SULEIMAN ABU GHAITH’S STATEMENT TO THE FBI — PART I
By Michael S. Smith II
“I have no problem with telling my story and answering your questions … You will hear things of al-Qa’ida that you never imagined,” al-Qa’ida cleric Suleiman Abu Ghaith advised FBI special agents as he waived his Miranda Rights on board a Gulfstream jet en route to the United States on 28 February 2013. His full statement to the FBI may be found here.
As reported by The New York Times, Gaith’s defense team recently requested an unmodified copy of the FBI’s previously-unpublished 21-page transcript of Ghaith’s statement to law enforcement be admitted as evidence in The United States of America v. Suleiman Abu Ghaith.
In the 12 March motion in limine prepared by defense attorney Zoë J. Dolan, the statement is portrayed as the “lynchpin of the government’s case” against Ghaith, a son-in-law of al-Qa’ida’s founding emir Usama bin Laden. As such, the defense argued, “it is inappropriate to introduce the statement in piecemeal fashion.” The motion further contended that “The prohibition against hearsay is inoperative.”
The defendant’s motion in limine was denied the following day by Judge Lewis A Kaplan pursuant to his review of the memorandum of law submitted by prosecutors in opposition to what they described as the defendant’s “legally indefensible request for wholesale admission of his post-arrest statement.”
Reporting by The New York Times and various news organizations emphasizes that Ghaith’s statement made en route to the US contains noteworthy information on the history of his ties to al-Qa’ida’s late emir. But that’s not exactly a complete picture of what Ghaith revealed to the FBI.
Indeed, Ghaith’s statement contains far more information regarding al-Qa’ida leaders’ post-911 relations with the Iranian regime. Or, perhaps to put it more accurately, Suleiman Abu Ghaith’s version of the intriguing story of Shiite radicals keeping Sunni al-Qa’ida leaders beyond America’s reach as Washington engaged in the most expensive counterterrorism campaign in the history of the world.
Apparently, however, this matter is a non-issue for the government. As prosecutors note in their opposition to the defendant’s aforementioned motion, “The Government does not plan to elicit any further evidence about the arrest or evidence whatsoever regarding Abu Ghayth’s confinement in Iran.”
Given that Ghaith spent nearly a decade alongside al-Qa’ida military committee chief Saif al-Adl while in the care of Iranians whom he believes to have been intelligence officers, the government’s disinterest in this issue is shocking.
Meanwhile, as his statement indicates he is unfamiliar with al-Qa’ida facilitator Yasin al-Suri, whom the US Treasury Department reported in February 2014 continues to operate as a member of “al-Qa’ida’s vital facilitation network in Iran, that operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities,” it may be that Ghaith is either unable, or unwilling to provide much actionable intelligence regarding the al-Qa’ida network in Iran. That is, aside from information he provided about the locations of top al-Qa’ida military strategist Saif al-Adl, Triple A, and Abu Khayr al-Masri. All of whom Ghaith said were likely still living on an Iranian military installation in Tehran at the time he was transferred to US custody.
Preliminary Summarization of Ghaith Statement
According to Ghaith’s statement to the FBI, following the 9/11 attacks he went into hiding in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, bin Laden “was moving from one location to another in Afghanistan” at this time. The transcript notes that Ghaith “left Afghanistan in June of 2002.” From Afghanistan, “he went to Pakistan for approximately ten days and was then smuggled into Iran.”
“Ghaith advised that after the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian National Guard offered to allow all Arab families trapped in Afghanistan to come into Iran,” the transcript notes. “Ghaith said that this was offered to all Arabs in Afghanistan, not just al-Qa’ida.” (Note: “National Guard” is likely a reference to the IRGC.)
Ghaith said he learned of Iran opening its borders from Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, one of several al-Qa’ida officials whom Ghaith lived alongside of in Iran. According to Ghaith, al-Mauritani “was close with Iranian officials.” (Al-Mauritani returned home to Mauritania in April 2012; he was released from prison in Mauritania in July 2012.)
