A former detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility was killed by Yemeni forces during a raid in Arhab, which is north of the capital Sanaa, on Dec. 17. The former detainee, Hani Abdo Shaalan, was preparing attacks along with other al Qaeda terrorists against the British embassy and other Western targets at the time.
The raid that killed Shaalan was one of several operations carried out across Yemen – in Arhab, Sanaa, and the southern province of Abyan – against al Qaeda targets. The Yemeni government claims that dozens of suspected terrorists have been killed, while dozens more have been captured. Shaalan’s death has been confirmed by both the Yemeni government and a human rights activist familiar with his case, according to the Washington Post.
A statement by the Yemeni government released on the 26Sep.net web site, which is affiliated with Yemen’s defense ministry, said that the impending terrorist attack against the British embassy and other targets was “in its final phase” of planning. “A group of eight suicide bombers were to carry out the operation using explosive belts and two car bombs,” Agence France Presse, quoting from the statement, reported.
The plot against the British embassy “was to be modeled on the operation that was carried out against the American embassy” in September 2008, the statement added. That attack killed 19 people, including one American. Another former Gitmo detainee, Said al Shihri, a Saudi who is currently the number two deputy of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, reportedly helped plan the September 2008 attack.
Hani Abdo Shaalan joins a growing list of former Gitmo detainees who have joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is the strongest branch of al Qaeda outside of South Asia.
In addition to al Shihri, at least 10 other former Gitmo detainees were included on the Saudi Kingdom’s list of 85 most wanted terrorists in February. All of them were graduates of the Saudi rehabilitation program. One of them has since then reportedly turned himself in. But others either remain at large or have been killed in fighting.
Ibrahim Rubaish is a former Gitmo detainee who has become AQAP’s chief ideologue. Rubaish is responsible for providing the theological justifications for AQAP’s terror. Two other former Gitmo detainees who fled to Yemen along with Rubaish have been killed in shootouts. [See LWJ reports “Former Gitmo detainee killed in shootout” and “Another former Gitmo detainee killed in shootout.”]
All of the above former Gitmo detainees who have joined AQAP are Saudis. Shaalan is now the first Yemeni who was detained at Guantanamo and confirmed to have joined AQAP upon his release.
A Taliban ‘chef’s assistant’ who was admittedly armed at Tora Bora
Shaalan, who was listed as Hani Abdul Muslih al Shulan during his time at Gitmo, was transferred to Yemeni custody on June 18, 2007. During his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) at Gitmo, Shaalan said he first traveled from Yemen to Afghanistan “to get employment and save money.” Shaalan claimed that his father paid for his trip, and downplayed his ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda.
US military and intelligence officials did not buy Shaalan’s story. And Shaalan made important admissions during his CSRT.
US officials found that Shaalan’s “travel to Afghanistan was facilitated by a Yemeni national known to have recruited Yemeni men to fight the Jihad against the Russians in Chechnya,” according to a June 10, 2005 memo. Shaalan decided to travel to Afghanistan “in response to a fatwa for the purpose of fighting coalition forces.”
During his CSRT, Shaalan denied that his travel to Afghanistan was inspired by a fatwa or that anyone convinced him to leave for South Asia. However, Shaalan’s own testimony indicated that he was likely recruited by a jihadist recruiter. When asked how he knew where to go in Pakistan and then Afghanistan, Shaalan said he met “a man who gave me directions and was guiding me how to get there.” Shaalan said the man’s name was Saleh al Raeni, and that he was associated with “a mosque called al Forkan.”
It is possible, if not likely, that Shaalan was referring to the Furqan Institute in Yemen. According to another memo produced at Gitmo, the Furqan Institute “was a meeting and recruiting ground for jihadist[s] in Yemen. Many Yemeni al Qaeda members have links to the institute, specifically a number of the al Qaeda members involved in the” attack on the USS Cole.
Another indication that Shaalan was initially recruited for jihad is that he stayed “in Taliban safe houses during his travel to and within Afghanistan,” according to the transcript of his CSRT hearing. Shaalan did not deny this allegation. “I had to stay in a place that was safe,” Shaalan said. Taliban and al Qaeda safe houses are governed by strict security protocols, so not just anyone can gain access. That Shaalan stayed in Taliban safe houses is, therefore, an indication that a known Taliban or al Qaeda member vouched for him.
During his CSRT, Shaalan claimed he was just a “chef’s assistant” and was coy about his time in Afghanistan, claiming that he could not remember if he was employed by the Taliban north or south of Kabul. At one point in custody, according to a US government memo, Shaalan “stated that his job was to prepare food that was later transported to soldiers fighting on the front lines.”
It is possible that his role went beyond that of a mere cook, however. US officials found that he spent “two months at a Taliban camp.” When he was captured, Shaalan also had in his possession “a Casio watch, model # A159W, which has been used in bombings linked to al Qaeda.” Although Casio is a common brand of watch, al Qaeda and Taliban trainees frequently received certain models as part of their training. These watches work well when attempting to detonate an improvised explosive device, or other types of bombs. Thus, Shaalan’s watch may be an indication that he received training on explosives. For his part, Shaalan denied having anything to do with explosives during his CSRT.
Whether Shaalan was trained or not, he was armed at Tora Bora, which was a stronghold for Taliban and al Qaeda members following the US-led invasion in late 2001. The US government found that he was “present in the Tora Bora region during the US air campaign.” Shaalan denied being there during the air campaign, but conceded that he fled through the Tora Bora Mountains for Pakistan with “a lot of people.”
One member of Shaalan’s tribunal asked him, “Were any of them armed?” Shaalan responded, “Some of them, they were carrying weapons.”
“Were you carrying one a the same time?,” a tribunal member asked. Shaalan admitted, “Yes, I was.”
Despite admitting that he was armed at Tora Bora, Shaalan refused to tell the Gitmo tribunal whether or not he believed in waging jihad. When asked, “Do you believe in jihad?,” Shaalan responded: “That is not included in my unclassified evidence.”
A tribunal member pressed, “Did you go to Afghanistan to fight jihad?”
“The first question was why I went to Afghanistan. I have already answered that question,” Shaalan said, even though he never really answered questions concerning his ideological beliefs one way or the other.
Given recent events, Shaalan had a good reason to be evasive when asked about his jihadist inclinations. After leaving Gitmo, Shaalan rejoined one of the strongest al Qaeda branches on the globe, and reportedly helped his fellow jihadists plan an attack against the British embassy and other Western targets prior to his death.