Bin Laden's Guantanamo helpers
The WikiLeaks documents shed light on the lives of a small handful of Palestinians who were detained after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and held at Guantanamo.
He was born in the northern West Bank village of Burka on December 1, 1979. After completing school in Ramallah, he returned to his village and worked in his father's business. Several of his relatives were known Hamas supporters, and on several occasions they were arrested by the Shin Bet security service and jailed. But nothing in the biography of Mohammed Tahamatan suggested that this young Palestinian Hamas supporter would become an Al-Qaida explosives expert.
The story of Tahamatan's life appears in secret Pentagon file No. 20330416. The first of 10 pages bears his photograph and the logos of the U.S. Southern Command and Joint Task Force-Guantanamo. The file, dated April 16, 2008, bears the signature of Rear Admiral Mark H. Buzby, and it was to be sent as a memorandum to the Miami headquarters of the GOC U.S. Southern Command.
This is one of 759 classified files obtained by WikiLeaks about Muslims, many of them Arabs, who were suspected Al-Qaida members. A few media outlets, including The New York Times, the Guardian and Haaretz, obtained the documents from an independent source without the help of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is under house arrest in Britain awaiting his appeal not to be extradited to Sweden, where he faces charges of rape and sexual assault.
The 779 suspects (20 of them either died or their files were lost) were arrested in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, in response to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. Some have "blood on their hands," meaning they are alleged to have been involved in terrorist attacks against American and Western targets. Others had planned attacks but were caught first. Yet others were innocent Afghan or Pakistani peasants. They were held in secret jails, dubbed "black holes," in Europe and the Middle East, including in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt.
After interrogation they were flown to the detention camp at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo, Cuba. There, through torture, threats and other pressure tactics, new or additional confessions were extracted from them. The harsh interrogations affected their physical and mental health.
In the interim, some of the detainees have been released and have returned home. Currently, there are 172 detainees in Guantanamo; the Obama administration is having a hard time deciding what to do with them.
The documents are based on the suspects' confessions to their American interrogators, as well as on information gleaned from other intelligence sources, including informants and their own peers. Some of the suspects cooperated, others refused to do so and some resisted their jailers violently .
The detainees include a few Palestinians who were born in the West Bank or Gaza or to Palestinian parents living in Arab countries. Haaretz has focused on the stories of Tahamatan and two other Palestinians.
Tahamatan told his interrogators that he left the family business in January 1998 and went to Amman, where he stayed with the Jordanian branch of Jama'at al-Tablighi, an international Islamic society, while awaiting a visa to Saudi Arabia. The visa arrived five days later and Tahamatan went to the city of Medina, where he attended the Islamic University for less than two weeks. In 1999, he went to Pakistan in order to continue his religious studies through Jama'at al-Tablighi.
After four months in Pakistan, the document continues, Tahamatan developed "stomach problems" and returned to his family in Ramallah. In October 2001, after war broke out in Afghanistan, he returned to Amman, obtained a visa to Pakistan and flew to Karachi, ostensibly to pursue his religious studies. In February 2002, he met a Pakistani man who invited him to stay at his home in Faisalabad, in the Punjab province. A few days later, he moved to a guest house the document calls "Issa's House," named for its owner. There he met students from Yemen.
According to U.S. intelligence, "Issa's House" was actually a safe house for Al-Qaida activists pretending to be Islamic religious students. There Tahamatan was arrested, along with another 15 suspected Al-Qaida activists, in a raid by Pakistani police and intelligence officials. During the raid there was an exchange of gunfire, and one of the suspects was killed. Tahamatan was initially held in Pakistani prisons, but after three months, he was transferred to U.S. intelligence custody and flown to Guantanamo.
Tahamatan "has been uncooperative and, at times, defiant and argumentative," the document states. The interrogators believe he "continues to withhold information, and uses a common Al-Qaida cover story (religious study and JT travel ) to hide his true activities while in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Affiliation with the JT has been identified as an Al-Qaida cover story and Al-Qaida is known to have used the JT to facilitate and fund the international travels of its members. The true extent of his activities has not yet been fully determined. Although detainee has not admitted he traveled to Afghanistan, other detainees have recognized him from the Al-Faruq Training Camp."
The document notes that Tahamatan "is on a list of high-risk detainees from a health perspective. Detainee is in general good physical health. However, he has diagnosis of major depression. Detainee has medical conditions that are not life threatening. He has a history of a Hunger Strike. He has a history of anxiety and depression."
Subsequently, the document terms Tahamatan "a medium risk, as he may pose a threat to the U.S., its interests and allies." He is considered to be of "medium intelligence value," having been captured with members of an Al-Qaida cell (the "Martyrs' Brigade" ) controlled by someone the document codenames "GZ-10016." The cell and its commander are said to have planned attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan via "remotely detonated explosives activated by Pakistan-based triggermen using cell phones."