Ghaith explained that many people “who were wanted in their home countries took the Iranians up on their offer and traveled to Iran.” The transcript notes, “news of the Arabs coming into Iran spread among the Iranian population and the Iranian population was not happy with this. Ghaith heard that the Iranian president became aware of this situation and was planning to intervene, however, Iranian intelligence took the matter into their own hands. Iranian intelligence rounded up all the Arabs that had entered Iran in the first wave at their invitation, and deported them back to Pakistan.”
Desperate, and believing he would “be able to hide in Iran,” Ghaith said he “snuck into Iran with the help of both Baluchi Pakistanis and Iranian smugglers and Iran did not know he was there initially.” Allegedly, “he was hiding in Iran with a Sunni family for ten months prior to being arrested in Shiraz.”
Ghaith said he was arrested on 23 April 2003 alongside of Saif al-Adl, Abu Mohamed al-Masri (aka Abdullah Ahmad Abdullah; Triple A; Saleh), and Abu Khayr al-Masri. The transcript notes Ghaith said he first met al-Adl, Abu Mohamed al-Masri, and Abu Khayr al-Masri in Shiraz, Iran approximately one month prior to their arrest. According to Ghaith, al-Adl was using the alias Ibrahim and Abu Mohamed al-Masri was using the alias Daoud Shirazi.
Ghaith said, until approximately December 2004, the four were held in an Iranian intelligence facility in Tehran (“Iran Location #1”). After roughly 100 days at the facility, Ghaith was “put together with the above mentioned al-Qa’ida members with whom he was captured.” According to the transcript, “At some point during their imprisonment together, Ghaith asked Saif al-Adl and Abu Mohamed al-Masri if they had been involved in the Kenya and Tanzania bombings and both Saif al-Adl and Abu Mohamed al-Masri confirmed to Ghaith that they had been involved in those bombings. However, Ghaith was not aware of Saif al-Adl and/or Abu Mohamed al-Masri having been involved in any type of operational planning while they were in Iranian custody.”
Interestingly, intelligence sources indicate the Saudis claim to have proof that al-Adl used his satellite phone from inside Iran to coordinate the attack that occurred in Riyadh on 12 May 2003 — weeks after the date upon which Ghaith claims al-Adl was arrested.
Foreign governments began discussing intelligence on the presence of high-ranking al-Qa’ida figures inside Iran around this time. Quoting an unnamed Saudi official, in August 2003, al-Sharq al-Awsat reported 15 al-Qa’ida leaders and elements were known by Iranian authorities to be in Iran. The official advised the al-Qa’ida leaders being held in safe houses in Iran included figures like bin Laden’s son, Saad bin Laden, AQ spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would go on to form and serve as leader of AQI.
The following month, al-Sharq al-Awsat reported the Iranians had rejected demands from the governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Algeria that Tehran hand over al-Qa’ida members wanted by them. Kuwaiti authorities reportedly did not wish for Suleiman Abu Ghaith to return to his home country.
By this time, Iranian President Mohamed Khatami was now under a great deal of external pressure regarding the presence of al-Qa’ida members inside Iran. His brother, deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament, even introduced a bill proposing a ban on support for terrorism (Note: al- Qa’ida was reportedly the only terrorist organization cited by name in the bill). However, Ayatollah Khamenei’s guidance on the issue of how to deal with the situation prevailed. And the Supreme Leader’s paramilitary subordinates in the Qods Force, and likely elements of the MOIS assumed responsibility for managing the stays in Iran of al-Qa’ida officials like Ghaith.
As the transcript notes, “Ghaith advised that while initially incarcerated, the Iranians were official and formal and treated them well. They never received any verbal or physical abuse and they were told that treating them well was a recommendation from their readership. Ghaith stated that they were never interrogated and were only asked simple questions during the first week of their incarceration.”
Around December 2004, Ghaith, Saif al-Adl, Abu Mohamed al-Masri, and Abu Khayr al-Masri were moved to a military camp (“Iran Location #2”), where they remained for roughly six months. The Iranians allowed the wives of Ghaith’s associates to join them at the camp because they “were causing problems where they were incarcerated.”
