Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed al Sawah, a Guantanamo detainee since 2002, became one of the US government’s most prolific sources during his time in custody, a leaked Sept. 30, 2008 Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) memo shows. So prolific, in fact, that JTF-GTMO officials recommended that al Sawah be transferred out of the Defense Department’s control, even though he had compiled an extensive dossier as a jihadist in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
At first, al Sawah was hostile to Guantanamo personnel, according to the leaked JTF-GTMO memo. But he became “compliant” and, as of 2008, continued “to be a highly prolific source,” who “has provided invaluable intelligence regarding explosives, al Qaeda, affiliated entities and their activities.”
“If released,” JTF-GTMO surmised, al Sawah “will possibly reestablish extremist associations, but is unlikely to do so as his cooperation with the US government may serve to identify detainee as a target for revenge by those associates.”
A task force set up by President Obama in early 2009 disagreed with JTF-GTMO’s recommendation. The task force determined, according to an account by the Washington Post’s Peter Finn, that al Sawah was “owed no special treatment” even though he had cooperated with US officials.
“Great pride” in explosives expertise
Al Sawah, who was given the internment serial number (ISN) 535, identified numerous al Qaeda operatives during his Guantanamo interrogations. But he also showed authorities how he had designed ingenious explosive devices capable of taking down a commercial airliner, or severely damaging a US naval ship. Al Sawah takes “takes great pride in his bomb making achievements,” JTF-GTMO found, and he liked to brag about two of his accomplishments in particular.
Al Sawah told authorities at Guantanamo that the director of Tarnak Farms, an elite al Qaeda training facility, tasked him with designing “a new way to use explosives” in the summer of 2001. Al Sawah came up with “a shoe-bomb prototype that could be used to bring down a commercial airliner in flight,” the JTF-GTMO file reads. When US officials investigated al Sawah’s description of this prototype they found it “technically matches the design of the shoe-bomb used by failed suicide operative Richard Reid” in December 2001.
Senior al Qaeda commander Saif al Adel asked al Sawah to design another brilliant explosive device as well. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, al Adel figured that American warships would make their way for Pakistan’s harbors. So, according to the JTF-GTMO file, al Sawah “designed and built four magnetic limpet mines that could be attached to the underside of a metal-hulled ship and detonated, thereby sinking the ship.” Al Sawah told authorities that the mines “could be attached to the hull of a ship with a magnet delivered by swimmers or scuba divers or could be floated near the surface of the water and detonated with the remote.”
At first, US officials did not believe that al Sawah was as skilled as he claimed to be. Al Sawah countered their skepticism by showing them drawings of his designs, including the magnetized limpet mines. As the Washington Post first reported, the US Navy decided to test al Sawah’s inventions.
Al Sawah wasn’t all bluster; his designs worked.
Al Sawah’s al Qaeda pedigree likely explains, at least in part, his bomb-making prowess. The JTF-GTMO file reveals that al Sawah claimed he was trained by another al Qaeda explosives expert known as Abd al Rahman al Muhajir, who was one of the most wanted terrorists in the world until his demise 2006.
Al Muhajir, who was otherwise known as Muhsin Musa Matwalli Atwah, was wanted for his role in al Qaeda’s August 1998 embassy bombings and the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, as well as for training Somali tribesmen to target US forces in the early 1990s. Al Sawah also said that Saif al Adel had al Muhajir train the terrorists who assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud on Sept. 9. 2011. That attack was a prelude to al Qaeda’s devastation inside the US two days later. Massoud’s assassins posed as journalists and used cleverly-designed bombs that were disguised to look like video cameras.
In other words, al Sawah learned from one of al Qaeda’s best explosives experts.
Possible foreknowledge of Sept. 11 attacks
Al Sawah’s JTF-GTMO file reveals that he interacted with a constellation of other senior al Qaeda operatives prior to his capture. This includes, according to al Sawah’s own testimony, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM).
Al Sawah told the Americans that KSM “supplied money and arms” to his “fighting unit in Bosnia” in the 1990s. Al Sawah also said that he saw KSM “on several occasions between 1995 and 1999 when [KSM] came to Bosnia to recruit fighters to train and help train other fighters in Afghanistan.” KSM “was a close associate” of senior al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, al Sawah added, but he “did not know” if KSM had ever traveled to Afghanistan.
