On Sunday, November 16, CBS News's 60 Minutes broadcast the first
interview with President-elect Barack Obama. The exchange touched on a wide
range of topics, from Obama's distaste for college football's computerized
selection of a national champion to his plans for changing course in economic
and foreign policy. At one point, Obama was asked about the terrorist detention
facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He responded:
I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantánamo, and I will follow
through on that. I've said repeatedly that America doesn't torture and I'm
going to make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an
effort to regain America's moral stature in the world.
The president-elect's comments were not surprising. He had often promised on
the campaign trail to close Guantánamo. And in the days before the 60
Minutes broadcast, anonymous officials from his transition team had let the
press know that the president-elect would deliver on his pledge. They cannot
yet say what the Obama administration will do with the 250 or so detainees
still being held, but according to the Washington Post, the new team
will review the government's files on each detainee and make a determination
case by case.
Whatever happens to the detainees, the important point for much of the
commentariat is that Guantánamo will be shuttered. For Guantánamo's many
critics, the facility long ago became a symbol of all that is wrong with the
Bush administration's conduct of the war on terror-from its cowboy-like
unilateralism to its alleged widespread torture and abuse of terrorist
suspects. That many dangerous enemies lurk in Guantánamo's cells has often been
a secondary concern, if a concern at all. Thus, when President-elect Obama
spoke of regaining "America's moral stature in the world," he was
endorsing the widespread perception of Guantánamo as an American sin that
originated in the Bush administration's overreaction to the terrorist attacks
of September 11, 2001.
This perception, however, was always skewed. The new
administration will soon discover from its review of the Guantánamo files what
motivated its predecessor: The scope of the terrorist threat was far greater
than anyone knew on September 11, 2001. But for the Bush administration's
efforts, many more Americans surely would have perished.
This conclusion is based on a careful review of the
thousands of pages of documents released from Guantánamo, as well as other publicly
available evidence. In 2006, the Department of Defense began to release the
documents to the public via its website. The files had been created during the
Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT) and Administrative Review Board (ARB)
hearings held for nearly 600 detainees. This unclassified cache includes both
the government's allegations against each detainee and summarized transcripts
of the detainees' testimony. Although the documents were released in response
to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Associated Press,
the intelligence contained in the files was largely ignored by the mainstream
press for more than two years. Thus, the New York Times reported only
the day before the recent presidential election that the files contain
"sobering intelligence claims against many of the remaining
they do. When the Obama administration reviews the Guantánamo files, here is
what it will find.
THE HIGH VALUE DETAINEES
The most dangerous men currently incarcerated at Guantánamo
are the 14 "high value" detainees. The Bush administration gave them
this designation because they are uniquely lethal, having planned and
participated in the most devastating terrorist attacks in history. Their
collective dossier includes, among other attacks, 9/11, the American embassy
bombings (August 7, 1998), the USS Cole bombing (October 12, 2000), and
the Bali bombings (October 12, 2002). They are responsible for murdering
thousands of civilians around the globe, from the eastern United States to
Southeast Asia. Had they not been captured, they surely would have murdered
The 14 were originally held not at Guantánamo, but at even
more controversial black sites. And the "enhanced interrogation
techniques" that have sparked international outrage were principally
designed for them. One may doubt the necessity and morality of these
techniques, including waterboarding, while still recognizing a fundamentally
important point: The 14 high value detainees are not ordinary criminals, but
perpetrators of an entirely different order of evil.
It is because of these men, in
particular, that the Bush administration initiated the preventive detention
regime of which Guantánamo is a part. Processing them as mere lawbreakers would
not have advanced the war on terror. To read them their rights and provide them
lawyers would have been to throw away their intelligence value. It would have
allowed them to carry to the grave many details of still active terrorist
plots. The Bush administration chose a different route-harsh interrogations
designed to ferret out al Qaeda's current operations before it was too late to
stop them or capture those involved.
