Froomkin on the Faulty Claims Re: Recidivist Gitmo Detainees

Dan Froomkin weighs in on the faulty claims perpetuated by the media that 1 in 7 released Guantanamo detainees have returned to the battlefield.

Here's the Pentagon's April 7 report entitled "Fact Sheet: Former Guantanamo Detainee Terrorism Trends" (which they uploaded as "return to the fight.") As we've reported before, the report has been debunked and criticized by a study directed by Seton Hall Law Professor Mark Denbeaux.

“Once again, they’ve failed to identify names, numbers, dates, times, places, or acts upon which their report relies. Every time they have been required to identify the parties, they have been forced to retract their false ID’s and their numbers. They have included people who have never even set foot in Guantanamo —much less were they released from there. They have counted people as “returning to the fight” for having written an Op-ed piece in the New York Times and for having appeared in a documentary exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival. They have revised and retracted their internally conflicting definitions, criteria, and their numbers so often that they have ceased to have any meaning— except as an effort to sway public opinion by painting a false portrait of the supposed dangers of these men.

Forty-three times they have given numbers—which conflict with each other—all of which are seriously undercut by the DOD statement that “they do not track” former detainees. Rather than making up numbers “willy-nilly” about post release conduct, America might be better served if our government actually kept track of them.”

Seton Hall's full report is here.

One thing I noticed in doing my own research on the Pentagon report was that they seemed to have confused #333 Muhammad al Awfi (aka Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi, Abu Hareth Muhammad al Awfi, Mohamed Atiq Awayd al Harbi) with another detainee. #333 is age 36; born July 13, 1973, released to Saudi Arabia on 11/9/07 and put in a rehab program. He later joined Saeed al Shehri and appeared in the infamous inaugural AQAP video. But, less than one month after the video appeared, on Feb. 17, 2009, he voluntarily surrendered to Saudi authorities in Yemen and went back to his rehab program. He not only should no longer be classified as someone who returned to the fight, he also shouldn't be cited as having any responsibility for AQAP or the failed Detroit Delta flight plot.

The Yemeni Interior Ministry announced Oufi's surrender Tuesday. Saudi government officials confirmed he was handed over to Saudi authorities in order to contact his family and return to his former rehabilitation center, according to the official Saudi Press Agency. Sheik Mohammed al Nujaimi, who helps run the rehabilitation program, said Oufi had contacted the program's headquarters and ``expressed a desire to surrender and return to Saudi Arabia.''

It seems to me the Pentagon report confuses #333 with Guantanamo inmate #154, Mazin Salih Musaid al Awfi, aka Mazin Salih Musaid Alawfi, Age 30, Transferred 7/15/07. See the chart on page 5 of the Pentagon report, and the paragraph on the top of page 2 where it lists Mazin and al Shehri as being in the January AQAP video. Once they do it, the media then uncritically picks it up. See,CNN for one.

Al-Awfi goes by several names, including Mazin Salih Musaid Awfi, Abu Hareth Awfi, and Muhammad Ateeq Uwaidh al-Aufi.

Even ten days ago CNN quoted the Pentagon's April, 2009 report on released Saudi detainees who reverted to terrorism and again stated Mazin is in the video and reverted to terrorism. (See also Reuters.)

Here's the list of 85 wanted jihadists released by the Saudis on Feb. 3. Again you can see they are different people.

The New York Times has this clickable list of released detainees to Saudi Arabia.

Muhammad al Awfi, #333, is on page 2, as is Said Ali al Shihri. Mazin Salih Musaid al Awfi, #154, is on page 3, yet another clear indication they are different people.

Put another way, Mazin is not the same as Muhammed. #154 is not the same as #333. #333 is the one who joined AQAP for a short time, but he has been back in Saudi Arabia on the side of the good guys since his February surrender. And he is not Mazin. So the Pentagon report that Mazin joined AQAP after his release is wrong.

So, yes, there were four released Gitmo detainees out of the hundreds released, that joined up with AQAP. But only two remain, and importantly, only two could possibly be affiliated with the Detroit plane attack. One is Saaed al-Shehri and the other is Ibrahim al-Rubaish. Rubaish's alleged role: al Qaeda’s chief anti-Saudi Mufti.

As detailed above, #333, Al-awfi aka al oufi, abandoned them a year ago. The fourth is Saeed Al Shehri's brother or brother-in law, Yousef al Shehri , who was #114 at Gitmo and was released in Nov. 2007 to Saudi Arabia. He then abandoned the Saudi rehab program and joined up with AQAP, but he was killed in a shootout at the Yemen-Saudi border trying to bring suicide vests into Saudi Arabia on Sept. 30, 2009, well before the Delta Detroit flight. So while he's an example of a released detainee who returned to the fight, he's not a good example of a released detainee who could be responsible for the failed Detroit terror attack.

