With respect to closing the Guantanamo detention facility, President Obama said the following on Tuesday:
"Make no mistake, we will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda. In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."
The president did not say which statement, in particular, he had in mind. But the “explicit rationale” he references must come from al Qaeda’s own propaganda.
Early in 2009, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a video entitled “From Here We Begin…and at al Aqsa We Meet.” The video was produced to commemorate the merger of al Qaeda’s Saudi and Yemeni wings into a consolidated and more powerful branch. AQAP certainly existed prior to 2009 in various forms, but the organization has had its ranks cleaned out repeatedly -- mainly by Saudi security forces. The video was intended to let everyone know that AQAP was back with a vengeance. And the video clearly put forth AQAP’s rationale for its reconstitution or, using in president’s phrasing, “formation.”
Did AQAP explicitly give Guantanamo as the reason for its rebirth? Judge for yourself: Part 1 of the video can be viewed here and part 2 here. You can also read a good translation of most the video’s contents (excluding the narrator’s beginning) at the indispensable NEFA Foundation’s web site.
Guantanamo is certainly mentioned in the tape. How could it not be? Two of the four founding members of the reconstituted AQAP are former Gitmo detainees. Said al Shihri, who was held at Gitmo until 2007, remains the #2 deputy. Mohammed al Awfi (also known as Mohammed al Harbi) is a former Gitmo detainee who was featured in the video too. But al Awfi has since been taken back into Saudi custody under strange circumstances. Both of these recidivists are graduates of Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program.
The problem with the president’s argument is that Guantanamo was not given as a rationale for AQAP’s rebirth or “formation.” Instead, AQAP’s “rationale” was al Qaeda’s stock-in-trade Zionist-Crusader conspiracy theory, in which Muslim lands need to be defended against the infidels. As the title of the video indicates, the group’s ultimate goal is to conquer Jerusalem and take control of the al Aqsa mosque.
In this vein, the video begins with a somewhat typical al Qaeda formulation: “In this fierce Christian Crusade being waged against the Islamic Ummah, with the clear and shameful participation of the agent rulers of the region, Allah made a way out for your brothers from the Mujahideen from the prisons of the Crusaders, Guantanamo, and the prisons of the tyrants.”
Yes, Guantanamo is mentioned right at the beginning, along with what appears to be a deceptive reenactment of a detainee in an orange jumpsuit at Camp X-Ray. As I’ve written previously, this image is a favorite of Gitmo’s many critics, even though it has not been an accurate portrayal since the first four months of Gitmo’s existence in 2002. The far left and the jihadists both love this image though. It makes it seem as if the detainees are blameless innocents who are routinely traumatized by the big, bad American military. AQAP’s video is powerful reminder that this isn’t true, as former detainees such as Said al Shihri and Mohammed al Awfi were always dangerous.
However, Gitmo is only mentioned in the context of announcing al Shihri’s and al Awfi’s miraculous return to jihad. Their recidivism was placed in the context of the “Christian Crusade” - the real rationale given for AQAP’s terror.
Not much later in the tape, AQAP’s leaders quickly expand this to the theme of a Zionist-Crusader alliance against the Muslim world. This has been one of al Qaeda’s imaginary grievances for well more than a decade now. It is this invented conspiracy (a direct descendent of the “Protocols of the Zionist Elders” hoax) that dominates AQAP’s messaging, just as it has dominated al Qaeda Central’s messaging.
The tape then moves on by continuing to discuss al Shihri’s and al Awfi’s return to terrorism and provides an explicit reason for their jihadist commitment (emphasis added):
“They came out [of Gitmo] even more determined to continue their path of Hijrah and Jihad, the path of honor and resilience, so that all of the religion be for Allah alone. They arrived from the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, setting out for Yemen, the land of Faith and Wisdom, to bring victory to the religion of Allah, that land about which the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) said: ‘There will be 12,000 who set out from Aden-Abyan to bring victory to [the religion of] Allah and His messenger. They are the best of people from my time until theirs.’ It is the land from which will come aid, it is the land of Faith, and the land of the helpers of the religion of Allah against this Crusade, which has come and filled the Arabian Sea, the Arabian Gulf, and the Red Sea with its battleships and aircraft carriers to take control over the Muslim world, its seas to its lands, to support the Jews, the thieves who have occupied the Noble Aqsa and to encircle our brothers in Somalia. For this reason, they united and pledged allegiance to Abu Baseer Nasir al Wuhayshi, may Allah protect him, to combine the efforts of the Mujahideen, in defense of the Muslim world, and to liberate the Noble Aqsa Mosque.”
Note that the narrator does give an “explicit rationale” for the two Gitmo alumni joining up with AQAP. And what is that reason? It is to provide “aid…against this Crusade, which has come…to take over the Muslim world.” It is not “Guantanamo.”
The president’s words make it sound as if AQAP rationalizes its existence in its propaganda as a response to Guantanamo. But it is not even clear how the existence of a detention facility (not a “prison,” as the president called it) could be used as a “rationale” in the first place unless the terrorists claimed they were fighting for Gitmo’s detainees, or to close the facility, or some other similar excuse for their terror. While AQAP’s leaders mention their brethren at Gitmo, they make no such claims that Gitmo was the rationale for AQAP's formation. It is all about the Zionist-Crusader conspiracy. In reality, Gitmo is just one of many items on a long laundry list of imaginary grievances that al Qaeda uses to demonize the West.
