Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He is the executive director of the Center for Law and Counterterrorism at FDD. He is also a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard and the senior editor of The Long War Journal. Mr. Joscelyn is a terrorism expert and most of his research and writing has focused on how al Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as other international terrorist organizations, operate.
FPM: The British government has released seven paragraphs that summarize information received from the CIA concerning the treatment of Binyam Mohamed while he was in custody. Mohamed was a detainee in the “war on terror” and held at multiple locations, including Guantanamo Bay. Mohamed was released from Gitmo in 2009 by the Obama administration and has since become something of a celebrity in the UK. Mohamed claims he was tortured, especially during his time in Moroccan and Pakistani custody. The release of the aforementioned seven paragraphs has fueled a firestorm of controversy in the UK, as MI5 is accused of being complicit in Mohamed’s abuse and “torture.”
Mr. Joscelyn, who is Binyam Mohamed?
Joscelyn: Binyam Mohamed was recruited by al Qaeda a few months prior to the September 11 attacks. He traveled to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 and was trained in al Qaeda’s al Farouq training camp – the crown jewel of al Qaeda’s pre-9/11 training infrastructure. Some of the 9/11 hijackers were trained there. After 9/11, Mohamed retreated to Pakistan along with senior al Qaeda members. He then became part of al Qaeda’s post-9/11 plotting. Along with convicted terrorist Jose Padilla, Mohamed was set to take part in a plot against civilian targets inside the U.S. Padilla and Mohamed considered several plots, but had settled on an attack against a high-rise apartment building at the urging of senior al Qaeda terrorists, including September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM).
Padilla and Mohamed were not successful in their plot, of course, as they were separately arrested and detained.
FPM: How do we know that Mohamed was in fact an al Qaeda recruit?
Joscelyn: Well, there are good, publicly available sources that detail Mohamed’s dossier. First, both Mohamed and his lawyer have conceded that he trained at al Qaeda’s al Farouq camp in Afghanistan. That is a damning admission because not just anyone was trained at al Farouq. This should have been enough to hold Mohamed, as other al Qaeda recruits who were trained at al Farouq received lengthy prison sentences based on that fact alone. For example, some members of the Lackawanna Six were sentenced to a decade in prison principally because of their time training at al Farouq.
Second, Mohamed admitted to his personal representative at Gitmo that he “was taught to falsify documents, and received instruction from a senior al Qaeda operative on how to encode telephone numbers before passing them to another individual.” This means that he admitted to working with at least one senior al Qaeda operative.
Third, the U.S. has in its custody a number of senior al Qaeda operatives who either trained Mohamed, or conspired with him. Jose Padilla, of course, would know what Mohamed was up to as well. Therefore, intelligence officials had the necessary witnesses in custody who could piece together the details of Mohamed’s plotting. This intelligence may not have been admissible in court, because at least some of it was certainly “coerced,” but that doesn’t mean it was inaccurate. For example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), who directed Binyam Mohamed, was clearly coerced into giving up intelligence, but the information he provided led to the capture of numerous al Qaeda terrorists and stopped terrorist attacks. (See here, here, and here.) KSM was captured after Mohamed, but intelligence authorities certainly used him and other senior al Qaeda terrorists to piece together the details of Mohamed’s role in their plotting once they were in custody.
FPM: How did the U.S. first learn of Mohamed’s plotting?
Joscelyn: Top al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah gave up both Padilla and Mohamed during questioning after Zubaydah was captured in March 2002. Zubaydah had plotted with the two of them while staying in al Qaeda safe houses in Pakistan and therefore knew them well.
FPM: Did Zubaydah give up Padilla and Mohamed before or after he was waterboarded by U.S. intelligence officials?
Joscelyn: Zubaydah was waterboarded after he told authorities about Padilla and Mohamed. But it isn’t clear what other treatment Zubaydah had been subjected to at the time. There are reports that authorities used other techniques on Zubaydah. At a minimum we know that Zubaydah’s interrogations and questioning occurred under unique circumstances, as he was shot multiple times and U.S. authorities had to save his life just to question him. (I described all of this here.)
FPM: Given all of this, why did the Obama administration transfer Binyam Mohamed to the UK in 2009?
Joscelyn: We can’t say, exactly, because there is zero transparency when it comes to the Obama administration’s transfer decisions. But we do know that the British government has lobbied for the return of its citizens and residents, including detainees who the entire U.S. national security establishment believes are terrorists, repeatedly. The Bush administration clearly acquiesced in other cases, and the Obama administration may have simply done the same with Binyam Mohamed.
FPM: The UK press has written numerous articles about Mohamed and his torture claims, but I haven’t seen much written about his role in al Qaeda’s post-9/11 plotting. Why is that?
Joscelyn: Mohamed and other former detainees, with the help of their lawyers, have been able to successfully frame the press’s story in many instances. You will find that the detainees and their lawyers are frequently primary sources in the press’s coverage. Meanwhile, the intelligence officials who were responsible for tracking down and interrogating al Qaeda agents like Mohamed are either busy doing their jobs or fearful of having their reputations dragged through the mud. The result is that the coverage is very lopsided. In addition, with some exceptions, journalists don’t seem very interested in telling the story of how an al Qaeda attack was stopped after September 11. They are more interested in exposing the supposedly evil deeds of the UK and American governments, especially those committed by the Blair and Bush regimes.
FPM: That is remarkable though, isn’t it? Here, an al Qaeda agent has been turned into something of a martyr and yet if he had his way he surely would have taken part in an attack killing untold numbers of civilians. But the global left, including organizations such as Amnesty International, have embraced al Qaeda operatives like Mohamed. Why is that?
Joscelyn: I think there are two dynamics in play here. First, you have those on the left who have legitimate, principled concerns about how far the American government and its allies go in questioning any detainees. There is legitimate room for debate in this regard. But there are those within this camp who take anything detainees say at face value without questioning it, and then assume the worst of the U.S. and its allies.
The problem here is that we know al Qaeda detainees, in particular, lie about their treatment. Much of what Binyam Mohamed has said about his treatment while in custody can’t be verified. For example, Mohamed has claimed that his genitals were mutilated with a razor blade while he was in Moroccan custody. If that is true, then I think most of us would object to that, as it is not part of any disciplined interrogation regime. But we don’t know that it is true at all and could simply be a lie. The Moroccans don’t treat their detainees with kid gloves, but then again what Mohamed has claimed is beyond extreme.
The seven paragraphs that were released by the Brits apparently do not deal with Mohamed’s time in Moroccan custody, but instead deal with much less severe techniques including sleep deprivation and being questioned while shackled. It is difficult to argue that the treatment described in the seven paragraphs amounted to “torture,” even if one’s moral or ethical sensibilities are offended.
Second, there are those on the left whose ideology is rooted in a crude anti-Americanism and so they are willing to ally themselves with anyone who is opposed to the United States government. Jamie Glazov, explained this phenomenon well in his book, United in Hate: The Left’s Romance with Tyranny and Terror. Left-wing human rights organizations frequently cross the line between principled concerns about detainee treatment into advocacy on behalf of men whose principles those same organizations certainly do not share.
FPM: Tom Joscelyn, thank you for joining Frontpage Magazine.
Joscelyn: Thank you for having me.