The Gitmo-Yemen-Flight 253 Connection: What We Know And How We Know It

With the news Tuesday that the Obama Administration has decided to halt transfers of Gitmo detainees to Yemen, it’s worth taking a closer look at what we do — and do not — know about the activity of former detainees in the group known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

That’s the al Qaeda “affiliate” that claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas attack over Detroit, and that President Obama has fingered as training and equipping Umar Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man arrested in that incident.Despite the paucity of reliable information available, the public discussion of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, especially in the days since the Detroit incident, has at times taken on a certainty and concreteness that seems to go beyond what’s known about the group and the role of ex-detainees from Gitmo.

So what do we actually know about ex-detainees in Yemen? TPMmuckraker asked several experts, and here’s what we found out:

There are a handful of ex-detainees believed to be active in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. What’s known and how reliably varies from case to case, but the information comes primarily from three sources: the Saudi government, the Pentagon, and the ex-detainees’ own statements.

Take Said Ali al-Shihri, for instance. More is publicly known about him and his role than any other ex-detainee in the group, but what we think we know still constitutes a thin sketch, and his role remains elusive.

Al-Shihri, who the AP profiled last week, was described as “deputy leader” of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in a video the group released in January 2009. (It’s worth keeping in mind here that position titles suggest a more rigid organizational structure than may actually exist, according to Center for American Progress national security analyst Ken Gude.)

While it seems generally accepted that al-Shihri is part of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula at a high level, Gude cautions that, because of the nature of the sources and the near-impossibility of fact-checking, “it’s very difficult to say we know anything with certainty, in all of this.”

Al-Shihri, a Saudi national, traveled to Afghanistan after 9/11 with money to give to the Red Crescent, according to the Defense Department. The DOD claims that he was trained in “urban warfare,” that he “participated in” military operations against the U.S., and that he was wounded in an airstrike. He was captured in late 2001 and held at Gitmo until the Bush Administration released him to a Saudi rehabilitation program in November 2007.

In the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula video last year, al-Shiri said, “By God, our imprisonment has only increased our persistence and adherence to our principles,” according to the AP. Another ex-detainee the AP describes as a “theological adviser” for the group, Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, once cited Gitmo as a motive for a failed attack.

While ABC reported that al-Shihri was personally behind the Christmas plot, that has not been confirmed. The same ABC story demonstrated the hazards of tracking ex-Gitmo detainees, erroneously reporting that another ex-detainee planned the attack along with al-Shihri. In fact, that man, Muhamad Attik al-Harbi, also known as Muhamad al-Awfi, had turned himself in early last year and ended up in the hands of Saudi authorities.

To get a sense of some of the sourcing problems, check out this DOD document from April on Gitmo “recividism” — a term that wrongly assumes that all detainees entered Gitmo as terrorists. Sources are generally not cited, and details are thin. The New York Times has compiled an excellent index of government documents on Gitmo detainees, searchable by name.

Another source is a “most wanted” list of 85 suspected terrorists put out by the Saudi government last year, according to Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert with the Carnegie Endowment.

Boucek tells TPMmuckraker there are 11 Saudi ex-detainees on the list, including al-Shihri. One is the man who turned himself in, and two others are thought to have been killed. That leaves eight suspected terrorist ex-detainees, who are all said by the Saudis to be in Yemen and active in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

While eight ex-detainees active in the group appears to be the highest estimate in circulation, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) said on ABC Sunday that “the core group of Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula is formed by former Gitmo detainees.”

Boucek says that “American security officials will tell you that they are worried about several hundred operatives or cells” in the group; that same “several hundred” figure has been reported widely. Eight out of several hundred is a small percentage, and Hoekstra did not offer evidence that ex-detainees make up the group’s leadership.

There’s also evidence that at least one of the ex-detainees who became involved in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula did not start out a hardened terrorist. Here’s the Washington Post account of Hani Abdo Shaalan, who was picked up as a chef’s assistant in a Taliban camp in 2001:

The Yemeni former Guantanamo detainee who joined al-Qaeda was among four suspects killed by Yemeni forces in a Dec. 17 raid north of the capital, according to a Yemeni official and a human rights activist. Hani Abdo Shaalan, who was released from the U.S. facility in June 2007, and three other suspected militants were planning to bomb the British Embassy and other Western sites, said a Yemeni official who was briefed on the operation.

Shaalan, 30, had traveled to Afghanistan by way of Pakistan in July 2001. He was searching for work, according to his Combatant Status Review Tribunal. He eventually found work as a chef’s assistant in a Taliban camp and was at Tora Bora during the U.S. air campaign there. Pakistani forces captured him in their country, near the Afghan border.

Gude, of the Center for American Progress, argues that rates of ex-detainees engaging in terrorism are actually quite low. The Pentagon document puts the figure at 5% confirmed, or 14% confirmed plus suspected.

Gude, who supports closing Gitmo, believes these numbers must be accepted as a result of the conflict the United States is in.

“The bottom line is that people who are released from Guantanamo are going to commit violence. It’s just going to happen, just like people released from U.S. prisons will commit violence,” he says. “We have to take every step we possibly can to reduce those instances.”