WASHINGTON: On Sept 11, 2001, the core of Al Qaeda was concentrated in a single city: Karachi. At a hospital, the accused mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole was recovering from a tonsillectomy. Nearby, the alleged organiser of the 2002 bombing in Bali, Indonesia, was buying lab equipment for a biological weapons programme.
And in a safe house, the man who would later describe himself as the intellectual author of the Sept 11 attacks was with other key Al Qaeda members watching the scenes from New York and Washington unfold on television.
Within a day, much of the Al Qaeda leadership was on the way back to Afghanistan, planning for a long war.
A cache of classified military documents obtained by the WikiLeaks presents new details of their whereabouts on Sept 11, 2001, and their movements afterward. The documents also offer some tantalising glimpses into the whereabouts and operations of Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri.
The documents, provided to European and US news outlets, including The Washington Post, are intelligence assessments of nearly every one of the 779 individuals who have been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002. In them, analysts have created detailed portraits of detainees based on raw intelligence, including material gleaned from interrogation.
Detainees are assessed “high”, “medium” or “low” in terms of their intelligence value, the threat they pose while in detention and the continued threat they might pose to the United States if released.
The documents tend to take a bleak view of the detainees, even those who have been ordered released by the federal courts because of a lack of evidence to justify their continued detention. And the assessments are often based, in part, on reporting by informants at the military detention center, sources that some judges have found wanting.
In a statement, the Pentagon, which described the decision to publish some of the material as “unfortunate”, stressed the snapshot and incomplete nature of the assessments, known as Detainee Assessment Briefs, or DABs.
“The Guantanamo Review Task Force, established in Jan 2009, considered the DABs during its review of detainee information. In some cases, the Task Force came to the same conclusions as the DABs.”
“In other instances the Review Task Force came to different conclusions, based on updated or other available information,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell and Ambassador Daniel Fried, the Obama administration’s special envoy on detainee issues.
“Any given DAB illegally obtained and released by Wikileaks may or may not represent the current view of a given detainee.”
Regardless of how detainees are currently assessed, many of the documents shed light on their histories, particularly those of the high-value detainees. When pieced together, they capture some of the drama of Al Qaeda’s scattering in the wake of the Sept 11 attacks. They also point to tensions between certain members of the terrorist group.
Among other previously unknown meetings, the documents describe a major gathering of some of Al Qaeda’s most senior operatives in early Dec 2001 in Zormat, a mountainous region of Afghanistan between Kabul and Khost. There, the operatives began to plan new attacks, a process that would consume them, according to the assessments, until they were finally captured.
Four days after the Sept 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden visited a guesthouse in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. He told the Arab fighters gathered there “to defend Afghanistan against the infidel invaders” and to “fight in the name of Allah”.
It was beginning of a peripatetic three months for Osama and Zawahiri. Travelling by car among several locations in Afghanistan, Osama handed out assignments to his followers, met some of the Taliban leadership and delegated control of Al Qaeda to the group’s Shura, presumably because he feared being captured or killed as US forces closed in.
At some point, Osama and Zawahiri used a secret guesthouse in or relatively near Kabul. The Al Qaeda leader welcomed a stream of visitors and issued a series of orders, including instructions to continue operations against Western targets. He dispersed his fighters from training camps and instructed women and children, including some of his wives, to flee to Pakistan.
In October, Osama met in Kabul two Malaysians, Yazid Zubair and Bashir Lap — both of whom are now at Guantanamo Bay — and lectured them on history and religion. On the day that the US-led forces began bombing Afghanistan, Osama met Taliban official Mullah Mansour in Kabul. Osama and Zawahiri also met that month with Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who continues to lead a deadly insurgency against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan.
Osama, accompanied by Zawahiri and a handful of close associates in his security detail, escaped to his cave complex in Tora Bora in November. Around Nov 25, he was seen giving a speech to the leaders and fighters at the complex.
He told them to “remain strong in their commitment to fight, to obey the leaders, to help the Taliban, and that it was a grave mistake and taboo to leave before the fight was completed”.
According to the documents, Osama and his deputy escaped from Tora Bora in mid-December 2001. At the time, the Al Qaeda leader was apparently so strapped for cash that he borrowed $7,000 from one of his protectors — a sum he paid back within a year.
In December, Al Qaeda’s top lieutenants gathered in Zormat. They included Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept 11 attacks; Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged planner of the USS Cole attack; and Abu Faraj Al-Libbi, a key facilitator for Osama.
The place was teeming with fighters who were awaiting for Al Qaeda to return their passports so they could flee across the border to Pakistan.
Mohammed later stated that while he and the others were in Zormat, they received a message from Osama in which he delegated control of Al Qaeda to the Shura. And the senior operatives began to plan new attacks.
Nashiri reported that while at Zormat he was approached by two Saudi nationals who wanted to strike US and Israeli targets in Morocco. Nashiri said he had been considering an operation in the Strait of Gibraltar and thought that the British military base there, which he had seen in a documentary, would be a good target.
Nashiri’s willingness to approve a plot on his own was later the source of some tension within the organisation, particularly with Mohammed.
In May or June 2002, Mohammed learned of the disrupted plan to attack the military base in Gibraltar and was upset that he had not been informed of it.
Nashiri separately complained that he was being pushed by Osama to continue planning aggressive operations against US interests in the Arabian gulf region without much regard for his security.
Indeed, Nashiri was arrested in the United Arab Emirates in late 2002.
After the Zormat conclave, Mohammed and other senior Al Qaeda figures began to return to Karachi, according to the papers.
The documents state that Mohammed “put together a training programme for assassinations and kidnappings as well as pistol and computer training”. It was not intended for specific operations but to occupy the bored fighters stuck in safe houses.
At the time, money was flowing into the country for Mohammed, according to the documents, allowing him to acquire safe houses and fund operations.
In November 2002, his nephew Baluchi took a delivery of nearly $70,000 from a courier. Mohammed, at one point, gave $500,000 to a Pakistani businessman, who is also being held at Guantanamo bay, for safekeeping, much of it wrapped in cellophane and inside a shopping bag. Mohammed also gave Riduan Isamuddin, the Indonesian known by the nom de guerre Hambali, $100,000 to congratulate him for the Bali bombing.
Gradually, Mohammed and the other operatives were picked off by Pakistanis working with the CIA and the FBI. When Ramzi Binalshibh, a key liaison between the Sept 11 hijackers and Al Qaeda, was arrested at a safe house in Karachi on the first anniversary of the Sept 11 attacks, there was a four-hour standoff while the Yemeni and two others held knives to their own throats and threatened to kill themselves rather than be taken.
There are few geographic references in the documents for Osama after his flight into Pakistan.
He apparently sent out letters from his hiding place through a trusted courier, who then handed them to Libbi, who had provided the secret guesthouse in Kabul immediately after the Sept 11 attacks.
After the capture of Mohammed in March 2003, Zawahiri fled from the house where he had been staying. The documents state that Zawahiri left on his own and sought out an Afghan, who delivered him to Libbi.
In May 2005, while waiting for Osama’s courier at a drop point, Libi was arrested by Pakistani special forces.
Zawahiri, in response, moved again. His residence, documents state, “was changed to a good place owned by a simple old man.”
He remains at large-