Yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, where he thanked the Marines stationed there for their service. He might have also thanked someone else during his East African stop—the CIA interrogators who uncovered al Qaeda’s plans to blow up Camp Lemonier in an attack that might well have rivaled the 1993 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed nearly 300 service members.
As I explain in my book, Courting Disaster, in 2004 a Somali terrorist named Hassan Guleed was captured and taken into CIA custody. Guleed worked for an East African al Qaeda leader named Abu Talha al-Sudani—one of the leaders behind the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya. Abu Talha appointed Guleed as al Qaeda’s Djibouti cell leader—responsible for locating safe houses, casing targets, assisting in the transfer of funds, and procuring weapons, explosives, and other supplies for the al Qaeda leader. As a result, he knew many details of al Qaeda’s East African operations—including its hideouts, its bank accounts, and its plans for new attacks.
During CIA questioning, Guleed revealed a plot by Abu Talha to attack Camp Lemonier using water tankers loaded with explosives. Guleed told the CIA he had been sent by Abu Talha in September and October 2003 to case the Marine camp, and was tasked by the al Qaeda leader to purchase two rocket-propelled grenades, five AK-47s, and four 9mm pistols. Information from Guleed—including the identities of the operatives associated with the plot—allowed the United States to thwart this attack on our Marines in Djibouti.
As I point out in the current issue of World Affairs, this account of the disrupted plot against Camp Lemonier has been confirmed by none other than WikiLeaks. Earlier this year, WikiLeaks released a trove of documents it dubbed the “Gitmo Files”—including files on Hassan Guleed. According to those WikiLeaks documents, Guleed admitted to the CIA that when captured he was “in the progress [sic] of planning terrorist operations against U.S. coalition personnel and assets in Camp Lemonier.” He told the agency that “in October 2003, the operatives identified a dark red Isuzu water tank truck that delivered water to Camp Lemonier. Subsequently, in December 2003 they agreed on a plan to target Camp Lemonier with an explosives-laden water truck. While operatives still needed to secure funding, a string of arrests in 2004 and September 2005 disrupted the operation.” It was information Guleed provided the CIA that made those arrests possible.
Had al-Qaeda succeeded in carrying out this attack, many Marines might have died and al Qaeda would have struck a major blow against the United States. Camp Lemonier still stands thanks to the skill and hard work of our much-maligned CIA interrogators—and because Hassan Guleed was not read his rights and given a lawyer when he was captured in 2004. That’s a fact Leon Panetta left out of his speech in Djibouti this week.