There has been no shortage of articles written from the perspective of the Guantanamo detainees’ lawyers and advocates. The result, more often than not, is a wildly inaccurate picture. A CNN.com piece (“Ten years on, Kuwaiti inmates fear indefinite Guantanamo detention”) published by Jenifer Fenton earlier this month is typical of the genre.
Fenton’s article features the story of a Kuwaiti Gitmo detainee named Fayiz Mohammed Ahmed Al Kandari (who was given the internment serial number 552). A D.C. district judge denied al Kandari’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, citing the substantial evidence against him, in 2010. According to a leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment written in 2008, al Kandari was deemed a “high” risk to the U.S. and its allies. JTF-GTMO also recommended that al Kandari remain in detention. And al Kandari’s own lawyers told Fenton that it is “likely” the Obama administration has decided to detain him indefinitely. So the Obama administration, which approved for transfer 65 percent of the detainees remaining at Guantanamo as of January 2009, determined that al Kandari was too dangerous to return to Kuwait.
According to Fenton, however, al Kandari’s “case illustrates the difficulties of establishing who may have had links with al Qaeda and similar groups in the chaotic aftermath of 9/11, the strength of evidence against them, and whether they might remain or become a threat today if freed from detention.”
That is certainly true for some of the detainees who have been held at Guantanamo. It is not true for al Kandari.
Fenton’s piece is a 1,900 word whitewash. Only about 100 words are devoted to the evidence amassed by the U.S. government against al Kandari even though there are dozens of declassified and leaked pages dealing with his case. A good example of the piece’s bias is the comparable amount of attention (also about 100 words) given to former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, who Fenton describes as a “British Muslim.” This, as I’ve detailed on numerous occasions in the past, is also a whitewash. (See here for my latest piece on Begg.) Begg is an admitted jihadist and U.S. intelligence officials concluded that Begg had numerous ties to al Qaeda terrorists. But Fenton uncritically cites Begg as saying “he never heard another detainee say anything about Al Kandari being associated with known terrorists or terrorists [sic] activities.”
The absurdity of Begg’s claim is easy to demonstrate. Al Kandari’s own admissions, relied on by the D.C. district court in denying his habeas petition, showed that he “associated with known terrorists,” including Osama bin Laden’s chief spokesman. According to evidence entered into the court record and leaked JTF-GTMO files, other Guantanamo detainees implicated al Kandari, too. Several detainees, for example, identified al Kandari as being at the battle of Tora Bora in late 2001.
The rest of Fenton’s piece is filled with claims by al Kandari’s “friends and relatives,” lawyers and advocates. The result is that CNN’s online audience was left with little sense of who Fayiz al Kandari really is.
An “implausible” cover story
Al Kandari’s advocates have long claimed that he was a simple charity worker who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Fenton repeats this canard in the opening lines, telling readers that al Kandari’s “stated purpose” for traveling to Afghanistan “was to do charitable work, assisting with the reconstruction of two wells and the repair of a mosque.” Fenton adds that al Kandari’s charitable trip “was for the sake of his mother who had cancer so there would be ‘more blessings from God on her behalf,’ according to a member of the Al Kandari family.”
Later, Fenton notes in passing that prosecutors say al Kandari’s charity story is “not true,” but she does not bother to investigate why.
Al Kandari and his attorneys presented D.C. District judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly with this same tale. The judge deemed it “implausible” and “not credible,” for a variety of reasons. Al Kandari couldn’t explain what he was doing inside Afghanistan during a “missing” two-month period, which the judge found odd for a supposedly innocent charity worker. Moreover, the “charity” al Kandari claimed he served is named Al Wafa, which is a known al Qaeda front and was long ago designated a terrorist entity by both the U.S. and the U.N. In addition to shuttling al Qaeda terrorists in and out of Afghanistan, al Wafa served as a cover for al Qaeda’s anthrax program.
When al Kandari reached the Al Wafa office in Kabul, he told authorities, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s spokesman, was also present there. As the judge noted, al Kandari was aware that Abu Ghaith is a member of al Qaeda. (U.S. intelligence officials conclude that al Kandari was a close associate of Abu Ghaith.) Al Kandari admitted he knew of other men, also known al Qaeda members, who were at the Al Wafa office as well.
In late 2001, al Kandari made his way to the Tora Bora Mountains. Al Kandari tried to offer a benign explanation for this, but the judge demonstrated that his story, once again, does not make sense. Tora Bora was a particularly difficult location to access, and al Kandari's presence there was consistent with Osama bin Laden's call for reinforcements against U.S. and allied forces. The judge found that al Kandari “was given a Kalishnikov rifle and taught how to use it by an individual who was more likely than not associated with al Qaeda and/or the Taliban.” Al Kandari also “met and associated with various members and high-level leaders of al Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated enemy forces…many of whom were actively engaged in fighting the United States and its allies."
The “high-level” al Qaeda terrorists al Kandari admittedly met included Ibn Sheikh al Libi (who ran the Khalden terrorist training camp, which graduated many terrorists including some of the 9/11 hijackers) and Abdul Qadous. Al Kandari admitted that “Qadous, like Al Libi, was leading a group of fighters at the time Al Kandari met him in Tora Bora.” Al Kandari “further advised that he had heard Qadous had previously been in charge of the Al Farouq training camp, al Qaeda's primary Afghan basic training facility.”
Al Kandari later tried to deny that he made these admissions, but the judge did not find his denial credible. Fenton does not mention any of them.
