Ten years ago this week, the U.S. government opened the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention facility. And three years ago this month, shortly after his inauguration, President Barack Obama ordered Guantanamo shuttered within one year. For a variety of reasons, Gitmo remains open, with approximately 171 detainees still detained there. And so, human rights organizations, detainee lawyers, and former detainees are doing their best to shame the U.S. government into closing the facility.
In that vein, the New York Times published two op-eds by former Guantanamo detainees on Sunday. One is by Lakhdar Boumediene and the other is by Murat Kurnaz. Both men claim they were innocents, wrongly detained then abused and tortured by American personnel. A closer look at what is known about the two provides ample reasons to doubt their stories.
To begin with, note that Boumediene has previously claimed he was tortured during both the Bush and Obama administrations. Boumediene was transferred from Guantanamo in May 2009, several months after the Obama administration took over. And Boumediene claimed that his torture continued right up until the moment he was freed. Here is how Boumediene described his time at Guantanamo under the Obama administration during an interview with Dan Rather:
They lie, lie, lie. These [sic] lie. Nothing changed in Guantanamo. Nothing. The same rules…They torture me in the Obama time more than Bush. More than him.
Does the New York Times believe that the Obama administration either authorized this alleged torture, or looked the other way while it was occurring? Recall that upon inspecting Guantanamo in February 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder called Guantanamo a “well-run” and “professional” detention facility.
Thus, either Boumediene is lying about his experience at Guantanamo, or the Obama administration is callously pro-torture.
Both Boumediene and Kurnaz claim they were subjected to harsh, coercive treatment at Guantanamo, yet they never admitted to the supposedly fictitious allegations levied against them. This contradicts one of the anti-Guantanamo crowd’s main talking points. It is often argued that harsh interrogations at Guantanamo and in the CIA’s interrogation facilities produced worthless intelligence because detainees will say anything to make torture stop. Thus, the argument goes, detainees will tell interrogators what they want to hear. The critics maintain that harsh interrogations only succeeded in eliciting false confessions from innocent men, or false intelligence from otherwise guilty men. (In fact, whether you approve of them or not, the purpose of coercive interrogations was to garner actionable intelligence that could be used to prosecute a war, not false confessions that could be used to prosecute detainees.) But here, if we are to believe Boumediene and Kurnaz, they were tortured, yet they did not tell their interrogators what they wanted to hear.
In reality, there is no independent reason to believe that either Boumediene or Kurnaz were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques. The servicemen at Guantanamo are fond of saying that only two parties know the absolute truth about what occurs there: U.S. military personnel and the detainees. This creates an information vacuum, which the detainees and their advocates gladly fill with all sorts of stories.
In the early days of Guantanamo, some interrogations did in fact rely upon harsh measures. This has been independently documented by a variety of sources. But those interrogations were specially authorized by senior Defense Department officials and were not the norm. There is no evidence that either Boumediene or Kurnaz was subjected to a specially approved interrogation plan.
U.S. intelligence officials at Guantanamo have long maintained that they used rapport-building and other non-coercive techniques in the vast majority of their interrogations. In some cases, detainees did begin to talk, offering up valuable intelligence. In other cases, detainees decided to stay mum.
Leaked Joint Force Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) memos reveal that both Boumediene and Kurnaz remained uncooperative throughout their detention in Cuba. “Detainee has provided dates of travel and places of occupation which have been corroborated; however, he is unable to account for phone numbers captured in his pocket litter tied to extremists,” an April 1, 2008 assessment of Boumediene reads. “Detainee has been uncooperative with interrogators since approximately 2003 and his story contains multiple gaps requiring further exploitation.”
Similarly, a May 2, 2006 JTF-GTMO assessment of Kurnaz reads: “Detainee is deceptive in answering questions and contradicts himself on several occasions. He is standing by his cover story to avoid revealing his connections to extremists.” Kurnaz was transferred to Germany just a few months later, on August 24, 2006.
So, as outside observers, we are left with two possibilities. Either: (a) Boumediene and Kurnaz were innocents who withstood years of torture, which hasn’t been verified by any independent authority, without confessing to false allegations, or (b) The pair were not tortured and simply refused to cooperate with authorities, who relied on far less coercive measures, because they did not want to incriminate themselves.
The latter is far more likely. What we know about Boumediene and Kurnaz suggests that both had much to hide.
