Ex-Gitmo detainee surrenders in Yemen

Yemeni authorities announced on Saturday that a former Guantanamo detainee who rejoined al Qaeda has turned himself in. Ali Hussein al Taiss was a wanted “al Qaeda element,” according to Saba News Agency, the official Yemeni news service. But al Taiss surrendered to authorities and “expressed his remorse for the period he has spent in joining al Qaeda ranks and showed his readiness to cooperate in serving the country’s security and stability.”

Al Taiss was transferred to Yemen on Dec. 15, 2006. He is one of at least several former Gitmo detainees who have joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which was formed in 2009 when al Qaeda’s branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged.

An al Qaeda trainee

During his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) at Guantanamo, al Taiss tried to distance himself from al Qaeda and the Taliban. (A transcript of his CSRT can be read on the New York Times‘ web site.) Al Taiss, who was given the internment serial number (ISN) 162, admitted that he traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 to receive weapons training. But al Taiss claimed that he knew nothing about al Qaeda. “My leaving Yemen and going to Afghanistan has nothing to do with al Qaeda or fighting,” al Taiss claimed.

Al Taiss’ denials ring hollow in light of the numerous admissions he made during his CSRT.

The tribunal read aloud a number of allegations that al Taiss conceded were true.

“Tribunal: While awaiting transportation from Kandahar to Al-Farouq, the detainee stayed at Al-Nabrass, an al Qaeda safe house.

Al Taiss: That’s true.

Tribunal: The Al-Nabrass safe house was frequented by Osama Bin Laden.  

Al Taiss: What difference does it make, if it was Osama Bin Laden or somebody else?

Tribunal: The Detainee attended the Al-Farouq training camp in 2001.

Al Taiss: That’s true.

Tribunal: At the Al-Farouq training camp, the detainee received training on the AK-47 rifle.

Al Taiss: That’s true.”

Al Taiss’ admissions give the lie to his claim that he had nothing to do with the Taliban or al Qaeda. Al Farouq was the crown jewel of the jihadists’ pre-9/11 training infrastructure in Afghanistan. New recruits were generally sent to al Farouq for basic training and then onto the front lines to fight for the Taliban, or to one of al Qaeda’s other facilities for additional training.

At some point in 2001, al Taiss left al Farouq. “They took us from there and I didn’t know where we were going. They took me to another place to finish my training.” Al Taiss did not say who “they” were, but he was probably referring to his al Qaeda handlers.

The US officials at Gitmo who investigated al Taiss’ background concluded that he fled to the Tora Bora Mountains along with other al Qaeda and Taliban members. During his CSRT, al Taiss said this claim was “false.” But a declassified memo prepared after al Taiss’ CSRT notes that the “detainee stated he went to the Tora Bora region with others and witnessed the bombing in that area.” That is, al Taiss admitted to Gitmo officials that he fled to Tora Bora.

US officials also concluded that al Taiss was captured by Pakistani authorities while fleeing Tora Bora. Al Taiss denied this during his CSRT, claiming that he turned himself over to Pakistani authorities in late Oct. 2001 because he did not have his passport and he wanted the Pakistanis to make sure he was returned to Yemen. However, al Taiss’ explanation of what happened to his passport is consistent with al Qaeda’s modus operandi.

“Tribunal: What happened to your passport?”

Al Taiss: It’s in Kandahar at the guesthouse. If I had it with me I wouldn’t have turn[ed] myself in and I wouldn’t be here.  

Tribunal: So, you gave your passport to someone in the house where you were staying in Kandahar?

Al Taiss: Yes.”

Al Qaeda’s recruits typically turn over their passport when they arrive at the terror group’s safe houses. This allows al Qaeda to control the recruit’s travels and also provides a layer of operational security, as it makes it possible for al Qaeda members to hide their identity when they are initially captured. A declassified memo prepared at Gitmo notes that al Taiss explained during another session with authorities at Gitmo that “when you arrive you are supposed to turn it [your passport] over to someone.”

Yemeni transfers delayed

The security situation in Yemen has delayed the US government’s transfers of detainees from Guantanamo. A comparable number of Yemenis and Saudis have been detained at Gitmo. While most of the Saudi detainees have been transferred to their home country, most of the Yemeni detainees have not.

During the Bush administration, only fourteen Yemeni detainees were repatriated. By way of comparison, more than 100 Saudi detainees were returned to their home country. The Obama administration has transferred only a handful of Yemeni detainees since January 2009. Thirty Yemeni detainees are subject to “conditional” repatriation, meaning they have been approved for transfer but will not be transferred until the environment in Yemen improves.

The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism for 2009 highlighted the difficulties in transferring detainees to Yemen. “Legal, political, and logistical hurdles remained a hindrance to an effective detention and rehabilitation program for Guantanamo returnees,” the State Department reported. “The [Yemeni] government lacked a secure facility to house Guantanamo returnees, a plan for rehabilitating the returnees, or the legal framework to hold returnees for more than a short amount of time.”

In addition, the State Department noted that the Yemeni “government’s monitoring program of released Guantanamo returnees remained largely ineffective.”

Compounding these problems, AQAP is currently one of al Qaeda’s strongest affiliates. The organization’s deputy, Said al Shihri, is a former Gitmo detainee. So, too, is AQAP’s mufti, Ibrahim Rubaish. Both al Shihri and Rubaish are Saudis who graduated from Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program and fled to Yemen. Most of the former Gitmo detainees who are known to have joined AQAP are Saudis.

Al Taiss is the second Yemeni known to have rejoined al Qaeda after being repatriated. In Dec. 2009, Hani Abdo Shaalan, who was repatriated to Yemen in 2007, was killed in an airstrike. Shaalan was reportedly plotting attacks against the British embassy and other western targets in Yemen at the time.

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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