How a group freed from Guantanamo returned to terror
The failed Detroit airliner bomb attack on Christmas Day awakened the world to the threat from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group that until then was hardly a household name.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian who allegedly came within an ace of killing almost 300 passengers and crew with a bomb hidden in his underwear, said he had been trained and sent by its leaders.
US President Barack Obama’s embarrassment and anger at the potentially catastrophic failure of intelligence which allowed Mr Abdulmutallab to board the plane has been compounded by the revelation that two of AQAP’s founders, Said al-Shihri and Mohammed al-Awfi, were both former Guantanamo detainees.
Several AQAP foot soldiers are also former Guantanamo prisoners.
This only confirms the fears of critics vehemently opposed to Mr Obama’s promise to close the prison camp by the end of this month.
In total, 120 Saudi detainees have been repatriated from Guantanamo.
Mr Obama’s dilemma is dramatically illustrated by a BBC investigation into what happened to the 14 detainees of Batch 10, who were flown home to Saudi Arabia just over two years ago.
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Peter Taylor’s film for Newsnight will be broadcast on Wednesday 13 January 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two
Peter Taylor’s new three part series Generation Jihad is coming soon to BBC Two
The Saudi government’s aim was to put them through its controversial de-radicalisation or Care programme, with a view to rehabilitating its “beneficiaries” in society.
Of the 120 Saudi returnees, 111 of them have gone through the Care programme – the other nine returned to the Kingdom before the scheme was set up.
The government claims a 90% success rate and says that only 10 of the former Guantanamo detainees absconded, crossing the border into Yemen.
But Batch 10 certainly does not fit this picture.
When the Saudi 747 jet carrying them landed in Riyadh, its passengers were greeted by the authorities not as heroes but as “victims” who had been brainwashed and misled by a deviant ideology.
All went through the Care programme, but five later escaped to Yemen.
There two of them, al-Shihri and al-Awfi, helped set up AQAP and then took part in the organisation’s launch video.
The video was released on 22 January 2009, the day after Mr Obama announced that Guantanamo was to be closed down by 22 January 2010 – a deadline which will not be met.
In the video al-Awfi savagely attacked the Saudi rehabilitation programme, perhaps an indication of the increasing threat it poses to al-Qaeda.
It is no coincidence that last October an al-Qaeda suicide bomber, with explosives concealed in his rectum, tried to assassinate the eponymous founder of the centre, Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, the Saudi deputy interior minister.
He survived. The bomber did not.
The attack was a sign of the technical sophistication of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise, mirrored by the explosives hidden in Abdulmutallab’s underpants on Christmas Day.
Mohammed al-Awfi’s is an extraordinary story. He went through the rehabilitation programme like the others from Batch 10, but then fled to Yemen where he starred in the al-Qaeda launch video.
Astonishingly al-Awfi later re-crossed the border into Saudi Arabia and gave himself up.
Peter Taylor pictured in Riyadh, where he met Mohammed al-Awfi
I have never understood why he did so.
The Saudis told me it was because he had received a phone call from his wife telling him to return to look after her and the children.
The explanation caused me to raise a quizzical eyebrow. I was told it is not unknown for the Saudis to use families as bait.
Al-Awfi is now living in luxury accommodation in Riyadh’s top security prison where he is being drained of every scrap of intelligence.
He has all the comforts of home, a well furnished flat and regular visits by a grateful and relieved family.
After long negotiations with the Ministry of the Interior, I was finally allowed to meet him for an interview.
Surprisingly for a former jihadi who had breathed such fire in the al-Qaeda video, he was gentle and unthreatening, with pristine white robes, and a red and white checked Saudi keffiyeh.
His story and the reasons for his change of heart are well rehearsed.
Eighteen months earlier the interior ministry had video-taped the return of Batch 10.
In it one of the first returnees to be seen boarding the plane is al-Awfi.
He is dishevelled and appears to be in pain, the result, he told me, of being tortured by the Americans at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan six years earlier.
Al-Awfi claimed his US interrogators had done terrible things to him. He alleges they sat him on a chair, made a hole in the seat, and then “pulled out the testicles from underneath which they then hit with a metal rod”.
“They’d then tie up your penis and make you drink salty water in order to make you urinate without being able to do so, until they make you scream,” he added.
I spoke to other former detainees who allege they had been subjected to electric shock treatment at Bagram and Kandahar.
When I asked al-Awfi why the rehabilitation programme had not worked for him, he said it was because the memories of what he had suffered at the hands of Americans were far more powerful than any corrective inducements he had received in the Care programme.
I asked him about his participation in the video.
Now securely in Saudi hands and surrounded by Saudi minders, he told me he had been forced into it.
“The al-Qaeda leadership there put pressure on me to appear,” he said.
“I came and found a photocopied paper with a full text of what they wanted me to say. I even disagreed, but they said I had to recite all these things for political reasons.”
He says the recording took six hours and lasted until 0200 in the morning.
I then asked al-Awfi why he had decided to return after making the video.
“I saw the truth,” he said. “I saw that the path was a deviant path away from the sayings of the Prophet. Thanks to God Almighty’s generosity, I realised that and I made a final decision to return to Saudi Arabia.”
I personally suspect there was much more to it than that though.
But al-Awfi is alive, unlike another former detainee from Batch 10, Youssef Al-Shihri, who also joined al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Last October he crossed the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia disguised in a burqa, with six others from Yemen to carry out a bomb attack.
The cell was intercepted by the Saudi security forces. Al-Shihri and another member of the cell were shot dead in the ensuing gun battle. Three loaded explosive belts were found in their car.
Two others returnees from Batch 10 – Murtadha Ali Saeed Magram and Turki Meshawi Zayid al-Assiri – are still at large in Yemen and on the Saudi wanted list.
And what of Said al-Shihri who was on the same flight as al-Awfi and who later appeared with him in the al-Qaeda video?
Al-Shihri now represents the biggest threat of all as he is believed to be second in command – the deputy leader – of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In the video he declared “our imprisonment has only increased our persistence”.
What happened in the skies above Detroit on Christmas Day is an indication of that.