A Pakistani businessman alleged by the U.S to have had a direct link with Osama bin Laden, of plotting to acquire chemical and other weapons for al-Qaeda, and offering his media network for al-Qaeda propaganda was among the Guantánamo detainees whose repatriation the Pakistan government actively pushed.
The 64-year-old Saifullah Paracha remains in the Guantánamo Bay prison, possibly its oldest inmate and among the last six Pakistani prisoners not yet considered fit for release and repatriation by U.S. authorities. A U.S Embassy cable from Islamabad, dated August 30, 2006 (76668: confidential/noforn) details that a delegation of Pakistani officials who visited Pakistani detainees at Guantánamo returned with the impression that most of the detainees “are individuals who were ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time', not extremists who pose a serious threat.”
Obtained by The Hindu through WikiLeaks as part of the Pakistan cables, the diplomatic communication is a small window into the complicated relations between the U.S and Pakistan in the “war on terror,” and their differences over how to tackle al-Qaeda.
It shows how sections of official Pakistan differed from the U.S. in their assessment of al-Qaeda suspects. It also shows the domestic pressures on the Pakistani government as public resentment soared over the manner in which the U.S. had detained these suspects.
The cable is a report of the Pakistani delegation's Guantánamo visit, as told to the Political Counsellor at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad by Lt. Col. Imran Yaqoob — wrongly mentioned in the cable as Imran Farooq — Director of Operations at the National Crisis Management Cell in the Pakistani Ministry of Interior, who was in the delegation.
The cable said, the Pakistani delegation that visited Guantanamo in early August that year, “left with the impression that no major obstacles remain to the repatriation of six of the Pakistani detainees,” including Paracha, “provided that the GoP [government of Pakistan] makes arrangements to keep him in detention here in Pakistan.”
The Karachi businessman was arrested in Bangkok on July 8, 2003, and transferred to the U.S. off-shore prison in Cuba on September 19, 2004.
One of his sons, Uzair Paracha, had been arrested in the U.S. earlier that year and charged with providing material assistance to al-Qaeda. He was convicted by a US court in 2006.
The U.S. officials in Guantánamo assured the delegation that if the Pakistan government submitted a formal request for repatriation, it would be favourably considered. Lt. Col. Farooq told the U.S. Embassy official that he had already written to the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in support of sending such a request. In addition to the six detainees at Guantánamo, Pakistan also wanted the repatriation of 20 more of its nationals being held in Afghanistan.
But Lt. Col. Farooq “warned that for the GOP to keep Saifullah Paracha in custody, it would need information/evidence from the USG to justify his continued detention, noting that Paracha's family has a petition protesting his detention pending in the Pakistan Supreme Court. Without some evidence to support a longer detention, LTC Imran said, Pakistani law would only permit his detention for three months”.
In paranthesis, the cable, sent under the signature of Charge d'Affaires Peter W. Bodde noted that the Embassy “will pursue the question of the GoP's ability to hold detainees in custody with the MFA and other interlocutors.”
Quite contrary to the Pakistani official's impression that Paracha would be released soon, the Guantánamo files, released last month by WikiLeaks (ISN 1094), show that he was assessed as a “high risk” detainee who “if released without rehabilitation, close supervision, and means to successfully reintegrate into his society as a law-abiding citizen, […] would probably seek out prior associates and reengage in extremist activities at home and abroad.”
The December 1, 2008 assessment recommended his “Continued Detention Under DOD [Department of Defense] Control.”
According to the file, Paracha was a “significant member” of al-Qaeda, and provided assistance to the terror network. In what the file describes as “custodial interviews” rather than interrogations, Paracha is said to have confessed to meeting Osama bin Laden twice, the first time in December 1999 or in January 2000, and then again in the autumn of 2000, offering the al-Qaeda leader the use of his television station to promote his message to the world.
Paracha is alleged to have had close links with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed to masterminding the 9/11 attacks, and his nephew, Ammar al Baluchi, another al-Qaeda senior.
His file alleges that bin Laden sent Khalid Sheikh to find out more about Paracha's media company, Universal Broadcasting Limited, and how he planned to promote al-Qaeda. Paracha is alleged to have explained to Sheikh “his vision of dedicating a program on his broadcasting network depicting OBL quoting Koranic verses.”
Over the next several months, Khalid Sheikh is alleged to have met Paracha five times regarding this proposal. The file also alleges that Ammar al Baluchi used Paracha's media facilities to make a film of an al-Qaeda fighter discussing his experience at Tora Boara, which was passed on to the Al Jazeera news channel.
According to Khalid Sheikh's account to his interrogators as detailed in the file, Paracha, who is an American citizen and operated a travel agency in the U.S. before moving back to Pakistan, is said to have told al Baluchi that he could obtain “unspecified chemicals from Chinese sources.”
Sheikh told his interrogators that “he assumed [Paracha] was talking about chemical or biological agents that could be used by extremists as weapons.”
Paracha is alleged to have plotted to smuggle chemical, biological and radioactive materials into the U.S. for attacks.
But he told his captors that his interaction with al-Qaeda “was just business.”
In October 2007, when it became clear that Paracha was not going to be sent home as earlier expected, Amnesty International also called for Paracha's release unless he was charged and given a fair trial in a non-military court.
An American lawyer representing Paracha said in June 2008 that his client did not deny meeting al-Qaeda figures but did not know their real identities or that they were connected to terrorism.
Speaking in Karachi, the lawyer, Zachary Katznelson, said Paracha had met bin Laden in 1999 and 2000 in connection with a television programme he wanted to make. The al-Qaeda leader had told him he would think about it but “no interview ever took place.”