Al Qaeda IED cell leader denied habeas petition

Bostan-Karim.jpg

Bostan Karim was recently denied his habeas petition. Karim was deemed a “high” risk by JTF-GTMO.

A DC district court released its opinion denying Guantanamo detainee Bostan Karim’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus yesterday. The opinion is dated Oct. 12, but the unclassified version was not released to the public until a few weeks later. In it, District Judge Reggie Walton relies on Karim’s own admissions to establish that he was tied to a bomb-making network that targeted Coalition forces in Afghanistan.

A leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment dated June 5, 2008 identifies Karim as an “al Qaeda operative and leader of an improvised explosive devices (IED) cell” in Khost, Afghanistan. Karim “worked directly for senior al Qaeda member and operational planner” Abu Layth al Libi, who was killed in an American airstrike in January 2008. Under al Libi’s direction, Karim (whose internment serial number is 975) plotted attacks against American forces. Karim’s network, comprised mainly of Afghans who are al Qaeda members or sympathizers, also allegedly helped smuggle Arabs out of Afghanistan following the US-led invasion.

Several other members of Karim’s network have also been held at Guantanamo: a detainee known as Obaidullah (ISN #762) was Karim’s partner; another, Shams Ullah (ISN # 783), is Karim’s nephew; Abdullah Wazir (ISN # 976) was captured with Karim by Pakistani policemen; and Khandan Kadir (ISN # 831) owned a safe house utilized by Karim’s network.

During the summer of 2002, US forces discovered and destroyed anti-tank mines that Karim’s network had implanted. After receiving a tip, US and Afghan forces quickly rolled up the network. The story is laid out in several leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessments.

Raids by US and Afghan forces in 2002

On July 21, 2002, Obaidullah became the first member of the network to be detained. According to leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessments, US forces found 23 anti-tank land mines in Obaidullah’s yard. Obaidullah told authorities that the mines were provided by Karim. Obaidullah “also had a notebook on his person that directly connected” Wazir with Karim, Obaidullah and the landmines.

The notebook included “schematics on how to detonate” landmines. At some point, Obaidullah told authorities that Karim drew the schematics to show him how to detonate the mines. It appears that JTF-GTMO analysts ultimately concluded the notebook was not Obaidullah’s and probably was Karim’s.

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Obaidullah was also denied his habeas petition and deemed a “high” risk by JTF-GTMO.

This is not all that was found at Obaidullah’s compound. American forces found IED “components and a portion of a detonator, as well as a significant amount of blood, parts of a hand, and fingers.” The JTF-GTMO memos do not say whose digits were discovered. In addition, a Pakistani medical inspection of Karim’s hands after he was captured found burns and marks consistent with the injuries of a bomb-maker. (Karim claimed that he was injured as a child.)

Several days after Obaidullah was captured, Karim visited Obaidullah’s “family members, all of whom are sympathetic with al Qaeda and the former Taliban regime.” Karim told them, according to intelligence included in the JTF-GTMO files, that “he was preparing to conduct command-detonated mine attacks against US forces in revenge” for Obaidullah’s capture.

The alleged meeting between Karim and Obaidullah’s family members occurred on July 27, 2002. Just over two weeks later, on Aug. 13, Karim and Wazir were traveling on a bus from Afghanistan to Bannu, Pakistan when they were detained by the Pakistani police. It was not the first time authorities tried to nab Karim.

A few days prior to his capture, on Aug. 9, US Special Forces and Afghan military personnel raided Karim’s compound in Khost. Karim was nowhere to be found, but his nephew, Shams Ullah, was. According to a leaked JTF-GTMO file, Shams Ullah first attempted to hide his AK-47. When Afghan personnel told him to stop, a firefight broke out in which Shams Ullah emptied his clip before being shot in the hip. Shams Ullah was transferred to US custody and held at Guantanamo.

JTF-GTMO analysts speculated that Obaidullah’s capture with the incriminating notebook, as well as nearly two dozen anti-tank mines, may have prompted Karim and Wazir “to flee the Khost area for Pakistan to avoid capture.” Perhaps the raid on Karim’s compound provided an incentive to escape as well. In Pakistan, however, Karim failed to evade authorities again.

Evidence relied on by the court

Karim’s capture was the result of a manhunt that began when the US military’s informants provided tips about Karim’s IED cell. The district court did not rely on this intelligence, or the circumstances leading up to Karim’s capture, in deciding to deny his habeas petition.

The court instead focuses on the circumstances surrounding Karim’s and Wazir’s capture in Pakistan. The government and Karim’s counsel debated whether Bostan Karim was the same man “identified by intelligence sources as a member of an al Qaeda bomb cell” prior to his capture in Pakistan.

District Judge Walton does not describe these “intelligence sources” in his publicly-available opinion. According to leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessments, an unnamed “walk-in source” provided the intelligence that led to Obaidullah’s capture. This same source also described the activities of Karim’s IED cell. JTF-GTMO analysts concluded that the “Karim” described by this walk-in source was in fact Bostan Karim.

District Judge Walton found that “able counsel on both sides presented persuasive evidence” on these intelligence sources’ identification of Karim during hearings, with the defense apparently claiming that Bostan Karim was not the same “Karim” that had been identified by these sources. So, the judge sidestepped the issue, deciding to focus instead on the circumstances surrounding Karim’s and Wazir’s capture and their ties to an organization that is commonly used as a front by al Qaeda.

