The 'ghost detainees' materialise

  • The US government transferred 14 'high value' Al-Qaeda suspects to Guantanamo Bay on 6 September, previously known as 'ghost detainees'. The transfer apparently brought an end the CIA's practice of holding suspected terrorists at secret facilities.
  • The US government also revealed new information relating to the suspects and their alleged activities, in an apparent attempt to justify the CIA's activities.
  • With many more suspects still unaccounted for, jihadists will continue to use the treatment of detainees held by the US as a prominent feature in their propaganda.
  • On 6 September, US President George W Bush announced that 14 leading Al-Qaeda suspects previously identified as 'ghost detainees' had been transferred to the US military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The term 'ghost detainee' is generally applied to suspected terrorists who have disappeared after being captured by the US or its allies. With many fearing that the detainees have been subjected to torture, this aspect of the war on terrorism has come under mounting criticism, especially as details of an extraordinary rendition programme of abductions and the existence of secret CIA prisons have come to light.

    In an apparent attempt to demonstrate the utility of the CIA's controversial High Value Terrorist Detainee Program, both President Bush and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) revealed more details of the captured suspects and the plots allegedly foiled with the help of the information they disclosed.

    The capture of Abu Zubaida in Pakistan in March 2002 seems to have provided the first major breakthrough in tracking down the perpetrators of the 11 September 2001 attacks. The DNI describes the Palestinian as "a leading extremist facilitator" who received funds from donors in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and distributed them to "various contacts in Pakistan-based extremist networks". During the 1990s he was involved in recruiting Arabs in Pakistan for training in Afghanistan and eventually became the "administrative director" of the Khaldan camp complex, according to the DNI.

    While he is not believed to have been directly involved in the 11 September 2001 plot, he told his interrogators that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the attack, according to President Bush. He also helped "some 70 Arab fighters" - including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - escape to Iran from Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime.

    The Khalid Sheikh Mohammed network

    President Bush claimed that Abu Zubaida also revealed "a vital piece in the puzzle that helped our intelligence community pursue Khalid Sheikh Mohammed". Reportedly captured in Rawalpindi in March 2003, he was "the driving force behind the attacks on 11 September 2001 as well as several subsequent plots against US and Western targets worldwide," according to the DNI. These plots included two targeting the UK: the 2004 urban targets plot (attacks at a variety of unspecified locations in the UK) and another to attack Heathrow Airport with hijacked aircraft in 2003. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed also revealed information about Al-Qaeda's efforts to obtain biological weapons that led to the capture of two men who worked on its anthrax programme, according to President Bush.

    Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali (Ammar al-Baluchi), Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's nephew, served as a key lieutenant during the 11 September 2001 plot and subsequently assisted his uncle on various plots against the US and UK, according to the DNI. More specifically, Ammar was directed to act as the communications intermediary between the shoe bombers Richard Reid and Saajid Badat and helped prepare Majid Khan (a Pakistani national captured in 2003) for an operation inside the US. Both Ammar and Khan were transferred to Guantanamo along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

    Several other suspected 11 September 2001 conspirators were also transferred to Guantanamo, including Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Walid bin Attash. Both were allegedly slated as hijackers, but failed to obtain US visas and helped Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on the plot. According to the DNI, they were working on a plot to launch multiple attacks against Western targets in Karachi - including the US consulate - when they were captured there in April 2003. Another transferred suspect, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, helped finance the 11 September 2001 plot, according to the DNI. He was reportedly captured alongside Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

    The Hambali network

    Khalid Sheikh Mohammed also plotted with his Indonesian associate Hambali to follow the 11 September 2001 attacks with a "second wave" attack that involved crashing a hijacked airliner into an Los Angeles skyscraper. According to the biographical information released by the DNI, this was planned for late 2001, but elsewhere the DNI states that the plot was not foiled until mid-2002. The DNI adds that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed "provided the first information on his use of the Hambali network for Western operations" after his capture.

    Hambali was reportedly arrested in Thailand in August 2003. The DNI describes him as the operational mastermind in the Southeast Asian jihadist group Jemaah Islamiyya (JI) and accuses him of being involved in the bombing of 30 churches across Indonesia on 25 December 2000, helping plan the October 2002 Bali bombings and facilitating Al-Qaeda financing for the 2003 Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta.

