On March 5, a review board set up to evaluate the status of Guantanamo detainees determined that Abdel Malik Ahmed Abdel Wahab Al Rahabi should remain in US custody. Al Rahabi is a Yemeni who was among the first detainees transferred to Guantanamo in early 2002.
In deciding that al Rahabi should remain in detention, the review board assessed his “potential threat upon transfer to Yemen.” The board found that he has “significant ties to al Qaeda, including his past role as a bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden and a prior relationship with the current amir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” The head of AQAP is Nasir al Wuhayshi, who once served as the aide-de-camp to bin Laden and is now the general manager of al Qaeda’s global operations.
Furthermore, the review board found, al Rahabi’s time “fighting on the frontlines, possible selection for a hijacking plot, and significant training” raised concerns.
The review board’s one-page unclassified summary does not make public the underlying evidence against al Rahabi. But declassified and leaked documents authored by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) show how US officials compiled a dossier on him.
In particular, a leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment, dated April 28, 2008, details the evidence that led American authorities to consider al Rahabi such a risk. JTF-GTMO recommended at the time that al Rahabi be retained in the Department of Defense’s custody. The Yemeni was deemed a “high risk” and “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies.”
As of 2008, al Rahabi had admitted little to interrogators and interviewers at Guantanamo. Al Rahabi continued to claim that he traveled to Afghanistan simply to teach the Koran. His “account is assessed to be false,” JTF-GTMO’s analysts wrote, finding that he was employing a cover story used by other detainees.
To fill in the details of al Rahabi’s life, American analysts relied on the testimony of other al Qaeda operatives in custody. Indeed, most of the evidence against al Rahabi comes from al Qaeda operatives who were captured after the 9/11 attacks.
Al Qaeda members questioned at Guantanamo or in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program provided key details about al Rahabi, including his role in a canceled hijacking operation that would have coincided with the 9/11 attacks.
Additional 9/11 hijackings canceled
As part of al Qaeda’s original 9/11 plot, terrorists were going to hijack additional American aircraft flying out of Southeast Asia and either blow them up midflight or fly them into other targets. These hijackings were canceled after Osama bin Laden concluded it would be too difficult to synchronize them with the attacks inside the US.
The review board cites al Rahabi’s “possible selection for a hijacking plot” as a source for concern. According to the leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment, al Rahabi was one of the al Qaeda members selected to take part in the Southeast Asia hijackings on 9/11.
The intelligence connecting al Rahabi to this plot came mainly from two al Qaeda operatives who were held in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program before being transferred to Guantanamo.
Walid bin Attash, a senior al Qaeda planner, identified al Rahabi as one of the would-be 9/11 hijackers. Bin Attash himself had performed surveillance on American aircraft in Asia in anticipation of the hijackings. Bin Attash has also admitted to playing a role in other high-profile al Qaeda operations, such as the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the USS Cole bombing in 2000.
Bin Attash was captured in Karachi alongside Ammar al Baluchi on April 27, 2003. Bin Attash and al Baluchi, who is the nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), were reportedly planning to attack US interests in Karachi at the time of their capture. The pair was held in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program before being transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006.
Footnotes in the JTF-GTMO file reveal that all of the reporting from Bin Attash on al Rahabi’s role in the hijacking plot comes from the period before he was transferred to Guantanamo.
Bin Attash explained to authorities that bin Laden originally wanted “to use Yemenis and Saudis who could not obtain a US visa” as hijackers aboard the airplanes flying from Southeast Asia. Al Rahabi was one of several al Qaeda members Bin Attash identified as being a part of this group.
At some point in 2003, Bin Attash told US officials that KSM had taken al Rahabi and several others “to Karachi to teach them English and American behaviors in preparation for the hijacking operation” just two months prior to 9/11.
The JTF-GTMO threat assessment cites an intelligence report from the Israeli Directorate of Military Intelligence that verifies Bin Attash’s reporting. The Israelis indicated that KSM had established “a special training program in Karachi” to prepare for 9/11-style attacks. One of the operatives who took part in the training was listed as “Batar al-Yemeni,” which JTF-GTMO identified as a “variant” of al Rahabi’s alias.
Other intelligence reports cited in the JTF-GTMO file place al Rahabi in KSM’s Karachi class. An al Qaeda facilitator in US custody, Sharqawi Abdu Ali Al Hajj, “corroborated” al Rabhi’s “placement in [KSM’s] group when he speculated” that al Rahabi and two others “may have been at a special operational meeting” with KSM in Karachi.
