Return to Jihad

Said Ali al Shihri

Said Ali al Shihri, former Guantanamo detainee and deputy leader of al Qaeda in Yemen. Photo from The SITE Institute.

Two former Guantanamo detainees appear in a newly released al Qaeda propaganda video, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors terrorist media. The former Guantanamo inmates have been identified as Said Ali al Shihri and Abu Hareth Muhammad al Awfi. Al Awfi is also known as Mohamed Atiq Awayd al Harbi, a kunya (or nickname) meaning that he is from the al Harbi tribe on the Arabian peninsula.

According to a report that first appeared in The New York Times last week, al Shihri was recently identified as the deputy of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and may have played a direct role in al Qaeda’s attack on the American embassy in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, in September of 2008. That attack killed ten civilians, along with six terrorists. Al Awfi has been identified as an al Qaeda field commander.

Both men were released from Guantanamo in November of 2007 and sent to their native Saudi Arabia, where they entered a rehabilitation program for former jihadists that is run by the Saudi government. According to The New York Times, al Awfi condemns the Saudi program and openly threatens attacks in Saudi Arabia in the video.

The former detainees make their appearance in front of the flag used by the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq’s political front, according to an account by Agence France Presse. Al Shihri claims that he and his fellow terrorists are just continuing the jihad that was the reason for their imprisonment at Guantanamo.

“By Allah, imprisonment only increased our persistence in our principles for which we went out, did jihad for, and were imprisoned for,” al Shihri says.

The U.S. government’s unclassified files, which were created at Guantanamo and released to the public by the Department of Defense in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the Associated Press, reveal a number of details about both al Shihri’s and al Awfi’s careers prior to their detention.

The U.S. government accused both men of working with charities that have been designated as fronts for al Qaeda, including the Saudi-based organization al Wafa. Al Wafa is responsible for shuttling al Qaeda terrorists to and from Afghanistan, and has offices throughout Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The government’s unclassified files on al Shihri note that he was an “al Qaeda travel facilitator” who would brief “others in Mashhad, Iran on entry procedures into Afghanistan utilizing a certain crossing.” In fact, al Shihri is “on a watch list for facilitating travel for Saudis willing to go to Afghanistan through Iran by providing fake passports to those unable to get one.”

Al Qaeda’s use of Mashhad and other points in Iran as transit points has long been known to the U.S. government. As Ken Timmerman first reported in the Washington Times, senior Bush administration officials were briefed on the Mashhad operation as early as October of 2001. And, as the 9/11 Commission noted, most of the 9/11 hijackers transited Iranian soil en route to their day of terror.

The Long War Journal reviewed thousands of unclassified files released from Guantanamo. The Mashhad-based transit line al Shihri helped run is not the only one al Qaeda operates inside Iran. More than fifty detainees who are either currently held or have been held at Guantanamo are alleged to have had some involvement with Iran. Some of them, like the Taliban’s former governor of the Herat province, were accused of illicit dealings with the Iranian government. The governor, Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, even admitted to setting up at least two meetings between senior Iranian and Taliban officials. At these meetings, Iran and the Taliban, who were one-time enemies, agreed to work together to counter American influence in South and Central Asia.

Dozens of the detainees analyzed by The Long War Journal used al Qaeda’s transit nodes in the Iranian cities of Tayyebat, Zahedan, and Mashhad – all three cities are on Iran’s easternmost border with Afghanistan. Iran’s capital, Tehran, was also identified in the unclassified files as a common transit hub.

These transit hubs were operated by Saudi-based charities that, in reality, acted as fronts for al Qaeda and the Taliban. One of these charities is al Wafa, which has been designated under Executive Order 13224 as a terrorist organization and is briefly mentioned in 9/11 Commission’s report as an al Qaeda front.

