US transfers Egyptian Guantanamo detainee who became a ‘highly prolific source’

The Defense Department announced today that Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed Al Sawah, an Egyptian who had been held at Guantanamo since 2002, has been transferred to the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Military and intelligence officials found that al Sawah was an expert bomb maker for al Qaeda. In that role, he allegedly designed a shoe bomb that “technically matches the designs of the shoe bomb used by failed suicide operative Richard Reid” in December 2001, according to a leaked Sept. 30, 2008 Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment. He also constructed a limpet mine that could sink a US naval vessel.

Normally, JTF-GTMO would have deemed a detainee with Al Sawah’s background and expertise a “high” risk to the US, its interests and allies, while recommending that he be held in detention. But there was a twist in his story.

Al Sawah became one of the US government’s most prolific sources on al Qaeda and other detainees during his time in custody. Al Sawah was so helpful, in fact, that JTF-GTMO officials recommended he be transferred out of the Defense Department’s custody, 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.”

The Guantanamo Review Task Force, set up by President Obama in early 2009, disagreed with JTF-GTMO’s recommendation. In its final report, dated January 2010, the task force recommended al Sawah for prosecution.

Then, in February 2015, a Periodic Review Board at Guantanamo concluded that “continued law of war detention of” Al Sawah was “no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.” The PRB said it considered Al Sawah’s “change of ideology and renunciation of violence,” as well as “his status as one of the most compliant detainees at Guantanamo.” Al Sawah also has health problems. The JTF-GTMO file describes him as morbidly obese, and the PRB subsequently recognized “his health status.”

“The detainee is not in communication with extremists outside of Guantanamo and his family has committed to assist in his reintegration upon transfer,” the PRB found on Feb. 12, 2015. The board recommended that he “be transferred to a country with appropriate support, including adequate medical care,” and be “subject to appropriate security assurances.”

Allegedly worked for senior al Qaeda leaders

The dossier compiled by JTF-GTMO includes references to Al Sawah’s work on behalf of al Qaeda’s leadership.

For example, Saif al Adel, one of al Qaeda’s most senior officials, “tasked [Al Sawah] to develop several IEDs [improvised explosive devices], including a shoe bomb similar to the one convicted terrorist Richard Reid used in a failed attempt to bring down a commercial transatlantic airliner in flight.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Al Adel also “instructed [Al Sawah] to construct mines to be used against US ships [al Adel] assumed were heading to harbors in Pakistan.” 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.”

As the Washington Post first reported, US officials were initially skeptical of Al Sawah’s claims regarding the magnetic limpet mines. But after Al Sawah sketched his design, the US built and tested such a device. It worked.

Saif al Adel, who was held for years in some form of detention inside Iran before being released, is still an al Qaeda leader. Last year, the group began publishing al Adel’s commentary online.

Al Sawah taught other al Qaeda operatives his bomb making techniques at Tarnak Farm, which was sponsored by Osama bin Laden. Al Sawah told US authorities that bin Laden had even praised him for his “good work” at the training camp. Al Sawah also allegedly worked with Abu Khabab al Masri, who specialized in poisons and chemical weapons. According to JTF-GTMO, Al Sawah and Al Masri would review the applications of jihadists seeking to participate in al Masri’s advanced training courses.

In conversations with American authorities, Al Sawah discussed his ties to another al Qaeda leader as well: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the chief planner of 9/11. According to the JTF-GTMO file, al Sawah told the Americans that KSM “supplied money and arms” to his “fighting unit in Bosnia” in the 1990s.

Al Sawah 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,” JTF-GTMO 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’s analysts reasoned, and al Sawah could have been simply trying to “disassociate himself” from KSM, especially after the 9/11 architect was 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 9/11 operation.

Al Sawah provided intelligence on former detainees who have been transferred to the West, and some of them identified him during their time at Guantanamo as well.

For instance, the JTF-GTMO file indicates that David Hicks, who was transferred from Guantanamo to his home country of Australia, “identified [Al Sawah] as the head instructor at the Tarnak Farm camp.” Hicks reportedly told authorities that Al Sawah was “exceptionally knowledgeable at fabricating and teaching explosives.”

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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