There are two competing versions of former Guantanamo detainee Sami al Hajj’s story. The first, which has long been endorsed by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and many other journalists/activists, portrays Hajj as an innocent Al Jazeera journalist who was wrongly swept up in the post-9/11 world. The second, compiled by intelligence analysts at Guantanamo and other foreign governments, sees Hajj as a longtime extremist and al Qaeda member who used his job at Al Jazeera as a cover for his more nefarious activities.
A recently leaked assessment of Hajj, authored by American analysts at Guantanamo, has been used to buttress the first version of Hajj’s story. The authors of the assessment noted that Hajj was transferred to Cuba, in part, because American officials had suspicions about Al Jazeera’s “newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, including the network’s acquisition of a video of [Osama bin Laden] and a subsequent interview with” bin Laden. (This was just one of five reasons Hajj was transferred to Guantanamo, according to the document.)
The same document notes that analysts believed Hajj had information about Al Jazeera’s “associations with al-Qaida leaders and activities in support of Islamic militant groups.”
Although the press has noted that the leaked file includes allegations of Hajj’s ties to terrorism, including al Qaeda, most journalists could not be bothered to fully report on the file’s contents. Here, for example, is the full paragraph that appeared in the New York Times’s April 24 account:
A journalist’s interrogation: The documents show that a major reason a Sudanese cameraman for Al Jazeera, Sami al-Hajj, was held at Guantánamo for six years was for questioning about the television network’s “training program, telecommunications equipment, and newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo, and Afghanistan,” including contacts with terrorist groups. While Mr. Hajj insisted he was just a journalist, his file says he helped Islamic extremist groups courier money and obtain Stinger missiles and cites the United Arab Emirates’ claim that he was a Qaeda member. He was released in 2008 and returned to work for Al Jazeera.
The phrase “including contacts with terrorist groups” is a bit off the mark. The phrasing used in the file is (as cited above): “including the network’s acquisition of a video of [Osama bin Laden] and a subsequent interview with” bin Laden. This is an important difference.
One of the main reasons U.S. authorities suspected Hajj of serving al Qaeda while working for Al Jazeera was his consistent ability to get access to high level al Qaeda and Taliban members—even after the September 11 attacks.
Hajj even allegedly met with the mastermind of 9/11: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “photo-identified [Hajj] as an al-Jazeera correspondent whom he met at the Kandahar al-Jazeera office,” the leaked file reads.
In October 2001, Hajj also interviewed Abu Hafs al Mauritani, a top al Qaeda leader and long-time bin Laden confidante. Abu Hafs disappeared shortly thereafter. Mohamedou Slahi, a top al Qaeda recruiter whose detention has been controversial because of the methods used to interrogate him early on at Guantanamo, told authorities that Hajj “was the one who did the last known interview with Abu Hafs al Mauritani in Kandahar prior to Abu Hafs’ disappearance.” Slahi added that Hajj “should be knowledgeable about the probable whereabouts of the al Qaeda [members] who fled from Afghanistan after the American invasion.”
And top Taliban officials trusted Hajj to conduct interviews with them, as well. Hajj interviewed the Taliban’s “Treasury Minister, the Minister of Electricity Omar Tayyib Agha, who was the secretary to Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, [and] the Minister of Foreign Affairs Wakil Ahmad Mutawkil.”
Hajj’s many advocates would undoubtedly portray his string of interviews and meetings as simply the result of entrepreneurial journalism. But for al Qaeda watchers in several governments, it was part of a pattern. Hajj had built up an extensive dossier prior to his capture.
This brings us back to the second narrative on Hajj – the one constructed by intelligence analysts who had to piece together Hajj’s story from a variety of sources.
The Jihad in Chechnya
Prior to working for Al Jazeera, Hajj repeatedly traveled to jihadist hotspots. The leaked file notes that Hajj was “stopped and questioned at the airport” in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1999. Hajj had $220,000 in his possession, which he told Azerbaijani officials was to be split between “an unspecified flour factory” ($120,000) and Al Haramain ($100,000), an Islamic “charity.”
The problem is that Haramain was, in fact, a front for al Qaeda and like minded terrorist organizations. Azerbaijani security officials reportedly told Hajj that Haramain “was aiding the Chechen mujahideen.” And Chechen jihadists weren’t the only mujahideen sponsored by Haramain. Its chapters have been designated as terror supporters around the globe.
Hajj repeatedly shipped supplies and funneled money to Baku from Dubai on behalf Haramain while working for a firm called Union Beverage Company (UBC). At some point, Hajj allegedly admitted that the UBC “was powerful and that all charities working with the Chechen mujahideen used the UBC to smuggle money and goods between the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, and Chechnya.”
Despite their suspicions, Azerbaijani officials allowed Hajj into their country in 1999. By early 2000, however, the situation had changed. The leaked file reads:
On 4 January 2000, [Hajj] was prevented from entering Azerbaijan and was sent back to Dubai, AE. The Azerbaijani Ministry of National Security had ordered the border guards to be alert for [Hajj]’s possible return to Azerbaijan, as [Hajj]’s visa was revoked and he was prohibited from ever re-entering Azerbaijan again. [Hajj] was believed to be a money courier for the UBL network and his role in Azerbaijan was to channel UBL funds to the rebels in Chechnya.
Authorities in Dubai came to the same conclusion as those in Azerbaijan. The leaked file notes: “The United Arab Emirates State Security Directorate identified detainee as a senior al-Qaida member and logistics expert.”
