Former Gitmo detainee killed in Yemen while plotting attack on British embassy

A former detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility was killed by Yemeni forces during a raid in Arhab, which is north of the capital Sanaa, on Dec. 17. The former detainee, Hani Abdo Shaalan, was preparing attacks along with other al Qaeda terrorists against the British embassy and other Western targets at the time.

The raid that killed Shaalan was one of several operations carried out across Yemen – in Arhab, Sanaa, and the southern province of Abyan – against al Qaeda targets. The Yemeni government claims that dozens of suspected terrorists have been killed, while dozens more have been captured. Shaalan’s death has been confirmed by both the Yemeni government and a human rights activist familiar with his case, according to the Washington Post.

A statement by the Yemeni government released on the web site, which is affiliated with Yemen’s defense ministry, said that the impending terrorist attack against the British embassy and other targets was “in its final phase” of planning. “A group of eight suicide bombers were to carry out the operation using explosive belts and two car bombs,” Agence France Presse, quoting from the statement, reported.

The plot against the British embassy “was to be modeled on the operation that was carried out against the American embassy” in September 2008, the statement added. That attack killed 19 people, including one American. Another former Gitmo detainee, Said al Shihri, a Saudi who is currently the number two deputy of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, reportedly helped plan the September 2008 attack.

Hani Abdo Shaalan joins a growing list of former Gitmo detainees who have joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is the strongest branch of al Qaeda outside of South Asia.

In addition to al Shihri, at least 10 other former Gitmo detainees were included on the Saudi Kingdom’s list of 85 most wanted terrorists in February. All of them were graduates of the Saudi rehabilitation program. One of them has since then reportedly turned himself in. But others either remain at large or have been killed in fighting.

Ibrahim Rubaish is a former Gitmo detainee who has become AQAP’s chief ideologue. Rubaish is responsible for providing the theological justifications for AQAP’s terror. Two other former Gitmo detainees who fled to Yemen along with Rubaish have been killed in shootouts. [See LWJ reports “Former Gitmo detainee killed in shootout” and “Another former Gitmo detainee killed in shootout.”]

All of the above former Gitmo detainees who have joined AQAP are Saudis. Shaalan is now the first Yemeni who was detained at Guantanamo and confirmed to have joined AQAP upon his release.

A Taliban ‘chef’s assistant’ who was admittedly armed at Tora Bora

Shaalan, who was listed as Hani Abdul Muslih al Shulan during his time at Gitmo, was transferred to Yemeni custody on June 18, 2007. During his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) at Gitmo, Shaalan said he first traveled from Yemen to Afghanistan “to get employment and save money.” Shaalan claimed that his father paid for his trip, and downplayed his ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda.

US military and intelligence officials did not buy Shaalan’s story. And Shaalan made important admissions during his CSRT.

US officials found that Shaalan’s “travel to Afghanistan was facilitated by a Yemeni national known to have recruited Yemeni men to fight the Jihad against the Russians in Chechnya,” according to a June 10, 2005 memo. Shaalan decided to travel to Afghanistan “in response to a fatwa for the purpose of fighting coalition forces.”

During his CSRT, Shaalan denied that his travel to Afghanistan was inspired by a fatwa or that anyone convinced him to leave for South Asia. However, Shaalan’s own testimony indicated that he was likely recruited by a jihadist recruiter. When asked how he knew where to go in Pakistan and then Afghanistan, Shaalan said he met “a man who gave me directions and was guiding me how to get there.” Shaalan said the man’s name was Saleh al Raeni, and that he was associated with “a mosque called al Forkan.”

It is possible, if not likely, that Shaalan was referring to the Furqan Institute in Yemen. According to another memo produced at Gitmo, the Furqan Institute “was a meeting and recruiting ground for jihadist[s] in Yemen. Many Yemeni al Qaeda members have links to the institute, specifically a number of the al Qaeda members involved in the” attack on the USS Cole.

