Hani Abdo Shaalan. Image from the SITE Intelligence Group.
On Aug. 30, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a video celebrating former Guantanamo detainee Hani Abdo Shaalan as a “martyr.” Shaalan was transferred from Guantanamo to Yemen on June 18, 2007 and released by the Yemeni Political Security Organization (PSO).
When Shaalan’s death was first reported, the Yemeni government indicated that he was killed in a shootout with Yemeni forces on Dec. 17, 2009. A Yemeni official also said that Shaalan was part of an al Qaeda cell that was plotting to launch a suicide attack on the British embassy. [See LWJ report, Former Gitmo detainee killed in Yemen while plotting attack on British embassy.]
However, AQAP’s biography says Shaalan was really killed in a US airstrike. According to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, AQAP boasts that Shaalan “was chosen for an operation,” but the “martyrdom” he sought “came to him through a US airstrike in the area of Arhab before he could go out for the operation.”
The Yemeni government has provided cover for American airstrikes in the past. A leaked State Department cable dated Jan. 4, 2010 reports that the Yemeni government was taking credit for the unpopular raids. The cable, which was written less than one month after the airstrike that AQAP says killed Shaalan, recounts a meeting between General David Petraeus, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and other Yemeni officials.
“President Obama has approved providing US intelligence in support of [Yemeni] ground operations against AQAP targets, General Petraeus informed Saleh,” according to the leaked cable. Saleh rejected this proposal, saying that he wanted to avoid US casualties on the ground.
But Saleh did not object to Petraeus’s suggestion that the US use “fixed-wing bombers” circling “outside of Yemeni territory” as opposed to cruise missiles.
“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said. This prompted Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al Alimi “to joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the” Yemeni government.
If Shaalan was killed in a US drone strike, as AQAP claims, then it may have been one of the bombings mentioned by Alimi. The US launched two airstrikes the same day that Shaalan was killed. [See LWJ report, US launches cruise missile strikes against al Qaeda in Yemen.]
A “medium risk”
According to a leaked threat assessment dated Oct. 15, 2004, Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) determined that Shaalan “poses a medium risk, as he may possibly pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.” JTF-GTMO concluded that Shaalan was “deceptive and non-cooperative in debriefings,” but he did make some incriminating admissions.
Shaalan admitted to American interrogators that he was recruited for jihad at a Yemeni mosque “to help the Taliban fight” the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Later, during his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) at Guantanamo, Shaalan would try to deny this.
A jihadist recruiter “assisted” Shaalan in his travel from Yemen to South Asia, where Shaalan admittedly stayed in Taliban safehouses. JTF-GTMO analysts concluded that Shaalan’s “recruitment, travel, ingress/egress into Afghanistan via Pakistan, and stay at safehouses mirror that of an al Qaeda recruit supporting Taliban objectives.”
Shaalan tried to downplay his role in Afghanistan, claiming that he was merely a cook who never received military training. US officials found, however, that Shaalan spent time at a Taliban camp and there were reasons to believe that he may have received explosives training.
Whether Shaalan was trained or not, he admitted to carrying a weapon at Tora Bora, which was a stronghold for Taliban and al Qaeda members following the US-led invasion in late 2001. At his CSRT, Shaalan denied being at Tora Bora during the US-led 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 at 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 Guantanamo 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.”
AQAP’s biography is not as coy about Shaalan’s time in Afghanistan, including his training and role in fighting. Shaalan “arrived in Afghanistan and received his training,” the SITE translation reads. “After the US-led invasion in 2001,” AQAP’s biography continues, “he withdrew from his position in Bagram and fought the enemy forces during their advance on the Tora Bora Mountains.”
Several years before Shaalan was transferred to Yemen, JTF-GTMO recommended that he be transferred “to the control of another country for continued detention.”
Instead, the Yemeni government freed Shaalan and he achieved his martyrdom.
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