Al Hajj told officials that he met with al Rahabi at a Karachi restaurant in July 2001. Al Hajj explained that al Rahabi was “clean shaven” at the time. The 9/11 hijackers shaved off their beards so as to avoid any unwanted scrutiny prior to their day of terror. According to al Hajj, al Rahabi said he “had a job to do at the al Qaeda media center,” which was run by KSM.
Al Hajj was captured in raids in Karachi on Feb. 7, 2002. He was held in the CIA’s program before being transferred to Guantanamo on Sept. 19, 2004. The footnotes in the JTF-GTMO file indicate that al Hajj’s testimony concerning al Rahabi came both before and after his transfer to Guantanamo.
Al Rahabi’s “significant training” is among the concerns raised by the review board.
The JTF-GTMO file notes that al Rahabi “received advanced training at several al Qaeda affiliated camps and resided at several al Qaeda affiliated guesthouses.”
In its threat assessment, JTF-GTMO cited several sources on al Rahabi’s training.
Two of those sources are the aforementioned Bin Attash and al Hajj. Bin Attash said in 2003 and again in 2004 that al Rahabi “was a participant at an elite close combat training course give in 1999.” Al Hajj also told officials that al Rahabi had attended al Qaeda’s training camps.
Mohammed al Qahtani, who had been slated to take part in 9/11 as the 20th hijacker but was denied entry to the US in the summer of 2001, also identified al Rahabi as an al Qaeda trainee. Qahtani was subjected to coercive and abusive interrogation tactics at Guantanamo from 2002 until early 2003. In 2003, Qahtani told US officials that he had seen al Rahabi at a guesthouse in Kandahar, as well as at al Qaeda’s training camps. Qahtani said that al Rahabi “was always at [bin Laden’s] side.”
Two additional sources placed al Rahabi at the Khalden training camp. A senior al Qaeda operative known as Ibn al Sheikh al Libi identified al Rahabi as an al Qaeda trainee. In 2002, al Libi reported that al Rahabi had arrived at Khalden “in 1995, stayed until 1996, and received weapons, explosives, and machinegun training.”
Al Libi was captured in Pakistan in late 2001 and then transported to Egypt for questioning. Al Libi’s detention and interrogations became especially controversial. The Egyptians are suspected of using harsh interrogation measures on al Libi, who later recanted some of his more sensational claims. There was disagreement within the US intelligence community over how much of what al Libi initially told Egyptian interrogators was accurate. Al Libi died in 2009 while imprisoned in his home country of Libya.
Another detainee at Guantanamo, Ahmed Muhammad Haza al Darbi, also identified al Rahabi as a trainee at Khalden, however. Al Darbi, who is still detained at Guantanamo, is suspected of participating in an al Qaeda plot to ram an explosives-laden boat into a petroleum tanker in the Straits of Hormuz. Al Darbi told officials that al Rahabi was “close” to Osama bin Laden and that he had attended Khalden alongside al Rahabi.
Al Rahabi himself “admitted attending a two week combat swimmer’s course in Pakistan.” The course “was taught by the Pakistani army and was geared for militants scheduled to participate in operations in Kashmir.”
Other evidence cited by JTF-GTMO
The JTF-GTMO file shows that al Rahabi was well-known in al Qaeda circles. Multiple detainees identified him as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. Some of these same sources identified al Rahabi as participating in the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001.
Al Rahabi fled Afghanistan in December 2001 as part of a group that US military and intelligence officials have dubbed the “Dirty 30.” The group included other members of bin Laden’s security detail, as well as Mohammed al Qahtani.
US authorities believe al Rahabi may have written a letter to Osama bin Laden. In the letter, dated Aug. 30, 2000, the Yemeni asks for bin Laden’s permission to fight in Kashmir and for “forgiveness if he has not lived up to [bin Laden’s] expectations.”
The leaked JTF-GTMO file also cites a “last will and testament” authored by al Rahabi in Jalalabad on Sept. 24, 2001. In it, the Guantanamo detainee praised bin Laden’s “jihad against America and encourages the readers to support [bin Laden] with their lives and their money.”
More than a dozen years later, the review board is concerned that al Rahabi remains loyal to his deceased master’s jihad. Given al Rahabi’s past, the “marginal security environment in his native Yemen,” and his “ties to a relative who is a possible extremist,” the review board worries that he is susceptible “to reengagement.”
JTF-GTMO had the same concerns nearly six years ago, when its analysts authored their threat assessment of al Rahabi.