Ayman al Shurafa. Picture first published in Bild, a German newspaper.
Germany agreed to accept two Guantanamo detainees last week. In justifying the decision, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere explained: “The United States has asked us to take three people who were cleared for release. We decided to take in two who we were almost certain would pose no threat to society. With the third we weren’t sure.”
The Obama administration and the host country usually do not name the detainees who are awaiting transfer. The same was true during the Bush years, when detainee transfers went largely unreported.
But in this case the press has reported the identity of the two detainees in question. The German newspaper Bild has named them: Ayman al Shurafa, a 34-year-old citizen of Saudi Arabia, and Mahmud Salim al Ali, a 35-year-old Syrian.
A review of the declassified files produced at Gitmo, and available on The New York Times‘ web site (see here and here) reveals that the two were new jihadist recruits in 2001. Neither was a master terrorist at the time of their capture. However, both traveled to Afghanistan to receive training in al Qaeda’s camps, and one of the two allegedly wanted to conduct a “suicide operation.”
From Hamas recruit to al Qaeda trainee
Ayman al Shurafa, also known as Ohmed Ahmed Mahamoud al Shurfa (ISN # 331), is a Saudi citizen who was studying in the Palestinian territories when he decided to pursue jihad in 2001.
During his administrative review board (ARB) hearing at Gitmo, al Shurafa conceded that he had met with an unnamed “head or leader of Hamas” who al Shurafa described as “the sheikh.” US intelligence officials concluded that the Hamas leader spoke with al Shurafa about jihad and convinced him to join the cause.
After meeting with the Hamas sheikh, al Shurafa decided to return to Saudi Arabia, where his immediate family lived at the time. In Saudi Arabia, al Shurafa met with a Saudi sheikh who spoke to him about traveling to Afghanistan to train for jihad. During his ARB hearing, al Shurafa admitted to military officials that he had received, in the review board’s words, “a letter and 2,000 Saudi Arabian Riyals from a sheikh.” The letter contained “instructions to fly to Karachi, Pakistan and to call a contact when he arrived.”
This is typical of many al Qaeda and Taliban recruits. For decades, Saudi sheikhs have acted as recruiters and facilitators. They hold enormous sway throughout the Muslim world, particularly with men such as al Shurafa.
Indeed, al Shurafa dedicated himself to jihad, conceding during this ARB hearing that he “maintained his interest in jihad through conversations with a sheikh, reading the sheikh’s book, and a jihad Internet web site.” The hold of the sheikhs is so strong that even as he sat at Gitmo answering military officials’ questions, al Shurafa said he would “have to ask the higher religious leaders, the sheikhs” about the necessity of waging jihad if and when he was released from Gitmo.
“They tell us about our religion and what we are obligated to do,” al Shurafa explained.
Like many Gitmo detainees, al Shurafa initially downplayed the nefarious purpose for his trip to Afghanistan. During his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT), he claimed that he never did train at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan. Although al Shurafa admitted that he had gone to Afghanistan to receive “[a]ll types of training, military and physical fitness” in accordance with a fatwa (religious edict) for jihad, he said he never did enroll at a training camp and instead decided to teach the Koran. This is a common cover story used by Gitmo detainees.
By the time of his administrative review board (ARB) hearing months later, al Shurafa had changed his story. According to Gitmo intelligence personnel, al Shurafa “admitted to not telling the whole truth about why he went to Afghanistan.”
During questioning by a designated military officer, al Shurafa conceded that he had stayed in al Qaeda guesthouses, received training at al Qaeda’s notorious al Farouq training camp, and retreated with other al Qaeda and Taliban trainees to southern Afghanistan.
A transcript of al Shurafa’s ARB testimony reads:
Designated Military Officer: Around July 2001 the detainee arrived in Kandahar, Afghanistan [and] stayed at a guesthouse.
[Ayman al Shurafa]: I stayed at the guesthouse. Yes.
Designated Military Officer: The detainee evacuated the al Farouq training camp after 11 September 2001.
Al Shurafa: Yes.
Presiding Officer: You left the camp because of the events on September 11th, is that correct?
Al Shurafa: That was the reason. After September 11th and [when] we heard the news everyone left [the] camp. They thought they would be targeted.
Designated Military Officer: The detainee traveled to a guesthouse in Khowst, Afghanistan, where he joined a group of 15 Arabs who were going to the Pakistan border.
Al Shurafa: They weren’t all Arabs. There were some Pakistani’s, too. Afghan people were the guides.