The district court found that Karim, Obaidullah, and Wazir met through the Jamaat al Tablighi (JT). Judge Walton relied on previous habeas decisions that cite testimony describing the JT as “an Islamic missionary organization that is a Terrorist Support Entity ‘closely aligned’ with al Qaeda.” While ties to the JT are not enough to warrant detention, according to the courts, Judge Walton concluded that Karim’s admitted membership in the JT, combined with other evidence, was enough to deny his habeas petition.

Shortly before Karim and Wazir were detained, Wazir passed Karim his cellular phone for hiding. The court found that the “most likely” explanation for the pair’s attempt to hide the phone is that it “could be used to detonate explosive devices,” making it an incriminating piece of evidence that they wanted to conceal. Wazir also had a significant sum of money in his possession at the time.

Intelligence not relied upon by the court

Leaked JTF-GTMO memos contain additional intelligence that the district court did not rely upon in Judge Walton’s declassified opinion. It is not clear why. Either this intelligence was not entered into the record, or the judge concluded it was not necessary to weigh it as there was sufficient other evidence in the record to draw a conclusion.

At some point, Obaidullah fingered Karim as the author of the notebook filled with IED schematics. According to Obaidullah, Karim gave him the IED’s to store at his house and offered to pay Obaidullah if he implanted them. Obaidullah also explained that Karim “was planning to use a suicide bomber to drive a large truck loaded with landmines hidden under wood to a designated area in Kabul.” Obaidullah claimed that Karim “asked him to drive the truck to Kabul, and that another individual would drive the truck to the attack site.”

Obaidullah’s claims against Karim were included in FBI memos cited in JTF-GTMO’s threat assessments. However, Obaidullah’s descriptions of Karim are not included in the district court’s decision. The court did cite Karim’s relationship with Obaidullah, as well as a previous habeas ruling that denied Obaidullah’s own petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In that decision, the court ruled that Obaidullah was more likely than not “a member of an al Qaeda bomb cell committed to the destruction of [US] and Allied forces.”

Karim admitted during interviews at Gitmo that he knew of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the infamous Taliban commander and ally of Osama bin Laden. Karim apparently downplayed his ties to Haqqani, saying he last saw Haqqani in 2000 and, before that, in the mid-1990s. Obaidullah offered a different take on Karim’s relationship with Haqqani. Obaidullah stated that Karim “has worked with Jalaluddin.”

Other Guantanamo detainees provided intelligence on Karim that was not relied on the by the court as well. Shams Ullah, Karim’s nephew, told officials that Karim met yet another Guantanamo detainee , Khandan Kadir (ISN # 831), during the jihad against the Soviets. Shams Ullah explained that Karim used Kadir’s residence as a safe house for his bomb-making network.

Kadir, in turn, identified Karim as “an informer for the Taliban Ministry of Vice and Virtue, the religious police during the Taliban era.” According to Kadir, Karim reported him to the “director of the religious police in Khost, for missing noon prayers.” JTF-GTMO suspected that Kadir’s claim in this regard was actually a bit of disinformation that was intended to distance Kadir from the opposition to Karzai’s government.

Kadir also said Karim was part of a crew suspected of bombings in Khost prior to his capture.

Karim reportedly told still another Guantanamo detainee that Omar Khadr, a Canadian who has pled guilty before a military commission to killing an American medic in Afghanistan, was a member of Abu Layth al Libi’s IED cell. It is commonly known that Khadr served as al Libi’s translator. Years earlier, during Khadr’s “initial interrogations,” Khadr told authorities that “he had served as an interpreter in a meeting attended by an individual named Karim.” JTF-GTMO’s analysts determined that the “Karim” mentioned by Khadr was Bostan Karim.

Separately, Obaidullah allegedly admitted that Abu Layth al Libi had commanded both Obaidullah and Khadr to perform surveillance on the airport in Khost in anticipation of attacks on US forces.

Where are the members of Karim’s IED cell now?

In rolling up Karim’s IED cell, Afghan and US forces captured a number of suspected terrorists. Leaked JTF-GTMO files do not make the precise number clear, but at least several were detained at Guantanamo, while others remained at Bagram. Those held at Bagram, including one of Karim’s family members, were freed.

Karim and Obaidullah remain at Guantanamo. JTF-GTMO analysts deemed both “high” risks who are “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies.” Both also have been denied their habeas corpus petitions by DC district courts.

Shams Ullah, Karim’s nephew, was transferred from Guantanamo to Afghanistan on Oct. 11, 2006. Abdullah Wazir, who was captured with Karim, was transferred from Guantanamo to Afghanistan more than a year later, in December 2007. In leaked threat assessments, JTF-GTMO recommended that both be “transferred to the control of another country for continued detention.” It is not publicly known whether either or both of them were held by the Afghans or, as in the case of most ex-Guantanamo detainees, they were simply let go. Interestingly, the leaked files for both Shams Ullah and Wazir note that JTF-GTMO had at one time recommended they be retained in the Defense Department’s custody. They were ultimately determined to be “medium” risks to the US and its allies and returned to Afghanistan.

Khandan Kadir, whose residence was used by Karim’s network, was transferred from Guantanamo to Afghanistan the same day as Shams Ullah. JTF-GTMO analysts determined that Kadir was probably a “member of Hezb-e-Islami (HIG), who provided support to extremist groups, including al Qaeda, Hezb-e-Islami, the Taliban and other Anti-Coalition Militias.” JTF-GTMO also deemed Kadir a “medium” risk and recommended that he be transferred to the “control of another country with conditions…subject to the conclusion on an acceptable transfer agreement.”

According to a list of Bagram detainees released by the Department of Defense in 2010, Kadir was detained once again following his release from Guantanamo.

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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