A recently leaked threat assessment prepared at Guantanamo draws into question the Obama administration’s analysis of a detainee who was transferred to Yemen shortly before all future transfers to the unstable nation were suspended.
On December 19, 2009, the Obama administration transferred six Guantanamo detainees to Yemen. One of them was a longtime confidante of Osama bin Laden named Ayman Batarfi. The decision to transfer Batarfi proved to be controversial.
Less than one month after the transfer, during a congressional briefing on January 13, 2010, Congressman Frank Wolf questioned President Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, about the decision to transfer Batarfi. Wolf was especially perplexed since military and intelligence officials had concluded that in addition to being a longtime, committed jihadist with ties to the most senior al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, Batarfi also had knowledge of al Qaeda’s anthrax program.
Brennan decided to answer Wolf’s challenge by sending a letter on White House stationary to then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi on February 1, 2010. ABC News obtained a copy of the letter and published it online. Brennan wrote:
During the briefing on January 13, Representative Wolf made allegations that one detainee repatriated to Yemen had been involved in weapons of mass destruction. As it has done in every case, the task force thoroughly reviewed all information available to the government about this individual and concluded that there is no basis for the assertions Representative Wolf made during this session. I am attaching a classified addendum to this letter that addresses these concerns directly.
But a recently leaked April 29, 2008 threat assessment prepared by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) contains numerous references to Batarfi’s ties to al Qaeda’s anthrax program. These connections were made through a known al Qaeda front named al Wafa, which employed Batarfi and provided cover for al Qaeda’s pre-9/11 pursuit of an anthrax capability.
The leaked assessment contains these lines in its executive summary (note: “Detainee” refers to Batarfi):
Detainee acknowledged associations with numerous senior al-Qaida members including Usama Bin Laden (UBL) and provided assistance to Yazid Sufaat, one of al-Qaida’s anthrax researchers in Afghanistan who also has ties to the 11 September 2001 attack.
Yazid Sufaat was, in fact, al Qaeda’s chief anthrax scientist. Another passage reads (emphasis added):
Detainee was the chief medical advisor for the al-Wafa NGO. Detainee and al-Wafa provided assistance to al-Qaida including assistance to personnel tied to the anthrax research program. Detainee is associated with UBL and other senior al-Qaida leadership, and is listed on al-Qaida documents.
In still another passage, intelligence officials explained (emphasis added):
Detainee and al-Wafa provided support to al-Qaida including its anthrax research program. …While serving as al-Wafa’s chief medical advisor, detainee offered al-Wafa’s services to one of al-Qaida’s key anthrax researchers, Yazid Sufaat, aka (Abu Malik). Detainee met Yazid Sufaat in August 2001, at the Hajji Habash Guesthouse in Kandahar. They proceeded to the al-Wafa office where they discussed Yazid Sufaat’s request for assistance in purchasing laboratory equipment. Detainee told Yazid Sufaat when he traveled to Karachi to contact the al-Wafa office there for assistance in purchasing these items. Detainee also stated he instructed Jamil Qasim in the Karachi office to allocate $4,000 to $5,000 US to assist Yazid Sufaat in purchasing these items.
Batarfi “denied any knowledge al Wafa’s involvement with biological weapons” during questioning at Guantanamo. But on at least one occasion, according to the leaked file, he slipped up. “I am not the only one who knows these things,” Batarfi said, in reference to al Qaeda’s anthrax program and other biological and chemical weapons efforts. (An astute analyst remarked in the file: “Detainee’s statement that he is ‘not the only one’ who knows about the biological weapons is a contradiction to his statement that he had no knowledge of them.”)
Other detainees at Guantanamo tied Batarfi to al Qaeda’s anthrax scientist, Yazid Sufaat, as well. One told authorities that Batarfi gave Sufaat the telephone number of a “microbiology student” in Pakistan who Sufaat “was to contact for funding assistance.”
Then there is Batarfi’s mentor, Doctor Amer Aziz, who is said to have “personally treated” Osama bin Laden. (Batarfi himself was close to bin Laden during the battle of Tora Bora and attended to the wounded there.) Analysts at Guantanamo wrote:
Doctor Aziz also stated that he and detainee attended a luncheon with UBL hosted by al Qaida military commander Abu Hafs al-Masri. Doctor Aziz is suspected of having connections to the al-Qaida chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) programs.
The recently leaked assessment of Batarfi was written less than one year prior to President Obama’s creation of the Guantanamo Review Task Force. It is this task force that Brennan said “concluded there is no basis” for Wolf’s “allegations.”
But even before the leaked April 29, 2008 threat assessment came to light, Brennan’s response was curious, to say the least.
As explained here last year, three declassified memos prepared for Batarfi’s case at Guantanamo – dated October 31, 2005, November 28, 2006, and December 28, 2007 – all contained allegations involving Batarfi’s involvement with al Qaeda’s anthrax operation. For example, the December 28, 2007 memo contains this sentence: “The detainee was identified as being a past participant in Al Qaeda’s anthrax program and as having ties to al Qaeda.”
During hearings at Guantanamo, Batarfi attempted to downplay these suspicious connections but nonetheless admitted he met with a “Malaysian microbiologist,” who was in fact Yazid Sufaat. During one hearing at Gitmo, Batarfi admitted:
…I told the Malaysian microbiologist, if you want to purchase the $5000 worth of items for the lab it is better to purchase it through al Wafa and you give the money to Afghanistan to me and then send it to Pakistan because it is unsafe.
Returning to the leaked threat assessment we find that intelligence officials concluded Batarfi “interacted with individuals tied to the al-Qaida CBRN program.” While providing a “vast amount of information about himself and others,” JTF-GTMO’s analysts and interrogators found, Batarfi “still has information yet to be exploited about himself, the individuals he has already reported on, and probably many others.”
U.S. intelligence analysts suspected that Batarfi was withholding information about his contacts with 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, his mentor Amer Aziz (who was suspected of ties to al Qaeda’s chemical and biological weapons program), and “his involvement with the Ayman al Zawahiri directed anthrax program.”
For all of these reasons, and more, Batarfi was deemed a “high risk” who is “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies” by the JTF-GTMO team. Batarfi was also considered to be of “high intelligence value.”
Regardless, Batarfi was transferred to Yemen just before the Christmas Day 2009 terror attack on Flight 253. Subsequently, the Obama administration suspended all transfers to Yemen, which is home to the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate on the planet: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In justifying the transfer, John Brennan claimed that President Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force “thoroughly reviewed all information available” on Batarfi and found no ties to al Qaeda’s anthrax program. Four memos prepared at Guantanamo and Batarfi’s own indicate otherwise.
Congressman Wolf was right to challenge Brennan on the intelligence surrounding Batarfi. We are left to ask: Did the Guantanamo Review Task Force rewrite the threat assessment on Batarfi such that it excluded the provocative details of his ties to al Qaeda’s anthrax program? And if so, why?
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.