There was a major terrorism incident this week, which means ABC News' chronically wrong investigative reporter Brian Ross rushed in with a highly suspect blockbuster story about it. This time, he claimed former Gitmo inmates planned the Christmas bombing attempt.
Maybe they did! But given Ross' extensive and well-documented history of jumping on terrorism stories with sloppily reported "scoops" that don't hold up to scrutiny, we'd better have a closer look at this one. Here's what Ross reported on Monday:
Two of the four leaders allegedly behind the al Qaeda plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit were released by the U.S. from the Guantanamo prison in November 2007, according to American officials and Department of Defense documents. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Northwest bombing in a Monday statement that vowed more attacks on Americans.
Guantanamo prisoner #333, Muhamad Attik al-Harbi, and prisoner #372, Said Ali Shari, were sent to Saudi Arabia on Nov. 9, 2007, according to the Defense Department log of detainees who were released from American custody. Al-Harbi has since changed his name to Muhamad al-Awfi.
So there you have it: Four people planned the attack. Two of them—Muhamad Attik al-Harbi and Said Ali Shari—were safely detained at Guantanamo Bay before being released to Saudi Arabia, which, according to Ross, attempted to rehabilitate them with "art therapy." It didn't work. They fled to Yemen and rejoined jihad.
The only problem with that masterful bit of outrage-bait is this Associated Press story from February 2009, pointed out to us by a tipster, which actually confirms the substance of Ross' report: Gitmo prisoner #333, whose actual name is Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi (according to the AP, the U.S. military got his name wrong, as did Ross in his later report on him), was indeed released to Saudi custody in 2007, and he did indeed escape to Yemen to rejoin jihad. And then in February 2009, he surrendered to Saudi authorities.
A former Saudi Guantanamo Bay detainee who later went to Yemen to become an al-Qaida field commander has surrendered and was handed over to Saudi authorities on Tuesday, Yemen's Interior Ministry said.
That last bit curiously didn't make it into Ross' report about how al-Harbi/al-Oufi planned the Christmas bombing. For the record, we have no idea whether he was involved in planning it or not. Maybe the AP report is wrong, and he never in fact surrendered. Or maybe he did surrender in February 2009 and then escaped again, for a second time, to plan the attack. Or maybe the attack was planned prior to February 2009, and Abdul Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, the would-be underwear bomber, laid in wait for 10 months before striking.
But Ross didn't see fit to mention the fact that the man he accuses of planning the attack reportedly surrendered 10 months before the attack he supposedly planned. Which leads us to believe, based on no evidence aside from virtually every other thing Ross has done, that he didn't know about it, because he didn't bother to Google the guy after he got the name from the "American officials" whose words he routinely transcribes in the wake of every terrorism incident. We've e-mailed him to ask him whether he was aware of al-Harbi/al-Oufi's reported surrender, and if so why he didn't address it in his report.
Like we say, this doesn't mean that former Gitmo detainees didn't play a role in planning the attacks, or even that al-Harbi/al-Oufi wasn't involved. It just means that there's no reason to believe anything Brian Ross tells you. Wait for someone else to confirm it.
UPDATE: Ross never responded to our e-mail, but he did post this retraction, so we think we have our answer.
One of the two former Guantanamo prisoners who assumed leadership roles in al Qaeda of Yemen turned himself in to the Saudi government in Februrary, 2009 and therefore could not have played a direct role in organizing the attempt to bring down Northwest flight 253, U.S. government officials said Wednesday.
ABCNews.com reported Monday in error that former Guantanamo prisoner #333, Muhamad Attik al-Harbi, was one of four leaders of the al Qaeda group which claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing.