The Department of Defense announced the transfer of two Uighur detainees from Guantanamo to El Salvador yesterday. The two detainees were not named in the DoD’s press release. But according to the New York Times they are Abdul Razak and Ahmed Mohamed.
Twenty-two Uighurs have been held at Guantanamo since the facility was opened in 2002. Prior to the latest transfer, all but five had been transferred abroad. Three remain in detention.
According to leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessments, 19 of 22 Uighur detainees were determined to be “medium” risks who “may pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.” (Two other Uighur detainees were determined to be “low” risks.)
Abdul Razak was one of those deemed a “medium” risk. JTF-GTMO recommended that Razak be transferred to another country “for continued detention” in February 2004. Subsequently, in August 2005, JTF-GTMO recommended that Razak be transferred to another country “with conditions.”
A further review by the Guantanamo Review Task Force set up by President Obama also found that the remaining Uighur detainees could be transferred abroad, but the US government has had difficulties finding an appropriate country to receive them. Some of the Uighur detainees have also rejected proposed transfers.
Of the 22 Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo, JTF-GTMO deemed only one to be a “high” risk to the US and its allies: Ahmed Mohamed.
In addition, Mohamed was the only one of the Uighur detainees JTF-GTMO recommended the US continue to hold in detention.
The US government determined that Mohamed and his fellow Uighur detainees, including Razak, were members of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIP), which is affiliated with al Qaeda. The ETIP was previously known as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and set up rudimentary training facilities in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan – a known al Qaeda stronghold. The camp was likely financed by al Qaeda, according to leaked and declassified documents prepared at Guantanamo.
The Uighurs were there when the mountains were bombed in late 2001, as America was hunting the most senior al Qaeda leaders. The Uighurs were captured after fleeing into northern Pakistan, transferred to US custody, and then sent to Guantanamo.
Their story has been garbled in the press and even the courts ever since.
But what sets Mohamed apart from the other Uighur detainees, most of whom were suspected of training in Tora Bora and possibly fighting against America’s allies during the Battle of Tora Bora, are his alleged direct ties to senior al Qaeda operatives.
The Uighurs’ admitted ties to a senior terrorist
During his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) testimony at Guantanamo, Mohamed admitted that he began training at the Uighurs’ Tora Bora camp in November 2000. JTF-GTMO identified Mohamed as a weapons instructor, but he denied this allegation during his tribunal hearing. And a fellow Uighur whom Mohamed called as a witness likewise said he did not know Mohamed in that role.
Under questioning at Guantanamo, Mohamed apparently told a different story. A leaked JTF-GTMO file, dated Jan., 14, 2008, indicates that Mohamed admitted he was a “weapons instructor at the ETIM camp located in Tora Bora.” Two other Uighur detainees cited in the leaked file also identified a weapons instructor at the camp who had the same alias as Mohamed’s. “Other JTF-GTMO detainees identified [Mohamed] as the Uighur leader in Tora Bora,” the file reads.
While Mohamed tried to downplay his role in Afghanistan during his tribunal testimony at Guantanamo, he admitted that the Uighurs’ camp was run by a senior terrorist named Abdul Haq. One member of his tribunal asked, “Do you know who ran the camp?” To which Mohamed answered: “A person named Abdul Haq.”
Later on during the same proceeding, a tribunal member asked, “Who provided the training at the camp, Abdul Haq or whom?” Mohamed replied, “Abdul Haq would train sometimes but there was another guy who did all the training but he got killed from the first bomb.”
Abdul Haq became the overall leader of the ETIP after the group’s previous leader, Hassan Mahsum, was killed in northern Pakistan in 2003.
In April 2009, the US Treasury Department and the United Nations designated Haq as a senior al Qaeda terrorist. “As of 2005,” the Treasury Department announced in the designation, Haq was “a member of al Qaeda’s Shura Council.” Only elite terrorists gain seats on al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis, or executive leader council.
