Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has now claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound airliner. This is yet another indication, on top of the would-be bomber's own admissions and other evidence linking him to al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, that al Qaeda trained and planned the failed attack.
Given Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's ties to al Qaeda members in Yemen, it is natural to speculate about the role that some former Guantanamo detainees may have played in operation.
Former Gitmo detainees hold some of the most important leadership positions within AQAP.
ABC News is one outlet that is offering speculation in this vein, but it misses the mark in doing so. The ABC headline is: "Two al Qaeda Leaders Behind Northwest Flight 253 Terror Plot Were Released by U.S." But this is misleading because ABC News doesn't cite any evidence that concretely ties two former detainees to Abdulmutallab.
Moreover, one of the two former Gitmo detainees implicated by ABC, Muhamad Attik al Harbi (aka Muhamad al Awfi) is reportedly not even still active within the AQAP organization, according to published accounts. Al Harbi rejoined al Qaeda after graduating from the Saudi regime's rehabilitation program. He then promptly left Saudi Arabia for Yemen, where he appeared in an al Qaeda video earlier this year, but has since returned to Saudi soil after pressure from his family convinced him to do so.
It is not clear what, exactly, convinced al Harbi to return to Saudi custody - it could have been threats against his family or bribes, or something else entirely. Regardless, al Harbi is apparently not a part of al Qaeda's current operational capacity. If he was involved in the Christmas Day plot, then he would have had to become a recidivist yet again - which is possible, but there is no evidence so far that this is the case.
The second Gitmo detainee mentioned by ABC, Said al Shihri, is still very much a part of AQAP. (That is, assuming he was not killed in an airstrike targeting senior AQAP leaders earlier this month.) And he could very well have known about the Christmas Day plot, at the very least. Al Shihri is currently #2 within AQAP and it is hard to believe that the organization would plan an operation such as an attack on airliner without al Shihri knowing about it given his stature within the organization.
Al Shihri has also been implicated in the September 2008 American embassy bombing in Sanaa, Yemen. So, even before the events of December 25, we would have good reasons to suspect that he is involved in planning terrorist attacks against Western and American targets. Still, we don't know for sure yet whether or not al Shihri was specifically involved. At some level it doesn't matter because AQAP is very much al Shihri's organization and if AQAP was behind this attack, then al Shihri's minions were involved.
There is another former Gitmo detainee, not mentioned by ABC News, who is a high-ranking member of AQAP and who may have been involved in the Christmas Day plot. Ibrahim Rubaish was once held at Gitmo. Rubaish is now AQAP's chief ideologue - a position that makes him responsible for justifying AQAP's acts of terrorism on theological grounds. For instance, Rubaish justified AQAP's attempt to kill Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, the Deputy Minister of the Interior for Security Affairs, in August. It is common for al Qaeda members to rely on fatwas (religious edicts) to justify their terrorism and it is certainly possible that Rubaish could have provided the religious justifications for Abdulmutallab's attempt at mass murder. But again, we just do not know at this point. This is all speculative absent concrete reporting.
Other former Gitmo detainees have rejoined AQAP's ranks as well, and it is possible that some them may have been involved. At the risk of sounding repetitive: we just don't know for sure yet.
In sum, we know the following: AQAP has claimed responsibility for the attack and this is consistent with other evidence, including Abdulmutallab's own admissions. Some of AQAP's most senior positions are held by former Gitmo detainees, so there is a strong possibility that they played a role in this attack. But we should be cautious when speculating because nothing definitive has yet been reported.