This second location was described by Ghaith as a 100 meter, square compound, in which the al-Qa’ida members were “free to go in and out of their individual apartments.” The compound also had a mosque and soccer field. Ghaith said the compound was home only to those al-Qa’ida officials arrested with him.
According to Ghaith’s statement, they had no means of communication with the outside world while in Location #2.
However, short training materials on topics such as “proper concealment of intelligence,” “communications security,” and “clandestine meetings between agents and case officers” were published by al-Adl in several editions of al-Qa’ida’s al-Battar Camp magazine during 2004. Therefore, perhaps unbeknownst to Ghaith, it would seem his associates may have been able to communicate with the outside world while held in Location #1.
Indeed, as Ghaith notes al-Adl’s father-in-law Mustafa Hamid (referred to as “Abu Walid”) was not kept under such tight control by the Iranians, he may have passed information between the detained officials like al-Adl and al-Qa’ida leaders like bin Laden, whom, according to Ghaith’s statement, Hamid had a “strong relationship” with. (A veritable royal in the Global Jihad movement, Hamid returned to Egypt following the fall of the Mubarak government.)
Around mid-2005, residents of Location #2 were moved to “Iran Location #3,” an “apartment like housing without any windows,” where they would remain for approximately four years. Location #3 was located within the same military compound as Location #2.
It was during this four-year period that they were joined by Usama bin Laden’s family, “to include his wife Um Hamza and his sons Saad, Hamed, Laden, Uthman, and Hamza.” Um Hamza, a kunya which may be translated “mother of Hamza,” is from Saudi Arabia. She received a Ph.D. in child psychology, and was seven years older than bin Laden. The second of bin Laden’s wives, she would later join bin Laden in Abbottabad. (Ostensibly, it was from Abbottabad that UBL’s son Khaled, killed during the raid conducted by SEAL Team 6, sent a letter asking for assistance for al-Qa’ida members in Iran to Ayatollah Khamenei that is discussed briefly by Ghaith on transcript page 11.)
On page 9, the transcript states, “Ghaith said that all of Usama bin Laden’s sons were released three years prior to his own release.” Interestingly, on page 11, the statement indicates Ghaith advised bin Laden’s son Saad “escaped” from Iran. Further, the transcript notes that at some point after Saad “escaped,” Ghaith heard an Iranian diplomat had been kidnapped, possibly by al-Qa’ida, which he believed to be true as “a year later some of the al-Qa’ida members in Iranian custody started getting released.” (Note: As reports of an exchange like this emerged, sources indicated Saif al-Adl was seen traveling with Iranian handlers in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.)
Per Ghaith’s descriptions of his hosts, the transcript offers the following information that supports reports the Qods Force and MOIS were managing the stays in Iran of al-Qa’ida officials and their families:
Ghaith advised that they would notify the Iranian authorities at the compound whenever they had issues or problems. It would generally be a clerk/administrative type person at the compound who would then pass the complaints on to the higher Iranian authorities. Ghaith said that the Iranian authorities at the compound wore civilian type clothing, so he assumed they were intelligence officers. Ghaith was also under this assumption based on the way they talked and the questions they asked. Ghaith advised that they may have known Arabic, but did not say they did and only spoke Farsi. There were also Iranian women who came to the compound to help the wives of the al-Qa’ida members and these Iranian women spoke Arabic.
The transcript notes that after roughly two years into his stay at Location #3 (roughly mid-2007), Ghaith was allowed to communicate with his family in Kuwait. His first line of communication was via a message the Iranians allowed him to record on a cassette tape, which he said he “provided the Iranian authorities … for onward passage to Ghaith’s family.” Later, “Iranian authorities” provided him a cell phone to call his wife, but he ended up speaking with his brother. Accordingly, it was at this time that Ghaith learned his wife was granted a divorce due to his extended absence.
Approximately two years into his stay at Location #3, “Ghaith and his fellow detainees were allowed to have satellite television and to watch Al Jazeera.”
Around the time satellite television was added to their list of amenities, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani arrived at Location #3. Earlier, he was living in a “separate location within the same Tehran military compound.”
