December 19, 2014 | The Weekly Standard
The Uruguay Six
On Sunday, December 7, a U.S. military medical aircraft landed in South America, to deliver six jihadists from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to Uruguay. For more than a dozen years, these six men had been held as dangerous enemies of the United States. Suddenly, Uruguay treated them as refugees, even victims, and the Obama administration didn’t object.
In a statement on December 5, two days before their arrival, the president of Uruguay, José Mujica, condemned the United States. “We have offered our hospitality for humans suffering a heinous kidnapping in Guantánamo,” Mujica wrote. “The unavoidable reason is humanitarian.” The Obama administration didn’t dispute his characterization and instead offered thanks on behalf of all of us. “The United States is grateful to the government of Uruguay for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay facility.”
In Uruguay, the controversy over the Gitmo six continued to swirl more than a week after their arrival. So Mujica held a press conference. “I never doubted, just by using my common sense, that they were paying for something they never did,” Mujica said of the former detainees, according to the Associated Press. “We considered this to be a just cause and we had to help them.”
Mujica made public a document that he said was authored by the State Department. Dated December 2, it is signed by Clifford M. Sloan, President Obama’s special envoy for closing Guantánamo. After listing the six detainees who would be transferred to Uruguay, the document reads: “There is no information that the above mentioned individuals were involved in conducting or facilitating terrorist activities against the United States or its partners or allies.”
Mujica portrayed the document as vindication for his “blame America” rhetoric in taking in the six men. But the document published online (just one page from a longer file) is carefully worded. It is also misleading.
If by “terrorist activities” the State Department means spectacular attacks like those that occurred on September 11, 2001, it is technically correct. But there are plenty of worrisome “terrorist activities” that fall short of that standard. The State Department document doesn’t exonerate the six detainees or portray them as innocents who were wrongly detained, as Mujica did. It does not say the men were unconnected to al Qaeda at the time of their capture. That’s because the State Department cannot honestly make such representations.
Publicly available documents, including secret Joint Task Force-Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessments that were leaked online, paint Uruguay’s newest residents in a far more troubling light. JTF-GTMO, which oversees the detention facility, deemed five of the six to be “high” risks, who are “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies.” It recommended that all five high- risk detainees remain in the Defense Department’s custody. Only one man was determined to be a “medium” risk, who “may pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies,” and JTF-GTMO recommended that he be transferred out of DOD custody.
The intelligence in JTF-GTMO’s files connects all six to senior al Qaeda operatives, including Abu Zubaydah, who remains in custody at Guantánamo. A common myth holds that Abu Zubaydah was not really a full-blown al Qaeda member at the time of his capture in late March 2002. But there is abundant evidence, including in the leaked JTF-GTMO files, that this is an absurd reading of history. Numerous reports situate Zubaydah at the epicenter of al Qaeda’s operations when he was finally tracked down in Faisalabad, Pakistan.
Four of the six men—Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, Ali Husein Shaaban, Abd al Hadi Omar Mahmoud Faraj, and Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab—were members of what JTF-GTMO dubbed the “Syrian Group.” They allegedly belonged to a terrorist cell run by Abu Musab al Suri, a senior al Qaeda ideologue who is thought to be in the custody of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. They fled Syria for Afghanistan, where they were enrolled in various terrorist training camps affiliated with, or run by, al Qaeda.
According to the JTF-GTMO files, at least three of the four—Ahjam, Shaaban, and Faraj—stayed in a guesthouse that Zubaydah funded. There, JTF-GTMO’s military intelligence analysts assessed, they received “suicide operations training provided by” an al Qaeda leader known as Sheikh Issa al Masri. Sheikh Issa was responsible for indoctrinating numerous jihadists prior to and after 9/11. Issa’s specialty was convincing young men that suicide attacks are divinely mandated.
After the U.S.-led bombing campaign began in late 2001, the three Syrians retreated to Tora Bora, where, JTF-GTMO concluded, they “participated in hostilities against US and Coalition forces” in Osama bin Laden’s mountain complex under the command of a top al Qaeda leader. The Battle of Tora Bora was a seminal event in al Qaeda’s history, as much of the group’s top leadership slipped away. The jihadists who fought there did so to defend bin Laden in what was believed, at the time, to be al Qaeda’s last stand.
