Guantanamo: Litigation

Thomas Joscelyn on Al Alwi

By Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, August 3, 2011, 8:56 AM

Over at the Long War Journal, Thomas Joscelyn--with whom Bobby and I have lately been sparring on Guantanamo transfers--has an interesting piece on the D.C. Circuit's recent decision in Al Alwi. The piece is interesting largely for its description of the intelligence about Al Alwi that didn't make it into the litigation, presumably because of concerns about voluntariness. Joscelyn writes, relying on Al Alwi's Wikileaked threat assessment,

Al Alwi was originally "recruited through an al Qaeda associated Salafist network linked to Sheikh Muqbil Bin Hadi al Wadi," JTF-GTMO found. Al Alwi admitted that he visited Sheikh Wadi and that he attended the al Furqan Institute. Sheikh Wadi, who died in 2001, recruited jihadists for training in Afghanistan at both al Furqan and the al Dimaj Institute in Yemen.Although al Alwi made some important admissions about his time in Afghanistan, authorities at Guantanamo concluded that he was never truly forthcoming.

Al Alwi used a "known cover story" and withheld "significant details of his activities, associates, facilities, times, and locations in Afghanistan" during questioning, the JTF-GTMO threat assessment reads. In particular, al Alwi claimed that he first traveled to Afghanistan in 2001, but JTF-GTMO's analysts found that this conflicted with other parts of al Alwi's own story, as well as additional intelligence placing him in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

JTF-GTMO determined that al Alwi was a bodyguard for bin Laden and also received advanced terrorist training in al Qaeda's camps. But al Alwi never did admit that either of those allegations was true. Other detainees in US custody, however, did.

Al Alwi was captured in December 2001 as he fled the Tora Bora Mountains. He was captured as part of a group referred to in JTF-GTMO documents as the "Dirty 30," which was comprised mainly of Osama bin Laden's elite bodyguards.

One member of the "Dirty 30" was Mohammed al Qahtani, the so-called "20th hijacker." Qahtani was slated to take part in the September 11 attacks but was denied entry into the US in the summer of 2001. Qahtani, whose detention has been controversial because of the harsh interrogation methods employed during his questioning, was one of several detainees to identify al Alwi. Qahtani identified al Alwi as "a veteran fighter in Afghanistan."

Ahmed Ghailani, who helped plot al Qaeda's August 1998 embassy bombings, "photo-identified" al Alwi to his interrogators as well. According to the leaked threat assessment, Ghailani said al Alwi was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. While he was detained by the CIA, Ghailani was subjected to controversial interrogation techniques. He was later transferred to the US to stand trial and convicted of terrorism-related charges.

Other detainees held at Guantanamo identified al Alwi as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, too.

JTF-GTMO concluded that al Alwi, whose internment serial number is 28, received "elite hand-to-hand combat training taught by" Walid Bin Attash, a top al Qaeda operative who was involved in both the 9/11 plot and the USS Cole bombing. Attash, who is also known as Khallad, conducted the training course at al Qaeda's Mes Aynak camp in Afghanistan.

The leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment notes that the training sessions were "also attended by al Qaeda members slated for the cancelled Southeast Asia 11 September 2001 attacks." As part of the September 11 operation, al Qaeda originally planned to attack targets on the West Coast of the US using planes flying from Southeast Asia. Osama bin Laden reportedly canceled this part of the operation because he feared it would be too difficult to strike both East Coast and West Coast targets at the same time.

A biography of Khallad released by US intelligence officials provides additional details about the training at Mes Aynak. Osama bin Laden asked Khallad "to help select about two-dozen experienced and reliable operatives for special training" there. Khallad "supervised the training" and many of his trainees went on to achieve infamy.

One of Khallad's trainees "became a suicide bomber in the Cole operation." Two others "were later 11 September hijackers." Another trainee "was a cell leader who was killed during the suicide bombings in Riyadh in May 2003." Still another "gained renown for his involvement in the bombing of the Limburg in October 2002 and for his plot to assassinate the US Ambassador to Yemen."

Khallad, who was interrogated as part of the CIA's so-called enhanced interrogation program, told his interrogators that al Alwi was among these trainees.

The training at Mes Aynak was not the only terrorist training al Alwi received, according to the leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment. Alwi was also allegedly trained at al Qaeda's al Farouq camp. Top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah told authorities that al Alwi may have been trained at the Khalden camp as well. Before being transferred to Guantanamo, Zubaydah was held in the CIA's custody and waterboarded in 2002. In 2005, Zubaydah told US authorities that he saw al Alwi "several times during 2000 and 2001."

In all likelihood, the damning statements made by senior al Qaeda terrorists were not introduced during al Alwi's habeas proceedings because of the controversies surrounding their interrogations.

It is impossible, of course, to assess how reliable this material is, but it's a good reminder that what shows up in habeas litigations is often only a piece of what the government believes--the piece it has the greatest confidence will stand up in court.