The transcript notes that the group of individuals al-Mauritani was previously living with may have included Anas al-Libi, who was captured in Libya in October 2013. According to Ghaith’s statement, approximately one and a half years before he was transferred into the custody of the FBI (ie around the 10-year anniversary of al-Qa’ida’s 9/11 attacks), “Iranian authorities told Ghaith, Saif al-Adl, Abu Mohamed al-Masri, Abu Khayr al-Masri and their fellow detainees that the Iranians would release any of them who chose to leave, but that, they had to return from Iran to their home countries.” Accordingly, “They were not going to be allowed to relocate from Iran to any other third country, i.e. Pakistan.” (Note: Titled “Al-Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” an August 2012 report prepared by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress noted al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri had reportedly tasked al-Libi with establishing al-Qa’ida’s “clandestine network” in Libya. According to the report, “Reporting indicates that intense communications from AQSL [al-Qa’ida Senior Leadership] are conducted through Abu Anas al-Libi, who is believed to be an intermediary between al-Zawahiri and jihadists in Libya.” In September 2012, elements of this “clandestine network” were involved in the attacks on American diplomatic and intelligence facilities in Benghazi.)
Despite Ghaith’s description of the Iranian government’s treatment of him as “harsh,” he was twice married while under the Iranians’ watch. In 2006, he married an Egyptian woman named Amal, “who was detained along with him in Iran.” Two years later, he married Usama bin Laden’s daughter, Fatima bin Laden, “who was also detained in Iran with Ghaith and the rest of their group.”
Around mid-2009, Ghaith’s family and the others who were co-located with him in Location #3 were relocated to “Iran Location #4.” “Iran Location #4 was a walled off area with multiple houses, each with a yard, surrounding a central court yard/playground. Each family had its own house at Iran Location #4. Ghaith believed that the Iranians spent about a year refurbishing Iran Location #4 to get it ready for them.” Accordingly, the occupants of Location #3, “particularly the women,” had complained to the Iranian authorities about the conditions of Location #3.
The transcript notes, “As far as Ghaith knows, Saif al-Adl, Abu Mohamed al-Masri, Abu Khayr al-Masri and their families are still located in Iran Location #4.”
“At some point during his time at Iran Location #4, the Iranians allowed Ghaith and his fellow detainees to communicate more often with others outside Iran. … At Iran Location #4, the Iranians set up a ‘private’ e-mail account for Ghaith to use and then a ‘public’ e-mail account which was shared by all of the other detainees co-located with Ghaith,” the transcript notes. Ghaith said he and his associates were not allowed to access these email accounts and physically write and send/receive e-mails. Accordingly, they had to handwrite messages, which the “Iranian authorities” would draft and send. Ghaith said he did not know what the actual e-mail address was in the case of either account.
It was during his stay at Location #4 that Ghaith wrote Twenty Guidelines on the Path of Jihad, the foreword for which was penned by Abu Hafs al-Mauritani prior to his “escape” from Location #4 to the Mauritanian embassy, followed by his deportation to Mauritania. While he provided a copy to al-Mauritani, Ghaith believes it was bin Laden’s daughter Eman who had it published when she escaped Iran.
Approximately three and a half years following his relocation to Location #4, the Iranians helped Ghaith leave the country. The transcript states, “Prior to releasing him, the Iranian authorities advised Ghaith that if things did not work out with his return to Kuwait, he could return to Iran.”
Iranian “authorities” handed Ghaith and UBL’s daughter Fatima over to a series of smugglers who delivered them the Turkish border alongside of “50 other people.” Accordingly, one of the smugglers provided Ghaith an Iranian passport, “which contained an Iranian name, something like Mahran Arif Paya.” Furthermore, the transcript states that “Ghaith believed that the smugglers who took him and his family from Iran to Turkey worked for Iranian authorities.”
Soon after arriving at the border, Naji, a Turkish smuggler in his mid-50s, helped Ghaith and Fatima make their way to the Saudi embassy.
Ghaith was arrested in Ankara approximately 10 hours after arriving in Turkey, according to his statement. He said he was on his way to dinner with Fatima and her brother Abdullah bin Laden when he was arrested by Turkish Authorities on January 13, 2013.
Last updated 17 March 2014.