A Somali militant linked to Al Qaeda was held and interrogated for two months on a U.S. Navy ship — the first publicly known example of the Obama administration secretly detaining a new terrorism suspect outside the criminal justice system.
Senior administration officials revealed the case Tuesday after an indictment against the man, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, was unsealed in federal court in New York. The indictment, which does not mention Warsame’s military detention, charges that he worked to broker a weapons deal between Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and the Somali militant group Shabab. It alleges that he fought on Shabab’s behalf in Somalia in 2009, then went to Yemen in 2010 for explosives training and took part in terrorist activities there.
According to administration officials, Warsame was seized April 19 by U.S. forces in international waters while traveling between Yemen and Somalia. He had been identified by U.S. intelligence as an important target, the officials said. A second person taken into custody with Warsame was later released, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence matters.
Warsame was turned over to the FBI after extensive “humane” interrogation aboard ship by a unit known as a High-Value Interrogation Group, made up of FBI, CIA and Defense Department personnel, the officials said. But a U.S. official said CIA officers did not directly question Warsame. After the controversy surrounding George W. Bush-era interrogations of detainees, the CIA has consistently said it has kept its agents away from direct questioning.
Warsame’s detention marks a significant new step for the administration in its handling of terrorism suspects. President Obama pledged during his campaign to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which was designed during the Bush administration as a place to hold detainees outside the reach of U.S. law. Although the administration has not succeeded in closing Guantanamo, it has, until now, not disclosed the existence of any new detainees.
After Obama significantly expanded the targeted killing of militants in Pakistan and elsewhere through Predator drone strikes, Republicans and some outside analysts charged that the administration seemed to prefer to kill Al Qaeda members rather than sort through the messy legalities of detaining them. Crucial intelligence was being lost, they said.
In recent weeks, however, senior officials had suggested that situation was changing. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, in his confirmation hearings to become CIA director, said in response to questions from Republican senators that he believed the U.S. should find a way to capture and detain militants and hold them someplace other than Guantanamo.
Adm. William H. McRaven, who is taking over as head of U.S. Special Operations Command, was asked last week during his confirmation hearings what the U.S. did with militants captured outside Afghanistan.
“In many cases, we will put them on a naval vessel and we will hold them until we can either get a case to prosecute them in U.S. court,” send them to a third country or release them, McRaven said, without providing specifics. Shipboard detentions had been alleged by human rights groups but never confirmed.
Although the Warsame case shows that extrajudicial detentions have resumed, the administration officials who discussed the case were at pains to note the differences between his case and those carried out under Bush.
Officials said Warsame’s interrogation was conducted under the rules of the U.S. Army Field Manual, which strictly limits the techniques that can be used. After the High-Value Interrogation Group had completed its questioning of Warsame and transferred him to FBI custody, he was read his Miranda rights, the officials said. Warsame waived his right to a lawyer and continued talking, the officials said.
The Bush administration had authorized several interrogation techniques prohibited under the Army Field Manual, including simulated drowning known as waterboarding, which critics charged amounted to torture. The Bush administration also moved detainees out of the civilian justice system, initially asserting that the president had the authority to hold detainees indefinitely without trial. After the Supreme Court rejected that position, Bush authorized trying detainee cases in front of military tribunals.
In Warsame’s case, the information gleaned in the intelligence interrogation was not used against him in the criminal case, the officials said. Instead, questioning by the FBI formed the basis of the nine-count indictment, they added. And, as the indictment indicates, the administration plans to try him on charges of providing material support to a terrorist group in civilian, not military, court.
“This is an ideal example of how individuals can be captured and interrogated and intelligence can be gleaned, and then we can decide what to do with them,” a senior administration official said.
Warsame is in federal custody in New York, where he was flown. Currently, no terrorism suspect is being held on a U.S. ship, the officials said. But they pointedly did not foreclose the possibility of similar detentions in the future. They declined to say how often such detentions had happened.
During his interrogation, Warsame provided valuable information about activities in Yemen and links between the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Shabab, the officials said. They did not link him to any plot or attack against the U.S., but said he had “clearly served as an important conduit” between Shabab and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, facilitating contacts and weapons transfers.
In the last year, U.S. intelligence officials have seen signs of increasing cooperation between the two organizations, based in two of the world’s poorest, least-stable countries. Somalia and Yemen are linked by traditional sea trade routes across the Gulf of Aden, which Al Qaeda in recent years has been able to use for the movement of arms and fighters, according to a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Foreign fighters from around the Arab world, drawn to the seemingly endless battles in Somalia, have traveled in recent years to Yemen and crossed the Gulf of Aden by boat to avoid being on an airline manifest, the official said.
In 2009, key leaders of Shabab in Somalia pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in a video posted on the Internet. Al Qaeda had been trying to bring local insurgent groups in East Africa into its leadership structure for more than a decade, and had made major inroads with Shabab, according to U.S. officials.
A senior Al Qaeda operative in East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, whom U.S. officials have labeled as the mastermind of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, was gunned down by Somali government security forces at a checkpoint outside Mogadishu, the capital, on June 7. Mohammed was a key link between Shabab and the top leaders of Al Qaeda, as well as the leadership of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, a U.S. intelligence official said.
“Shabab has faced serious setbacks,” said Rick Nelson, a counter-terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
The relationship between Shabab and the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen is one of “mutual convenience,” Nelson said. Militants in Yemen have an ample supply of firearms, and the Somalis have better sources of income from piracy and kidnap-for-ransom schemes, said Nelson, citing independent research done by the center in East Africa.
David S. Cloud and Brian Bennett in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.