Hamdan’s lesser-known but more intriguing al Qaeda associate.
by Thomas Joscelyn
MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about Salim Hamdan, an admitted driver for Osama bin Laden who was convicted on charges of supporting al Qaeda by a military jury at Guantanamo Bay earlier this week. Said Boujaadia, the suspected terrorist who was captured with Hamdan in Afghanistan in late 2001, has received far less attention. In some ways, Boujaadia’s story is more intriguing.
Like Hamdan, Boujaadia was once a detainee at Gitmo. But Boujaadia never received the high-profile trial Hamdan did. Instead, Boujaadia was repatriated to his native Morocco in May of this year–more than one year after authorities at Gitmo authorized his transfer. Boujaadia was held at Gitmo as a witness for Hamdan’s trial, and when his role there ended Moroccan authorities took custody of him. But, Boujaadia’s transfer does not mean he has been deemed an innocent. According to the last public accounts of his case, Moroccan authorities were investigating Boujaadia’s plethora of ties to al Qaeda and global terrorism. Indeed, according to unclassified files produced by the U.S. government at Gitmo, the Moroccans have much to investigate.
On November 24, 2001, hundreds of troops loyal to Afghan leader Gul Agha Shirzai seized the village of Takhteh Pol in Northern Afghanistan. In the process they cut off the major highway leading out of the village and, within two hours, found themselves in the middle of a gun fight with a group of Arabs who were all associates of Osama bin Laden. One of the Arabs, according to the U.S. government, was one of bin Laden’s sons-in-law. Three Arabs were killed in the shootout. And two others, Boujaadia and Hamdan, were captured along with shoulder-fired SA-7 missiles.
Prior to his time in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. government’s files, Boujaadia had consorted with high-ranking members of two known al Qaeda affiliates: the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (« GICM ») and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (« LIFG »). Suspiciously, Boujaadia even allegedly made a trip to Spain with associates of both groups in 2000. However, the government’s files do not indicate the purpose of their trip.
In an attempt to disguise their disturbing ties, Hamdan and Boujaadia « agreed to tell interrogators a cover story that they worked for the Al Wafa organization. » But it was not much of a cover. Al Wafa is a Saudi-based organization that has posed as a charity but, in reality, was a front for the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s operations. Al Wafa has been designated as an entity that supports terrorism under Executive Order 13224. Dozens of detainees at Gitmo, according to the U.S. government’s files, have ties to al Wafa. The organization was particularly adept at smuggling terrorist operatives into and out of Afghanistan–including through transit hubs inside Iran. Indeed, Boujaadia traveled with his family to Afghanistan in July 2001 via Damascus, Syria, Tehran, Iran, and Meshad, Iran.
Boujaadia’s trip to Afghanistan was facilitated by an especially dangerous al Qaeda operative named Abdul Rahim al-Sharqawi, aka « Riyadh the Facilitator. » Both al-Sharqawi and Boujaadia’s brother-in-law, Zuhair Hilal Mohamed al-Tbaiti, were implicated in an al Qaeda plot to attack British and American ships in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2002. Indeed, according to the U.S. government, al Qaeda sent Zuhair « to Morocco to identify United States targets for future attacks » in mid to late January 2002. Moroccan authorities short-circuited the plot when they detained three Saudis, including Zuhair, and four native Moroccans. Zuhair, who was arrested in Morocco on May 12, 2002, was convicted of plotting the attacks and received a 10-year prison sentence in February 2003.
The successful dismantling of the plot against ships in the Strait of Gibraltar may be one of the success stories to come out of the intelligence collected from detainees at Gitmo. In June 2002, a « senior Moroccan official » told CNN that the CIA had provided Moroccan authorities with the details they needed to stop the plot based on intelligence « from a suspected al Qaeda member in custody at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. » CNN did not say which detainee provided the intelligence, but it is possible Boujaadia was the source. For example, CNN reported:
» a suspected al Qaeda member held at in Guantanamo Bay told CIA agents about members of al Qaeda who were active in Morocco, but gave few details other than one suspect’s first name — Zuhair. »
That is, one of the only details the Gitmo suspect reportedly supplied his interrogators with was the first name of Boujaadia’s brother-in-law. Given that report, and Boujaadia’s long-standing ties to members of al Qaeda’s Moroccan affiliate, the GICM, it is not an unlikely supposition that Boujaadia was the one who tipped off authorities. (Of course, it is possible that some other Gitmo detainee fingered the suspects, including Zuhair.)
The U.S. government’s files on Boujaadia contain other important details as well. It seems that Boujaadia adopted a kunya, which is an honorific that can be used as an alias, during his time in Afghanistan. And his kunya, Hakim al-Maghrebi (« the Maghrebi » refers to Boujaadia’s roots in North Africa), was found
on an Arabic document listing « names of al Qaeda martyrs, those missing in action, those imprisoned brothers, and those who had escaped to Pakistan, as well as names of individuals assigned to various military positions and units. » Such lists are an important source of intelligence for counter-terrorism analysts at Gitmo. They are frequently used to identify detainees’ ties to the al Qaeda network.
In addition, an unnamed « foreign government » confirmed for U.S. investigators that Boujaadia « attended training camps » in Afghanistan. Among the camps he allegedly attended was the al-Farouq camp near Kandahar. Al-Farouq graduated many noteworthy al Qaeda alumni, including several 9-11 hijackers, until it was bombed in late 2001. Roughly 100 of the suspected terrorists who have been held at Gitmo have allegedly trained at al-Farouq. The U.S. government alleges that Boujaadia spent eleven days at al-Farouq in September 2001, and during that short time « he received training on the AK-47, RPG, pistol, BK machine gun, formations, hand-to-hand combat and physical fitness. »
While Hamdan’s case has understandably been at the center of attention, Boujaadia’s story is at least as interesting. And it is possible that his capture stopped a terrorist plot from getting off the ground.
Thomas Joscelyn is the senior editor of the Long War Journal. He is directing a project that examines the unclassified intelligence gathered on current and former detainees at Guantanamo Bay.