The U.S. Justice Department has decided to release another detainee from Guantanamo, a Yemeni named Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi. It is not entirely clear why Batarfi has been cleared for release. But we can be reasonably sure, based on Batarfi's own freely given testimony, that he was no innocent swept up in the post-9/11 chaos of Afghanistan, as his lawyers claim.
Batarfi first traveled to Afghanistan in 1988 to fight the Soviets. The government claims he was trained at the Khalden camp, which graduated hundreds of al Qaeda members, but Batarfi denies this. Batarfi has admitted to participating in at least one nighttime raid against Soviet forces. This is important because it shows that he was willing to participate in hostilities from a young age--and was not merely a humanitarian adventure seeker in Afghanistan.
Batarfi then went to Pakistan, where he became an orthopedic surgeon. From there, things get really interesting.
There are at least three aspects of Batarfi's testimony given before his administrative review board hearings at Gitmo that are noteworthy. Keep in mind that these hearings were not interrogations, and the detainees had the option of not participating, or simply issuing blanket denials, as some detainees did.
First, Batarfi admitted that he was an employee of al Wafa, a charity that has been designated a terrorist organization. Al Wafa is discussed in brief in the 9/11 Commission's report as an al Qaeda front. The unclassified documents released from Guantanamo are littered with references to the organization. It is clear that al Wafa actively supported al Qaeda and the Taliban in a variety of ways--from transporting jihadists to Afghanistan (often through Iran) to purchasing sophisticated weaponry. Al Wafa was not a real charity--it was a terrorist front group, and Batarfi admitted to working for the group for several months in 2001. He says he left the organization after it was designated as a terror-supporter, but this was most likely just Batarfi's way of trying to explain away his al Wafa ties. As we will see below, he was at Tora Bora after the designation on al Wafa came down.
Second, Batarfi admitted that he met with a "Malaysian microbiologist" and authorized the purchase of medical equipment for this individual. As I have written previously, this microbiologist is most certainly Yazid Sufaat. Batarfi denies knowing that Sufaat was working on anthrax when they met in 2001. Over and over again, Batarfi claimed that he just happened to run into and consort with terrorists without knowing who they were.
Third, the best example of this last point is Batarfi's admitted ties to Osama bin Laden. Batarfi admitted that he met with bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains in November 2001. But he claimed that he sent a letter to someone (he does not say whom) asking to meet with the "head of the mountain" and, somewhat magically, he just happened to get a face-to-face sit down with the world's most wanted terroristâ€¦at Tora Boraâ€¦in November of 2001â€¦you know, when the whole world was looking for him. This was the second time Batarfi claims to have accidentally met bin Laden. The first time came at a funeral in Kabul when, again, bin Laden just happened upon the scene.Batarfi and his attorneys have apparently been able to sell this story to the DOJ. On its face, it does not make any sense. And there is much more to Batarfi's story and the unclassified files on him. He admitted he purchased cyanide, but claims it was for dental fillings. He admitted he stayed at various al Qaeda and Taliban guesthouses, but says he didn't realize they were facilities associated with Osama bin Laden at the time. Batarfi met the Taliban's health minister in 2001 because, well, that's just the sort of thing an al Wafa employee would do.
Remember, all of the above comes from his hearings at Guantanamo, not his interrogations. He could have just said, "I deny everything." But he didn't. He came up with not-so creative excuses instead. (For an analysis of excerpts from his hearings, go here.)
Batarfi has been cleared for release even though the Obama administration is not sure where to send him. They are still looking for a host country. This is eerily similar to the president's ordering Guantanamo shuttered by January of 2010 before his administration had even reviewed any of the detainees' files. That is, the president and his staff were not even sure who is down at Guantanamo when the president ordered the facility closed.
Batarfi's case was reportedly reviewed by a DOJ board that is going through all of those files. I think it is safe to say the board is off to an inauspicious start.