It is not clear from the early press reports whether the
Obama administration will continue preventive detention in any form. Some
accounts suggest that the president-elect wants to abandon it entirely, rather
than reforming it. During the campaign, Obama said he wanted to return to the
way we did things in the 1990s, when terrorists were put on trial after the
fact. "And, you know, let's take the example of Guantánamo," Obama
said. "What we know is that, in previous terrorist attacks-for example,
the first attack against the World Trade Center-we were able to arrest those
responsible, put them on trial. They are currently in U.S. prisons,
This is not true. The chief bomb designer for the 1993
strike on the World Trade Center, Ramzi Yousef, was eventually detained years
after the attack and was then convicted, and imprisoned. But the man who mixed
the chemicals for the bomb, Abdul Rahman Yasin, is still at large, having fled
to Saddam's Iraq shortly after the bomb left a crater several stories deep in
southern Manhattan. More important, Obama's comment misses the fundamental
lesson of 9/11. The successful prosecution of some of those responsible for the
first World Trade Center bombing, as worthwhile as it was, did little to
disrupt the broader terrorist network, which grew exponentially between 1993
and 2001. The best evidence of this is the fact that Ramzi Yousef's uncle,
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ("KSM"), continued to operate unmolested long
after his nephew was confined at a maximum security prison in Colorado.
KSM is the best known of the high value detainees imprisoned
at Guantánamo. According to the 9/11 Commission, he first proposed to Osama bin
Laden the plot that grew into the September 11 attacks, and he was involved
throughout the operation. KSM has also admitted involvement in dozens of other
plots and attacks, including providing some of the funds for the 1993 World
Trade Center bombing. Members of KSM's family have been at the heart of al
Qaeda's conspiracy. Another of KSM's nephews, Ammar al-Baluchi, is a high value
detainee at Guantánamo. The government's files note that Ammar was a "key
lieutenant for KSM" during the September 11 operation.
Ramzi Binalshibh, one of KSM's 9/11 coconspirators, is
another high value detainee at Guantánamo. He was al Qaeda's chief liaison
between the hijackers living in the West and more senior terrorists, such as
KSM, who resided in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Al Qaeda central needed
Binalshibh to coordinate various details of the plot. And the hijackers,
including their ringleader, Mohammed Atta, relied on Binalshibh for both advice
and cash. Some of the money Binalshibh provided the hijackers came from another
high value detainee, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi. During the week prior to 9/11,
four of the hijackers returned unused funds to al-Hawsawi.
If the new administration follows the vision set forth by
candidate Obama, terrorists such as KSM, Binalshibh, al-Baluchi, and al-Hawsawi
will be tried in our federal courts with the same constitutional protections as
American citizens including the presumption of innocence. But trying elite
terrorists for their crimes does nothing to expose the unconsummated plots they
had already set in motion at the time of their capture. Had the Bush
administration taken this approach, it is likely that America would have failed
to stop many al Qaeda terrorist operations that were in fact foiled.
For example, in his autobiography, At the Center of the
Storm, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet explained that
KSM's interrogation led to the arrest of an entire cell that was plotting
destruction. The same day KSM was detained in 2003, another terrorist named
Majid Khan was picked up. During his interrogation, KSM admitted that Khan had
recently passed along $50,000 to operatives working for al Qaeda's chieftain in
Southeast Asia, a man known as Hambali. When interrogators confronted Khan with
KSM's revelation, Khan confirmed it and said that he gave the money to an agent
of Hambali named Zubair. Khan gave his interrogators Zubair's telephone number.
Shortly thereafter, Zubair was taken into custody and gave up information that
led to the arrest of yet another operative nicknamed "Lilie."
According to Tenet, Lilie then provided information that led to Hambali's
arrest in Thailand.
Khan, Hambali, Zubair, and Lilie are all high value
detainees at Guantánamo. They were plotting the "second wave" of
attacks on America when they were captured. According to the Guantánamo files,
Zubair and Lilie were both chosen to be suicide hijackers in an al Qaeda attack
on Los Angeles. They had also plotted against targets in Southeast Asia under
the direction of Hambali. Hambali was responsible, in part, for planning the
2002 Bali bombings (killing more than 200 people) and a series of attacks on 30
churches in Indonesia on Christmas Eve 2000 (killing 19).
