October 08, 2003,
When former Camp Delta interpreter Ahmed Fathy Mehalba was detained at Logan airport while returning from Egypt, a search of his bag found 132 CDs, some of which contained classified documents. Mehalba initially denied the documents were his, a classic rookie mistake the "I don't know how those CDs got into my bag" defense tends not to deflect suspicion. As well, it may only be a coincidence that around the same time he left Egypt, Egyptian newspapers published a series of letters that had allegedly been written by Guantanamo detainees. Mehalba is a foreign-born former U.S. Army enlisted man, an intelligence-school dropout with a history of financial troubles. According to a report in the Boston Globe, Mehalba's uncle works for Egyptian intelligence and his girlfriend is another former soldier who was caught in 2001 with a stolen laptop containing classified information. And the punch line: Mehalba had a security clearance. Either this was a counterintelligence sting operation planned far in advance, or our national-security apparatus is way too desperate for Arab speakers.
Investigators are now in the process of rolling up the Gitmo network. The recent arrest of Army Chaplain Yousef Yee has flushed the quarry. There will probably be more arrests and detentions, some we will hear about, others maybe not; some in the United States, and others overseas. It is noteworthy that Mehalba knew about the Yee arrest before coming back to the United States with his CD collection, which might indicate why he did not do so well at the military-intelligence course at Fort Huachuca.
Camp Delta is not simply a detention center; it is an active front in the terror war. It is one of the most important resources the Coalition has for understanding the enemy, his plans, and his motives. If translators have been leading investigators astray, either by altering questions, answers, or both, this severely hampers our efforts to prosecute the war. This can readily be checked, since the interviews are taped, and according to a recent estimate, only 10 of the 100 translators who have worked at Gitmo are under suspicion. Aside from thwarting Coalition military efforts, there are numerous other benefits for al Qaeda. Simply knowing who is being held is very valuable information. The terrorists may know who is missing, but they may not know his precise disposition dead, captured, incapacitated, gone to ground, etc. Translators and chaplains cannot only tell the enemy who is at Guantanamo, but who is cooperating, and by extension what plans have been compromised, and what networks are in danger. They can also serve as contacts to the outside world, keeping detainees informed about world events, whether factual or not. They can boost morale by telling them the terrorists are winning, that it's just a matter of time before they will be going home, that they should keep hope alive. Perhaps slip them a copy of former President Jimmy Carter's latest speech on human rights, that kind of thing.
Knowing whom we are holding can also facilitate terrorist planning for future operations aimed at prisoner exchange. Al Qaeda has made rescuing their members held by the Coalition a top priority. In a recent interview, al Qaeda trainer Abu-Muhammad al-Ablaj stated that "the time will come when the United States will humbly offer an exchange of prisoners" for those held at Guantanamo. This suggests that the terrorists may begin a round of hostage taking, perhaps aimed at U.S. troops in Iraq, but more probably at easier-to-abduct civilians, particularly diplomats and embassy workers in countries not thought to be on the frontline of the terror war, where antiterrorism measures are weaker. Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi has been charged with smuggling information to Syria, which raises interesting questions about the reach of the network. There are many reasons why a foreign government such as Syria might want to know what is going on inside Camp Delta. Perhaps we are holding detainees who could implicate their governments in terrorist activity, or maybe they want to know what terrorists are doing inside their own countries. I can see where Damascus would be nervous; who knows what will be learned?
I would not be surprised if there were detainees in Camp Delta trained in organizing prisoner networks who were assigned to Guantanamo by al Qaeda. The Soviet Union pioneered this technique in World War II, when they sent operatives from the Special Section of the NKVD into German POW camps to organize resistance, and to keep an eye on collaborators. (You have to hand it to Stalin, he was nothing if not thorough.) The most important mission in Camp Delta would be to maintain the social cohesion of the group, and thwart the efforts of the interrogators to break down the will of individuals. As with anyone held in detention, having a social network helps sustain resistance. Bin-Abd-al-Karim al-Masri, one of the Egyptian detainees whose letter was recently published, says he spends his time memorizing the Koran and teaching it to others. (It was a serious mistake to distribute Korans in the original Camp X-Ray, it fostered no good will and gave spiritual strength to the prisoners that makes questioning them that much harder.) The inmate-network organizers would also try to work on any outsiders they came in contact with, guards, interrogators, translators, and even chaplains. It is possible that Yousef Yee's agent controller is already wearing an orange jumpsuit.
I doubt that al Qaeda is planning a rescue mission aimed at Guantanamo. It would be a suicide assault, which is not in itself outside the terrorists' operational doctrine, but the whole point of a rescue mission is to actually rescue people. They might be collecting information to build dossiers for legal or political action, before the U.N. or elsewhere. They could also be organizing some form of internal rebellion among the detainees, similar to what Cubans held there in the 1990s did. At the very least it would be political theater and refocus attention on the detention issue (for those who consider it an issue that is). In any case, the recent arrests demonstrate some fundamentals about the war on terrorism. Our enemies are implacable, highly motivated, and will not consider themselves beaten even if they are in shackles. Any place they live, including a detention center, is a theater of conflict. They will seek to extend their influence by any means at their disposal. And the only people who should come in contact with them are those whose will to defeat the enemy is at least as strong as the enemy's desire to destroy our civilization. If the military lacks qualified linguists, we have had two years to train them, so there is really no excuse for using "off0the-shelf" talent like Mehalba. But I tend to give our counterintelligence specialists the benefit of the doubt. My guess is that Mehalba, Halabi, Yee, and possibly others involved in spying or giving aid and comfort to the enemy were under tight surveillance from day one. They are being rounded up because their usefulness in place had ended. Now they can test their skills from the other side of the bars.