According to the Wall Street Journal, a district judge has ordered Mohamedou Slahi – a known al Qaeda recruiter who worked for Osama bin Laden – freed from Guantanamo. The Journal’s account does not explain the judge’s reasoning and the decision was not immediately available online. But the decision is inexplicable in light of Slahi’s notorious track record. There is no doubt that Mohamedou Slahi is one of the worst terrorists held at Gitmo. (See here for a previous summary of Slahi’s dossier.)
Recruiter for the September 11 attacks
Among Slahi's most notorious recruits were four of the September 11 conspirators, all of whom were members of the infamous Hamburg cell. Slahi’s role in recruiting the Hamburg cell for al Qaeda is explained on pages 165 and 166 of the 9/11 Commission’s final report. Slahi arranged for Ramzi Binalshibh, al Qaeda's point man for the 9/11 operation, and three of his cohorts to travel from Germany to Afghanistan so that they could train in al Qaeda's camps and swear allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Binalshibh's three friends were: Mohammed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah--the suicide pilots of American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, and United Airlines Flight 93, respectively.
Along with Binalshibh, Shehhi and Jarrah met with Slahi in late 1999. The three originally wanted to travel to Chechnya to fight, but Slahi convinced them to travel to Afghanistan for training first instead. The 9/11 Commission explained:
Slahi instructed them to obtain Pakistani visas and then return to him for further directions on how to reach Afghanistan. Although Atta did not attend the meeting, he joined in the plan with the other three. After obtaining the necessary visas, they received Slahi’s final instructions on how to travel to Karachi and then Quetta, where they were to contact someone named Umar al Masri at the Taliban office.
Following Slahi’s advice, Atta and Jarrah left Hamburg during the last week of November 1999, bound for Karachi. Shehhi left for Afghanistan around the same time; Binalshibh, about two weeks later. Binalshibh remembers that when he arrived at the Taliban office in Quetta, there was no one named Umar al Masri. The name, apparently, was simply a code; a group of Afghans from the office promptly escorted him to Kandahar. There Binalshibh rejoined Atta and Jarrah, who said they already had pledged loyalty to Bin Laden and urged him to do the same. They also informed him that Shehhi had pledged as well and had already left for the United Arab Emirates to prepare for the mission.
The 9/11 Commission reported that at the time he was recruiting the Hamburg cell, Slahi was “a significant al Qaeda operative,” who was “well known to U.S. and German intelligence, though neither government apparently knew he was operating in Germany in late 1999.”
Ties to millennium bombing attempt
After recruiting the Hamburg cell, Slahi left for Montreal the following month, in December of 1999. There, he began attending a local mosque where he was tasked with reciting the daily prayers and met an Algerian immigrant named Ahmed Ressam. Within weeks of Slahi's arrival, Ressam was arrested on the Canadian-U.S. border in a car packed with explosives. Ressam was en route to the LAX airport, where he hoped to take part in al Qaeda's planned millennium bombings.
The U.S. government has long suspected that Slahi activated Ressam's cell for the millennium plot. The government's unclassified files produced at Guantanamo (see here), note that Slahi is “a suspected facilitator of the failed millennium bombing conspiracy.” Shortly after Ressam was detained, Canadian and U.S. authorities began investigating Slahi, but they apparently did not have enough evidence to arrest him. Feeling the heat of the investigation, Slahi left Montreal in January of 2000--just a short time after arriving there. He was later questioned by various governments and eventually detained in Mauritania in November of 2001.
A terrorist with “blood on his hands”
Slahi's detention at Guantanamo has been controversial because of the interrogation techniques used on him. Slahi is one of the few detainees held at Guantanamo who had a special, and harsh, interrogation plan approved for his questioning.
Lt. Col. Stuart Crouch, the prosecutor who was charged with seeking Slahi's conviction by a military commission, decided he could not move forward with Slahi's prosecution because the evidence was tainted by these techniques. But this does not mean that Slahi is an innocent. Crouch himself told the Wall Street Journal in 2007: “Of the cases I had seen, [Slahi] was the one with the most blood on his hands.”
During his hearings at Guantanamo, Slahi denied many of the allegations levied against him. But in the context of those denials he also made some important admissions. Slahi admitted that he swore bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Osama bin Laden, and was trained in al Qaeda's notorious al Farouq camp.
During his first administrative review board hearing, Slahi conceded, “…I was in jihad and I swore bayat to Bin Laden and everything but that was a very long time ago.”
Slahi's denials at Guantanamo were also not credible. For example, Slahi admitted that he transferred thousands of dollars linked to al Qaeda, but claimed he did not know it was for terrorist purposes. Slahi admitted that he moved the money for a cousin (who is also his brother-in-law, as the two are married to sisters) who called him from a satellite phone linked to Osama bin Laden, but said he did not know bin Laden was involved. Slahi's cousin is Abu Hafs al Mauritania--a senior al Qaeda theologian and long-time spiritual advisor to bin Laden.
There is no word, yet, on whether the Obama administration is going to appeal this latest habeas corpus ruling. But it would be wise for the administration to do so. Even if some, or much, of the evidence against Slahi was “tainted” by rough interrogations, there is surely significant other evidence implicating him in al Qaeda’s activities.
As the 9/11 Commission found, Slahi’s al Qaeda role was known to Western intelligence officials long before the 9/11 attacks – that is, long before he was detained for questioning.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.