Yemeni detainee at Gitmo to be freed

The US government is preparing to release a Yemeni named Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to legal filings submitted to a DC district court on Monday.

US authorities do not yet know where they will send Batarfi, but the Justice Department struck a deal with his attorneys to end Batarfi’s suit against the US government pending his release. According to the Associated Press, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said that the US is working to transfer Batarfi “to an appropriate destination country in a manner that is consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice.”

It appears, therefore, that Batarfi will be the second detainee released from Guantanamo by the Obama administration. The first was Binyam Mohamed, who was released in February.

Batarfi is a long-time jihadist. During two administrative review board (ARB) hearings at Guantanamo, Batarfi explained that he first traveled to Afghanistan in 1988. He was only seventeen years old at the time. Batarfi initially said that he participated in two nighttime raids on Soviet outposts, but eventually changed his story, saying that he only participated in one.

In the years that followed the jihad against the Soviets, Batarfi studied in Pakistan and became an orthopedic surgeon. But Batarfi was not simply a medical professional, according to documents created by the US government.

In fact, during his ARB proceedings, Batarfi freely admitted he had a colorful career prior to his detention. Batarfi admitted that he: stayed in known al Qaeda and Taliban guesthouses, worked for a charity that is a designated terrorist front run by al Qaeda, met with the Taliban’s Minister of Health in the summer of 2001, met with and assisted a scientist in charge of al Qaeda’s anthrax program (Batarfi denied knowing that the scientist was working on anthrax at the time), and even met Osama bin Laden twice, including once in the Tora Bora Mountains after the September 11 attacks.

An admitted employee of al Wafa

During his ARB hearings, Batarfi was asked about his ties to al Wafa, an Islamic charity that is a designated terrorist organization. Batarfi admitted that he was an employee of al Wafa and said that he worked for the organization for five months in 2001. (The US government has alleged that he actually worked for al Wafa for 9 months.) Al Wafa is a known front for al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission explained in its final report that “entire charities, such as the al Wafa organization, may have wittingly participated in funneling money to al Qaeda.” The commission added: “In those cases, al Qaeda operatives controlled the entire organization, including access to bank accounts.”

Al Wafa did much more than move jihadist cash. The government’s unclassified Guantanamo files are littered with references to the group. The Long War Journal’s analysis of those files found that al Wafa supported al Qaeda’s global terrorist network in a variety of ways. For example, the charity transported jihadist recruits to Afghanistan from Arab nations, often through several key transit nodes in Iran, and purchased sophisticated weaponry for the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Batarfi admitted during his ARB hearings that he used al Wafa’s cash to purchase vehicles and other supplies. He also admitted to meeting with Abdul Aziz al Matrafi – the head of al Wafa’s operations. Matrafi was also once detained at Guantanamo, before being repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2007. The US government alleged that Matrafi was connected to the most senior members of al Qaeda and the Taliban, including Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

Several Guantanamo detainees affiliated with al Wafa, including Batarfi and Matrafi, have claimed that there were tensions between the charity and al Qaeda because of al Wafa’s ties to the Saudi government. Osama bin Laden has repeatedly denounced the Saudi regime. But it is clear from the government’s files, and the admissions of numerous suspects, that al Wafa continued to serve al Qaeda and the Taliban despite whatever misgivings al Qaeda’s leaders may have had.

Batrafi admitted that he was a “medical advisor” for al Wafa, but claimed that he stopped working for the organization shortly after it was formally designated a terrorist organization. But, Batrafi’s claim is hard to believe. He was consorting with al Qaeda members, including Osama bin Laden, until he was injured during America’s bombing of Tora Bora. Batarfi has also admitted that he was wanted by Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI) because of his role in al Wafa. In addition, just a few months prior to the September 11 attacks, Batarfi assisted a key al Qaeda operative who was tasked with running the terrorist organization’s anthrax program.

Agreed to assist al Qaeda’s anthrax scientist

Throughout the US government’s unclassified files on Batarfi there are allegations related to a “Malaysian microbiologist.” This individual is not named, but is most likely al Qaeda’s anthrax scientist, Yazid Sufaat, who was recently released from prison in Malaysia.

Sufaat hosted two 9/11 hijackers at an apartment in Malaysia during the week they attended a key terrorist meeting. Sufaat also played host to Zacarias Moussaoui, who was scheduled to take part in the 9/11 attacks or a similar follow-on plot prior to his arrest in August 2001.