A simple word comparison reveals just how off-base the president’s claim is. The aforementioned NEFA translation includes the words of each of the four AQAP leaders shown in the video. In the text of their diatribes, there is one (1) direct mention of Guantanamo. And this occurs in Said al Shihri’s salutation: “To my honorable nation, nation of good and honor, nation of jihad and martyrdom, may Allah reward you handsomely for me and for my brothers, the prisoners in Guantanamo -- for the time when you were a blessing to us… when you stood with us and shared our pains, and prayed for us.” Note that this isn’t even a rationale. Al Shirhi is simply asking Allah to reward the jihadist world on behalf of his fellow detainees at Gitmo.
There are also three (3) mentions of Cuba and these are of course references to Gitmo as well. Two of them occur in the following sentences, spoken by al Shihri:
“We speak to our beloved Islamic nation in order to explain the true nature of what these treacherous leaders have done with regards to the matter of Cuba—when they cooperated with the Americans in dispatching investigators to Cuba in order to investigate us and extract confessions from us and raise accusations against us. That was the reason for the increase in our torture, and Allah suffices for us and he is the best protector.”
Here, al Shihri is again using Gitmo not as a rationale so much as he is tying it to his condemnation of rulers in the Muslim world, which again is a common al Qaeda theme. Al Shihri explains to the “Islamic nation” that their “treacherous leaders” have “cooperated with the Americans” by “dispatching investigators to Cuba.” This should sound familiar, as al Qaeda regularly lambasts Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Saudi royal family, and other Muslim rulers. Al Qaeda tries to stir up the population against their governments because al Qaeda claims they do not represent true Muslim interests, but instead are a de facto part of the Zionist-Crusader conspiracy.
In fact, after briefly discussing “Cuba,” al Shihri returns to this theme. He says that he and his fellow travelers have pledged allegiance to AQAP’s leader “so that we will serve as a buttress for the jihad to expand from the [Arabian] Peninsula to Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the Muslim countries, in order to defend our lands and that which is sacred to us, so that the religion shall be for Allah alone.”
So, again we have an “explicit rationale” for joining forces under the AQAP banner and once again it is not Guantanamo. The rest of al Shihri’s rant deals with the Jews and their supposedly nefarious influence throughout the Muslim world, including the complacency of Muslim rulers in the face of the Jews’ incessant plotting.
Mohammed al Awfi, another former Gitmo detainee, utters the last reference to “Cuba” when he says that the Saudis sent a “delegation of psychological investigators” to “conduct psychological examinations” on the detainees. Al Awfi says that these methods are commonly used in Saudi Arabia “in order to persuade us to stray from Islam.” He is thankful for having endured these methods because it has given al Qaeda “insight into our enemies and to understand their fighting methods.”
Even al Awfi’s comments are not a rationale for AQAP’s terror. Al Awfi brings “Cuba” up in the context of warning his “imprisoned brothers to avoid the ‘attention and advice program’ which is administered” by the Saudi regime. That is, he is telling his fellow jihadists not to be dissuaded from their cause by Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program. Over 100 former Gitmo detainees have been entered into that program, alongside hundreds of other terrorists.
That’s it. After the narration ends, AQAP’s leaders make four (4) references to Gitmo and Cuba. By way of comparison, the following key words and phrases related to the imagined Christian-Zionist conspiracy against Muslim lands are mentioned far more frequently: Jew(s) (11 times), Zionist Jews (2), Gaza (14), Jerusalem (7), Palestine and Palestinian (10), Christian (9), Christian-Zionist (1), Iraq (4), Afghanistan (4), etc.
The other two AQAP leaders in the video, who were not held at Gitmo, do not even directly mention Guantanamo or Cuba at all. AQAP’s military commander, Abu Hurairah Qasim al Rimi, is focused entirely on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Nasir al Wuhayshi, the head of the group and a longtime ally of Osama bin Laden, is also focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He says that the entire Muslim world’s eyes are on Jerusalem. Wuhayshi does thank Allah for granting “the prisoners freedom.” This could possibly be taken as an indirect reference to Guantanamo, as he is probably thanking Allah for the two Gitmo detainees in the video who had then returned to jihad’s ranks. But here is the context in which Wuhayshi thanks Allah for the return of his brethren:
“Allah has gathered us in the land of Afghanistan to fight the Christians, and we have established there an Islamic Emirate, and the entire world has gathered against us -- Jews, Christians, apostates, and pagans -- in an alliance whose likes the world has never before witnessed. From us came delighted martyrs, mujahideen who stand guard on the frontier, and the suffering prisoners. The war continued and our determination continued until Allah granted the prisoners freedom, and Allah wanted us to gather once again to aid the religion, to establish the rightly-guided caliphate, and to fight against our enemies.”
This is the real reason for AQAP’s terror. The AQAP’s leaders believe they are facing a worldwide conspiracy against Muslims the likes of which “the world has never before witnessed.” Similar comments are made throughout the video. Gitmo is barely referenced – and certainly never as an “explicit rationale” for AQAP’s rebirth.
AQAP’s propaganda is all about a delusional conspiracy theory. President Obama and his team need to figure out how America can counter this messaging in the Muslim world, instead of pretending that closing Gitmo is necessary to rebut AQAP’s propaganda. And even if AQAP did exclusively and mainly point to Gitmo as the reason for its terror then this would just be a pretext. AQAP, like al Qaeda proper has always done, will just move onto the next pretext.
If there is another lesson that the Obama administration should learn from AQAP’s propaganda it is that in the Bush administration’s haste to transfer detainees from the facility it ended up freeing some very dangerous men, such as Said al Shihri and Mohammed al Awfi. They were al Qaeda jihadists all along. In fact, al Shihri admits in the video that it was his commitment to jihad that got him locked up in the first place. The Obama administration would be wise to learn from the Bush administration’s mistakes and not repeat them.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.