Attack on U.S. Marines
As in other habeas proceedings, the district court did not weigh all of the intelligence and evidence, finding that al Kandari’s admissions were enough to justify his detention. In addition, some of the intelligence was most likely not entered into the court record. But U.S. intelligence authorities concluded that al Kandari was an especially well connected al Qaeda operative. He allegedly served as a spiritual advisor to Osama bin Laden and gave talks encouraging martyrdom at al Qaeda’s Afghan training camps, as well as at the Islamic Institute in Kandahar. Prior to 9/11, the Islamic Institute was used by al Qaeda to indoctrinate would-be martyrs. It says much that al Kandari allegedly taught at the Institute.
JTF-GTMO detected al Kandari’s ideological influence in an attack on U.S. forces that occurred after his capture. Fayiz al Kandari repeatedly told U.S. officials that he met a man named Anas al Kandari, who is Fayiz’s cousin, at the al Wafa office in Kabul. Anas told Fayiz that Anas and his associate, Jassem al Hajeri, “had recently received military training at the Libyan camp in Afghanistan.”
Fayiz later tried to retract this admission and for good reasons – Anas al Kandari and Jassem al Hajeri were members of an al Qaeda cell that attacked U.S. Marines on Faylaka Island, off of Kuwait’s coast, in October 2002.
One Marine was killed and another was wounded. U.S. officials concluded that Fayiz “mentored and advised Anas al Kandari and other members of the six-person cell” that carried out the Faylaka Island attack. JTF-GTMO also concluded that Fayiz, Anas, and the aforementioned Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, received “advanced sniper training” that was arranged by Osama bin Laden’s guards. Some of bin Laden’s sons allegedly took part in the training.
Identified by “High Value” Detainees
According to a leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment, dated April 15, 2008, Fayiz al Kandari was repeatedly identified as an important al Qaeda figure by high value detainees in U.S. custody. Top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah identified al Kandari “as a scholar” and told American officials that he taught “at the Islamic Institute in Kandahar where [al Kandari’s] responsibilities included making audio tapes in 2001.” The tapes likely included propaganda for al Qaeda.
JTF-GTMO concluded that al Kandari was “an al Qaeda propagandist who produced pamphlets, jihadist recruitment video and audio tapes, and wrote newspaper articles paying tribute to the 11 September 2001 hijackers.” (Al Kandari may have even had limited foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, according to the leaked JTF-GTMO file.) One of the tapes was entitled, “Jihad, Your Way to Heaven.” Thousands of copies were, according to one captured jihadist, distributed in Kuwait. Other recordings, distributed online, encouraged recruits to fight in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and elsewhere.
Zubaydah, who was subjected to waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, told U.S. officials that al Kandari received weapons trained in the Khalden terrorist training camp in 1997. (The reporting from Zubaydah appears to be dated in the years after he was subjected to controversial interrogation techniques in 2002. Some of the reporting, for instance, apparently comes from 2005.)
Al Kandari himself admitted at some point in custody that he knew Zubaydah, who allegedly helped facilitate al Kandari’s travel.
Another high value detainee who identified al Kandari is Hassan Ghul. Ghul is best known for his role in giving up crucial intelligence that ultimately led to Osama bin Laden’s demise. Namely, Ghul provided intelligence on bin Laden’s chief courier, who years later was followed to bin Laden’s safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Along with Zubaydah, Ghul identified al Kandari as “a scholar who brought many religious books with him to Khaldan.”
Still another high value detainee who identified al Kandari is Mohamedou Slahi. According to the JTF-GTMO file, Slahi “reported [al Kandari] is well known among other JTF-GTMO detainees as a religious advisor,” who “held speeches in al Qaeda training camps and at the front lines.” Slahi was one of al Qaeda’s recruiters for the 9/11 plot and was one of the few detainees held at Guantanamo who was subjected to a specially approved, and harsh, interrogation program.
A fourth important Guantanamo detainee who identified al Kandari is an Egyptian named Tariq Mahmud Ahmad Al Sawah. In a separate leaked JTF-GTMO file, dated September 30, 2008, U.S. intelligence analysts identified Sawah as an al Qaeda explosives expert who designed, among other deadly inventions, the prototype for the shoe-bomb used by Richard Reid in his failed December 2001 terrorist attack. Sawah “continues to be a highly prolific source and has provided invaluable intelligence regarding explosives, al Qaeda, affiliated entities and their activities,” according to the JTF-GTMO threat assessment.
Sawah identified al Kandari as a “religious instructor” at al Qaeda’s al Farouq training camp. Al Kandari allegedly trained there at the same as several of the 9/11 hijackers.
Behind the wire, JTF-GTMO’s analysts concluded, al Kandari continued to provide “religious” instruction by issuing fatwas that promote “suicide and deadly attacks against JTF-GTMO personnel.”
There is still more to al Kandari’s story, but CNN could not find the time to report any of it The same can be said for the other Kuwaiti detainees (both current and former) mentioned in Fenton's piece. Instead, Fenton questioned whether al Kandari “might remain or become a threat today if freed from detention.”
JTF-GTMO, on the other hand, concluded that al Kandari would be a “high” risk to security if freed. The leaked threat assessment of al Kandari reads:
It is assessed detainee will rejoin extremist elements if transferred. Detainee will continue to use his religious background to seek a leadership position in the Islamic extremist community. Detainee will continue to recruit and mislead youth to follow a path of militant jihad which will place them in environments opposing U.S. and Coalition forces.
You wouldn’t know that, or much of anything about Fayiz al Kandari, if you only read CNN.com’s article.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.