Sufaat was recruited to run al Qaeda’s anthrax program by a top al Qaeda operative named Hambali, who is currently a high-value detainee being held at Guantanamo. Hambali introduced Sufaat to al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al Zawahiri. Zawahiri wanted to jumpstart al Qaeda’s program for developing anthrax and asked Hambali for assistance in finding a suitable scientist. Sufaat fit the bill. In 1987, he graduated from California State University at Sacramento with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a minor in chemistry. In 2001, Sufaat put his degree to work for al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission found that he spent “several months attempting to cultivate anthrax for al Qaeda in a laboratory he helped set up near the Kandahar airport,” which was then a key facility controlled by Osama bin Laden.

Batarfi met Sufaat during this time period. During one of Batarfi’s ARB hearings, the following allegation was read aloud:

In mid-August 2001, [Batarfi] met a Malaysian microbiologist in Kandahar at the Haji Habbash guesthouse. This microbiologist wanted to equip a lab and train the Afghans to test blood.

Batarfi did not deny the allegation, but offered this answer:

He was a student, he was not a microbiologist. He wanted to complete his studies and he asked me [for help]. He was only here for four months and had wanted to learn from the people in the hospital how to used (sic) blood-testing equipment. He asked me if he could purchase this medical equipment from Pakistan because in Afghanistan there were not any facilities to purchase it. I told him we could purchase it through [the] al Wafa Office and donate it to the hospital instead of you getting the money from yourself.

One of the board members then asked, “What kind of medical equipment?” Batarfi responded:

It was [a] centrifuge, anti placenta for blood groupings; it was [an] autoclave for blood spacement. It was very simple equipment. He said it was approximately $5000.

Later, during that same ARB session, the following allegation was read:

The Detainee told another al Wafa volunteer to purchase four to five thousand United States Dollars worth of medical equipment for the Malaysian microbiologist.

Again, Batarfi responded:

 I told the Malaysian microbiologist, if you want to purchase the $5000 worth of items for the lab it is better to purchase it through al Wafa and you give the money to Afghanistan to me and then send it to Pakistan because it is unsafe.

Note that Batarfi did not deny that he met with the “Malaysian microbiologist,” who is most likely Sufaat, or that he authorized al Wafa’s purchase of lab equipment for him. Instead, he claimed that the microbiologist was only a “student” who “wanted to complete his studies.” Moreover, Batarfi said the equipment al Wafa was to purchase was for supposedly innocuous blood-testing.

But Sufaat was no mere student at the time. Sufaat had graduated from California State years earlier. And al Qaeda tasked Sufaat with finding a way to manufacture anthrax, which is not an assignment that would be given to a mere student. Batarfi’s ties to Sufaat are particularly troubling because, after the September 11 attacks, US authorities found that al Qaeda’s biological and chemical weapons programs were far more advanced than previously suspected. It is certainly plausible, if not likely, that the equipment Batarfi agreed to purchase for Sufaat was part of this program – possibly to test blood for anthrax infections.

Batarfi also admitted to purchasing cyanide. The government’s files do not indicate what Batarfi was allegedly going to do with the substance, which is poisonous, but Batarfi claims it was merely for his use in dental procedures. “It was pharmaceutical cyanide used for dental filling,” Batarfi said.

During his ARB hearings, Batarfi was aware of how serious the allegations concerning Sufaat were. Batarfi protested:

They put my case with the Malaysian guy because he was a microbiologist. But now I found they claim he was [in the] anthrax field. So I did not know anything about this charge. He was a student who did not complete his studies and he was in Afghanistan for only four months to work with the technicians about the lab test.

Batarfi claimed that he did not know who Sufaat was when he met with and assisted him. This is not the only time Batarfi pled ignorance.

Met with Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora

During his ARB hearings, Batarfi admitted that he met with Osama bin Laden twice. The second meeting came in November of 2001 in the Tora Bora Mountains, which were then a stronghold for fleeing al Qaeda and Taliban members. The government’s files indicate that Batarfi and bin Laden discussed securing medical supplies for people in the area, as well as retrieving medical equipment the Taliban and al Wafa had purchased. Batarfi also allegedly sought bin Laden’s help in fleeing Tora Bora.

Batarfi offered this somewhat implausible version of his encounter with bin Laden:

I didn’t know who was in the mountain. I was in the mountain for four days without any information about who was in the mountain and why we were here. We found out a lot of groups were coming day by day. I asked to speak to the head of the mountain or in the area just to know if we are in the surrounded area and there are fighters around us and there’s not enough food except the medicine. There wasn’t any normal food or normal meals for everyone, so I requested to talk to [the] head of the area in charge. I gave a letter after the fourth day and an answer came after about 11 days. The total number of days to get the answer was 15 days and they said I was allowed to meet the head of the mountain. I didn’t know who was [Osama bin Laden]. I walked about four hours from my area to the area of [Osama bin Laden] and I found him in an empty place. He came from behind the trees and I assumed there was a cave near that secured his place.

