Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Othman Ahmed al Ghamdi, in a tape released by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Today, the US State Department designated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) commander Othman al Ghamdi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, under Executive Order 13224. Al Ghamdi is “a member of AQAP’s leadership” and “has been involved in raising funds for the organization’s operations and activities in Yemen,” according to a State Department press release. Al Ghamdi “has also worked with other AQAP members to plan and stockpile weapons for future attacks.”
The State Department’s press release does not mention that al Ghamdi was previously held at Guantanamo Bay. Al Ghamdi was captured in late 2001 by Pakistani police near the Afghan border. The Pakistanis turned al Ghamdi over to US custody on Dec. 31, 2001. American authorities transferred him to Guantanamo on Jan.14, 2002, making al Ghamdi one of the first war on terror detainees held in Cuba.
Al Ghamdi was held at Guantanamo for more than four years before he was repatriated to his native Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2006.
A leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment, dated June 6, 2005, reveals new details about Ghamdi’s time in US custody and the decision to transfer him. Ghamdi was found by JTF-GTMO to be a “medium” threat, as opposed to “high,” and was approved for transfer with conditions.
“JTF GTMO recommends this detainee be Transferred With Conditions to the Control of Another Country,” the leaked threat assessment reads. Al Ghamdi was one of many Saudi detainees whom JTF-GTMO approved for transfer with the understanding that the Saudi government would retain “control” over them. Al Ghamdi, like most of his Saudi compatriots, was placed in a jihadist rehabilitation program and released.
The decision to approve al Ghamdi for transfer differed from previous assessments. The leaked threat assessment notes that JTF-GTMO previously recommended that al Ghamdi be retained in the Department of Defense’s custody. The JTF-GTMO threat assessment does not offer any reasons for the change in recommendation.
Tried to hide identity
When al Ghamdi was first taken into US custody, he tried to hide his true identity by claiming to be a Yemeni. American officials deduced that al Ghamdi was really a Saudi only after discussing his case with Yemeni authorities, the leaked assessment notes. When confronted about his identity, al Ghamdi eventually admitted that he had lied to interrogators.
Al Ghamdi also admitted that he was trained at al Qaeda’s notorious al Farouq training camp shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, just before the facility was bombed. JTF-GTMO analysts surmised that al Ghamdi may have been deceptive about his time at al Farouq, however.
Al Ghamdi went AWOL from the Saudi military to join the jihad. As a member of the Saudi military, al Ghamdi surely had rudimentary weapons training. But al Ghamdi apparently conceded only that he had received light arms training at al Farouq. A JTF-GTMO analyst’s note explains the inconsistency: “Other detainees, who had military experience in their home countries, like detainee, have been able to pass over basic training at Al Farouq, unless they were going to receive advanced training, such as explosives training.”
“While detainee admits to training,” JTF-GTMO’s analyst noted, “it was possibly more advanced than he is willing to admit.”
One clue to al Ghamdi’s possible deceit was the man whom al Ghamdi named as his trainer. Al Ghamdi said that Abd al Rahman al Muhajir had been his trainer. Al Muhajir was a known “explosives instructor.”
JTF-GTMO cited other detainees who identified al Ghamdi. One of these detainees is Mohammed al Qahtani, the so-called 20th hijacker, who was prevented from entering the US by a suspicious immigration official in 2001. The leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment notes that al Qahtani “identified [al Ghamdi] as a Saudi mujahid (iihadist) he met in Kandahar,” Afghanistan.
Al Ghamdi allegedly made his jihadist inclinations well known at Gitmo. Al Ghamdi “stated that he hates America” and “also believes all fatwas…which state that Americans should not be in the Arabian Peninsula,” according to the JTF-GTMO threat assessment.
Although al Ghamdi admitted he was at al Farouq, he was mostly uncooperative and “hostile,” thereby “keeping his potential intelligence to himself.” Because he would not cooperate with US interrogators and appeared to have spent only a short amount of time in Afghanistan, JTF-GTMO concluded that he was of “low” intelligence value.
Rise to AQAP commander
In early 2009, al Ghamdi was one of 11 former Guantanamo detainees on the Saudi Kingdom’s most wanted list.
In May 2010, al Ghamdi was featured in an AQAP video and confirmed his role as an operational commander. Along with other AQAP leaders featured in the video, al Ghamdi portrayed counterterrorism operations in Yemen as part of a crusade led by America against the Muslim world. Also featured in the tape were Qasim al Raymi, AQAP’s chief military commander, and Fahd al Quso, an al Qaeda operative wanted for his role in the USS Cole bombing. [See LWJ report, Former Gitmo detainee featured as commander in al Qaeda tape.]
In October 2010, AQAP’s Inspire magazine carried a lengthy profile of al Ghamdi. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Two ex-Gitmo detainees featured in al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine.]
In Inspire, al Ghamdi said he arrived at al Farouq before the Sept. 11 attacks, contradicting what he had admitted to US interrogators. Al Ghamdi also claimed that Osama bin Laden visited with al Ghamdi and the other trainees at al Farouq.
According to al Ghamdi’s account, bin Laden told the training group “that some of our brothers were about to strike America on its soil and he would ask us to pray for them.” When news of the Sept. 11 attacks reached al Ghamdi and his compatriots, they rejoiced.
“We couldn’t believe it at first,” al Ghamdi says. “We had humiliated America and struck it on its soil using its own planes as weapons. We damaged its economy and weakened its strength and we had them drink from the same cup they have been having our ummah drink from for years.”