In addition to serving as an intermediary between KSM and
the Hambali crew, Majid Khan was involved in other post-9/11 plots. Khan, who
lived in Baltimore for years, was planning to smuggle explosives into the
United States. He wanted to target gas stations and landmarks such as the
Brooklyn Bridge, and he recommended to KSM that a truck driver living in Ohio
named Iyman Faris could help. Faris, who had trained at an al Qaeda camp in
Afghanistan, had begun preparations for these attacks. But within weeks of
KSM's and Khan's capture, Faris was identified and arrested. Months later,
Faris was convicted of providing material support to al Qaeda and sentenced to
20 years in prison.
Another of Khan's accomplices, a Pakistani named Uzair
Paracha, was also arrested just weeks after Khan and KSM. In late March 2003,
authorities raided Uzair's apartment in Brooklyn. There they found a number of
incriminating pieces of evidence linking Uzair to Khan. In 2005 Uzair was
convicted, and in 2006 he was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.
Uzair's father, Saifullah Paracha, is a current resident of
Guantánamo. Although he has not been designated a high value detainee, he
clearly consorted with terrorists. Saifullah is reportedly a multimillionaire
who owns a Pakistani media company and a textile business, which exported goods
to the United States. Al Qaeda wanted to use Saifullah's textile business to
smuggle explosives into the United States. Saifullah also offered his media
company's services to Osama bin Laden for the production of al Qaeda's
KSM and Khan were not the only high value detainees to give
up crucial, life-saving details during their interrogations. In March 2002, Abu
Zubaydah was captured at his safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan. In At the
Center of the Storm, Tenet says that Zubaydah unwittingly gave up
information that led to the capture of Ramzi Binalshibh on September 11, 2002.
At the time, Binalshibh was plotting an attack on Heathrow Airport in London.
At least several of the detainees at Guantánamo were captured along with
Zubaydah at his safe house in 2002, and they too were involved in al Qaeda's
post-9/11 plotting. For example, Zubaydah intended to use one of them in an
attack on Israel.
The greatest success of the Bush administration is that it
stopped all of this, and more, from happening. The continental United States
was under attack from an enemy unlike any other this nation has ever faced.
There was no easy legal precedent or historical analogy. In the wake of 9/11,
the Bush administration had to make up new rules as it went along. Critics are
free to charge that the administration went too far. But the Obama
administration may rapidly discover that treating the terrorist threat like any
other matter in federal court, as candidate Obama proposed, is not only
unrealistic but also dangerous.
It is true that the courts have had some notable post-9/11
successes, such as the convictions of Uzair Paracha and Iyman Faris. But those
individuals were found out only because the Bush administration employed new
methods to fight terrorism. Perhaps the Obama administration can achieve the
same results without using the interrogation techniques employed by its
predecessor. But it would be foolish to think that the government can eschew
interrogations outside of the federal criminal justice system entirely. Going
forward, the new president will need to approve at least some proactive
measures if he is to stop al Qaeda's next attack.
Moreover, waging the war on terror requires more than just
stopping individuals such as the 14 high value detainees. Tens of thousands of
terrorists mean this nation harm. And over 200 of them remain at Guantánamo.
THE TERROR NETWORK
The high value detainees are the sharp tip of a very long
spear. The threat they pose is relatively easy to identify. But the Obama
administration is sure to ask: How dangerous are the other detainees?
Most of the 800 detainees held at one time or another at
Guantánamo have been released or transferred. According to published reports,
approximately 250 remain. Who they are is not entirely clear. The Pentagon has
not released an official list.
In October, the New York Times published an online
database listing 248 current detainees, in addition to the 14 high value
prisoners. The Times compiled this list through an exhaustive search of
articles and other publicly available information. THE WEEKLY STANDARD has
performed a similar review. While the list generated by the Times
probably includes a handful of detainees who have been released or transferred,
it appears to be mostly accurate. In any event, it is the best available.
The Department of Defense has released files for all but 6
of the 248 detainees on the Times's list. We reviewed all of the
unclassified documents for these 242 detainees as part of a comprehensive
six-month study. Here are our findings.