The “Algerian Six”
Boumediene’s story needs to be untangled. Boumediene was initially arrested along with five other men in Bosnia in late 2001. They were dubbed the “Algerian Six” because they were Algerian citizens living abroad and they were suspected of plotting a terrorist attack against the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. They were acquitted by a Bosnian court of that charge. At this point, evidence of an actual bomb plot appears to be tenuous at best. They were subsequently transferred to U.S. custody and wound up at Guantanamo.
Boumediene and his compatriots challenged their detention by filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The U.S. government responded by narrowly claiming that the six were preparing to go off to fight in Afghanistan on behalf of al Qaeda when they were detained. (The government did not claim they were involved in a putative plot against the U.S. embassy.)
A D.C. district judge granted the habeas petition for five of the six Algerian expatriates, including Boumediene, finding that the government did not present enough evidence to justify their detention. The lone Algerian whose habeas petition was denied is Bensayah Belkacem, who later successfully appealed the district court’s decision. An appellate court remanded Belkacem’s case back to the district court for further proceedings.
Given this set of facts, Boumediene’s advocates have understandably claimed that he was wrongly detained in the first place. But the courts have looked at only a small part of Boumediene’s career.
In his Times op-ed, Boumediene portrays himself as a charity worker. U.S intelligence officials concluded, however, that the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) he worked for were really fronts for extremism and terrorism.
“I left Algeria in 1990 to work abroad,” Boumediene writes. “In 1997 my family and I moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina at the request of my employer, the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates.” Boumediene leaves a conspicuous gap of 7 years. What was Boumediene doing during that time?
According to JTF-GTMO, Boumediene traveled to Pakistan in the early 1990s. There, he lived with a man known as Abu Handala. At some point during his time in custody, according to JTF-GTMO, Boumediene conceded that “he heard conversations about going to the ‘House of Martyrs’ and the ‘House of the Mujahideen.’”
While in Pakistan, according to a leaked JTF-GTMO file, Boumediene also reportedly began working “at the Hira Institute, a Pakistan-based NGO that had direct ties to al Qaeda’s external operations chief, Khalid Shaykh Muhammed,” or KSM. The Hira Institute was funded by an organization called the Lajnat al-Dawa al-Islamiah (LDI), which has been designated as a terrorist front organization.
According to another leaked JTF-GTMO memo, KSM’s brother, Zahid Shaykh Muhammad, was the director of the LDI office in Quetta, Pakistan. KSM also ran an “education center” inside a refugee camp affiliated with the LDI inside Pakistan. KSM’s center specialized in jihadist indoctrination. A note from one JTF-GTMO file reads: “The LDI has been involved in Afghanistan since the early 1980s, and had supported the training camps and extremists there for many years.”
When Boumediene was captured years later, in 2001, he allegedly had “Arabic language documents with the letterhead for Lajnat al-Dawa al-Islamiah (LDI)” in his possession.
Boumediene traveled around the world in the years that followed his work at the Hira Institute. On December 28, 1999, he was arrested by Algerian authorities “because his Algerian passport had expired and his passport contained a Pakistani visa.” Boumediene denied ever having gone to Afghanistan and he “was subsequently released when the Algerian government issued a blanket pardon to Algerians previously involved with al-Jabha al-Islamyah Lil Inkaz, aka (Islamic Salvation Front), aka (FIS).” The FIS is a known Islamist extremist party. Some members of the FIS went on to join the Armed Islamic Group – or “GIA” (an acronym of its French name), a known al Qaeda affiliate.
Indeed, Algerian authorities continued to suspect that Boumediene was a member of the GIA. In September 2001, according to the JTF-GTMO threat assessment, Boumediene was “included on an Algerian government list of Algerians residing in Bosnia who were suspected of having terrorist ties to the GIA and al Qaeda.” Also on that list were other members of the Algerian Six and a man known as Abd al-Qadr al-Mukhtari, who headed the Mujahideen Brigade in Bosnia during the 1990s war. The brigade has known ties to extremists and terrorists, including al Qaeda. It is not clear if Boumediene served in this brigade or not. JTF-GTMO analysts could only find a lone reference to his possible participation in the brigade in a State Department profile of Boumediene.
