The Jihadi Brothers

Judge Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied a Guantanamo detainee’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus today. The detainee, Ghaleb Nassar al Bihani, is a citizen of Yemen who has been detained at Guantanamo since January 2002. The Associated Press reported that al Bihani was a mere cook for the Taliban, and suggested that it was on this basis alone that Judge Leon rejected al Bihani’s petition.

Judge Leon did cite al Bihani’s role as a cook as one of the reasons for his continued detention. The judge wrote: “After all, as Napoleon himself was fond of pointing out: ‘an army marches on its stomach.'” However, there is much more to Judge Leon’s decision and al Bihani’s story.

During his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) at Guantanamo, al Bihani admitted that he went to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban, but denied any role in al Qaeda. Al Bihani said:

“Yes, I told them I went from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to fight the Jihad with the Taliban. There is nothing wrong with that in our religion. Is it acceptable for the Americans but not for us? This is normal in our religion. To go back to the first point, it says I am with al Qaeda. I told them many times that I fought with the Taliban.”

Despite al Bihani’s claim that he fought only for the Taliban, Judge Leon found that he admitted to serving in the 55th Arab Brigade fighting unit. This unit is comprised of elite al Qaeda fighters who have been assigned to fight alongside the Taliban.

During his time in custody, al Bihani made other admissions. Judge Leon noted that throughout much of his detention al Bihani freely admitted he was trained at al Qaeda camps such as al Farouq and Khalid bin Al Walid. At some point, al Bihani reversed himself on this admission, only to once again admit that he received the training. The U.S. government alleges that al Bihani received “urban warfare training” and was “taught to use anti-aircraft weapons, specifically the SA-7 and ZSU-23.” Judge Leon noted the inconsistency in al Bihani’s testimony, but did not put much stock in his one-time denial. The judge argued that he could have cited al Bihani’s “longstanding and consistent admission to attending those camps,” but chose not to because other evidence “was overwhelming and consistent.”

For example, al Bihani admitted that he stayed in Taliban guesthouses and traveled on Taliban aircraft. During his CSRT hearing, al Bihani admitted: “Yes, I traveled on Taliban aircraft, that is true. Yes, I stayed at the Taliban houses, where was I supposed to stay in the streets?”

Judge Leon noted that al Bihani also “admitted to serving under an al Qaeda military commander.” The judge noted “it is particularly telling that when he finally retreated from the front lines” it was only after the Americans had started their bombing campaign in Afghanistan and al Bihani’s commander ordered their retreat. According to Judge Leon, al Bihani retreated with Taliban forces in Taliban trucks “to a designated guesthouse where the unit went to regroup in preparation for its next mission.”

All of this, Judge Leon concluded, was sufficient to determine that al Bihani “is being lawfully detained as an enemy combatant.”

Judge Leon’s decision only covered some details of Ghaleb Nassar al Bihani’s life. The Long War Journal has reviewed the unclassified files on al Bihani and has uncovered more of his story.

According to the U.S. government’s files, Ghaleb Nasser comes from a family of al Qaeda supporters. His “brothers serve in various capacities in close association with Osama bin Laden,” the government alleges. One of these brothers is also a detainee at Guantanamo. The Long War Journal has identified this brother as Tolfiq Nassar Ahmed al Bihani, who is a citizen of Saudi Arabia but also has roots in Yemen. In addition to sharing the same family name, many of the details the U.S. government provided on Ghaleb Nasser’s family match those found in the files prepared on Tolfiq Nassar as well.

The government alleges that Tolfiq Nassar received the same training on anti-aircraft weapons as his brother. Tolfiq also allegedly “received training on building improvised explosive devices (IEDs) utilizing tank shells, mortars, and land mines.” The government believes that he also traveled to the front lines.

Tolfiq and Ghaleb have another brother who “fought jihad in Chechnya, was injured, and returned home to Yemen,” the U.S. government claims. “The same brother is a self-confessed al Qaeda member who was a member of the Osama bin Laden and Mujahideen facilitation network in Yemen.” The government further alleges:

“[Tolfiq’s and Ghaleb’s brother] fought jihad in Tajikistan and Bosnia for five years and trained operatives on the fabrication and use of explosives, including remotely detonated explosives and explosive belts in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in order to conduct suicide operations against the United States Embassy and United States military bases in Yemen.

A senior al Qaeda operative identified the same brother as someone who regularly resupplied Chechen Mujahedin fighters with food and money during the final days of the late-2001 battle for Kandahar, Afghanistan.”

This third brother, who is not named in the government’s files, apparently trained at least some of his brothers in al Qaeda’s ways. And it may be the case that both Ghaleb and Tolfiq received his training.

The government’s files note that either six or seven of the al Bihani brothers “work for Osama bin Laden.” Two of these brothers are in custody abroad, but the U.S. government’s files do not detail where. Ghaleb was captured by Northern Alliance forces in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. Tolfiq was one of a dozen or so al Qaeda agents Iran agreed to repatriate to Afghanistan. Iran turned over some al Qaeda terrorists in 2002 but, as The Treasury Department recently noted, provided shelter to other senior al Qaeda operatives.

The U.S. government’s unclassified files demonstrate a point that is often overlooked when analyzing terrorist networks. Al Qaeda has frequently drawn whole families into its web of terror – including the al Bihani brothers.

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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  • Gator76 says:

    Do you know the ISNs for the Jihadi brothers?

  • Neo says:

    We could be critical of journalists that quickly gloss over court documents for a quote or two, but most news outlets don’t have the resources to sift through documents for the sort of detail we see here. It’s not that they can’t look up the information themselves. If it’s a high profile enough they might get someone to put in the time. Otherwise they’re looking for a quick news fix.
    The only shortcoming I see here is that the Government documents referred to are not annotated. News outlets are going to be reluctant to cite a blog as an original source, and might not put the effort in to call about the source or check the source themselves. We also need to remember that there is a lot of political controversy surrounding the subject matter. Under those circumstances no one wants to open themselves up to criticism on their sources. Just a thought, but tightening up the annotation just a bit on some of these documents would help a lot of people.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/29/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • Thomas Joscelyn says:


    Thanks for the email. The files I referenced are all readily available. They were released, ironically enough, in response to a FOIA request by the Associated Press. The documents are available at the DOD’s web site, through links on Wikipedia, and even on the NY Times’s web site. So, journalists have easy access to them.




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