They are no longer a threat but they will be watched closely."
We can only hope.
Sufaat's newfound freedom is troubling. According to the 9-11 Commission, four top al Qaeda operatives stayed at Sufaat's apartment in Malaysia in January of 2000. The al Qaeda terrorists were in Malaysia for an important planning meeting, during which they discussed the upcoming attack on the USS Cole and details of the 9/11 operation. Shortly after the meeting, al Qaeda terrorists Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, both of whom stayed at Sufaat's apartment, left for California. Twenty months later, al Mihdhar and al Hazmi were part of the team responsible for hijacking American Airlines Flight 77 and crashing it into the Pentagon.
Al Mihdhar and al Hazmi were not the only 9/11 plotters to receive Sufaat's hospitality. In the fall of 2000, Sufaat played host to convicted al Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui during his visit to Malaysia. Moussaoui was scheduled to take part in the September 11 attacks, or a similar follow-on plot, but was detained by the FBI in August of 2001.
Thus, Sufaat assisted al Qaeda members during a crucial juncture in their operational planning for the 9/11 attacks. And that is not all Sufaat accomplished during his terrorist career. According to the 9/11 Commission, Sufaat is guilty of more.
At some point, a top al Qaeda operative named Hambali, who is currently a high-value detainee being held at Guantánamo, introduced Sufaat to al Qaeda's number two, Ayman al Zawahiri. Zawahiri wanted to jumpstart al Qaeda's program for developing anthrax and asked Hambali for assistance in finding a suitable scientist. Sufaat fit the bill. In 1987, he graduated from California State University at Sacramento with a bachelor's degree in biological sciences and a minor in chemistry. In 2001, Sufaat put his degree to work for al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission found that he spent "several months attempting to cultivate anthrax for al Qaeda in a laboratory he helped set up near the Kandahar airport," which was then a stronghold for Osama bin Laden.
It was for good reasons, then, that Malaysian authorities detained Sufaat in December 2001. And there are good reasons to worry now that he has been freed. We must now rely upon the Malaysian government to make sure the freed Sufaat does not find his way back into al Qaeda's ranks.
Sufaat's story is not entirely unique, however. The U.S. government is relying on dozens of foreign governments to monitor both known and suspected terrorists who were once detained. For instance, the United States has transferred or released approximately 550 suspects from Guantánamo. While surely some of these men were innocents wrongly swept up in the fog of war, many of them were in fact part of the global terror network. In fact, some of them are well-acquainted with Sufaat's attempts to develop anthrax for al Qaeda.
One of these former Guantánamo detainees is a Saudi named Abdullah Aiza al Matrafi, who was detained by Pakistani authorities in December 2001 and then turned over to American authorities. Al Matrafi spent several years at Guantánamo before being repatriated to Saudi Arabia in December of 2007. Despite agreeing to transfer him, the U.S. Government did not believe al Matrafi was an innocent. During his time in U.S. custody, al Matrafi spoke of al Qaeda plots against U.S. nuclear facilities and water dams. It is not clear if he knew of actual plots or was merely full of bluster. The U.S. government's unclassified files also note that at some point during his detention al Matrafi admitted: "Yes I am a member of al Qaeda and I took orders from Osama bin Laden." He bragged: "I am a terrorist. Yes I am very proud to be a terrorist."
Al Matrafi was allegedly the co-founder of a "charity" named al Wafa. Like dozens of other Islamic charities, al Wafa was not really humanitarian endeavor but instead a front for the Taliban and al Qaeda. The Saudi-based group has been designated a terrorist organization under Presidential Executive Order 13224.
Al Matrafi established al Wafa offices throughout the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he also established a presence for the group in Iranian cities such as Tehran, Zahedan, Tayyebat, and Meshad. Al Wafa used the mullahs' soil to transport terrorists into Afghanistan. For example, another former Guantánamo detainee was a driver for al Matrafi and would pick up terrorists in Meshad, Iran and then drive them to the westernmost parts of Afghanistan.
This transportation route was not al Wafa's only contribution to al Qaeda and the Taliban, however. Under al Matrafi's management, al Wafa purchased arms and other supplies for al Qaeda and the Taliban. Al Matrafi himself allegedly attempted to purchase a laser guided missile system and missiles. And it is a safe bet that if he had acquired them, these weapons would have ended up in al Qaeda's hands.