Designated Military Officer: The detainee received training with the AK-47 at al Farouq.
Al Shurafa: Yes.
US military personnel concluded that al Shurafa had fled to the Tora Bora Mountains, along with al Qaeda and Taliban forces. But al Shurafa said he did not know the name of the mountain range. He also claimed that he did not know that al Farouq was associated with the Taliban or al Qaeda, even though al Farouq was the main terrorist training facility in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Al Shurafa also said he had been merely preparing to wage jihad, and had not actually gone through with the act.
Al Shurafa defined jihad as: “Fighting [and] protecting the Muslim lands. Like [when] the Russians and Afghanistan were fighting for the Muslim lands.”
The most serious allegation against al Shurafa is that “he received military training at al Farouq with the hope of conducting a suicide operation in the Palestinian territories.” When this allegation was read during his ARB hearing, al Shurafa asked if it was a factor in deciding whether to continue his detention. Military officials said that it was. Al Shurafa responded: “I strongly deny [it]. I strongly disagree. No one thinks that way. No human being thinks that way.”
Despite al Shurafa’s denials, US officials at Gitmo continued to assess that al Shurafa had wanted to conduct a suicide attack when he traveled to Afghanistan for training. A memo produced in July 2006, months after al Shurafa’s ARB testimony, repeated the allegation.
A post-9/11 jihadist recruit
The second detainee reportedly awaiting transfer to Germany is Mahmud Salim al Ali (ISN # 537), a Syrian who was living in Kuwait in late 2001 when he allegedly decided to travel to Afghanistan to fight US-led forces.
There are no publicly-available transcripts of Ali’s testimony at Gitmo. So, we do not know how Ali answered the allegations levied against him or even if he did challenge the allegations. It is possible that he chose not to attend his hearings, as some detainees decided not to testify before a tribunal or review board.
According to memos produced by US military officials, Ali “developed an interest in receiving jihad training as a result of owning several commercially available videos, which he had purchased in a shop in Kuwait.” Ali decided to travel to Afghanistan. He was allegedly “motivated to fight jihad after reading a fatwa in a newspaper, issued by a Saudi cleric who was encouraging Muslims to fight in Afghanistan.”
Ali told “his wife and mother of his decision to fight in Afghanistan.”
Ali traveled to Afghanistan using a known al Qaeda and Taliban transit route. In late October 2001, he traveled from Kuwait to Damascus, Syria, and then made four stops in Iran: Tehran, Mashad, Tayebat, and Zabol. Dozens of Guantanamo detainees used a similar travel route to Afghanistan.
Ali wanted to train at al Qaeda’s al Farouq camp, according to the Gitmo files, but it was closed down by the time he arrived. Trainees such as al Shurafa had already fled the facility in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Ali was captured in Afghanistan, while “carrying his Kalashnikov rifle.” He was allegedly “identified as a Taliban fighter who was in Kabul, Afghanistan, approximately two weeks before he was captured.”
At some point during his time in custody, Ali was “asked whether he wanted to fight against the United States” and he replied “that it was his desire to fight against non-Muslims categorically.” On another occasion, he told US officials that he only wanted to fight against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and not American forces.
According to Gitmo officials, Ali is a committed jihadist who “described jihad as the sixth pillar of Islam” and who traveled to Afghanistan “to defend Muslims.” He was apparently identified as a worrisome extremist before he even left Kuwait in late 2001. According to the Gitmo files, Ali “is on a list of foreign nationals targeted for deportation from Kuwait due to unspecified extremist activities or contacts with known extremists.”
Not “cleared for release”
In announcing Germany’s decision to take the two Gitmo detainees, Interior Minister de Maiziere said they had been “cleared for release.” However, the Obama administration task force responsible for determining the fate of the Gitmo detainees did not clear either al Shurafa or Ali for release. In fact, no detainees, save for some of the Uighur detainees, were approved for outright release.
Instead, the two detainees headed for Germany were “approved for transfer.” As the task force explained in its final report, which was completed in January of this year and released in May: “It is important to emphasize that a decision to approve a detainee for transfer does not reflect a decision that the detainee poses no threat or no risk of recidivism.”
The task force explained further that the word ‘transfer’ “is used to mean release from confinement subject to appropriate security measures.” That is, all of the detainees transferred to Europe are supposed to be subjected to some security measures by their new host country.
In practice, this is probably not the case, as there is wide latitude for European residents and citizens to travel around Europe.
It remains to be seen what security precautions, if any, Germany implements.