Bosnian authorities also named Boumediene as one of 25 Algerians “suspected of involvement with terrorist organizations abroad or involved with humanitarian organizations suspected of providing logistical support to terrorist groups.”
Which brings us back to Bensayah Belkacem – the Algerian Six member who was initially denied his habeas petition – and the issue of what, exactly, the Algerian expatriates were really doing in Bosnia. After Belkacem was arrested, Boumediene admittedly hired a lawyer for him. Boumediene claimed, according to his JTF-GTMO file, he did so without even knowing what the charges were against Belkacem. Boumediene similarly tried to downplay his ties to other members of the Algerian Six.
The most important allegation levied against Belkacem is that he worked with top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. A D.C. district judge initially denied Belkacem’s habeas petition based, in large part, on his ties to Zubaydah. For some unknown reason, the Obama administration decided to drop this allegation against Belkacem when defending against his appeal. It may be the case that Zubaydah’s controversial interrogations, which included waterboarding in 2002, led the Obama administration to avoid the issue of Belkacem’s ties to Zubaydah during court proceedings. In any event, those ties were important enough to justify Belkacem’s continued detention during the first habeas proceedings.
The JTF-GTMO file for Belkacem recounts his ties to Zubaydah, including a suspicious phone call in September 2001. Many of the details come from Zubaydah himself, during his time in custody. (While Belkacem refused to be forthcoming in U.S. custody, according to JTF-GTMO, Zubaydah was far more “truthful.” There is no evidence that Belkacem was subjected to coercive interrogation techniques such as those used on Zubaydah.) According to Zubaydah, Belkacem asked for help, and Zubaydah told Belkacem “he would be able to find work in Afghanistan similar to his work in Bosnia.”
JTF-GTMO analysts interpreted this call thusly: “It is assessed that [Belkacem] was requesting safe-haven assistance from [Zubaydah] and continued employment in terrorist operations in Afghanistan.” The call may also have indicated, according to JTF-GTMO, that Belkacem “was about to take part in a terrorist attack.” (Again, evidence indicating a well-developed plot against the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo, or another target, is dubious.)
Zubaydah also told authorities that he first met Belkacem in 1993 or 1994 and that, after Belkacem was released from a communist prison in Afghanistan, Belkacem stayed in one of Zubaydah’s guesthouses in Pakistan. Belkacem allegedly told Zubaydah that he was heading to Bosnia to wage jihad.
Belkacem returned to Afghanistan in 1997, according to Zubaydah, and stayed there until 2000. Zubaydah “attempted to use [Belkacem] during this time as a contact to procure passports,” the JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Belkacem reads. During a debriefing, Zubaydah referred to Belkacem by an alias, Abu Majd. Belkacem denied using this alias when questioned about it by officials, but interestingly even Belkacem’s wife identified him as “Abu Majd.” Apparently, therefore, Zubaydah and Belkacem’s wife were in agreement on Belkacem’s alias.
The file on Belkacem is filled with other pieces of intelligence tying him to extremists and terrorists around the globe. For instance, the leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment on Belkacem reads: “[Belkacem] possessed numerous phone numbers linking him to [Osama bin Laden’s] operational network in Afghanistan and the global Sunni extremist network, including [Zubaydah’s] phone number which was found in his pocket litter.”
Why is all this important with respect to the New York Times’s op-ed contributor, Lakhdar Boumediene? U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that Boumediene was a member of Belkacem’s al Qaeda cell in Bosnia. Boumediene and his advocates, of course, deny this. But if Boumediene, who laments Belkacem’s detention at Guantanamo in his Times op-ed (“…I share my story because 171 men remain there. Among them is Belkacem Bensayah, who was seized in Bosnia and sent to Guantánamo with me. ), was in fact a member of an al Qaeda cell in Bosnia headed by Belkacem, then his Times piece is disinformation.
U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that Belkacem, Boumediene and other members of the Algerian Six intended to join the fight in Afghanistan in late 2001. Belkacem, who applied for a visa at the Iranian embassy in Sarajevo in October that year, allegedly planned to transit Iran en route to Afghanistan and encouraged his compatriots to do the same.
Boumediene, for his part, never admitted to any of this, despite all of the “torture” supposedly used on him. Boumediene “has provided partially truthful, yet incomplete accounts of his history and timeline,” the JTF-GTMO threat assessment of him reads. Boumediene “has consistently denied involvement in terrorist organizations or plots of any kind against the US.” The file continues:
He has denied membership in the GIA and affiliation with Bosnian mujahideen despite reports indicating the contrary. [Boumediene] maintains he never met or barely knew the other members of the “Algerian Six,” which has been proven false based on subsequent reports.