Al Matrafi was connected to the highest levels of the terror network. He allegedly met with Osama bin Laden twice, once in late 2000 and a second time in July 2001 at bin Laden's house in Kandahar. Al Matrafi acted as an emissary between bin Laden and Saudi clerics who supported al Qaeda, including one who helped establish al Wafa. According to the U.S. Government's files, al Matrafi also had "numerous conversations with Mullah Omar" and "negotiated a deal that allowed the Taliban to direct al Wafa's activities."
Al Matrafi's ties to these senior terrorists gave al Wafa access to al Qaeda's most sensitive projects, including Yazid Sufaat's anthrax program.
One of al Matrafi's employees, a Yemeni named Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi, is currently held at Guantánamo. It is not clear what the U.S. Government plans to do with him, but Batarfi is allegedly a long-time mujahideen, having first traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the late 1980s. After training in an al Qaeda camp and participating in the first jihad in Afghanistan, Batarfi graduated from medical school in Pakistan and, according to the New York Times, "pursued postdoctoral studies there." Batarfi even became an orthopedic surgeon.
Batarfi used his expertise to become the medical advisor to al Wafa. It was in this capacity, the government alleges, that Batarfi "met a Malaysian microbiologist in Kandahar" while staying at an al Qaeda guesthouse in August 2001. "This microbiologist wanted to equip a lab and train the Afghans to test blood" and "was involved in developing anthrax for al Qaida." Batarfi told another al Wafa member "to purchase four to five thousand United States Dollars worth of medical equipment for the Malaysian microbiologist."
Although the microbiologist is not named in the government's unclassified files, he is most certainly Yazid Sufaat.
Yet another current Guantánamo detainee is, like Batarfi, a Yemeni who was working for al Wafa at the time of his capture. The U.S. government alleges that Jamil Ahmed Said Nassir was identified by a senior al Wafa official as being "a Karachi University microbiology graduate student," who purchased materials for Wafa from a chemical company. Thus, Nassir may have been involved in Sufaat's anthrax program as well. It is possible that Nassir is, like Sufaat, a scientist who wanted to use his training to serve al Qaeda's goals.
So, we have four alleged terrorists all of whom have been detained in the post-9/11 world and at least three of whom were allegedly involved in al Qaeda's anthrax program in some fashion. Two of them, Yazid Sufaat and Abdullah Aiza al Matrafi, have been released from custody. It is up to the Malaysian government to make sure Sufaat does not return to terrorism. And it is up to the Saudis to make sure al Matrafi does not rejoin his al Qaeda and Taliban brethren. Indeed, more than one hundred Saudis are in al Matrafi's shoes--that is, they were once detained at Guantánamo and are now living in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have built a program to rehabilitate these former detainees, but only time will tell if this effort is effective.
The other two, Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi and Jamil Ahmed Said Nassir, currently reside at Guantánamo. Both of them are Yemenis and the Bush administration has had a difficult time figuring out what to do with the approximately 97 Yemenis left at Guantánamo. It is not clear what the new Obama administration will do with them either.
Unlike the Saudis, the Yemenis have had no program for dealing with former detainees. Just recently, the Bush administration repatriated Osama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Hamdan, to Yemen. Hamdan has a high profile because of the U.S. court proceedings surrounding his detention, so it would be remarkable if the Yemeni government allows him to find his way back to the battlefield. Then again, terrorists, including those responsible for the USS Cole bombing, have repeatedly escaped custody in Yemen. Perhaps this is why one Guantánamo document notes: "Yemen is not a nation supporting the Global War on Terrorism." We should not, therefore, be confident in Yemen's ability to monitor Batarfi and Nassir should they be repatriated.
During the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan the U.S. learned that al Qaeda was much closer to developing chemical and biological weapons, such as anthrax, than previously thought. And now one of the chief terrorists responsible for that program has been freed. It is at least possible that some of his companions who have been detained at Guantánamo will join him.
Such is the world we now live in. Known terrorists such as Yazid Sufaat are freed and the U.S. depends on foreign nations to ensure that they do not wreak havoc using anthrax or other means on behalf of al Qaeda.
Thomas Joscelyn is the senior editor of the website Long War Journal