In the wake of the Supreme Court's Boumediene decision earlier this
month, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
has now decided that the Bush administration was wrong to label Gitmo detainee
Huzaifa Parhat an "enemy combatant." The Court of Appeals decided
that Parhat should be released, transferred to another country, or granted
another tribunal session.
Predictably, the decision has been celebrated by critics of the Bush
administration and the Guantánamo detention facility. They have cited the
decision as further evidence of the unjustness of America's
detention policies. And some, including the editors of the New York Times,
have highlighted Parhat's own "insistence that he was an
innocent swept up in the chaos in Afghanistan."
However, Parhat is far from an obvious innocent. A closer look at documents
released by the Department of Defense, as well as information from other sources,
reveals that his story is not clear-cut. Because the opinion contains
classified information, the Court of Appeals has not yet released it. And we
may never see the classified evidence the court relied upon in making its
determination. Nevertheless, given what is known about Parhat and his
affiliations, there are ample reasons to think he was a threat, albeit perhaps
a low-level one.
According to the DOD, 22 citizens of China
have been detained at Gitmo. Five of them have been released, but 17 of them
remain at Gitmo. Like Parhat, all of these men are Uighurs, that is, natives of
Xinjiang region, or East Turkestan, as Uighurs call it. The Uighurs, who have been oppressed by various
Chinese policies, have been fighting for their independence for decades. And
given the deplorable human rights record of the Chinese regime, they have won
at least some international support for their efforts.
Not all Uighur separatists are created equal though. A minority of them in
the early 1980s formed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist
group rooted in radical Islamic ideology and dedicated to jihad. And by the
early 1990s, the ETIM had become a significant fighting force with a presence
throughout Central and South Asia. It was only a matter
of time before the ETIM's members would cross paths with their Arab and Afghan
By the late 1990s, Hasan Mahsum, the ETIM's leader, began mingling with
Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda's CEO reportedly gave Mahsum $300,000--although, this
claim may come from the Chinese government, which is not always the most honest
broker of information. However, we know for certain that bin Laden gave
Mahsum's forces training space inside Afghanistan.
In particular, the ETIM opened a training camp at Tora Bora.
And that is where Parhat was in October 2001 when, in the aftermath of the
September 11 attacks, American forces bombarded the ETIM's Tora Bora training
camp. The bombings sent the Uighurs, including Parhat, scrambling to Pakistan
where they were arrested. During his tribunal session at Gitmo, Parhat admitted
that he attended the ETIM's Tora Bora camp from June 2001 until the bombing
began. During those months, he admitted to being trained in the use of small
arms, including the Kalashnikov rifle and a pistol.
At his tribunal session, Parhat denied having any
"Arab" (that is, al Qaeda) trainers at the Tora Bora camp or having
had anything to do with al Qaeda. But he did admit that Mahsum was the leader
of his group:
Q: There is an important gentleman in the Uighur community by the name of
Hasan Mahsum; do you know who this man is?
Parhat: Yes. I saw that person.
Q: Who is he, please?
Parhat: He is a Turkistani person. [Note: As the DOD transcript notes, the
Uighurs frequently refer to themselves as "Turkistani."]
Q. Is he the leader of your Uighur group?
Q. Would he give the Uighurs in the camp guidance and instruction on what to
Parhat. Maybe he would do that and there was another person and he was the
leader of the camp guiding all the people. I saw this person twice at the camp.
I forgot the leader name.
Q. Would that be Mr. Abdul Haq?
Parhat. Yes. . . .
Q. There is a concern that Mr. Hassan Maksum may have relationships with al Qaeda
people. Do you know any thing about this?
Parhat. I don't think so. The people in Turkistan
will not associate with al Qaeda.
On this last point, Parhat is either lying or ignorant of the relationship
between the ETIM and al Qaeda. As the Combatant Status Review Board noted in
its summary of evidence (a document used to determine whether or not a Gitmo
detainee is an enemy combatant) for Parhat, the ETIM's training facilities at
Tora Bora "were funded by Bin Laden and the Taliban."
Parhat denied this specific point too, but there is abundant evidence
indicating that the Tora Bora training camp was an al Qaeda-Taliban-ETIM joint
venture. For example, as terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna rightly noted in an interview
earlier this year:
We have seen that al Qaeda and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have
released a number of statements and videos where ETIM is training in al Qaeda
camps with their instructors. Hasan Mahsum, the leader of ETIM, was killed in South
Waziristan--the area that al Qaeda was operating in 2003--by the
Pakistani forces. There have been a number of ETIM members arrested in Pakistan
They are working very [closely] with Al-Qaeda. Abu [Zubaydah], the operations
chief for Al-Qaeda, met with Uighur radical groups entering Pakistan.
The relationship between the two is very strong.
Former Indian intelligence officer B. Raman has similarly explained the
relationship between the ETIM and al Qaeda. Raman has written that the ETIM
"is a major component of the terrorist network headed by bin Laden"
throughout South and Central Asia. Raman further claims:
Hasan Mahsum, the ETIM ringleader, used to hide in Kabul
and had an Afghan passport issued by the Taliban. Bin Laden asked the ETIM to
stir up trouble in Uzbekistan,
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan,
and then stage an organized infiltration into Xinjiang. The "Turkistan
Army" under the ETIM fought along with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
This "Army" has a special "China Battalion" with about 320
terrorists from Xinjiang. The battalion is under the direct command of Hasan
Mahsum's deputy Kabar.
The Times's editorial noted that supporters of Parhat and his fellow
Uighur detainees "maintain that they were captured by mistake and had no
hostile intentions toward the United States."
This is a common defense of the ETIM-associated detainees at Gitmo. They are
supposedly only interested in targeting the Chinese regime, so the U.S.
should look the other way.
But as disgusting as the Chinese regime's human rights record is, there is
no moral equivalency between legitimate opposition and terrorists who seek to
hijack their cause. Osama bin Laden's grand vision was to unite terrorist
groups around the world by bringing nationalist, ethnic and other sectarian
groups under the banner of his jihad. Bin Laden and al Qaeda were at least
partially successful in this endeavor in Algeria,
Asia, South and Central Asia, as well as Iraq.
There is every indication that he was successful in incorporating the ETIM into
his global designs as well. Moreover, it is not true that the ETIM targets only
Chinese interests. As Raman points out, the group has also "fought in Afghanistan,
Chechnya and Uzbekistan"
among other locations. ETIM trainees may profess a lack of hostility towards
the United States,
but once allied with al Qaeda, there is no telling where they may be asked to
We do not know what basis the Court of Appeals had for determining Parhat
was improperly labeled an "enemy combatant." We may never see the
classified evidence they relied upon. Perhaps there are mitigating factors that
trump Parhat's disturbing ties. We can only hope that the Parhat decision was
not grounded in an ignorance of the ETIM.