On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal filed by five Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo. A D.C. District Court granted the Uighur detainees their freedom inside the U.S. A D.C. Circuit Court ruling overturned the District Court’s decision. And so the Uighurs attempted to appeal the Circuit Court’s decision. That is, they continued to seek their freedom inside the U.S.
Twenty-two Uighurs have been held at Guantanamo since it opened in early 2002. Seventeen of them have accepted relocation elsewhere – including in far off places such as the island nation of Palau. The remaining five were offered a resettlement deal, but declined it, opting to stay at Guantanamo for the time being.
The Uighur detainees’ story has been recounted here over and over again. They are not the “worst of the worst.” But they are not innocent goat herders, either. The twenty-two Uighurs held at Guantanamo were either members or associates of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIP), otherwise known as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The ETIP/ETIM has been designated by both the U.S. and the U.N. as an al Qaeda affiliate – for good reasons. ETIP/ETIM jihadists have trained and fought alongside al Qaeda and Taliban members for years.
As with all things related to Guantanamo, however, the Uighurs’ story has been repeatedly muddled in the press. Consider the media’s coverage of the Supreme Court’s declination – see, for example, the BBC, AFP, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times. There is no mention of the fact that the five remaining Uighur detainees were all members/associates of the ETIP/ETIM. Nor is there any mention of the fact that the man who ran their training camp in the Tora Bora Mountains was a high-level al Qaeda leader.
In 2009, the Obama administration designated Abdul Haq, an ETIM/ETIP leader, as a high-ranking al Qaeda member. The Treasury Department noted that Haq sat on al Qaeda's elite Shura Council. Haq, in fact, was not bashful about his al Qaeda and Taliban ties, or his radical jihadist worldview. In a jihadist video, Haq talked about his time fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and how the Taliban's martyrs inspired him. Haq also made sure to bless Osama bin Laden ("may Allah keep him safe") when saying the terror master's name.
Abdul Haq was killed in a U.S. airstrike in northern Pakistan in early 2010. But many of his trainees live on, including the five remaining Uighurs held at Guantanamo.
Hajiakbar Abdulghupur, one of the five, explained to U.S. military officers during his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) that Abdul Haq ran the camp where he and his fellow detainees were trained. The Department of Defense’s transcript reads:
Q. Who was in charge of the camp where you were?
A. There was a person named Abdul Haq he is the one in charge of the camp.
Q. So the Uighurs there their direction from him?
A. That is the person who was leading all of the Uighur people.
Ahmed Mohamed, who is another of the five remaining Uighurs held at Gitmo, similarly admitted that Abdul Haq ran the Uighurs’ camp during his CSRT.
Q. Do you know who ran the camp?
A. A person named Abdul Hak.
Several other Uighur detainees who have been transferred also admitted that Haq ran their camp. It is important to note that they admitted this while downplaying any ties between their organization and al Qaeda or the Taliban. They claimed they were simply Uighur separatists, not hardened ideologues like al Qaeda members. Their training at Abdul Haq’s shows otherwise.
The Uighur’s story illustrates the tension between the legal wrangling over detainees and the realities of war. Prior to his demise, Abdul Haq would not have been allowed into the U.S. legally. He was a wanted terrorist who American servicemen sought out and killed.
At the same time, however, a D.C. District Judge ruled that Haq’s trainees should be freed inside the U.S. In fact, in 2009, the Obama administration itself floated the idea of freeing the Uighur detainees inside the continental U.S. as a sign of good faith to our European allies, who were considering taking in some Gitmo detainees at the time. (Around 30 have since been resettled in Europe.) Obama’s own Guantanamo Review Task Force concluded that this wasn’t such a good idea.
In the end, a D.C. Circuit Court overruled the District Court’s decision. And the remaining Uighur detainees will have to reconsider resettlement options offered by the U.S. government.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.