Abd al Salam al Hilah. Image from The New York Times.
According to a leaked Guantanamo intelligence assessment, Abd al Salam al Hilah, a member of Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO) and a current Guantanamo detainee, “had foreknowledge of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 2000 attack on the UK Embassy in Sanaa…the 2000 attack on the USS COLE, a planned attack on the US or British Embassy in Sanaa that was to occur in October 2002, and probably the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack.”
Abd al Salam (whose internment serial number is 1463) has been held at Guantanamo since 2004. He compiled an extensive terrorist dossier prior to his detention. According to the newly leaked Gitmo file, he used his role as a PSO official to shuttle terrorists around the globe. While working for the PSO, Abd Al Salam was an active al Qaeda member who maintained ties to some of the most senior terrorists, including Ayman al Zawahiri.
In the recently leaked Sept. 24, 2008 assessment, analysts concluded that Abd al Salam is a “high risk” detainee. The Defense Intelligence Agency assessed that he is “among the top 52 enemy combatants” at Guantanamo “who pose the most significant threat to reengagement in acts of terrorism if released.”
Foreknowledge of Sept. 11 attacks
In August 2000, Abd al Salam flew to Rome, where he was met by Abd al Qadir al Sayed – a man who is described in the leaked Gitmo assessment as Osama bin Laden’s “ambassador” to Italy and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s “top document forger.” Italian authorities, who were already suspicious of Abd al Salam and Sayed, recorded a conversation between the two.
Abd al Salam explained:
Well, I am studying airplanes! If it is God’s will, I hope to bring you a window or a piece of a plane next time I see you. …We are focusing on the air alone. …It is something terrifying, something that moves from south to north and from east to west: the man who devised the program is a lunatic, but he is a genius. It will leave them stunned. … We can fight any force using candles and planes. They will not be able to halt us, not even with their heaviest weapons. We just have to strike at them, and hold our heads high. Remember, the danger at the airports. If it comes off, it will be reported in all the world’s papers. The Americans have come into Europe to weaken us, but our target is now the sky.
Abd al Salam was visiting Milan’s Islamic Cultural Institute (ICI), a known hotbed for al Qaeda operatives, when he spoke these words. Gitmo analysts noted that members of the ICI contacted Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman in the US “prior to the 1993 World Trade Center attack.” The leaked file does not contain any information of Abd al Salam’s putative ties to the World Trade Center bombing, although analysts concluded that he likely had foreknowledge of the attack.
Italian and American officials concluded that Abd al Salam had foreknowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, based on the recorded conversation excerpted above, as well as other evidence.
In February 2001, according to the leaked Gitmo file, Qadir called Abd al Salam’s phone number in Yemen and spoke to the Gitmo detainee’s younger brother: Abdul Wahab al Hilah. Qadir made a reference to Wahab’s upcoming “trip to America” and Wahab responded, “I’m sorry to say we’re not able to get in. It is our most important wish and our big target.”
More evidence tying Abd al Salam to the Sept. 11 attacks came in wiretapped conversations he had with an imam in Milan who was also identified by counterterrorism officials as an al Qaeda associate. The imam requested forged documents “for the brothers who have to go to America,” adding: “Never utter their real names.”
Ties to USS Cole bombing
Another of Hilah’s brothers, Nabil Ali al Hilah, traveled to Bosnia for jihad in the 1990s and was imprisoned in 1998 for his role in a car bombing in Mostar. Nabir Ali was closely affiliated with both the Cole bombers and the al Qaeda terrorists who failed in their attempt to attack the USS The Sullivans in early 2000.
In 1997, US officials allege, Abd al Salam and Nabil Ali hosted a lunch at Abd al Salam’s house in Yemen. Their guests included Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, a top al Qaeda terrorist who masterminded the Cole bombing, and two of the suicide bombers who carried out the operation.
Abd al Salam “likely facilitated” some of the Cole plotters’ “travel out of Yemen by providing them with passports,” the leaked Gitmo file reads.
Abd al Salam apparently admitted that he helped three of the terrorists responsible for the Cole bombing to flee Yemen. Abd al Salam “provided three passports” to Osama bin Laden’s point man in Yemen, Abu Ali al Harethi, who was killed in a US Predator strike in Yemen in 2002. The Gitmo file states that Abd al Salam “provided the passports because he believed it would be a good opportunity to make some money and he had a friendship with al Harethi.”
Yemen’s PSO infiltrated by al Qaeda
The leaked Gitmo file accurately describes the PSO as Yemen’s “primary state security apparatus, an independent agency which reports directly to” President Ali Abdullah Saleh. And Abd al Salam told US officials at Gitmo that the PSO was littered with al Qaeda sympathizers.
Abd al Salam “was among high-ranking members of the Yemeni government and
the PSO who facilitated the travel of al Qaida members and other extremists by providing false passports and purchasing airline tickets.”
One Gitmo analyst surmised that the quid pro quo relationship between the PSO and al Qaeda worked because the Yemeni government wanted “to rid itself of individuals who posed a terrorist threat by simply deporting them.” In return, Abd al Salam “exploited his access to government information and processes to move terrorists around the world.”
Abd al Salam told authorities that in 1997 he met with al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al Zawahiri; an Egyptian named Mohammed Islambouli (whose brother assassinated Anwar Sadat); and two “unknown Egyptians.” Abd al Salam “advised that he was tasked to facilitate the group’s travel from Yemen to Sudan.” Along with a “PSO convoy,” Abd al Salam “escorted Zawahiri and Islambouli to the airport.”
Members of the PSO didn’t just work with al Qaeda because they wanted to get them off of Yemeni soil. PSO members actively helped al Qaeda; Abd al Salam explained to officials that “since 1996, numerous high-ranking employees in the Yemeni government and PSO were involved in aiding al-Qaida and other extremists through the provision of false passports and by giving them safe haven out of the country under the guise of deportation.”
Abd al Salam fingered the deputy chief of the PSO, the director of the PSO, the commander of the PSO’s deportation department, and another PSO officer as all aiding al Qaeda. And Abd al Salam also said that Ali Muhsin, a powerful Yemeni general who helped bring President Saleh to power, “was aware” of “these activities.”
Yemeni government officials also allegedly plotted with al Qaeda to strike American and British targets as the war in Iraq approached. The leaked assessment states that Abd al Salam “has knowledge of an April or May 2002 meeting, where members of the Yemeni parliament met with al Qaeda members to plan retaliatory car bomb attacks on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Headquarters in Brussels” and other targets “if the US attacked Iraq.”
For all of the above reasons, and more, US military officials consider Abd al Salam to be of “high intelligence value.” Abd al Salam stopped cooperating with interrogators at Gitmo in early 2005. But as of 2008, when the leaked intelligence assessment was written, officials still wanted to question him about the Sept. 11 attacks – as well as the ties between Yemeni government officials and al Qaeda.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.