Moreover, the document adds, "Detainee was identified as having traveled to Afghanistan as a member of the Palestinian extremist group Hamas for training and to support the Taliban." His legal status is that of "enemy combatant" (the Israeli equivalent is "illegal fighter" ), and he continues to be held in detention.
A pretend Palestinian?
Maher Rafat Al-Quwari, who was born in Gaza on February 18, 1965, moved to southern Lebanon, where he married. He then infiltrated into Jordan and from there Iraq, Iran and, in September 2001, Afghanistan. His personal file states he was "in charge of bookkeeping for supply and logistics operations" for Al-Qaida fighters and that "he carried a radio, which is often an indicator of importance in Al-Qaida hierarchy."
The document notes that he "was probably with Osama Bin Laden on more than one occasion." It also reveals that he was responsible for logistics in one of the caves in the Tora Bora Mountains, where bin Laden fought a rearguard battle in the Afghanistan war and escaped at the last minute, after deceiving the British and American Special Forces units closing in on him.
The document goes on to question whether Quwari is Palestinian at all, noting that a detainee referred to as "YM-252" stated that "he is an Egyptian pretending to be a Palestinian," as attested to by the fact "that detainee's kunya [Arabic for nickname] in Afghanistan was Maher al-Masri [Masri is Arabic for Egyptian]."
The man with the eye patch
The most fascinating figure among Guantanamo's documented Palestinians - and also the most colorful, because of his eye patch - is someone the American interrogators call Abu Zubaydah, one of whose aliases is "Simon the Palestinian."
He was born in 1971 in Riyadh to a family of Palestinian descent. "Detainee is a senior member of Al-Qaida with direct ties to multiple high-ranking terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden. Detainee has a vast amount of information regarding Al-Qaida personnel and operations and is an admitted operational planner, financier and facilitator of international terrorists and their activities," his personal file states.
One of the detainees told the interrogators that Abu Zubaydah was a member of Al-Qaida's supreme Shura Council and was responsible for providing members with forged documents; he was caught with 15 fake passports. Other detainees said he had forged hundreds of passports, credit cards and medical certificates for the group's terrorists.
By his own account, Abu Zubaydah left his home in Saudi Arabia to train in Pakistan "because he was inspired by the Palestinian cause." Until then, he said, he had been a "bad Muslim." His family, unhappy with his choice, sent his brother, a physician in Pakistan, to dissuade him, but to no avail. "Detainee noticed that of all the other groups in theater [that fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan], only Al-Qaida remained to continue the jihad struggle," and therefore "he decided to dedicate his life to jihad," his file states.
"Detainee submitted the requisite paperwork to join Al-Qaida and pledge bayat (an oath of allegiance ) to Osama Bin Laden," it continues. However, his application was rejected. Despite this, he was eventually accepted and underwent military training in Afghanistan in 1990, toward the end of the fight against the Soviet occupation. He was then sent to the front line, where he sustained a serious head wound from shrapnel and lost an eye. "Detainee stated he had to relearn fundamentals such as walking, talking and writing; as such, he was therefore considered worthless to Al-Qaida," the document notes.
An Al-Qaida commander approved his request to return to military training, but this time he "did not pledge bayat to Osama Bin Laden and did not become a full Al-Qaida member. Detainee refused to make the pledge unless Al-Qaida agreed to stage an attack inside Israel or mount an operation to help free Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman (a.k.a. the Blind Sheikh )," who was jailed for life in the United States after being convicted of trying to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. He also proposed blowing up an electrical grid in the United States.
According to Abu Zubaydah's personal file, he met personally with bin Laden at a safe house in Jalalabad in the summer of 2000, in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade him to reopen the Khaldan training camp, where he had been an instructor. "Detainee claimed that after Khaldan Camp was officially closed, he could focus on conducting operations including attacks in the U.S. to effect the release of Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman and attacks against Israel." In March 2001, he met again with bin Laden and Muhammad Atef (a.k.a. Abu Hafs al-Masri, considered the military commander of Al-Qaida; he was killed in an American bombing raid in Afghanistan in November 2001 ) "to discuss the possibility of conducting an attack in Israel." He raised $100,000 to that end.
The document does not specify what Israeli targets he wanted to attack, but his file contains testimony from another detainee indicating the war in Afghanistan aborted any plans Abu Zubaydah may have devised. He fled to Pakistan, and was arrested after being shot three times by the Pakistani security services in a Faisalabad safe house. Before his arrest, he had planned a mega-attack in Chicago and had spoken by phone to Jose Padilla, who was supposed to detonate a "dirty bomb" in the city. From Pakistan he was taken to the United States and then to Guantanamo, where he is still being held.
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