Prior to his release, al Shihri was accused of dealing with al Wafa. He had contacts with senior al Wafa officials and one of his aliases and his phone number were “found in the pocket litter of the Karachi, Pakistan manager of” al Wafa. More than 100 Saudis have been repatriated from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia. In addition to al Shihri, dozens of others are alleged to have worked with al Wafa. Some of them helped run al Wafa’s operations inside Iran and Afghanistan as well. For example, former Guantanamo detainee Abdul Aziz al Matrafi, is alleged to have worked with the Taliban and al Qaeda at the highest levels while running al Wafa’s operations. At Guantanamo, al Matrafi was accused of personally working with both Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.

Abu Hareth Muhammad al Awfi. Photo from The Site Institute.

Abu Hareth Muhammad al Awfi is also alleged to have worked with al Wafa. The government alleges that al Awfi was a member of both al Wafa and Jammat al Tablighi, a Pakistani-based Islamic organization that does charity work but also serves as a cover for al Qaeda members traveling around the globe. The government explains al Wafa and al Awfi’s role in the organization thusly:

“Al Wafa claimed to be a charitable organization, but it was common knowledge that al Wafa delivered weapons and supplies to Afghanistan fighters in Tora Bora.

Al Wafa provided money of all currencies, including United States Dollars, to those fighters who needed it. [Al Awfi] was identified as one of approximately 400 Arabs who claimed to be members of a subset of al Wafa called Irata. However, these were actually Mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan.”

The government believes that al Awfi was in Tora Bora with other al Qaeda and Taliban members who fled the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

During his combatant status review tribunal at Guantanamo, al Awfi admitted that he associated with Jamaat al Tablighi, but denied all of the government’s other claims. The government alleged that his name (listed as Mohamed Atiq Awayd al Harbi) was found on a list recovered from one of Osama bin Laden’s residences in Kabul, Afghanistan in December of 2001. Al Awfi claimed that his name is a common one and it must have been another Saudi.

The government made a number of other allegations against al Awfi, including that he was trained in Chechnya along with other jihadists and that he also received training at al Qaeda’s al Farouq camp in Afghanistan. Al Awfi was also recognized by an unnamed “senior al Qaeda operative” as having stayed in an al Qaeda guesthouse in Afghanistan in the late 1990’s.

Al Awfi was captured in Pakistan in late 2001 with a large amount of money, including thousands of American Dollars and Saudi Riyals.

During his time at Guantanamo, al Awfi claimed he loved Americans and was even willing to work with the American government once he returned to Saudi Arabia. Given his appearance in a new al Qaeda video, he was clearly more willing to work with al Qaeda, as is his fellow former detainee.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Mike says:

    Didn’t see this coming!! (note the sarcasm).

  • natej740 says:

    I can’t wait to see all the videos that are gonna come out after Obama sets them all free….

  • JusCruzn says:

    These two are just the first of what will probably be many.

  • Neo says:

    The Pentagon claims to have knowledge of 61 former prisoners of war that have rejoined Al Qaeda so far. Legal advocates disregarded the this number, out of hand. Apparently, they still think they can disregard anything sourced to the Pentagon as more lies and propaganda. It is a little ironic that Al Qaeda has put these former “detainees”

  • Tom Billings says:

    Neo wrote:
    “The truth is the legal system is broken. Much of this problem has been caused by the encroachment of the civil legal system upon the legal requirements set forth for war. It was recognized long ago, that the conduct of war requires its own peculiar set of legal requirements that are a response to the special circumstances of waging a war. Unfortunately, members of the “civil rights”

  • Neo says:

    Yes, I’m aware of groups with all sorts of agendas that have injected themselves into this debate, and I might add, have hijacked the civil liberties vs. public protection debate for their own purposes.
    Aside from whatever agendas various groups may have, there are some basic issues that will eventually need to be worked out. There are so many groups hooking into these issues that it is very difficult if not impossible to have any sort of civil debate on the subject. The current administration even risks stirring up ire of advocacy groups if it makes any real attempt at tackling the underlying issues. I think they will try to pass a few of the most obvious cases on to the civil court system, and punt on the rest.
    It could get interesting when it hits the court system. They had better be real careful which courts they pursue this in. I’m just waiting for some judge to throw the whole mess right back in the laps of congress and the executive. After all these are irregular combatants, who represent no country, and were picked up outside the US. They have no legal status as either citizens or visitors. They’ll have to find a suitably activist court that will extend the rights of citizens to irregular enemy combatants.

