Hamed Abderrahaman Ahmed, a former Guantanamo detainee, was arrested by Spanish police on Feb. 23 for allegedly leading a jihadist recruiting cell that was sending fighters to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Ahmed and three others were detained in the city of Ceuta, which borders Morocco on the North African coast.
Spanish authorities and their Moroccan counterparts have launched a series of counterterrorism operations in Ceuta and elsewhere in recent weeks. They have targeted extremist networks supporting both the Islamic State and Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.
Spanish police said that Ahmed’s cell not only recruited for the Islamic State, but was also “willing to commit terrorist acts on Spanish soil.”
Ahmed “received military and combat training in camps in Afghanistan under the authority of terrorist jihadist organizations,” the police said in a statement, according to Agence France-Presse. “The fact that this leader [Ahmed] was trained in handling weapons, explosives and in military tactics makes this cell particularly dangerous,” the statement continued.
Traveled through Iran to al Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan
Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the detention facility in Cuba, concluded that Ahmed received training in an al Qaeda camp in 2001.
In a leaked threat assessment, dated Aug. 30, 2003, JTF-GTMO also recommended that Ahmed be retained in the Department of Defense’s custody. Just over five months later, on Feb. 13, 2004, he was transferred to Spain.
According to the brief biography in JTF-GTMO’s assessment, which appears to be largely based on Ahmed’s own account while in custody, Ahmed and his brothers were selling drugs in the 1990s when he “became involved in the Jamaat Tablighi” and “traveled to Morocco at the invitation of an extremist recruiter.” Jamaat Tablighi is an Islamic proselytization group that JTF-GTMO found was frequently used as a cover for jihadists traveling around the globe.
While in Morocco, Ahmed became interested in the jihad in Chechnya. He was allegedly “recruited by a man named ‘Naiz’ and the pair traveled to the United Kingdom (UK).” Naiz paid for Ahmed’s trip. “After arriving in the UK in May 2001,” according to the JTF-GTMO file, Ahmed “started worshipping at the Nor mosque in London,” supplementing “the income he received from his brother by selling drugs at a disco where he worked.”
Naiz and Ahmed traveled to France in July 2001 and then onto Spain, where the two parted ways. “Naiz gave the detainee…$1000 USD and instructed him to travel to Afghanistan via Iran to being his military/terrorist training,” JTF-GTMO’s analysts found. Ahmed then “departed for Afghanistan via Tehran, Iran in early August 2001.”
Dozens of Guantanamo detainees were found to have traveled through Iran en route to al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan. JTF-GTMO included the following “field note” in its assessment for Ahmed: “Travel through Iran is a known modus operandi for al Qaeda operatives to get into Afghanistan via a chain of al Qaeda safe houses and operatives.”
Indeed, Ahmed was transferred to Guantanamo, in part, because American officials wanted to question him about al Qaeda’s transit route through Iran.
Ahmed was “transported to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba on 11 February 2002 because of his knowledge of information on the issue of illegal Iranian travel visas from an unidentified person in the Iranian Embassy in Madrid, Spain, and suspicion of being affiliated with al Qaeda,” JTF-GTMO’s analysts wrote.
Ahmed claimed he only received training on AK-47s in Afghanistan, but JTF-GTMO suspected that he was hiding the true extent of the instruction he received. Ahmed’s “description of his training is fabricated in order to minimize his involvement and it’s assessed that he has had several layers of advanced weapons training to include the use of explosives,” according to JTF-GTMO’s assessment.
Sometime after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Ahmed was captured by Pakistani soldiers near the border with Afghanistan. Before being transferred to American custody, he was reportedly involved in an incident in which a number of Arab detainees hijacked a Pakistani bus and “murdered” the guards watching them.
JTF-GTMO’s analysts suspected that there was more to Ahmed’s story. They “assessed” that he was “recruited to complete advance schools, specializing in weapons, explosives, and tactics,” so that he could return “to Spain and became part of the European al Qaeda terrorist network.” He was also “indirectly linked” to Imad Yarkas, who headed al Qaeda’s network in Spain prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings and may have even had foreknowledge of the kamikaze operation.
Ahmed “poses a high threat to the US, its interests and its allies,” JTF-GTMO concluded. “He remains dedicated to the cause of [j]ihad against the US.”
The European press dubbed Ahmed the “Spanish Taliban” after his story became widely known. He was convicted on terrorism-related charges after being transferred from Guantanamo to Spain in 2004, but the conviction was eventually overturned by the Spanish Supreme Court because of his time detained in legal “limbo” in Cuba.
It is not clear how long Ahmed allegedly ran his recruiting cell in Ceuta. Spanish authorities have said that he targeted teenagers in the Spanish enclave. Ahmed and his comrades were also allegedly looking to acquire weapons and explosives to further their putative terror plot.
Note: The spelling of al Qaeda in quotes from JTF-GTMO’s threat assessment were changed throughout for consistency.