Haq “raised funds, recruited new members and further developed” the ETIP as a terrorist organization, Treasury reported. “In early January 2008, Haq directed ETIP’s military commander to attack various Chinese cities, particularly focusing on the cities holding the Olympic Games.” Treasury’s announcement continued: “Under Haq, trained terrorists planned to sabotage the Olympic Games by conducting terrorist attacks within China before the Olympics began.”
Mohamed was not the only Guantanamo detainee to admit that Haq commanded the Uighurs’ group at Tora Bora. Several other Uighurs identified Haq during their tribunal hearings as well. [See LWJ report, The Uighurs: in their own words.]
Abdul Razak, who was transferred with Mohamed to El Salvador this week, did not admit that he received any training during his tribunal hearing. Nor did he discuss Abdul Haq or Hassan Mahsum, the ETIP’s leaders. However, a leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment prepared for Razak’s case notes that he previously went looking for Mahsum in Afghanistan but found Haq instead. Razak was “greeted by Abdul Haq who took detainee to the [ETIP] Camp in the Tora Bora Mountains,” the file for Razak reads.
Haq was killed during a US drone strike in northern Pakistan in February 2010.
Abdul Zahir, having some fun during a picture-taking session at Guantanamo.
Alleged “subordinate” to a senior al Qaeda terrorist
A Guantanamo detainee named Abdul Zahir, who is still held in detention, identified Mohamed as a senior terrorist. Zahir misidentified Mohamed as a “leader in the Islamic Movement of Turkistan (IMT),” a name adopted by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, according to the leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Mohamed.
JTF-GTMO analysts surmised that Zahir confused the IMT for the ETIP because of the physical “similarities” between the two groups’ members, the “coordination” between the two, and the “ill-defined lines of separation between the central Asian groups operating in Afghanistan.” We can add similar names to the list of reasons why Zahir may have confused the two. The leaked JTF-GTMO files prepared for the Uighur detainees contain numerous pieces of intelligence indicating that the ETIP has long been closely tied to the IMU/IMT, as well as the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Zahir told US officials that Mohamed was a “subordinate” to a senior al Qaeda leader known as Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who commanded al Qaeda’s Arab 055 Brigade in pre-9/11 Afghanistan and is currently held at Guantanamo. The Arab 055 Brigade is described throughout the leaked JTF-GTMO files as Osama bin Laden’s “primary formation supporting Taliban military objectives.”
“It was almost exclusively comprised of Arabs, many of whom had affiliations with other international terrorist groups,” the JTF-GTMO files read. “Al Qaeda leaders commanded the brigade, and [bin Laden] was thought to have participated closely in its command and control.” Although the Arab 055 was predominately comprised of Arabs, others were folded into its ranks, including the members of various central Asian terrorist groups.
The leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Zahir notes that he is “assessed to be a member of al Qaeda and has admitted to his activities as a facilitator and as an assistant to” Abdul Hadi al Iraqi. This would put him in a position to know who the subordinates of Abdul Hadi al Iraqi were.
Zahir also told authorities that Mohamed and “his troops” resided at an al Qaeda guesthouse in Kabul.
Escape from Tora Bora
Mohamed told US officials that he was living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan when a neighbor told him about the ETIP’s training camp in Tora Bora. This neighbor then provided Mohamed “with Iranian and Pakistani visas and a plane ticket from Bishkek to Iran,” according to the leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Mohamed. In Iran, Mohamed traveled via Mashhad and Zahedan to Pakistan and then, finally, Afghanistan.
Mashhad and Zahedan are both common transit points utilized by al Qaeda and its allies.
When Mohamed escaped from Afghanistan more than one year later, he did so along with al Qaeda members who had fought in the battle of Tora Bora. Mohamed “is assessed to have participated in hostilities against US and Coalition forces in Tora Bora,” the leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment reads. Razak was also suspected of participating in the fighting.
Mohamed “was captured with over 100 al Qaeda and Taliban fighters led by” Ibn Sheikh al Libi, a top al Qaeda operative appointed by Osama bin Laden to be the “military commander in Tora Bora.”
