Profile: Bensayah Belkacem
Bensayah Belkacem was a participant or observer in the following events:
Bensayah Belkacem at Guantanamo. [Source: US Defense Department]US intelligence intercepts numerous phone calls between Abu Zubaida and other al-Qaeda leaders and Bensayah Belkacem, an operative living in Bosnia. The New York Times will later report that shortly after 9/11, “American intelligence agencies, working closely with the government of neighboring Croatia, listened in as Mr. Belkacem and others discussed plans for attacks.” One US official says, “He was apparently on the phone constantly to Afghanistan, with Zubaida and others. There were dozens of calls to Afghanistan.” Belkacem, an Algerian, had moved to Bosnia to fight in the early 1990s war there, then obtained Bosnian citizenship and settled in Zenica, working for an Islamic charity. [New York Times, 1/23/2002] On October 8, 2001, Bosnian police detain Belkacem. While searching his home, they find a piece of note listing the name “Abu Zubeida” and Zubaida’s phone number. [Washington Post, 8/21/2006] It is later revealed that Belkacem made 70 calls to Zubaida between 9/11 and his arrest and more calls before then. He had repeatedly sought a visa to leave Bosnia for Germany just before 9/11. Phone transcripts show Zubaida and Belkacem discussed procuring passports. [Time, 11/12/2001] A US official will later claim that it was believed Zubaida was in Afghanistan with bin Laden at the time of Belkacem’s arrest. [New York Times, 1/23/2002] It has not been explained why this knowledge was not used to capture or kill Zubaida and/or bin Laden. It appears that Western intelligence agencies had been monitoring Zubaida’s calls as far back as 1996 (see (Mid-1996) and October 1998 and After). Belkacem and five of his associates will be renditioned to Guantanamo Bay prison in 2002 and remain imprisoned there (see January 18, 2002).
After three months, none of the allegations that the US made against the six men arrested in Bosnia in October 2001 (see January 18, 2002) have been proven, and the Supreme Court of the Muslim-Croat Federation orders their release. The US refused to provide evidence in court that the men were tied to al-Qaeda, as alleged. After the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) says that four of the six men cannot be expelled from the country until it has ruled on their appeal against the retraction of their citizenship. A hearing is scheduled for February 11. [BBC, 1/22/2002; CNN, 1/18/2004; Washington Post, 5/11/2004] At least some of the six figures do seem to have ties to al-Qaeda. For instance, Saber Lahmar was convicted in Bosnia of attempting to blow up the US embassy there in 1997 (see 1996 and After). But the evidence against them is based on communications intercepts, and the US is unwilling to release any details about that information. The hearing never takes place, because the US takes custody of the men as they are released and renditions them to the Guantanamo prison (see January 18, 2002).
Saber Lahmar. [Source: US Defense Department]The US renditions six suspects to Guantanamo, even though their cases are under appeal in Bosnia. On October 8, 2001, Bosnian police arrested Bensayah Belkacem, an Algerian given Bosnian citizenship and living in Bosnia. US intelligence intercepted numerous phone calls between Abu Zubaida and other al-Qaeda leaders and Belkacem (see October 8, 2001). On October 16, a conversation was overheard in which US and British targets in Bosnia are mentioned, and a Bosnian associate of Belkacem’s named Saber Lahmar said to another associate, “Tomorrow we will start.” US and British embassies were shut down that night, and Lahmar and four associates - Al-Hajj Boudella, Lakhdar Boumediene, Mustafa Ait Idir, and Mohamed Nechle - were quickly arrested. Lahmar worked for the Saudi High Commission. In 1997 he was arrested and convicted of plotting to bomb the US embassy in Sarajevo, but then pardoned and released by the Bosnian government (see 1996 and After). Boudella was an elite al-Qaeda training camp trainer in Afghanistan and Bosnia, then worked at the Benevolence International Foundation, which the US declared a terrorism financier after 9/11 (see 1993). Belkacem’s other associates worked for other charities such as the Red Crescent society and Taibah International. [Time, 11/12/2001] On January 18, 2002, the Bosnian government determines they don’t have enough evidence to charge the six men since the US will not share details of its communications intercepts. A high court rules that the men are not allowed to be deported until their appeals are heard. [BBC, 1/22/2002] But the men are nonetheless released directly into the custody of US soldiers, who immediately fly them to the Guantanamo Bay prison. The handover is denounced as illegal by human rights groups. It is believed the US put intense pressure on Bosnia to hand them over. [BBC, 1/22/2002; New York Times, 1/23/2002] The Bosnian government, still not privy to the intercepts, will later clear them of all charges, but the US will continue to hold them in Guantanamo without revealing any of the evidence said to justify their detention. [Washington Post, 8/21/2006]
Federal Judge Richard Leon rules that the US government has unlawfully held five Algerian men at Guantanamo for nearly seven years (see January 18, 2002). Leon orders their release. Leon rules that the government’s case, based on a slender compilation of classified evidence, was too weak to justify the five men’s continued detention. The government’s case is based on a single “classified document from an unnamed source” for its central claim against the men, and the court has no way to accurately judge its credibility. “To rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with this court’s obligation,” Leon writes. He urges the Bush administration not to appeal the ruling, and recommends that they be released “forthwith.” Leon rules that a sixth Algerian, Bensayah Belkacem (see October 8, 2001), is being lawfully detained due to his demonstrable ties with al-Qaeda. The six are among the Guantanamo inmates who won a narrowly decided Supreme Court case recognizing their right to seek redress in the US court system (see June 22, 2008), and include Lakhdar Boumediene, for whom the Court’s ruling was named. Leon, a Republican appointee previously considered sympathetic to the Bush administration’s position on the detention of suspects, urges the government not to appeal his ruling: such an appeal could take as much as two years, and, he notes, “Seven years of waiting for our legal system to give them an answer to a question so important is, in my judgment, more than plenty.” If the government chooses not to appeal, the lawyers for the detainees expect them to be released into Bosnia, where they were arrested in early 2002. The Justice Department calls the ruling “perhaps an understandable consequence of the fact that neither the Supreme Court nor Congress has provided rules on how these habeas corpus cases should proceed in this unprecedented context.” One of the detainees’ lawyers, Robert Kirsch, says the case illustrates “the human cost of what can happen when mistakes are made at the highest levels of our government, and no one has the courage to acknowledge those mistakes.” Other detainee lawyers say the case is a broad repudiation of the Bush administration’s attempts to use the Guantanamo facility to avoid the scrutiny of US judges. Lawyer Zachary Katznelson, a member of the British human rights group Reprieve, says, “The decision by Judge Leon lays bare the scandalous basis on which Guantánamo has been based—slim evidence of dubious quality.” The case was not strengthened by the Bush administration’s pursuit of it: originally the six were charged with planning a bomb attack on the US Embassy in Sarajevo, Bosnia, but in October, Justice Department lawyers abruptly withdrew those accusations. [New York Times, 11/20/2008; National Review, 11/20/2008] The five will be released the following month (see December 2008).
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