In my piece Al Qaeda’s Trojan Horse, I pointed to several reports coming out of the British press connecting Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (UFA) to former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg and Begg’s organization, Cage Prisoners. The British press first noted that Begg and one of his colleagues were invited to speak at a conference put on by the Islamic Society at the University College of London in early 2007. Abdulmutallab was president of the Islamic Society at the time.
One of the arguments I made in the piece was that some on the left have a difficult time identifying or understanding jihadists. There is such a rush to embrace the anti-American arguments made by men such as Begg that the press makes little attempt to investigate their backgrounds and stories even when they are demonstrable liars. This is dangerous because Begg is not just an anti-American propagandist. According to a copious record produced by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials, Begg has sponsored and trained with terrorist groups in the past and actively supported a known al Qaeda cleric on a number of occasions. (Begg was released from Gitmo over the objections of the entire national security establishment.)
Writing for Slate last week, Dahlia Lithwick took exception to my piece. In the process, Lithwick exposed her own ignorance, and also made my point for me. Lithwick likened any attempt to connect former Gitmo detainees to Abdulmutallab to a game of Clue, and concluded that the possibility of Colonel Mustard being involved was “equally plausible.”
In other words, Lithwick cannot tell the difference between real-life jihadists who endorse and sponsor terrorist violence and fictional characters.
Although Lithwick does not challenge any of the facts and evidence I cited, there are some noteworthy omissions and errors in Lithwick’s piece.
First, notice that the name “Anwar al Awlaki” (or “Aulaqi”) does not appear in Lithwick’s attempt at a rebuttal. Yet, as I discuss in my piece, it was Begg’s support of Anwar al Awlaki and, in turn, Awlaki’s “blessing” of Abdulmutallab’s attack that is especially noteworthy.
Anwar al Awlaki is now a widely known al Qaeda cleric. He should have been well-known since at least the September 11 attacks. Awlaki was a “spiritual advisor” to at least two of the 9/11 hijackers, counseled the Fort Hood Shooter, and inspired untold numbers of jihadists to fight American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of all this, Abdulmutallab reportedly received Awlaki’s counsel while visiting Yemen. For all these reasons, and more, Awlaki is currently the subject of a massive manhunt and has been targeted by airstrikes.
For their part, Begg and his ilk at Cage Prisoners have: lobbied for Awlaki’s freedom when he was briefly detained in Yemen, conducted favorable interviews with Awlaki (Begg personally conducted the interviews), broadcast Awlaki’s propaganda in the UK, and published Awlaki’s jihadist writings on the Cage Prisoners’ web site.
So, it is natural to ask, as I did and as the investigators in the UK currently are: Is there more to the relationship between Awlaki, Begg, and Abdulmutallab? I don’t know the answer and neither does Lithwick.
But Lithwick would rather not pursue an answer. Instead, she thinks this is all about protecting Begg’s right to free “speech,” so he can talk about his “experiences” at Gitmo even though my piece was all about asking if there was more (like Awlaki) to the connection between Abdulmutallab and Begg than that.
It is worth noting that the normally permissive British authorities also disagree with Lithwick’s take. Begg is still free to tell his story (which, by the way, is a complete anti-American fabrication). But British authorities have prohibited Begg and Cage Prisoners from broadcasting Awlaki’s appearances via video.
Second, Lithwick mischaracterizes what I wrote. She writes, “Even more frightening than the attempt to connect the Christmas bomber with Begg is Joscelyn's argument that Begg radicalized him by way of lectures and videos.”
Actually, citing excerpts from Abdulmutallab’s emails, I specifically argued that “Abdulmutallab was likely radicalized long before he consorted with the likes of Begg.” I did raise the possibility, however, “that Begg and his ilk helped solidify Abdulmutallab's jihadist inclinations.” I also wrote: “Perhaps Begg's jihadist propaganda operation helped push Abdulmutallab further down his dark path.”
It is not clear why this should be “frightening,” and investigators in the UK are certainly not frightened by it. In fact, a few days after I first published my piece, the Times (UK) reported:
US counter-terrorism authorities believe that Mr Abdulmutallab began his radicalisation in Britain, where he was a mechanical engineering undergraduate in 2005-08. The British arm of the investigation is focused on who Mr Abdulmutallab met and had contact with at that time and his connection to Cageprisoners is understood to be part of the intelligence picture.
The title of the Times piece that includes the excerpt above is “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had links with London campaign group.” The London campaign group in question is Begg’s Cage Prisoners. We aren’t playing a game of Clue here.
Third, Lithwick gets some basic facts wrong. She says that “Begg didn't participate” in Abdulmutallab’s “War On Terror Week” conference. It is not clear how she arrived at this conclusion. In my piece I noted that I could not find a transcript or video of his appearance. But this doesn’t mean that he didn’t participate. The aforementioned Times piece and other accounts in the British press say that he did. The Times piece also says that Begg denies remembering meeting Abdulmutallab (there is no reason for anyone besides Lithwick to take his word for it), but concedes that he did speak at the UCL five or six times.
Begg’s appearance at Abdulmutallab’s conference was also prominently featured in the Islamic Society’s advertisements for the event. A poster that was created for the event included both the Christmas Day bomber’s name in the lower left-hand corner and Begg’s name as a guest speaker. A video advertisement that has been blocked from public view in recent weeks also featured Begg.
Lithwick also gets it wrong when she writes that “the Pentagon counts among those who have ‘returned to terrorist activities’ former prisoners who have publicly made anti-American statements.” According to the last recidivist study released by the Pentagon, “engagement in anti-U.S. propaganda alone does not qualify as terrorist activity.” This was true for both “confirmed” and “suspected” cases of recidivism – that is, it was true for all of the former detainees included in the study.
So, Lithwick simply got it wrong even with respect to this basic fact. Ironically, she laments the supposed lack of “factual accuracy…when it comes to Guantanamo.”
The rest of her piece is similarly flawed, as it has to be. It is a piece of fiction, just like Moazzam Begg’s story about his “experiences” at Gitmo. That is the only way she can continue to pretend that most of the men at Gitmo were not terrorists, but instead “largely just unlucky.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.