Other released detainees, like Mohammed el Gharani, are struggling to survive but staying terror-free.

Then there's the failure to ask, what does it take to be labeled by the Pentagon as "returning to the fight?" As Froomkin writes,

There's the issue of how they define "returning to the fight" - it apparently includes detainees speaking out publicly against their incarceration. There's the fact that officials, if you press them, acknowledge they don't really track former detainees - so this is largely speculative. And there's the specious use of the term "return" - given that most of the detainees who were released weren't found on the battlefield in the first place and were never formally charged with anything.

Why does any of this matter? Because the media and Republicans are harping on released detainees who reverted to terror as being behind or involved in the Detroit terror attack. And in many cases they have done so by mis-identifying them (as in Mazin al Awfi #154 vs. Muhammad al Awfi #333) or by failing to report that one who initially was involved with AQAP, #333, quickly abandoned them back in Feb. 2009. And, based in part on the mis-identifications and misinformation, they then proclaim that the Saudi rehabilitation project was a failure, and any attempt by Yemen to re-create such a program will similarly fail, so we can't release any more detainees to Yemen.

The leader of AQAP is Abu Baseer al-Wahayshi. He's the one the group has pledged allegiance to. He was never at Gitmo. The cleric, al Awlaki, who had contact with Ft. Hood's Major Hasan and perhaps with the Detroit would-be bomber, is American born and was never at Gitmo.

As Peter Bergen wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times criticizing the Times' reporter who uncritically presented the Pentagon report as fact,

In the end, the Pentagon has given out the names of only 12 former detainees who can be independently confirmed to have taken part in terrorist acts directed at American targets, and eight others suspected of such acts. This is about 4 percent of the 534 men who have been released. Obviously, the percentage would be higher if we were able to factor in the former detainees whose names were withheld. Yet it seems fair to say that the much-hyped 14 percent figure is likely a large overstatement of former Guantánamo inmates who have taken up arms.

As I've opined before, it's inevitable some of the released Guantanamo detainees may become militant or revert to militantism, particularly when some were tortured and all were subjected to overly harsh interrogation methods and conditions of confinement. It's a fallacy to say most of them will. The media needs to do a better job of fact-checking Pentagon reports. Refusing to release remaining detainees who have been cleared for release with no demonstrated ties to terrorism, based on isolated cases of a few released inmates who joined AQAP, and in light of the Pentagon's failure to back up its inflated report with facts, is a mistake.

(One other note: I acknowledge it is difficult to keep some names straight, given the similarities and variant spellings. I've made a few mistakes, despite attempts at fact-checking , and been grateful to readers who have e-mailed me with corrections. But I'm not the Pentagon, which I think has a bigger responsibility to get the names right. If they can't even get the names right, why should we trust what they report about those names, or believe their assertions about those they don't name?)

< The Top Bad Guys in AQAP in Yemen | Two Brooklyn Men Associated With Najibullah Zazi Charged >
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    This struck me: (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by steviez314 on Sat Jan 09, 2010 at 03:17:55 PM EST
    They have counted people as "returning to the fight" for having written an Op-ed piece in the New York Times

    Does this make MoDo, Brooks and Krugman terrorists too?

    excellent report jeralyn. (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by Patriot Daily on Sat Jan 09, 2010 at 04:06:47 PM EST
    I remember reading while back how Bush was sending guantanamo prisoners to some rehab facility in saudi arabia to prevent recidivism. given that many imprisoned were not part of terrorism in the first place, it begs the question. but i wonder how many in the stats should also be eliminated due to the rehab that was proclaimed to be so successful.

    Wow (none / 0) (#3)
    by gyrfalcon on Sat Jan 09, 2010 at 07:17:49 PM EST
    You are doing great research work on this, Jeralyn.  If this is an example of the kind of diligence with which you research your cases, I stand up and applaud you as loudly as I can.  And wonder how the heck you have two seconds left to blog or have a private life.

    This is great stuff.  Thank you.

    For Russian, which also does not use the Western alphabet, there are two distinct and formalized sets of transliteration rules, one of which is gradually gaining over the other-- Dmitri versus Dimitry, for instance.

