Last Tuesday, President Obama updated the American people on the progress of the “security reviews” he had ordered administration officials to perform in the wake of “the failed attack on Christmas Day.” The president spoke of the “corrective actions” that would be taken so that another bomber with explosives sewn into his underwear could not board a U.S.-bound plane. He trumpeted the security measures he had ordered and said:
Finally, some have suggested that the events on Christmas Day should cause us to revisit the decision to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. So let me be clear. It was always our intent to transfer detainees to other countries only under conditions that provide assurances that our security is being protected.
With respect to Yemen in particular, there’s an ongoing security situation which we have been confronting for some time, along with our Yemeni partner. Given the unsettled situation, I’ve spoken to the Attorney General, and we’ve agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time.
The Christmas Day attack was planned by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is headquartered in Yemen. AQAP is one of al Qaeda’s strongest branches outside of South Asia.
Nearly half of the detainees remaining at Guantánamo are Yemeni. The Yemeni government has a horrible track record when it comes to keeping tabs on terrorists. So Republicans in Congress have argued that repatriating the Yemenis will simply bolster AQAP’s ranks. President Obama was clearly sensitive to all of this when he spoke last week.
But he and his administration were not nearly as sensitive to it before Christmas Day.
On December 19, 2009, the Obama administration transferred six detainees to Yemen. Only one Yemeni had been repatriated during the previous 11 months—and the Bush administration, which made many of its own mistakes with respect to detainee transfers, had only repatriated a handful of Yemenis over several years. (At least one of them has since returned to terrorism.) But the Obama administration was confident. The New York Times on December 19 cited a “senior administration official” who said the White House was “gaining confidence in Yemen’s willingness to handle returning detainees.” And at the beginning of last year, in January 2009, Obama’s ambassador to Yemen, Stephen Seche, had said the administration intended to repatriate “the majority” of the Yemenis at Guantánamo.
That plan now seems to be on hold.But the question remains: Who are the six former detainees who were transferred in December? The Obama administration refuses to say. During a press conference on January 8, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs blunted any inquiry by saying, “I’m not going to get into discussing transfers.”
The Doctor. Ayman Batarfi has been a committed jihadist for decades. After fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, he became an orthopedic surgeon and lent his skills to al Qaeda and the Taliban. He tended to wounded -jihadists -during the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001. During his administrative review board hearing at Guantánamo, Batarfi made a number of admissions, including that he met with Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora (when the terror master was the most wanted man on the planet) and had authorized the purchase of medical equipment for a “Malaysian microbiologist.” This was Yazid Sufaat, who was the head of al Qaeda’s anthrax program. Batarfi also worked for al Wafa, a “charity” that was an al Qaeda front. Both the United States and U.N. have designated al Wafa as a terrorist entity.
The Money Man. Jamal Muhammed Alawi Mari was among the first men taken into custody after the September 11 attacks. Mari was arrested on September 23, 2001. Pakistani officials found a suitcase filled with clothes and $11,300 in cash in his possession and boxes containing “lists of chemicals and pharmaceuticals and handwritten notes regarding the characteristics of different military weapons, explosives and attack scenarios.” It was an interesting collection for a man who claimed he was just a charity worker.
Like Batarfi, Mari worked for al Wafa, although he denied this during his hearings at Guantánamo. According to the U.S. government’s unclassified files, Mari was chosen to head al Wafa’s branch in Karachi, which worked closely with the Taliban in funneling supplies and weaponry into Afghanistan. Mari reported to the head of al Wafa, who had close ties to Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.
Prior to al Wafa, Mari worked for another known al Qaeda front—a charity called al Haramayn. While al Haramayn claims it is only interested in charitable endeavors, its real mission is to inculcate radical Islam in war-torn countries. Al Haramayn has repeatedly supported extremists and terrorists, including al Qaeda members. U.S. government files allege that Mari was once a top official in the Baku, Azerbaijan, branch of al Haramayn. That branch is known to have played a leading role in funneling supplies and recruits to the jihadists fighting in Chechnya.
