WASHINGTON — A Somali militant linked to al-Qaida was held and interrogated for two months aboard 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.
An indictment against the man, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, was unsealed Tuesday 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-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group's affiliate in Yemen, and Al Shabab, the Somali militant group. It alleges that he fought on Al 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 several news reports that cited unnamed administration officials, Warsame was seized April 19 by U.S. forces in international waters while traveling between Yemen and Somalia. The McClatchy-Tribune Washington bureau reported that the officials said Warsame had been identified by U.S. intelligence as an important target. A second person taken into custody with Warsame was later released, the report said.
The interrogators who questioned Warsame included military personnel and an interrogation team under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Washington Post reported. According to court documents, the Post said, Warsame was interrogated on "all but a daily basis" by military and civilian intelligence interrogators.
Warsame's detention marks a significant new step for the administration in its handling of terrorism suspects. President Barack Obama pledged during his campaign to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which was designed during the George W. 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 drone strikes, Republicans and some outside analysts charged that the administration seemed to prefer to kill al-Qaida members rather than detain them. Crucial intelligence was being lost, they complained.
In recent weeks, however, senior officials had suggested that was changing. Gen. David Petraeus, in his confirmation hearings to become CIA director, said he believed the United States should find a way to capture and detain militants and hold them someplace other than Guantanamo.
Adm. William McRaven, who is taking over as commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said last week during his confirmation hearings that the United States either holds detainees on a naval vessel until getting a case to prosecute, sends them to a third country or releases them. Shipboard detentions had been alleged by human rights groups but never confirmed.
Warsame's interrogation was conducted under the rules of the U.S. Army Field Manual, which strictly limits the techniques that can be used, according to the McClatchy-Tribune report. After the high-value interrogation group completed its questioning of Warsame and transferred him to FBI custody, he was read his Miranda rights, McClatchy and the Post reported. Warsame waived his right to a lawyer and continued talking, the reports said.
Information gleaned in the intelligence interrogation wasn't used against Warsame in the criminal case, the reports said. Instead, questioning by the FBI formed the basis of the nine-count indictment. 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.
Warsame is in federal custody in New York. No terrorism suspect is being held on a U.S. ship, McClatchy and the New York Times reported. The officials wouldn't say how often these detentions occur, McClatchy said.
During his interrogation, Warsame provided valuable information about activities in Yemen and links between Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Penninsula and Al Shabab, the Somali militant group, McClatchy reported.