JTF-GTMO therefore connected Mohamed to three senior al Qaeda terrorists: Abdul Haq (the leader of the ETIP who became a member of al Qaeda’s Shura Council), Abdul Hadi al Iraqi (one Gitmo detainee identified Mohamed as al Iraqi’s “subordinate”), and Ibn Sheikh al Libi (who oversaw the Uighurs’ escape from Tora Bora).
The ETIP and al Qaeda
The leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Mohamed contains other intelligence concerning the relationship between the ETIP and al Qaeda. In 2003, senior al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in late March 2002, “described the relationship between [the ETIP] and al Qaeda as a positive one.” Zubaydah “further stated al Qaeda financially backed” the ETIP and he “confirmed” that al Qaeda “participated in the training of [ETIP] personnel.” (The file notes that it is “unknown” if Mohamed “received militant training from any al Qaeda members.”)
Zubaydah also explained to authorities that Hassan Mahsum, Abdul Haq’s predecessor as the head of the ETIP, worked with al Qaeda “to target [the] Chinese in Turkmenistan.”
During several tribunal hearings, the Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo mentioned Mahsum’s role in leading their group.
Zubaydah’s interrogations have been especially controversial because he was the first detainee subjected to waterboarding. Zubaydah was waterboarded in the summer of 2002. Zubaydah made the admissions included here in 2003.
The file for Mohamed includes another detail that is not directly applicable to his case but does shed light on the cooperation between the ETIP and al Qaeda. “In May 2002,” the file reads, the ETIP “conducted surveillance against US diplomats and other US persons in Bishkek.” The police “detained some of the [ETIP] members in connection with the surveillance,” but the surveillance reports apparently still made their way into al Qaeda’s hands.
“In June 2002,” the file continues, “sketches of US embassies in Bishkek and Almaty, Kazakhstan, were recovered during a raid on a safe house in Karachi, [Pakistan], occupied by IMU-linked ethnic Uighurs.” These “sketches were reportedly to be used by senior al Qaeda member Mustafa Nazar Setmariam,” a.k.a. Abu Musab al Suri, “in attack planning.”
Abu Musab al Suri was recently freed from a prison in Syria, where he had been detained for several years.
The leaked JTF-GTMO file for Abdul Razak references other intelligence reports on the relationship between al Qaeda and the ETIP. But the source of these reports is not identified.
Hassan Mahsum “attended a meeting in August of 2001 that established the ‘United Front of Mujahdin’ also called the ‘League of Islamic Mujahdin’ (LEVO),” the file reads. This group included the ETIP, “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and al Qaeda members.” Mahsum “was a member of the group’s high council and military council.” Intelligence cited in the file for Razak also says that Mahsum was “close” and in “regular contact” with Osama bin Laden between 2000 and 2002.
Such joint ventures have been common in Afghanistan and Pakistan – both before and after the Sept. 11 attacks.
A misunderstood terrorist organization
It is commonly argued that the Uighurs held at Guantanamo were only interested in attacking China and, therefore, were not America’s concern. In 2008, a DC district court concluded that the Uighurs “acquired weaponry skills at ‘training camps’ in Afghanistan after fleeing China, but [the court] will not draw adverse inferences based on other unsubstantiated allegations.” The DoD referenced this court order when announcing the transfer of Mohamed and Razak to El Salvador this week.
The Uighurs’ ties to Abdul Haq and other senior ETIP leaders are not unsubstantiated, however. Nor are the ties between the ETIP and al Qaeda unsubstantiated. The ETIP, like other al Qaeda-affiliated groups, was gradually folded into al Qaeda’s international jihad.
ETIP members are known to have fought alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda for more than a decade. ETIP members were also caught planning an attack on an American embassy in Kyrgyzstan. And Abdul Haq’s inclusion on al Qaeda’s elite Shura council demonstrates just how close the ETIP and al Qaeda really are. Numerous other pieces of evidence, including the ETIP’s own propaganda, only buttress the point. [For example, see LWJ report, Evaluating the Uighur Threat.]