So, at least two different foreign state security services concluded that Hajj was funneling money for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. (The file also includes this sentence: “A foreign government service reported [Hajj] was a personal acquaintance of UBL.” It is not clear if this is some other foreign government or one of the two already mentioned.)
In addition to the UBC, Azerbaijani authorities were suspicious of Hajj’s ties to two other companies as well. One of the two was called Rumat International, which was based in the UAE. Both Hajj and an Iraqi named Mamdouh Mahmud Salim “were affiliated with” Rumat, according to the leaked file. Salim is more widely known by his nom de guerre, Abu Hajer al Iraqi – a cofounder of al Qaeda who was imprisoned after the 1998 embassy bombings.
The other company was called SAMICO Services, which Hajj established in May 1999. SAMICO was supposedly set up to “produce, stockpile, and sell goods for national consumption, as well as tourism and other activities.” But it never did any business at the address listed on its registration documents. In November 2002, Azerbaijani authorities raided “locations in Baku suspected of being tied to” an extremist facilitator. “Several documents relating to the SAMICO Company were found during the raid.”
An Alleged ‘Leader’ in the Muslim Brotherhood
The leaked file cites a number of intelligence reports linking Hajj to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is impossible, as an outside observer, to evaluate the veracity of these reports since we do not have access to them. However, it is especially interesting to learn that Guantanamo’s analysts concluded that Hajj was a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) at the same time he was supporting al Qaeda.
An entire mythology has been built up concerning the MB. Some, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, have gone so far as to claim that the MB has renounced violence. This is simply not true, as MB leaders have openly and repeatedly advocated violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinian-controlled territories, and elsewhere. The MB has eschewed violence in Egypt simply because, during President Hosni Mubarak’s reign and before, it didn’t work. Each spasm of MB-initiated violence was met with crushing oppression.
If the file on Hajj is correct, then we have a prominent example of just how shallow Washington’s thinking on the MB is. In fact, the information contained in the file would be headline-worthy if given any weight by the press. Here is the key paragraph:
[Hajj] is reportedly a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council and was involved in plans and operations to distribute weapons, to include Stinger missiles, and financial support to extremists according to a foreign government service. It is assessed that [Hajj] worked directly with Taliban Supreme Commander Mullah Muhammad Omar to procure the missiles.
The file notes that Hajj met with “a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood” at Mullah Omar’s home in “early to mid 2001” to “discuss the movement of Stinger missiles from Afghanistan to Chechnya.” The file does not note what came of the putative deal, but this reporting obviously placed Hajj in the company of some very bad actors.
The analysts at Gitmo cited other reporting on Hajj’s MB activities, too. In 2000, Hajj reportedly traveled to the U.K. “to discuss increasing contacts between the Muslim Brotherhood” and a known extremist organization.
On another occasion, Hajj allegedly met with the head of Al Jazeera and prominent MB cleric Yousef Qaradawi in Qatar “to discuss creating a banking system controlled by the ‘brothers’ in European countries, the US, and Canada.” (An analyst note explains that the ‘brothers’ referenced here are members of the Muslim Brotherhood.) Sheikh Qaradawi’s sermons have long been broadcast on Al Jazeera.
Still more reporting cited in the file said that Hajj allegedly “maintained close contact with Muslim Brotherhood Chairman Shaykh Salekh,” who “was in charge of the committee created in June 2001 for financing mujahideen in the Balkans, Middle East, and Chechnya.” In 1997, Shaykh Salekh reportedly traveled “to Baku as a ‘representative’” of Haramain and personally “supervised material and technical supply and financing of Chechen separatists and foreign mercenaries in Chechnya.”
Again, it is impossible to validate the claims regarding Hajj’s activities as a MB leader. But even if just some of it is true (all of it, in fact, could be right), then Hajj was involved in some especially noteworthy activities on behalf of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Journalist, Al Qaeda Jihadist, or Both?
Sami al Hajj has been held up as an example of supposed wrongdoing by the U.S. government. His many advocates claim that he was not only innocent when he was detained, but that American authorities detained him mainly to learn about the inner-workings of a foreign press organization. The reality is far more complicated.
The version of Hajj’s story that portrays him as a mere journalist chasing a story is based primarily on Hajj’s word alone. Meanwhile, authorities in Azerbaijan and the U.A.E. concluded that Hajj was really an al Qaeda operative. And when Hajj was detained by Pakistani authorities in December of 2001, according to the leaked file, he was already on a watch list.
The American analysts who authored the leaked file on Hajj agreed with their foreign counterparts, finding that Hajj was an al Qaeda member who posed a “high risk” and had “high intelligence value.” These analysts cited his easy access to senior al Qaeda and Taliban members, his role in sponsoring the jihad against Russian forces in Chechnya, his alleged ties to a founding member of al Qaeda and Mullah Omar, and his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood as reasons for his detention.
The authorities at Gitmo recommended that Hajj remain in DoD custody as late as April 24, 2008 – the date on the newly leaked assessment. In its attempt to empty most of Gitmo’s cells, the Bush administration transferred Hajj to his native Sudan less than one week later, on April 30, 2008.
American intelligence officials assessed that Hajj was “one of the top 55 detainees at risk to conduct terrorist activities upon release.”
There is another possibility, however. Instead of becoming directly involved in terrorism, Hajj may have determined it was easier to play the role of victim, manipulating many in the press in the process.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.