Another indication that Shaalan was initially recruited for jihad is that he stayed “in Taliban safe houses during his travel to and within Afghanistan,” according to the transcript of his CSRT hearing. Shaalan did not deny this allegation. “I had to stay in a place that was safe,” Shaalan said. Taliban and al Qaeda safe houses are governed by strict security protocols, so not just anyone can gain access. That Shaalan stayed in Taliban safe houses is, therefore, an indication that a known Taliban or al Qaeda member vouched for him.

During his CSRT, Shaalan claimed he was just a “chef’s assistant” and was coy about his time in Afghanistan, claiming that he could not remember if he was employed by the Taliban north or south of Kabul. At one point in custody, according to a US government memo, Shaalan “stated that his job was to prepare food that was later transported to soldiers fighting on the front lines.”

It is possible that his role went beyond that of a mere cook, however. US officials found that he spent “two months at a Taliban camp.” When he was captured, Shaalan also had in his possession “a Casio watch, model # A159W, which has been used in bombings linked to al Qaeda.” Although Casio is a common brand of watch, al Qaeda and Taliban trainees frequently received certain models as part of their training. These watches work well when attempting to detonate an improvised explosive device, or other types of bombs. Thus, Shaalan’s watch may be an indication that he received training on explosives. For his part, Shaalan denied having anything to do with explosives during his CSRT.

Whether Shaalan was trained or not, he was armed at Tora Bora, which was a stronghold for Taliban and al Qaeda members following the US-led invasion in late 2001. The US government found that he was “present in the Tora Bora region during the US air campaign.” Shaalan denied being there during the air campaign, but conceded that he fled through the Tora Bora Mountains for Pakistan with “a lot of people.”

One member of Shaalan’s tribunal asked him, “Were any of them armed?” Shaalan responded, “Some of them, they were carrying weapons.”

“Were you carrying one a the same time?,” a tribunal member asked. Shaalan admitted, “Yes, I was.”

Despite admitting that he was armed at Tora Bora, Shaalan refused to tell the Gitmo tribunal whether or not he believed in waging jihad. When asked, “Do you believe in jihad?,” Shaalan responded: “That is not included in my unclassified evidence.”

A tribunal member pressed, “Did you go to Afghanistan to fight jihad?”

“The first question was why I went to Afghanistan. I have already answered that question,” Shaalan said, even though he never really answered questions concerning his ideological beliefs one way or the other.

Given recent events, Shaalan had a good reason to be evasive when asked about his jihadist inclinations. After leaving Gitmo, Shaalan rejoined one of the strongest al Qaeda branches on the globe, and reportedly helped his fellow jihadists plan an attack against the British embassy and other Western targets prior to his death.

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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  • AAndrew says:

    From my perspective, releasing enemy combatants we’ve captured on the battleground for any reason is sheer insanity. There are inherent risks and NO reward. Hold them indefinitely until the long war is over. However long that is.
    What do we gain? The cost of holding prisoners who we later have to target in operations costing more than it would cost to house thousands of these guys for years.
    I won’t even mention the saudi rehabilitation programs which are a joke. My opinion is, once you’ve captured them, get all the intel they have, and hold on to them until they cannot possibly pose a threat. If that means holding them until they’re 100 years old, do it. We do that with criminals who pose smaller threats.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Gitmo is graduate school for Al Qaeda. I’ve wondered for some time about the rights of these people when captured. Would it be a “crime” if the administration decided to summarily execute all Gitmo detainees? Any legal respnses would be appreciated.

  • Dave Rez says:

    Is it feasable to secretly implant devices into these detainees while under anethesia? Such devices could be used to secretly track them; they would unknowingly act as moles.

  • kp says:

    That sounds like a troll m3fd2002
    Yes, that would be murder. Even the harshest viewpoint on Gitmo detainees recognizes that you need to show in a military tribunal that these people committed war crimes to prosecute them and then punish them.
    Try not to stoop to the level of the terrorists “let’s kill everyone”. It doesn’t work.

