This past week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown found himself answering questions about a terrorist suspect held at the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The detainee, Binyam Mohamed, has become something of a martyr in Brown's nation. Daily press reports recount the horrible torture he allegedly endured while in U.S., Moroccan, and Pakistani custody. According to these accounts, the British government has refused to release evidence demonstrating that American and British intelligence officials were complicit in, if not culpable for, Mohamed's abuse.
The outrage over Mohamed's detention was fanned earlier this month when the British High Court denied a petition seeking the release of classified documents detailing his case. The petition had been filed by news outlets such as the New York Times and the Associated Press, acting at the urging of Mohamed's civilian attorney and human rights groups. All of these parties believe that the classified U.S. intelligence documents, which were shared with the British government, verify Mohamed's allegations of torture. Two judges from the High Court denied the petition, however, citing a threat by U.S. authorities to cut off vital intelligence cooperation if the United Kingdom released the classified documents without American acquiescence.
This, in turn, prompted widespread claims of a cover up. The controversy became so intense that Prime Minister Brown had to publicly refute the charge. "I assure you that we have done everything by the law," Brown said during a news conference at Downing Street on February 18. "We operate our intelligence services in the same way as every country around the world operates their intelligence services - that there's a mutual sharing of information based on trust. When that trust is disrupted or removed, then the services cannot work in the way that they want to work."
"I can assure you there is no cover up whatsoever," Brown insisted.
But the imbroglio did not end there. Press accounts have highlighted the British government's desire to have Mohamed turned over to British custody as soon as possible. And Mohamed's vocal supporters, with their demonstrations in the streets of London, will ensure that his story is told over and over again in the British press until he is released.
This public pressure will likely have an effect across the Atlantic. The Obama administration is currently reviewing the files on all of the remaining detainees in order to determine what to do with them--try them, release them, transfer them, or continue holding them without trial. This review is expected to take some time, but President Obama, who has ordered Guantánamo shuttered within one year of his taking office, is being called on to intervene in Mohamed's case. Given the public outcry and the pressure from British authorities, Binyam Mohamed may be one of the first detainees whose destiny the new administration will decide.
So, who is Binyam Mohamed? And why did the Bush administration have him detained? Answering these questions is at least as important as investigating Mohamed's treatment. Yet, the basics of his story have been obscured by the controversy. While Mohamed's allegations of abuse are repeated verbatim by a willing press, the U.S. government's allegations and evidence against Mohamed are often ignored or downplayed.
Some press reports have repeated the claim that Mohamed went to Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks for the purpose of kicking his drug habit. This is a flimsy alibi, to say the least. Why would anyone go to the heroin capital of the world to get away from drugs? In fact, there is no doubt that Mohamed traveled to Afghanistan in June 2001 to receive training in an al Qaeda camp. Mohamed admitted this to the personal representative assigned to handle his case at Guantánamo. Mohamed did not testify at his hearing at Guantánamo, but his personal representative submitted a memo on his behalf. The memo indicates that Mohamed "admitted items 3A1-4 on the UNCLASS summary of evidence." That is a reference to the unclassified summary-of-evidence memo that was prepared by the U.S. government for Mohamed's case.
The items Mohamed admitted include the following:
1. The detainee is an Ethiopian who lived in the United States from 1992 to 1994, and in London, United Kingdom, until he departed for Pakistan in 2001.
2. The detainee arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan, in June 2001, and traveled to the al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan, to receive paramilitary training.
3. At the al Farouq camp, the detainee received 40 days of training in light arms handling, explosives, and principles of topography.
4. The detainee was taught to falsify documents, and received instruction from a senior al Qaeda operative on how to encode telephone numbers before passing them to another individual.
At a minimum, therefore, we know that Mohamed has admitted being an al Qaeda-trained operative.
Mohamed claims that he was not going to use his skills against America. Mohamed told his personal representative that "he went for training to fight in Chechnya, which was not illegal." In 2005, Mohamed's lawyer echoed this explanation in an interview with CNN. "He wanted to see the Taliban with his own eyes," Mohamed's lawyer claimed. "I am not saying he never went to any Islamic camp," the lawyer conceded, but he "didn't go to any camp to blow up Americans."
There are obvious problems with this quasi-denial.
The al Farouq training camp was responsible for training numerous al Qaeda operatives, including some of the September 11 hijackers. Al Qaeda used the al Farouq camp to identify especially promising recruits who could take on sensitive missions. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, this is what happened with members of al Qaeda's infamous Hamburg cell. Some of the future 9/11 suicide pilots also first expressed an interest in fighting in Chechnya, but ended up being assigned a mission inside the United States.
This is what the U.S. government, or at least the parts of it that investigated Mohamed's al Qaeda ties, believes happened to Mohamed. In the unclassified files produced at Guantánamo, as well as an indictment issued by a military commission, the Department of Defense and other U.S. agencies have outlined what they think happened during Binyam Mohamed's time in Afghanistan and then Pakistan.