  • Edwin says:

    Hi, I’m coming from Indonesia, country with largest Moslem people. Hope Obama can lead us to have more peaceful on earth.

  • Adam says:

    There is no doubt that some bad apples have been released, but the biggest problem is that the data suggests that the Bush administration released people based on their nationality rather than their associations in the terrorist world. A clear example would be that Afghani’s and Saudi’s get released at rapid pace while the Chinese detainees remain. Not a single Chinese detainee has been held to participate in anti-american activities (the Chinese don’t like them as an ethnic group however).
    I just read the Defense Department declassified documents for Detainee 333 known as Mohamed Atiq Awayd Al Harbi, here called “Abu Hareth Muhammad al Awfi.” He’s an interesting case because it is not clear that the person appearing in the video is actually him. There are 3 detainees at Guantanamo with the name Mohammed al-Harbi. al-Harbi is a tribal name in Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed is the most common male name in the Arab world. The fact that the name appeared on a document at Bin Laden’s home does not mean that this is the correct al-Harbi. There are thousands of them in Saudi Arabia….
    This a smart well educated guy. It’s worth reading the transcript from his CSRT hearing. When this guy was picked up he had legal representation in the Pakistani court from the Saudi Embassy. This is a very rare event, meaning he must have some government acquaintances. He was transferred to Bagram before the hearing took place. Also, he was carrying a round-trip air ticket back to Saudi-Arabia. This is strong evidence of the purpose of his visit to pakistan. He was to return home.
    Detainee 272 is likely a bad apple, but this article does not appear to have the right identity for 333. In fact, the DoD does not appear to have the right identity of 333.

  • BR says:

    I find it interesting that there are only 245 detainees in Gitmo. If you assume (although we know it is not true) that all of these detainees came from the US and that they are all Muslim that would only be .0049% of the Muslim population detained. While in the US there are around 2.3 million prison inmates or around .75% of the total population.
    I can guarantee the people that are fighting the detaining of these prisoners are 1) against the war 2) against the Bush administration 3) trying to make a name for themselves (also pulling in funding from who knows where).
    Get over it we are at war, the world is under siege, there is no such thing as Utopia and we(the US) are not the enemy.

  • Thomas Joscelyn says:

    Thanks all, for the comments.

    I noticed one commentator, Adam, was challenging the identification of one of the former detainees. First, I agree with Adam about the uneven repatriation of detainees based on nationality.

    However, the second former detainee I discussed was, in fact, Abu Hareth Muhammad al Awfi, who had the ISN #333 at Guantanamo and was alternatively listed as Mohamed Atiq Awayd al Harbi.

    The original identification came from the SITE Institute, and was followed up by numerous media outlets including the New York Times. Moreover, the Saudis themselves have now said that al Awfi is one of the two who went missing and joined al Qaeda in Yemen. He and his companion, al Shihri, had dual paths: sequential ISN #’s at Guantanamo (which can mean that they were captured together or roughly at the same time), were both repatriated to the Saudis and put in their rehab program, and then escaped to Yemen.

    There is no controversy over their identification as multiple media outlets, the Saudis themselves, and even their families (who have announced that they are looking for them), have confirmed that they have returned to jihad. So, the identification was not based on the DOD’s word alone.

    As for the rest of the details Adam cites, I note that I pointed out al-Harbi was a reference to a tribe on the Arabian peninsula in the opening paragraph and that the former detainee denied that it was his name that appeared on a list recovered at bin Laden’s former residence.

    I also cited a number of other allegations against the former detainee, none of which were conclusively or even realistically denied.

    Thanks for reading,



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