Batarfi’s account is suspicious on its face. Batarfi met bin Laden at a time when the fugitive terrorist was the most wanted man in the world. Bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora is the stuff of legend and frustration. That Batarfi could send a letter to someone (he does not say whom), and earn a face-to-face meeting with bin Laden, without knowing bin Laden was the “head of the mountain,” as Batarfi says, is highly unlikely.

Al Qaeda has always maintained tight security around its leader, allowing only those who are known and trusted persons to gain access to him. This was particularly true at Tora Bora in late 2001, when tribal and American forces hunted bin Laden.

Batarfi described his conversation with bin Laden at Tora Bora thusly:

My talk with him in the mountains was secure and lasted 10 minutes. I asked him to leave the mountain and he said I don’t even have a place for myself to go, so he said I wasn’t able to go from the mountain myself. He told me if I wanted to go to Jalalabad to ask about my items or medical equipment you can send any of the villagers from the mountains and it’s not secure to go there 

According to Batarfi, this was not his only run-in with bin Laden. Batarfi claimed to have earlier met bin Laden by chance at a funeral:

When I found out it was Osama bin Laden [at Tora Bora], it wasn’t the first meeting with him. It was the second, because he met us once in a graveyard in Kabul when we buried a dead body killed by the Northern Alliance. He came suddenly within five minutes with his guard and asked how he was killed and said he had come from the north of Afghanistan and we don’t know.   So I got a chance to talk to Osama bin Laden at Kabul for five minutes so he knew the person he was to meet, but I didn’t know who I was going to meet. Osama bin Laden arranged the meetings for everyone he would like to talk with but no one like[d] to talk to him. He would not stay in his place more than 45 minutes by any way, if you got a meeting by Osama bin Laden he will leave before 45 minutes because this is the period by any jet or flight that can recognize his place and can hit him. So if you meet with him suddenly or by asking him to meet you he will stay for 10-15 minutes.

Like Batarfi’s description of his meetings with Sufaat, his accounts of how he came to meet bin Laden twice are hard to believe. It is likely that Batarfi simply wanted to explain away his troubling ties. The government’s files note that investigators believe Batarfi actually met with bin Laden on a “number of occasions,” but Batarfi claims he met bin Laden only twice. Batarfi denied any substantive role within al Qaeda.

As evidenced by the unclassified files released from Guantanamo, however, US intelligence professionals did not believe his quasi-denials.

Other ties to terrorism alleged

Batarfi allegedly trained at the Khalden camp in Afghanistan in the late 1980’s. That same facility was long affiliated with al Qaeda and trained hundreds of the terrorist organization’s members, including at least three September 11 hijackers. Batarfi denied training at Khalden during his ARB hearings.

The intelligence officials who compiled the unclassified files for Batarfi’s case note that he studied under a doctor “who was a member of the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association.” This same doctor “was reported to have treated al Qaeda members who required medical care and would also readily treat fugitive al Qaeda operatives.”

It may be the case that this was Dr. Batarfi’s role as well. During his ARB hearings, Batarfi said he was attempting to treat wounded refugees at Tora Bora. Batarfi claimed, however, that the Arabs at Tora Bora were not affiliated with al Qaeda or the Taliban. But his explanation strains credulity. After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda and Taliban members were ordered to fallback to Tora Bora because the mountainous redoubt would make it difficult for their enemies to find and defeat them.

The government alleged that Batarfi also carried a gun and was equipped with radio equipment while he was stationed at Tora Bora. The radio equipment was allegedly used by al Qaeda to communicate throughout its Afghani network. Batarfi apparently admitted these allegations during one of his interrogations, but by the time of his ARB hearings he denied them. Batarfi denied carrying the gun, and said the radio was commonplace.

During his travels through Afghanistan and Pakistan, Batarfi admittedly stayed at various Taliban and al Qaeda guesthouses. Batarfi claimed that he did not know some of these facilities were affiliated with al Qaeda, and specifically Osama bin Laden, until he had already left them. Like much of his testimony, this seems difficult to believe. The government has also alleged that Batarfi was friends with key al Qaeda personnel, including one member who was charged with moving terrorists out of Afghanistan into Pakistan.

Batarfi’s attorneys claim that he was in Afghanistan strictly for charitable purposes. There are good reasons to believe that is not true.

The Justice Department now says that Batarfi will be released as soon as the US can find a suitable home for him.

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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