On that last point, JTF-GTMO analysts concluded that al Sawah was being deliberately evasive. While he was a “prolific” source on many topics, he still wanted to mask parts of his career. It is “unlikely” al Sawah was unaware of KSM’s “extensive presence in Afghanistan,” the Americans concluded. Al Sawah told authorities that he wanted to leave Afghanistan for Bosnia prior to Sept. 11, 2001 because he heard bin Laden “was planning an attack against the US.”
KSM himself may have told al Sawah about the impending attacks, JTF-GTMO concluded, and al Sawah may have been simply trying to “disassociate himself” from KSM, especially after the Sept. 11 mastermind had been transferred to Guantanamo in 2006.
KSM was not the only Sept. 11 conspirator al Sawah had ties to, either. During a Sept. 11, 2002 raid on an al Qaeda safe house in Karachi, Pakistan, al Sawah’s “personal identification documents, including his Bosnian passport,” were found. Also captured during the raid was Ramzi Binalshibh — al Qaeda’s point man for the Sept. 11 operation.
Spying on the Muslim Brotherhood
Al Sawah’s dedication to jihad began decades ago and allegedly led him to serve the most wanted terrorists on the planet — Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. Bin Laden, al Sawah told officials at Guantanamo, even praised the burly Egyptian for his “good work” as an explosives expert during their meetings in the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
Al Sawah’s ties to Zawahiri go back even further, to Egypt in the 1970s and early 1980s. Before graduating from a secondary school in Alexandria, Egypt in 1975, al Sawah joined the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1981, the leaked JTF-GTMO file indicates, he was “arrested and imprisoned at the Tora Prison in Cairo … due to his affiliation with the” Muslim Brotherhood. Like many other Egyptian Islamists, al Sawah was detained following the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Members of the Brotherhood and two of its offshoots — al-Gamaa al -Islamiyya (IG) and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) — were rounded up in large numbers.
Also in the Tora Prison at the same time as al Sawah was Ayman al Zawahiri. Al Sawah was released in 1982. Zawahiri was eventually released, too. Zawahiri made his way to Afghanistan and the rest is, as they say, history.
The leaked JTF-GTMO file for al Sawah includes an especially interesting note about the Muslim Brotherhood. “Although not identified as a National Intelligence Priority Framework (NIPF) Counterterrorism (CT) target,” the file reads, “the Muslim Brotherhood is an extremist group and has been the subject of multiple HUMINT collection requirements.”
The implication is clear. The US government has found it necessary to spy on the Brotherhood because of its ties to terrorists. Al Sawah is not, after all, the only al Qaeda member who was once a Brother. KSM, Zawahiri (who has been publicly critical of the Brotherhood’s approach to politics), and many other al Qaeda members once belonged to the Brotherhood.
Some Brotherhood organizations and members remain on the US Treasury Department’s list of designated terrorist sponsors to this day.
Freeing longtime extremists and terrorists
Since Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power, IG and EIJ members have been released from prison in significant numbers. One such EIJ commander is Mohamed al Zawahiri, Ayman’s brother. Another is Mohammed Islambouli, a longtime al Qaeda operative and the brother of Sadat’s assassin. After spending years in exile in Iran, Islambouli returned to Egypt and quickly had the charges against him dropped by an Egyptian military court. Such a move would be unthinkable not long ago.
Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, is personally involved in not only freeing terrorists from Egyptian prisons, but even requesting that the US government release terrorists from American prisons. Morsi, himself a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has said that he will work to have Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman freed. Commonly known as the “Blind Sheikh,” Rahman has been convicted by a US court for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center attack and a follow-on plot against New York City landmarks. Rahman has been the spiritual leader for both the IG and EIJ. Osama bin Laden credited Rahman with authoring the fatwa (religious edict) that justified the Sept. 11 attacks.
Intriguingly, JTF-GTMO discovered a possible tie between al Sawah and the Blind Sheikh. The leaked file notes that al Sawah “has been questioned regarding a possible connection between” his brother Jamal and Rahman. Jamal resides in Jersey City, New Jersey, JTF-GTMO noted, and wired al Sawah “approximately $2,000” when he was fighting in Bosnia.
There is no indication in the file that anything more came of this lead, however.
Despite Morsi’s promise to fight for his release, the Blind Sheikh remains in a US prison.
Meanwhile, al Sawah reportedly enjoys Subway sandwiches at Guantanamo.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.