Portrait of push for post 9/11 attacks

Too dangerous? Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a July 2009 photograph taken by the International Committee of the Red Cross at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The detainee’s family released the photo to a website, www.muslm.net NYT

He peers out from the photo in the classified file through heavy-framed spectacles, an owlish face with a graying beard and a half-smile. Saifullah Paracha, a successful businessman and for years a New York travel agent, appears to be the oldest of the 172 prisoners still held at the Guantánamo Bay prison. His dossier is among the most chilling.
In the months after the Sept 11 attacks, Paracha, 63, was one of a small circle of al-Qaeda operatives who explored ways to follow up on the hijackings with new attacks, according to the classified Guantánamo files.

Working with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the 9/11 planner who in early 2002 gave him $5,00,000 to $6,00,000 ‘for safekeeping,’ Paracha offered his long experience in the shipping business for a scheme to move plastic explosives into the United States inside containers of women’s and children’s clothing, the files assert.

“Detainee desired to help al-Qaeda ‘do something big against the US’,” one of his co-conspirators, Ammar al-Baluchi, told Guantánamo interrogators, the files say. Paracha discussed obtaining biological or nuclear weapons as well, though he was concerned that detectors at ports “would make it difficult to smuggle radioactive materials into the country,” the file says.

Paracha’s assessment is among more than 700 classified documents that fill in new details of al-Qaeda’s efforts to make 9/11 just the first in a series of attacks to cripple the US, intentions thwarted as the Central Intelligence Agency captured Mohammed and other leaders of the terrorist network.

Only plans

The plots reportedly discussed by Mohammed and various operatives, none of them acted upon, included plans for a new wave of aircraft attacks on the west coast, filling an apartment with leaked natural gas and detonating it, blowing up gas stations and even cutting the cables holding up the Brooklyn Bridge.

For the small circle of Qaeda operatives described in the December 2008 assessment of Paracha, terrorism appears to have been a family affair. There was Mohammed, the terrorist network’s top plotter, and his nephew, Baluchi, who was married to another militant, an American-trained neuroscientist, Aafia Siddiqui. And there was Paracha and his son, Uzair.

The newly revealed assessments, obtained last year by the WikiLeaks and provided by another source to ‘The Times’, have revived the dispute, nearly as old as the prison, over whether mistreatment of some prisoners there and the prison’s operation outside the criminal justice system invalidate the government’s conclusions about the detainees.

Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the assessments “are rife with uncorroborated evidence, information obtained through torture, speculation, errors and allegations that have been proven false.”

Likewise, David H Remes, a lawyer who represents the elder Paracha, said that while he had not seen the assessment, its conclusion that Paracha posed a ‘high risk’ to American interests was without foundation.

“The notion that he ever did anything that justified his detention, or ever was or is any kind of threat to the US, is preposterous,” Remes said. “He is a 63-year-old man with a serious heart condition and severe diabetes, and he has been nothing but cooperative with the authorities.”

What Paracha wants, Remes added, is either a transfer back to his native country, Pakistan, or “a definitive adjudication of his case.”

Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, condemned the publication of what he called ‘documents obtained illegally’ and noted the military’s findings about some detainees had been changed by a new review under President Obama. The detailed results of that review, however, remain secret.

Carney said the president remained committed to closing the Guantánamo prison someday. But Obama’s review identified about 50 detainees his advisers said could not be tried and were too dangerous to release, and Congress has imposed restrictions on bringing prisoners to the US.

The portrait of Paracha is one of the striking ones to emerge from the files. The documents say he attended the New York Institute of Technology in the early 1970s and worked as a travel agent in New York for 13 years.

He was arrested in Bangkok in July 2003 after Uzair, who was already in FBI custody in New York, ‘acknowledged’ his father was a militant, the assessment says. Uzair Paracha was convicted in a 2005 trial on charges including material support for terrorism and is serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison.

According to his Guantánamo assessment, Saifullah Paracha had “provided useful information concerning senior al-Qaeda members” but “attempted to deceive and misinform intelligence and law enforcement personnel about his own activities.” As a result, the assessment draws heavily on statements by others, notably Mohammed, who was subjected to waterboarding and other brutal treatment during his interrogation by the CIA.

But Paracha’s assessment suggests that he did not deny militant connections at the highest level. “Detainee claimed he met UBL on a trip to Afghanistan in December 1999 or January 2000,” the documents say, using the government’s initials for Osama bin Laden. It says he offered to let Osama use his broadcasting business in Pakistan to generate propaganda films for al-Qaeda.

Later, Osama dispatched Mohammed to talk further about the idea, and Paracha explained “his vision of dedicating a programme on his broadcasting network depicting UBL quoting Quranic verses.”

Chemical warfare

After 9/11, Paracha’s discussions focused on new plots, the files say. A Casio digital diary he was carrying when he was arrested “contained references to military chemical warfare agents, and their effects on humans,” according to the classified assessment. The document says Paracha told interrogators he had worked with Abdul Qadeer Khan, considered to be the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and a major proliferator of nuclear technology.

Edward D Wilford, a lawyer who represented the son at his 2005 trial, said his client had played no ‘witting’ role in his father’s arrest.

“He was not a part of it in any way,” he said. “He didn’t make any calls. He didn’t make any contact. In fact, he was being held incommunicado. He didn’t have any way of knowing what was going on.” The son had been jailed in Manhattan on a material-witness warrant after his questioning by the FBI in March 2003. He was charged criminally in August 2003, after his father’s arrest.

The relationship between father and son is only hinted at in the assessment report. It says that analysts concluded that Saifullah Paracha was “hiding aspects of his son’s extremist activities.” The son, though, talked about his father and his father’s relationship with Osama while testifying in his own defence.

A prosecutor asked whether Uzair Paracha had told FBI agents that his father admired Osama. “I don’t remember if my father actually said that he admired Osama,” the son testified. “He said that Osama was a humble person and he had a simple way of life.”

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