A ‘Captured Mujahedin.’ When U.S. and Pakistani officials raid al Qaeda safe houses, they capture not only terrorists, but also valuable bits of hard intelligence—computers, documents, fraudulent passports, memory sticks—that help illuminate the underworld of terrorism. Al Qaeda maintains a fairly robust bureaucracy and with every bureaucracy, there is paperwork. Lists of al Qaeda members maintained by their fellow terrorists are a particularly important find.
Riyad Atiq Ali Abdu al Haf’s name, alias, and personal information appeared on three such lists. One was “found on a computer harddrive associated with a known al Qaeda operative” and includes al Haf among the ranks of “captured mujahedin.” Another list recovered during a raid on suspected al Qaeda safe houses in Pakistan lists al Haf’s “name, aliases and nationality” among more than 320 other Arabic names. Still another document, a “list of al Qaeda mujahedin,” contains al Haf’s name, alias, and the “contents of his trust account.”
After serving in the Yemeni -military for one year, al Haf was recruited to wage jihad in South Asia. He stayed in various Taliban safe houses during his travels. Once in Afghanistan, he was allegedly trained at the al Farouq camp—the crown jewel of al Qaeda’s pre-9/11 training infrastructure. A fellow al Qaeda operative even identified al Haf as the man who trained him on combat weapons.
Other evidence in U.S. government files indicates that al Haf served on the front lines in Afghanistan against the Northern Alliance and at Tora Bora, where he allegedly delivered food supplies to his fellow fighters. Al Haf was captured near the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Bodyguard. Faruq Ali Ahmed, who memorized the Koran before the age of 17, claims he traveled to Afghanistan simply to teach children how to do the same. Military and intelligence officials at Guantánamo, however, did not believe his story. In a series of memos written between September 8, 2004, and October 10, 2007, U.S. officials alleged that Ahmed was recruited in a known jihadist center in Yemen (where some of the USS Cole bombers had been recruited), trained at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan (including al Farouq), and went on to become a bodyguard at Osama bin Laden’s private airport in Kandahar. This airport was one of the most secure al Qaeda facilities in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Only the most trustworthy members of the group ever served there.
The Students. Fayad Yahya Ahmed al Rami and Muhammad Yasir Ahmed Taher were both allegedly recruited by the Jamaat Tablighi, an Islamic missionary organization that, according to the declassified Guantánamo files, is regularly used by al Qaeda to shuttle terrorists around the globe. The Jamaat Tablighi, which claims to be solely devoted to proselytizing, has a long history of sponsoring jihadists inside Pakistan. Al Rami and Taher were both captured during raids of al Qaeda safe houses operated by Abu Zubaydah—a top al Qaeda lieutenant—on March 28, 2002.
Al Rami and Taher claimed they were students at Salafia University living in a residence for foreigners—the Issa House—run by the Jamaat Tablighi. According to court filings, there was “a close relationship” between Zubaydah’s safe house and the Issa House, and residents of both were “making preparations to continue to fight” after September 11.
Of the six Yemeni detainees transferred in December, al Rami and Taher are the least worrisome. There is no indication, for example, that they received any terrorist training or actually participated in hostilities. Or it may simply be the case that they had not had the opportunity to fight.
According to memos prepared for Taher’s case, he “was sent a personal greeting from the Taliban Deputy Minister of Intelligence” upon his arrival in South Asia, meaning his arrival was expected. Taher was also “recognized by a senior al Qaeda operative” at the Issa House, further indicating that it wasn’t just a student dormitory. Taher allegedly made a number of damning comments while at Guantánamo too, asking that he “be considered a terrorist.” For his part, al Rami was asked if he believed in jihad during one hearing, and he replied: “I do not believe that any Muslim does not believe in jihad. Even infidels.” In other words, everyone believes in jihad—whether they wage it or are its victims.
These are the six men who the Obama administration deemed least likely to pose a threat in the future and transferred to a country with an “ongoing security situation.” And there is every indication that the Obama administration would have transferred more if the world had not woken up to the terrorist threat emanating out of Yemen on Christmas Day.
If these were the least worrisome Yemeni detainees held at Guantánamo, then what does that say about the rest of the Yemeni prisoners there? And will the Obama administration reverse course yet again and take a chance in transferring them?
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.