The three Syrians—Ahjam, Shaaban, and Faraj—were subsequently captured after they fled Tora Bora for Pakistan. They were not “kidnapped,” as President Mujica claimed. They were detained as enemy combatants in al Qaeda’s war against the United States. And while the State Department may claim that they did not participate in “terrorist activities,” the JTF-GTMO assessments conclude they fought on behalf of senior al Qaeda figures who did.
The fourth member of the Syrian group transferred to Uruguay, Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab, is described in the JTF-GTMO files as a “document forger who provided services to the network operated by” Zubaydah, “supporting European, North African, and Levant extremists” by “facilitating their international travels.” Diyab is an “associate of several other significant al Qaeda members,” including Mohammed Zammar, the al Qaeda recruiter responsible for wooing the men who would become kamikaze pilots on 9/11. Diyab is also affiliated with “other facilitators and identified document forgers,” which may come in handy if he wants to travel the world once again.
Abdul Bin Mohammed Bin Abess Ourgy, a Tunisian, is the fifth of the high-risk detainees transferred to Uruguay. JTF-GTMO concluded that Ourgy was both a “member of al Qaeda and a finance operative for the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG),” which acted as an arm of al Qaeda in Europe prior to 9/11. The TCG was connected to multiple thwarted plots, including a planned attack on the U.S. embassy in Rome in early 2001. JTF-GTMO concluded that Ourgy attended the meeting at which the TCG was established and that he worked for a jihadist known as Abu Iyad al Tunisi, who led the TCG. After he was freed from a prison in Tunisia in 2011, Tunisi founded Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, which was responsible for assaulting the U.S. embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012.
JTF-GTMO found that Ourgy may have had foreknowledge of the September 9, 2001, assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader. Massoud’s assassination was a key part of al Qaeda’s 9/11 plot, as it removed one of the Taliban’s most effective opponents from the battlefield in anticipation of America’s expected retaliation. Abu Zubaydah identified Ourgy as a trainee at his terrorist camp. And a document found on 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s hard drive identified Ourgy, using his alias, as a “captured al Qaeda member-fighter.”
The sixth and final ex-detainee is Mohammed Abdullah Tahamuttan, who is originally from the West Bank. Tahamuttan was deemed a “medium” risk by JTF-GTMO. He was captured during the same raids that netted Abu Zubaydah in late March 2002. The safe houses where Tahamuttan, Zubaydah, and others were captured were operated by Lashkar-e-Taiba, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group in Pakistan. JTF-GTMO concluded that Tahamuttan was a member of Zubaydah’s Martyrs Brigade, which was created for the “purpose of returning to Afghanistan to conduct improvised explosive devices (IED) attacks against US and Coalition forces.”
It is often reported in the press that Guantánamo detainees, such as the six transferred to Uruguay, have been “cleared for release.” The implication is that the detainees have been “cleared” of wrongdoing and can be “released” without any reason for concern. In reality, neither the six detainees transferred to Uruguay nor any other remaining Guantánamo detainees have been “cleared for release.”
Dozens have been “approved for transfer” by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, and ongoing reviews have led to additional transfer recommendations. But when a detainee is transferred out of Guantánamo, the U.S. government typically requires the new host country to enact certain security measures. In practice, it is nearly impossible to ensure that those measures are enforced. An increasing number of recidivist cases around the world demonstrate that ex-detainees can and have quickly made their way back to the fight.
In its recommendations, filed in January 2010, President Obama’s Guantánamo task force determined that the six detainees now in Uruguay should be transferred “to a country outside the United States that will implement appropriate security measures.” The task force stressed in its final report that “all transfer decisions were made subject to the implementation of appropriate security measures in the receiving country, and extensive discussions are conducted with the receiving country about such security measures before any transfer is implemented.”
Obama’s task force could not have known that Uruguay would be the “receiving country” for the six detainees, but it did envision that whatever country agreed to take them would put in place “appropriate security measures.”
The comments made by President José Mujica suggest the government of Uruguay did not get this message. According to Mujica, the United States is the bad guy in this tale, and the detainees are “kidnapped” innocents. Don’t expect any contradiction from the Obama administration, which is just happy that they are no longer in America’s custody.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.