    Two of his subordinates - Mohammed Nazir Bin Lap (Lillie) and Mohd Farik bin Amin (Zubair) - were slated as potential hijackers for the "West Coast Airliners Plot" in mid-2002 (a plot to attack targets on the west coast of the US using hijacked planes), according to the DNI. The two Malaysian university friends were transferred to Guantanamo along with Hambali. In 2002, after apparently abandoning the West Coast Plot, Hambali tasked them with casing the British High Commission in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for an attack in 2002, according to the DNI. It is unclear how far this plot progressed, but by mid-2002, Lillie was casing targets in Thailand.

    The other ex-ghosts

    Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, another detainee transferred to Guantanamo, is a veteran jihadist who became the head of Al-Qaeda's operations in the Arabian peninsula after his successful masterminding of attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, according to the DNI. He was responsible for a similar attack on the oil tanker Limburg in October 2002 and was captured in the UAE soon afterwards. According to the DNI, he was working on a plot to crash a light aircraft into a US warship in Dubai's Rashid port when he was captured in 2002.

    Abu Faraj al-Libi was also transferred to Guantanamo. While often said to have replaced Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as Al-Qaeda's operations chief, the DNI describes him as Al-Qaeda's "general manager subordinate only to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri" from mid-2003. He was allegedly responsible for financing operatives and their families and acted as a communications conduit between Bin Laden and his senior managers.

    The last two transferred detainees were both Africans: the Tanzanian Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and the Somali Gouled Hassan Dourad. Ghailani has long been wanted in connection with the 7 August 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, after which he became one of Al-Qaeda's top forgers, according to the DNI.

    Dourad is a less well-known figure who fought with the Somali group Al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya in Ethiopia's Ogaden region. He is accused of harbouring other men wanted in connection with the Embassy bombings and helping them organise the November 2002 Mombasa attacks. President Bush claimed that in September-October 2003 Dourad cased a US military base in Djibouti for a suicide attack using an explosives laden water tanker.

    Still in the shadows

    The 14 Al-Qaeda suspects transferred to Guantanamo were the last of the detainees being held secretly by the CIA, according to President Bush. However, a number of individuals remain unaccounted for. For example, of a list of 11 suspected 'ghost detainees' identified by Human Right Watch (HRW), four were not transferred to Guantanamo, including Bin al-Shaikh al-Libi, who is believed to have been arrested in Pakistan in late 2001 or early 2002. He is alleged to have worked under Abu Zubaida as the chief trainer at the Khaldan complex. He fed his interrogators false information claiming Iraq assisted Al-Qaeda's chemical and biological weapons programmes, according to a report by the US Senate Select Committee.

    The Algerian Adil al-Jazeeri was arrested by the Pakistani authorities in Peshawar in June 2003. A veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, he allegedly acted as a liaison between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and as an aide to the Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil. According to the BBC, he was flown to the US base at Bagram after his capture. Omar al-Faruq, another of HRW's ghost detainees, was also taken to Bagram. He allegedly served as Abu Zubaida's representative in Southeast Asia and helped Hambali mastermind the Indonesian church bombings in 2000. However, he reportedly escaped from Bagram with three others in July 2005.

    HRW also listed a Saudi called Abu Zubair al-Haili on the basis of reports that he was arrested in Morocco in June 2002. He allegedly served under Abu Zubaida and is said to have helped recruits travel to Afghanistan for training. According to the Moroccan Justice Ministry, he was plotting to attack ships in the Straits of Gibraltar on behalf of Nashiri when he was arrested. However, it seems that he was never a ghost detainee, but was convicted in Morocco in 2003 under the name Zuhair Hilal al-Thubaiti (reported by The Guardian in February 2003).

    There have been claims that there are many more ghost detainees. For example,, which describes itself as an Islamic human rights website, lists more than 100 people as ghost detainees. At least some of these individuals are subject to transparent legal proceedings, but many still seem to be ghost detainees, albeit held by allied countries rather than the CIA.

    While this distinction may help calm US concerns about direct CIA involvement, the US's Islamist enemies will continue to use the nature of the renditions and detentions in their propaganda. Images of prisons at Guantanamo are often used in jihadist videos and Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia group dressed their prisoners in Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits before executing them. In a recent video Adam Gadahn, a US convert to Islam turned Al-Qaeda spokesman, argued that the abduction of innocent Muslims by the US (there have been several cases of 'erroneous renditions' and many Guantanamo prisoners have been released without charge) justified the kidnapping of Westerners.

    This article was originally published in Jane's Terrorism and Security Monitor.

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