    In Arabic, it's a total free-for-all.  There are no rules, no systems, no consistency of any kind.  Arabic has no capital letters.  And vowels, I gather, are only indicated by those squiggly things that float on top of the broad sweeps of the consonants in Arabic lettering, so it's a particularly difficult language to transliterate into the Western alphabet.

    But it's pretty disgraceful that there hasn't even been an attempt, as far as I know, to set out a system for transliteration.

    Which makes names almost impossible and surely vastly complicates the various watch lists the government keeps-- Muhammad, Mohammad, Mohammed, Mohammad, etc.  Even bin Laden, which most of the country spells Osama, is spelled by the U.S. government Usama, which as far as I know, only Fox News dutifully follows.  (And from what I can hear from Arab speakers, Usama is much closer to at least the standard Arab vowel than Osama, though dialects vary widely from country to country and region to region.)  Arrgghhh.

    Anyway, kudos, and please keep it coming.

    thanks so much (none / 0) (#4)
    by Jeralyn on Sat Jan 09, 2010 at 10:35:44 PM EST
    I am a such a sucker for any kind of puzzle where you get to put clues together, and spend far more hours on it than I should. On the other hand, this kind of sleuthing has also improved my skills at work, particularly reading between the lines in FBI and DEA wiretap affidavits to figure out who the informant is, or where they got certain pieces of information, or where I read a similar thing before, so I guess it's not wasted time. Anyway, thanks for picking up on how time intensive it's been for AQAP and Gitmo, between the name spelling variations, the foreign news sources, U.S. sources, think tank reports and the policy wonks.

    Whether it's a new 20 person indictment or the beginning of a new season of a reality tv show, my first thought is how will I ever get the cast of characters and their inter-relationships straight? The Yemen case has been more complicated than most since I had no familiarity with the middle east or Yemen. I've spent a lot of time searching for English translations of Arabic articles and documents, and trying to figure out which counter-terror experts know their stuff and which are just military or intelligence hacks, but two weeks in, I feel like I'm starting to get a handle on it. I really have a new appreciation for what the lawyers representing the Gitmo detainees have had to learn.

    Maybe next year I'll get a life. :)


    Not wasted time (none / 0) (#5)
    by gyrfalcon on Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 08:24:37 PM EST
    If nothing else at all, it gives your brain and your concentration one heck of a vigorous, vigorous workout (a good thing at "our age," eh?).  Oy.  Makes me sleepy just thinking about it.  I do not have anything approaching your mental discipline.

    How are you keeping track of this?  Are you making charts, diagrams, have a card file, what?

    Sounds like figuring out who's who in "War and Peace" would be a piece of cake for you, anyway.

    Please do keep the posts and the links coming.  I'm happy to trust you entirely on keeping track of the cast of Gitmo/AQAP characters, but I sure do find the cultural/political stuff about Yemen (or Afghanistan or Iraq or any other place I'm not familiar with) really fascinating.

    I've always felt the great, giant, gaping empty chasm at the center of George Bush's foreign policy (and that of his administration and his military overall) was the blithe assumption that all people and all cultures are essentially alike and have the same basic values and priorities.  Even the 19th century British were smarter than that.


    One more thing on Arabic vowels (none / 0) (#6)
    by gyrfalcon on Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 08:41:45 PM EST
    in case it ever is of any use to you in untangling the spellings.  From what I've read, essentially every vowel that isn't in an emphasized syllable is what's called a "mute" vowel, called a "schwa" in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

    So whether it's Usama or Osama is a function of Western attempts at transliteration muddled by regional Arabic accents.  To Arabic speakers, the only important vowel is that first "a."  Same reason for the myriad spellings of Mohammed-- the "a" is the emphasized syllable, and the other vowels are muffled.

    Meaning that if you can figure out which syllable of a name is emphasized, you can make a very good guess as to which variations in spelling are just transliteration alternatives.  Iow, how the name Mohammed, for example, is spelled is unrelated to anything other than the Western person who wrote it down, not the person's identity.  Mohamed = Muhammad = Mohamad.

    The same is pretty much true in a great deal, but not all, of spoken English, if you think about it, though we take care to spell them out very carefully.  The word "nostril" springs to mind.  It's really "NOSTruhll" in spoken English.  Most of those squiggles above the main script in Arabic, I gather, are that "mute" vowel, indicating more a breath or a pause or a glottal stop than an actual distinct sound.

    (Er, I do a lot of transcription in my freelance editorial work, is why I've dug into this stuff a bit, just in case it seems curious for someone to have basically no knowledge of Arab countries but to be somewhat obsessed with how names/words should be spelled in English.)

    (And further BTW, if you should ever need interview tapes transcribed, give me a ping!)