A New Recruit
In his op-ed, Murat Kurnaz says he simply wanted “to learn more about Islam and to lead a better life.” Kurnaz adds: “Some of the elders in my town suggested I travel to Pakistan to learn to study the Koran with a religious group there.”
Kurnaz’s own mother, however, worried that he “was brainwashed” by a man named Ali Miri at the Abu Bakr Mosque in Bremen, Germany. This, and other details about Kurnaz’s recruitment, can be found in a dossier compiled by German authorities. The leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Kurnaz tells the same story.
In his self-serving book, “Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo,” Kurnaz claims that he was asked about Ali Miri during his interrogations at Guantanamo. Kurnaz denies that Ali Miri had any nefarious intentions, calling him “nice” and “my friend.”
The German dossier describes Miri as a “preacher of hate.” And the leaked JTF-GTMO file for Kurnaz adds more detail, calling Miri the “spiritual leader in the al Qaeda associated Bremen Cell and at the Abu Bakr Mosque frequented by” Kurnaz. The file continues: “Foreign source reporting illustrated suspected ties between German-based extremists to include Ali Miri, detainee, Zammar, Mohammad Atta, and admitted senior al Qaeda facilitator Mohammadou Ould Slahi.”
Mohammad Atta was, of course, the lead hijacker for the 9/11 attacks. Zammar is Mohammed Zammar, who helped recruit Atta and the other suicide hijack pilots in Germany. And Slahi is a notorious al Qaeda facilitator who helped guide the hijackers to Afghanistan for training.
It is obvious why both German and American officials were concerned about Kurnaz’s friends in Bremen. Zammar reportedly played a role in recruiting Kurnaz as well. According to the JTF-GTMO threat assessment, Zammar explained, once in custody, that Kurnaz “was sent by him to Afghanistan for terrorist training ‘just like Atta’s group before him.’” The implication was, according to JTF-GTMO analysts, that Kurnaz “was to possibly be groomed as a suicide operative.”
Regarding his jaunt to South Asia shortly after 9/11, Kurnaz writes in the Times: “I was 19 then and was naïve and did not think war in Afghanistan would have anything to do with Pakistan or my trip there. So I went ahead with my trip.” But his involvement with Ali Miri, Zammar and others would suggest otherwise.
Kurnaz was supposed to travel to Pakistan with a man named Selcuk Bilgin. On October 3, 2001, according to the German dossier, Bilgin told German authorities that Selcuk “is following a friend to Afghanistan, in order to fight.” Bilgin’s wife also confirmed that the pair wanted to go to Afghanistan. Bilgin was arrested and could not make the trip with Kurnaz. But he was eventually released and a subsequent German investigation revealed that Bilgin continued to recruit impressionable young men for jihad. The JTF-GTMO file for Kurnaz notes that a “foreign government service identified” Bilgin “as the leader of the Bremen jihadist cell.”
Throughout his trip, Kurnaz relied on an extremist group named Jamaat Tablighi ("JT") to facilitate his travels. Kurnaz has portrayed the JT in an entirely benign light. While the JT does some missionary work, it is also a major front for al Qaeda and the Taliban. It has been used as a cover for terrorist operatives repeatedly. JTF-GTMO analysts found: “Association with the JT is a common extremist cover story that detainees have used to hide their actual activities and associations, as well as association with and receipt of assistance from groups such as the LET [Lashkar-e-Taiba].” JTF-GTMO analysts concluded that Kurnaz “probably stayed with LET members and received training at LET-sponsored guesthouses.” The LET is a notorious terrorist organization closely allied with al Qaeda.
Naturally, none of these details make their way into Kurnaz’s op-ed. JTF-GTMO analysts listed numerous reasons for doubting Kurnaz’s version of events. As intelligence analysts, they were trained to probe inconsistent or illogical narratives. Former Guantanamo detainees routinely rely on the fact that the same level of scrutiny will not be applied by the press.
JTF-GTMO deemed both Kurnaz and Boumediene “high” risks to the U.S. and its allies and recommended that they remain in the Defense Department’s custody.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.