While the 242 detainees may be less important than
operatives at the level of KSM or Ramzi Binalshibh, it is clear that a number
of dangerous individuals reside at Guantánamo. One such is Mohamed Qahtani, the
terrorist who was selected by al Qaeda to become the "20th hijacker"
on 9/11 but was turned away from the Orlando Airport by a suspicious
immigration official. Qahtani is a member of a group dubbed the "Dirty
Thirty," who were captured by Pakistani authorities while attempting to
flee Afghanistan. They include a number of bodyguards for Osama bin Laden. At
least several of the "Dirty Thirty" terrorists remain at Guantánamo.
But how should the Obama administration weigh the intelligence
against Guantánamo residents who lack even Qahtani's high profile? We have
identified four red flags the Obama administration should look for in the
Guantánamo files. This methodology bears some similarities to that employed by
the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point in its study of the
documents generated by the CSRTs at Guantánamo. Our study reviews those files,
as well as the more comprehensive documents produced during the ARB hearings at
Guantánamo. The new administration, of course, will have access to both of
those sets of documents, as well as to the classified information on each
RED FLAG 1: Evidence that a detainee was committed to waging
jihad, or holy war, against the perceived enemies of Islam is our first red
flag. Jihad was a powerful motivation for many of the Guantánamo detainees, who
traveled hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to get to Afghanistan. The
Guantánamo files confirm that al Qaeda operates an extensive recruitment and
indoctrination network stretching from the heart of Arabia to the mosques of
Europe. Veteran jihadists, along with Islamic clerics, often act as recruiters,
enticing the willing with heroic tales of fighting Allah's war. The recruiters
frequently make travel arrangements, paying for recruits' travel and suggesting
common routes to Afghanistan (mostly through Pakistan and Iran). Sheikhs also
support al Qaeda's recruitment network by giving fiery sermons and issuing fatwas
(religious edicts) calling for Muslims to support the jihad in Afghanistan
against the United States, just as they called earlier for jihad against the
Soviets, then the Northern Alliance. The call for jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya
has also been a powerful recruitment tool, with wannabe jihadists sent first to
Afghanistan to learn how to fight.
Of the 242 current detainees identified by the Times,
our review found at least 116 (48 percent) to be allegedly connected to the
jihadist recruiting network. This includes both recruiters and those recruited
or inspired by the network to wage jihad. It does not include detainees who
decided on their own to wage jihad or were inspired by other means including al
One recruiter now at Guantánamo, a Mauritanian named
Mohamedou Slahi, is particularly noteworthy. Slahi swore bayat (an oath
of loyalty) to Osama bin Laden in 1990. He then trained at an al Qaeda camp in
Afghanistan beginning in January 1991, followed bin Laden to Sudan, and later
relocated to Germany. There, he recruited Ramzi Binalshibh and three 9/11
hijackers to al Qaeda's cause. The four recruits first traveled to Afghanistan
for training at Slahi's urging. Slahi also spent some time as the imam of a
mosque in Montreal. During Slahi's stint in Montreal, he allegedly facilitated
al Qaeda's "millennium plot" against the Los Angeles International
Airport (LAX). Ahmed Ressam, the would-be LAX bomber, was captured while
attempting to cross the Canadian border en route to California with a car full
of explosives. Slahi most likely mentored Ressam during their time together in
RED FLAG 2: On their way to join the jihad, most al Qaeda
and Taliban recruits stay in guesthouses. The Obama administration should look
for connections with these establishments in the Guantánamo files. The
unclassified documents confirm that they are located throughout Pakistan,
Afghanistan, and Iran. The word "guesthouse" may sound innocuous at
first blush, but not just anyone can gain admittance. The guesthouse operators
usually require that a known al Qaeda or Taliban member vouch for those who
wish to stay there. And new residents are typically required to turn in their
passports or other identification papers, sometimes receiving a new identity,
before being shuttled off to a training facility or the front lines. The
guesthouses also provide rudimentary religious and weapons training and act as
staging facilities where jihadist fighters regroup between missions.
Of the 242 current detainees identified by the Times,
our review found that at least 146 (60 percent) are alleged to have either
operated or stayed in an al Qaeda or Taliban guesthouse.