According to the U.S. government's allegations, Osama bin Laden visited the al Farouq camp "several times" after Mohamed arrived there in the summer of 2001. The terror master "lectured Binyam Mohamed and other trainees about the importance of conducting operations against the United States." Bin Laden explained that "something big is going to happen in the future" and the new recruits should get ready for an impending event.
From al Farouq, Mohamed allegedly received additional training at a "city warfare course" in Kabul and then moved to the front lines in Bagram "to experience fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance." He then returned to Kabul, where the government claims he attended an explosives training camp alongside Richard Reid, the infamous shoe bomber.
Mohamed was then reportedly introduced to top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. By early 2002, the two were traveling between al Qaeda safehouses. The U.S. government alleges that Mohamed then met Jose Padilla and two other plotters, both of whom are currently detained at Guantánamo, at a madrassa. Zubaydah and another top al Qaeda lieutenant, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, allegedly directed the four of them "to receive training on building remote-controlled detonation devices for explosives."
At some point, Padilla and Mohamed traveled to a guesthouse in Lahore, Pakistan, where they "reviewed instructions on a computer ... on how to make an improvised 'dirty bomb.'" To the extent that the allegations against Mohamed have gotten any real press, it is this one that has garnered the attention. Media accounts have often highlighted the fact that Padilla and Mohamed were once thought to be plotting a "dirty bomb" attack, but that the allegation was dropped, making it seem as if they were not really planning a strike on American soil.
Indeed, all of the charges against Mohamed were dropped last year at Guantánamo. But this does not mean that he is innocent. As some press accounts have noted, the charges were most likely dropped for procedural reasons and because of the controversy surrounding his detention. According to U.S. government files, Padilla and Mohamed were considering a variety of attack scenarios.
Zubaydah, Padilla, and Mohamed allegedly discussed the feasibility of the "dirty bomb plot." But Zubaydah moved on to the possibility of "blowing up gas tankers and spraying people with cyanide in nightclubs." Zubaydah, according to the government, stressed that the purpose of these attacks would be to help "free the prisoners in Cuba." That is, Zubaydah wanted to use terrorist attacks to force the U.S. government to free the detainees at Guantánamo.
According to the summary-of-evidence memo prepared for Mohamed's combatant status review tribunal at Guantánamo, Mohamed was an active participant in the plotting. He proposed "the idea of attacking subway trains in the United States." But al Qaeda's military chief, Saif al Adel, and the purported 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), had a different idea. Al Adel and KSM allegedly told Binyam that he and Padilla would target "high-rise apartment buildings that utilized natural gas for its heat and also targeting gas stations." Padilla and Mohamed were supposed to rent an apartment and use the building's natural gas "to detonate an explosion that would collapse all of the floors above."
It may have been this "apartment building" plot that Mohamed and Padilla were en route to the United States to execute when they were apprehended. In early April 2002, KSM allegedly gave Mohamed $6,000 and Padilla $10,000 to fly to the United States. They were both detained at the airport in Karachi on April 4. Mohamed was arrested with a forged passport, but released. KSM arranged for Mohamed to travel on a different forged passport, but he was arrested once again on April 10. Padilla was released and made it all the way to Chicago before being arrested once again.
The gravity of the charges against Mohamed is rarely reported in the media. The Bush administration and U.S. intelligence officials believed he was part of al Qaeda's attempted second wave of attacks on U.S. soil.
Critics charge that all of the more substantial allegations against Mohamed were trumped up, or the result of false confessions extracted during torture. But look again at the allegations. All but two of Mohamed's co-conspirators are in U.S. custody. High-value detainees such as KSM, Zubaydah, and Abdul Hadi al Iraqi are all at Guantánamo, as are two other suspects whom Mohamed met during his travels through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Jose Padilla and Richard Reid have been convicted of terrorism-related charges and are serving time in the U.S. Only Saif al Adel, al Qaeda's military chief who is living in Iran, and Osama bin Laden are not in U.S. custody.
The point is that U.S. authorities should have been able to figure out with a reasonable degree of certainty just what Binyam Mohamed was up to at the time of his capture. This is true even though some of his co-conspirators were subjected to "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as waterboarding, which is understandably controversial. Based on the publicly available testimony from senior intelligence officials, such as former director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, it is clear senior terrorists such KSM and Zubaydah gave up actionable intelligence during their interrogations. In all likelihood, Binyam Mohamed's mission is something they discussed.
None of this is intended to diminish the seriousness of the abuse that has been alleged. If Binyam Mohamed was subjected to the types of treatment he and his lawyers claim while under rendition in Morocco and elsewhere, then he was tortured. Mohamed claims, for example, that he was cut with a scalpel in sensitive areas of his body. Such practices make waterboarding look rather tame and could not possibly have been necessary to make Mohamed talk.
However, we cannot now verify the more fantastic claims that Mohamed makes about his time in custody. And even if he were subjected to deplorable treatment, that would not make him an innocent who poses no threat. There are good reasons to believe that when captured he was en route to the United States to kill Americans. Before the Obama administration agrees to send him to Britain, it should have that firmly in mind.
Thomas Joscelyn is senior editor of the website Long War Journal.