Western Media Addresses Guantanamo Connection in AQAP Founding
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula emerged in late January 2009, as newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama made the planned closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility one of his first executive orders. The timing of the two events was not lost on the Western press, especially after news broke that two of AQAP’s founders—Said al-Shihri and Mohamed al-Awfi—were former Guantanamo detainees.
Breaking the news on the same day that Obama signed his executive order, the New York Times wrote that al-Shihri’s emergence as AQAP’s deputy leader “underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order” to close Guantanamo within one year. The article hedged its criticism of President Obama’s decision by noting that the Pentagon’s claim that dozens of former detainees had “returned to the fight” was “difficult to document, and [had] been met with skepticism.” Moreover, the paper dismissed concerns that former detainees could assume leadership positions, claiming that “few of the former detainees, if any, [were] thought to have become leaders of a major terrorist organization like Al Qaeda in Yemen…” Robert F. Worth, “Freed by the U.S., Saudi becomes a Qaeda Chief,” New York Times, January 22, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/world/middleeast/23yemen.html.
The Long War Journal reported the news several days later but focused less attention on the Guantanamo angle of the story. The outlet highlighted recent propaganda from al-Qaeda that focused on Gaza, pointing out that Yemen had already “opened its first camp to receive foreigners to train for jihad in Gaza.” Those foreigners would allegedly be “received at al Iman University, headed by Sheik Abdulmajid al Zindani who is designated as a terrorist financier…[and is] a strong ally [of] President Saleh.” Jane Novak, “Arabian Peninsula Al Qaeda Groups Merge,” Long War Journal, January 26, 2009, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2009/01/arabian_peninsula_al.php. The report noted bluntly that “Yemen has a troubling history of placating al Qaeda operatives, a history that includes early releases of convicted terrorists, multiple escapes… and outright lying to the US on the status of al Qaeda operatives.” Jane Novak, “Arabian Peninsula Al Qaeda Groups Merge,” Long War Journal, January 26, 2009, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2009/01/arabian_peninsula_al.php.
Meanwhile, the Economist was more playful in its coverage. The magazine published an article titled “A Nice Safe Haven for Jihadists,” writing that with Yemen’s government expecting about 100 Yemeni prisoners to return from Guantanamo, “other friends may soon be joining the fighters…” “A Nice Safe Haven for Jihadists,” Economist, January 29, 2009, http://www.economist.com/node/13041120. The magazine claimed that Saudi Arabia was AQAP’s main target, but that its efforts to regroup outside of the kingdom “may be a sign of weakness rather than strength,” and that “even if the danger of a few hundred armed jihadists is real, [Yemeni] locals may well care more about other national plagues…” “A Nice Safe Haven for Jihadists,” Economist, January 29, 2009, http://www.economist.com/node/13041120.