  • steve m says:

    I can not even comprehend the logic behind releasing these detainees, it is obvious that he was being deceptive in his answers! do we think it shows our kindness? they don’t!

  • m3fd2002 says:

    I’m not clear about a combatant’s rights when captured overseas in a combat theater without uniform/insignia/etc. Couldn’t they be characterized as “spies”?

  • Orik_Ibad says:

    I confuse about one thing. Why the man who prisoned in Quantanamo prisoner was not followed properly by Yemen and USA. If they did it properly, he woul be in a prison before trying to make these acts.

  • Sashland says:

    In this case I can honestly say its Bush’s fault.
    It IS insane to release the people Bush and Obama have.
    Yet, it is Bush who failed to properly try and execute / sentence these terrorists. Congress sure ‘helped’ with dragging their feet on military commission rules. Bush was too slow and should never have allowed this all to slip into the next administration. They got sidetracked and through in some uncertain detainees into the mix with the obviously hardened terrorist and gave the whole program a bad rap. Then, while releasing the washing machine repairman and taxi-drivers they let out the ones who were properly there.
    Well, the only good news to come of it, although at the expense of soldiers and civilians lives, is that many of the released terrorists are now dead. I wonder, do the people who agreed to these stupid releases have any regrets over the deaths they have caused?
    PS, I like the implant idea, too bad their not that clever…

  • kp says:

    THese people are unlawful combatants at best . They’re not spies because they haven’t infiltrated behind our lines.
    Careful with the uniform bit too. Special forces and CIA SAD don’t always stick to the clearly identifiable uniforms at a distance rule either. The distance part is important too — the Geneva Convention specifies this to prevent civilians being targeted. SF and CIA wearing kameez and head scarfs do it to look like the locals. It’s a fine line.
    Even spies get a trial. We don’t do “summary execution”.
    This sort of reasoning is exactly the same as AQ use to target you in the West (or heck even in the East): you pay taxes to fund the “war against muslims” so you are a target. It’s the idea of Total War. It’s a bad one and not part of liberal democracy that were fighting for. We’re fighting for something not just against something.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    You have valid reasoning. Given the probablilty of a long low intensity conflict, what would be the best tactics to prevail?

  • Xavier says:

    kp says “It’s a bad one and not part of liberal democracy that were fighting for. ”
    I guess this is what differentiates you from other on this forum. I don’t think we are fighting for some ideals. We are just fighting for our culture, democracy is just a part of it not whole.
    Here is an enemy committed to kill many of ours and we are just defending against that. We haven’t occupied any of their lands (prior to 9/11). So we are totally defensive against such ideology.
    But, we are in some sense in war against Islam (not Muslims, who are victims of their religion). However to put it in PC words we are in war against “radical Islam”. We just don’t want an ideology of incessant and irrational replication to control us.

  • Arty says:

    This is a difficult situation any way you look at it. Releasing these detainees was in many ways a political necessity as much as it was a humanitarian/democratic need. You have to balance the scales against the possibility for isolated incidents of violence versus the greater human rights issues…

  • James Jacobs says:

    Good thing he was killed in that occasion before he can do further damage to so many people. Article worth reading thanks for sharing.

  • Tom Mayer says:

    I confuse about one thing. Why the man who prisoned in Quantanamo prisoner was not followed properly by Yemen and USA. If they did it properly, he woul be in a prison before trying to make these acts.
    I agree to orik in his post? why that men in prison happened to be that way in Yemen?

  • Tom Mayer says:

    “Shaalan, who was listed as Hani Abdul Muslih al Shulan during his time at Gitmo, was transferred to Yemeni custody on June 18, 2007.”
    I think it was 2007 as well when i saw shaalan personally in a market. though it was a bit far from my location. can’t imagine its been 4 years almost. how fast the time goes by.


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