The Defense Department announced the transfer of two Guantanamo detainees to Saudi Arabia today. Saad Muhammad Husayn Qahtani and Hamood Abdulla Hamood were both previously approved for transfer from the detention facility by President Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force.
The task force made its final recommendations in January 2010. The body concluded that both men could be transferred “subject to appropriate security measures.”
Previously, Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) recommended that both detainees be retained in US custody. JTF-GTMO’s threat assessments for both detainees, which were authored before the task force was commissioned in January 2009, have been leaked online.
JTF-GTMO classified both men as “high” risks who are “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies.”
Military officials determined that both men had served in Osama bin Laden’s 55th Arab Brigade, which “served as [bin Laden’s] primary battle formation supporting Taliban objectives, with [bin Laden] participating closely in the command and control of the brigade.”
JTF-GTMO’s disagreement with Bush administration’s transfer approval
Prior to the decision by President Obama’s task force, Qahtani was also approved for transfer by a designated civilian official in the Bush administration. According to a leaked memo dated Jan. 5, 2009, however, JTF-GTMO disagreed with this official’s decision.
JTF-GTMO concluded that Qahtani is an “al Qaeda member who swore allegiance to Osama Bin Laden” and “participated in hostilities against US and Coalition forces on the front lines and in [bin Laden’s] Tora Bora Mountain complex in Afghanistan.”
JTF-GTMO warned that Qahtani admitted “receiving al Qaeda funds for distribution on the front lines” and that he “attended extremist training camps,” where he “possibly received additional, advanced training.” Qahtani also allegedly “acknowledged his associations with numerous al Qaeda members, leaders, and other extremists, including at least five 11 September 2001 hijackers.”
In addition to allegedly admitting his ties al Qaeda, JTF-GTMO reported that Qahtani “admitted associations with multiple terrorist groups and terrorist support entities,” including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), both of which have been supported by the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment.
An unnamed “senior al Qaeda member” also reportedly told authorities that Qahtani had “volunteered for a suicide mission.” The senior al Qaeda leader who fingered Qahtani is not identified in the Guantanamo files, but a footnote indicates that this reporting was from 2004.
Qahtani’s testimony at Guantanamo
According to declassified documents, Qahtani testified at least twice during hearings at Guantanamo. In general, Qahtani disputed the most serious allegations against him, even while admitting details that connected him to the al Qaeda network.
During his second administrative review board (ARB) hearing, Qahtani explained that when he first went to Afghanistan it was to train in Camp Khaldan. Numerous al Qaeda operatives received instruction at the camp, which was run by senior terrorists.
Qahtani said that a man he knew only as “Tariq” facilitated his travel to the camp.
Qahtani claimed that only later did he learn the facilitator’s “name was Abu Zubaydah, one of the Muslim fighters.”
“I called him [Abu Zubaydah] and he told me to go to Rawalpindi,” Qahtani said during the hearing. “He told me to go to a certain place and he would come to take me from there.” Qahtani also conceded that he stayed with Zubaydah for 7 to 10 days, but claimed that he did not know of Zubaydah’s al Qaeda activities at the time.
Zubaydah was involved in multiple al Qaeda plots, including the planned millennium bombings in Jordan and California.
During his ARB testimony, Qahtani admitted that he served alongside the Taliban forces fighting the Northern Alliance. “I went to the front lines many times, but not all in the front lines,” he said. Asked if he joined the Taliban’s forces, Qahtani answered: “Yes and no. I went there. I was with the Pakistanis. I spent most of the time with them either in the front lines or in the city of Kabul.” Qahtani said he spent most of his time performing security or guard duty.
Like many other Saudi jihadist recruits, Qahtani was influenced by a fatwa that called on Muslims to support the Taliban. The fatwa that influenced Qahtani was co-authored by Sheikh Hammoud al Oqla, who died in 2001.
Al Oqla, according to the allegations read aloud at the ARB hearing, “condoned the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States” and “helped raise money for Osama bin Laden.” Al Oqla’s support for al Qaeda is well-known. An al Qaeda spokesman publicly praised the cleric in a video that aired in October 2001.
Qahtani said he wasn’t aware of Al Oqla’s endorsement of al Qaeda, but “he was a well-trusted scholar” and “one who knows all about the region and what is going on.”
Such fatwas loomed large in Qahtani’s decision-making, according to his testimony. He claimed that it was not until his third trip to South Asia that he took up arms because he did not initially have the proper fatwa to do so.
Asked about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Qahtani said he “disagree[d] with it.” But when pressed on whether or not the hijackers were “martyrs,” Qahtani said he couldn’t answer “yes” or “no.”
“I knew two of them [the 9/11 hijackers],” Qahtani said. They “are from my city,” he elaborated. “One of them studied with me. The other one is my neighbor. I didn’t expect them to do it.”
Later in the hearing, Qahtani said that just because he knew the hijackers it did not make him responsible for their actions.
“Do you consider yourself an al Qaeda mujahedin?” a military officer asked Qahtani.
“No,” he responded, arguing that he and his fellow Saudis had not even heard of al Qaeda.
A military official also asked about the allegation made by a senior al Qaeda operative, who claimed that Qahtani volunteered to be a suicide bomber. Qahtani denied the charge. “No. I disagree with it,” Qahtani claimed. “I know that, if I want to fight, I would be bombing people from farther away.”
Qahtani also said that if he were returned to Saudi Arabia he would live a peaceful life.
In its assessment, JTF-GTMO disagreed, concluding that Qahtani “is a likely recidivist candidate.”