Two guesthouse operators still in custody at Guantánamo
warrant special scrutiny. The Rabbani brothers, Abu Rahman and Mohammed,
operated a series of guesthouses for al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission report says
that the hijackers responsible for securing the planes on 9/11 stayed at a
guesthouse that KSM requested Abu Rahman to secure in Karachi, Pakistan. They
were then deployed to the United States. Other 9/11 hijackers stayed at the
Karachi guesthouse as well. One Guantánamo file notes that Abu Rahman
"identified 17 of the September 11, 2001, hijackers" as having stayed
at his guesthouse. He was also able to identify several of the terrorists
responsible for the August 7, 1998, embassy bombings as men he had assisted.
Mohammed Rabbani, according to the Guantánamo files, assisted the retreat of 50
to 60 al Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan in December 2001.
RED FLAG 3: The Taliban's Afghanistan was a hub for
terrorist training, and the Obama administration should look for evidence that
a Guantánamo detainee received or provided training at one of the many
facilities operated there by either the Taliban or al Qaeda. Prior to 9/11,
both al Qaeda and Taliban trainees mingled at training facilities throughout
Afghanistan. Some of these camps, such as the infamous al Farouq, offered basic
training for those wishing to fight. Other camps, such as bin Laden's Tarnak
Farms, were reserved for more specialized terrorist training. Recruits who
traveled to Afghanistan could learn everything from how to operate an AK-47 to
how to use poison or construct a truck bomb.
Of the 242 current detainees identified by the Times,
our review found that at least 174 (72 percent) were either trainers or
trainees. In a few instances, this training took place outside of Afghanistan,
in, for example, Bosnia or Pakistan.
Al Qaeda's trainers are typically drawn from the ranks of
the most experienced fighters. One current Guantánamo inmate, a Saudi named
Ahmed Zaid Salim Zuhair, fought in Bosnia in the 1990s and later became an
instructor at al Farouq. When captured, Zuhair had in his possession the watch
of an American named William Jefferson, who worked for the United Nations in
Bosnia and who was shot to death on November 21, 1995. One Guantánamo file
notes that Zuhair "is believed to be responsible" for Jefferson's
death. The Bosnian Supreme Court convicted Zuhair in 2000 for his participation
in a car bombing in Mostar on September 18, 1997. But he was not imprisoned.
Instead he remained at large, teaching others his methods for mayhem.
Another trainer in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, Noor Uthman
Mohammed, was the deputy in charge of the infamous Khalden camp. Khalden was
operated for years by high value detainee Abu Zubaydah and graduated many
famous recruits, including three of the 9/11 hijackers. After the fall of the
Taliban government in Afghanistan, Noor fled to Faisalabad, Pakistan, where he
stayed in a safe house that Zubaydah operated. Noor was detained alongside
Zubaydah, as well as several other current Guantánamo inmates, in late March
2002. One Guantánamo memo notes that Zubaydah was planning to use Noor in an
operation against Israel at the time of their capture. During his Combatant
Status Review Tribunal, Noor admitted that he was a trainer at Khalden and that
he knew Zubaydah, but claimed that none of this had anything to do with al
Qaeda. Noor's quasi-denial is meaningless-it is beyond dispute that Khalden was
part of al Qaeda's elaborate pre-9/11 training infrastructure.
Terrorist training in Afghanistan was so commonplace that
some current Guantánamo detainees have actually attempted to use it in their
defense. Binyam Mohammed is an Ethiopian who lived in the United States briefly
before moving to the United Kingdom in the 1990s. Mohammed has refused to
participate in his hearings at Guantánamo, but one file notes that he admitted
to his "personal representative" (provided to each detainee to
represent his interests) that he had traveled to Afghanistan to gain the skills
necessary to fight in Chechnya but had no other involvement with al Qaeda.
