No leaders of Al Qaeda found at Guantanamo

Intelligence: U.S. efforts to learn valuable information about terrorist cells and plots have been frustrated at the prison camp.

Los Angeles Times | August 18 2002
By Bob Drogin

Despite intense interrogations and investigations, U.S. authorities have yet to identify any senior Al Qaeda leaders among the nearly 600 terrorism suspects from 43 countries in U.S. military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials say.

The failure to find high-ranking Al Qaeda officials has frustrated intelligence, law enforcement and military authorities, who had hoped to harvest far more valuable information about global terrorism structures and operations.

Although some of the information has been helpful, officials said, the interrogations at the high-security prison camp have not provided the kind of details needed to identify new Al Qaeda cells or to detect specific terrorist plots.

"It's not roll-up-plots, knock-your-socks-off-kind of stuff," said a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said the 598 inmates flown to the U.S. Navy base in eastern Cuba since January are mostly "low-and middle-level" fighters and supporters, not "the big-time guys" high enough in the command and control structure to help counter-terrorism experts unravel Al Qaeda's tightknit cell and security systems.

Another official who has visited the seaside detention facility called Camp Delta said U.S. authorities had netted "no big fish" there. "Some of these guys literally don't know the world is round," the official said.

Most of the prisoners were captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan last fall or during subsequent raids and sweeps conducted by United States and allied authorities.

The most recent group of 34 prisoners arrived in Cuba on Aug. 5 and included several alleged Islamic militants seized in Pakistan. Other suspects have been brought from Bosnia-Herzegovina and other parts of Europe.

The Bush administration has declared those held at Guantanamo Bay to be "enemy combatants," a murky legal and political status that apparently has added to stress there.

About 200 defiant inmates joined hunger strikes last spring to protest their detention. More recently, the military has registered 30 "self-harm incidents," including suicide attempts, according to Lt. Col. Joe Hoey, a military spokesman at the camp.

In the last six weeks alone, he said, three inmates have tried to hang themselves in their cells with camp-issued "comfort items" such as towels and sheets, and another tried to slit his wrists with a plastic razor. None has succeeded.

Hoey said camp doctors are treating some detainees for psychological disorders and have administered antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs. One inmate was repatriated in April to an undisclosed country after doctors deemed him mentally ill.

Not everyone apparently is eager to leave, however. One official said several inmates have inquired about learning English and applying for political asylum in America, saying they fear imprisonment, persecution or worse if they are sent home.

That isn't likely anytime soon. The prisoners are monitored by the International Red Cross, but they have not been charged in court, brought before a military tribunal or provided with lawyers.

And on Aug. 1, responding to two lawsuits brought on behalf of 14 detainees, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the detainees don't have a right to appear in U.S. courts and that the military may hold them indefinitely.

Officials concede they have not confirmed the identity of everyone being held at Guantanamo Bay. Many prisoners either carried false identity documents or none at all, or have given a variety of names and aliases.

Al Qaeda routinely provided false or stolen passports to some of its operatives.

"Most of them have given us more than one identification," said Steve Lucas, a military spokesman in Miami. "We are not always sure who they represent, from foot soldiers to leadership. They tell different stories at different times."

Lucas said the military would not publicly name any of the prisoners to protect their privacy, and to avoid providing potentially useful information to terrorist groups looking for missing members. "It's a sensitive matter as to who is at large and who isn't," he said.

Some names have begun to emerge, however. Although U.S. authorities censor their mail, prisoners are allowed to write to their families via the Red Cross. Among those who recently told his family he is at Guantanamo Bay: the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef.

After the war in Afghanistan began in October, Zaeef held frequent news conferences at the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad to denounce America. Pakistan denied his application for political asylum after Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime collapsed in December, and he later was arrested and handed over to U.S. authorities.

Another prisoner who allegedly fought for the Taliban, Yaser Esam Hamdi, was taken from Guantanamo Bay to a Navy brig in Norfolk, Va., after he claimed he had been born in Louisiana.

On Friday, a federal judge, Robert G. Doumar, said he would not be a "rubber stamp" and ordered the government to turn over documents supporting their argument that Hamdi should remain jailed without charges and without access to a lawyer. Some foreign governments have begun to voice similar concerns.

Pakistan's interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, told reporters Saturday in Karachi that Islamabad would seek the release of some of the 58 Pakistanis held at Guantanamo Bay. Haider said many of the detainees were ordinary Muslims who had gone to fight for the Taliban but were not members of Al Qaeda. Pakistani intelligence and diplomatic officials visited the camp to interview prisoners earlier this month. A similar delegation from Kuwait was at the camp last week to meet a dozen Kuwaiti prisoners.

Several European countries have quietly offered to take prisoners home and put them on trial if U.S. officials can provide evidence that they have committed a crime. None has been released for trial so far.

After eight months of operation, Camp Delta is now almost full. Navy engineers last month began building a new wing of 204 one-person cells to house detainees now being held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and other locations. It is unknown if higher-ranking Al Qaeda leaders are among them.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Al Qaeda operatives and commanders escaped Afghanistan and fled into Pakistan during the battle of Tora Bora in December. Some authorities believe Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was among those who escaped.

The most senior figure known to be in U.S. custody is Abu Zubeida, a key Bin Laden lieutenant. Captured in March during a raid in central Pakistan, he has been interrogated ever since at an undisclosed location and apparently has provided highly useful information on several occasions. "He's still talking from time to time," one official said. He said Zubeida was not sent to Guantanamo Bay with the other prisoners "because we find it easier to talk to him alone."

The U.S. government also has secretly transported some suspects to Middle Eastern countries that use interrogation tactics, including torture and threats, that are illegal under U.S. law. Suspects are known to have been handed over to authorities in Egypt, Syria, Oman, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Authorities believe one such suspect, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, helped recruit some of the Sept. 11 skyjackers in Hamburg, Germany. Although he is a German citizen, Zammar was arrested in October during a visit to Morocco and was secretly flown to his native Syria, where he was imprisoned. His family and the German government were notified months later.