The government believes he was up to much more. According to
the Guantánamo files, Binyam met a number of high-ranking al Qaeda officials in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. They had tasked Binyam with attacking targets inside
the United States. At one point, Binyam and José Padilla, who has been
convicted on terrorism-related charges in a U.S. court, apparently investigated
the possibility of detonating a "dirty bomb" (made with radioactive
material) in the United States. This allegation has proven controversial as
detractors say there is no evidence that Binyam or Padilla was even close to
constructing such a device. But what is not widely appreciated is that the
dirty bomb plot is just one option they discussed with senior al Qaeda
terrorists. They also explored a wide range of possible targets and modes of
attack, from striking U.S. subways to setting apartment buildings on fire using
ordinary gas lines. Both Binyam and his would-be accomplice were caught before
any attack could be attempted. Padilla, an American citizen, was captured in
Chicago and underwent interrogation using highly controversial methods. Binyam
was captured in Pakistan and claims that he, too, was tortured.
RED FLAG 4: Finally, the new administration should look for
evidence of participation in hostilities in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Of the
242 current detainees identified by the Times, our review identified at
least 112 (46 percent) who are alleged to have participated in hostilities. The
bulk of these fought on the front lines in Afghanistan against either the
Northern Alliance or American forces. But this count also includes detainees
who were involved in terrorist attacks or were senior operational commanders in
charge of deployed forces.
One detainee, Mohammed Fazl, was the Taliban's army chief of
staff. He surrendered to the Northern Alliance with a force of more than 1,000
soldiers. The government's file on Fazl notes that he "was responsible for
widespread atrocities against noncombatants."
In sum, 227 (94 percent) of the 242 detainees we studied in
detail had at least one of the four red flags outlined above; 181 (75 percent)
had two or more red flags. Ultimately, however, this methodology is intended
only to be suggestive. There are many other factors the Obama administration
should study when weighing its options. Collectively, for example, the
detainees have extensive ties to Islamic charities that are known to be al
Qaeda fronts. And many of the remaining inmates have interacted with senior al
Qaeda officials, including Osama bin Laden. Only a careful review of all of the
intelligence on the detainees, classified as well as unclassified, can
illuminate just who these individuals are and what they were up to at the time
of their capture.
The new administration will also have to contend with the
roadblocks that have frustrated its predecessor's efforts to send detainees
back to their home countries. Approximately 100 Yemenis, for instance, remain
at Guantánamo, but as one file notes, "Yemen is not a nation supporting
the Global War on Terrorism." Terrorists detained by Yemini authorities
have a pattern of finding their way back to the battlefield.
When President-elect Obama spoke so confidently of closing Guantánamo
on 60 Minutes, he had a receptive audience. For years, the dominant
story in the media has been the excesses of the Bush administration. Amazingly,
much of this narrative was written by self-interested former inmates and the
detainees' attorneys. They are always eager to provide journalists with
statements about the evils of Guantánamo.
Throughout the controversy, the Bush administration has made
only minimal efforts to engage its critics or explain its actions to the
American people. As a result, coverage of Guantánamo has been one-sided, and
the intelligence contained in the thousands of pages of unclassified documents
has largely been ignored. The full story of the Guantánamo detainees remains to
The faults of the Bush administration go beyond its strange
failure to make its case to the public. Its refusal to release a complete list
of the remaining detainees is an example of secrecy taken too far. Its use of
techniques of dubious legality and morality to extract information is rightly questioned.
And the military commissions approved by President Bush have proceeded at a
snail's pace-only two detainees have been tried.
Obama will probably end the military commission system. He
has suggested that he wants to try some of the detainees in a civilian court.
But trying the most dangerous terrorists, such as the 14 high value detainees,
in a civilian court will give them a forum in which to grandstand. Classified
information, which may be necessary to convict them on some charges, will be difficult
to protect in such a setting. It is possible that the Obama administration will
create a special national security court to handle some of the cases. This is
not a bad idea.
When the Bush administration sent the first detainees to the
U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay in 2002, it was improvising-understandable in
a situation without precedent. The captured jihadists and terrorist agents were
not conventional prisoners of war, and they were not ordinary criminals. In the
ensuing seven years, the administration failed to replace its stopgap measure
with an institutional response seen as legitimate. Bush's successors should
remember, however, that he took the steps he did in the context of a war
against enemies who are still seeking to attack our homeland. President Bush,
whatever his faults, protected America after September 11, 2001. Shortly, it
will fall to President Obama to do the same.