Archive for July, 2007

Pentagon-commissioned Guantánamo study is a joke

In a belated attempt to win the PR battle over Guantánamo, a terrorism study center at West Point has produced a Pentagon-commissioned report, which attempts to refute the findings of a report published by the Seton Hall Law School in February 2006. Using the government’s own documents –- 517 Unclassified Summaries of Evidence from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals –- the team at Seton Hall, led by lawyers Mark and Josh Denbeaux, analyzed the Summaries and concluded that, according to the government’s own assertions, 86 percent of the detainees were not captured on the battlefield by US forces, but were captured by the Northern Alliance or Pakistani forces, 55 percent were not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the US or its allies, and only 8 percent were alleged to have had any kind of affiliation with al-Qaeda.

Even these assertions are doubtful. As I demonstrate in The Guantánamo Files (and as is apparent from numerous other sources, including, most recently, the “Guantánamo whistleblower” Stephen Abraham), claims made by the government in the Summaries of Evidence were not necessarily accurate, and the percentage of detainees who actually had any involvement with al-Qaeda or committed any kind of hostile act against the US or its allies is even less than claimed.

Nevertheless, the fine patriots at West Point, while admitting that their report is a propaganda exercise, designed “to affect public attitudes,” and with conclusions that should “enhance our collective understanding of the threats facing the United States, its allies and its interests and how we respond to them,” have looked at the same documents and have produced what the New York Times has unquestioningly described as “a chilling portrait of the Guantánamo detainees,” claiming that 73 percent of them were a “demonstrated threat” to American or coalition forces, and that 95 percent were at least a “potential threat,” and included detainees who had “played a supporting role in terrorist groups or had expressed a commitment to pursuing jihadist violence.”

What nonsense. If this is the case, why have so many of these “threats” been released or cleared for release? In the three years since the 517 Summaries were compiled, 207 of the detainees studied have been released from Guantánamo. Almost all have been freed on their return to their home countries, and almost all have returned to civilian life. In addition, many –- as well as reporting credible stories of torture and abuse at the hands of the US authorities in Afghanistan and Guantánamo — have reiterated the stories that they maintained throughout their detention: that they were either innocent men, mostly sold to the US by bounty hunters and unscrupulous allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or Taliban foot soldiers, who had traveled to Afghanistan to fight other Muslims –- those of the Northern Alliance –- before 9/11, as part of a long-running civil war.

Of the 310 detainees who have not been released, the administration itself admits that it intends to try 80 of these men before Military Commissions, that it intends to hold another 50 because they are too dangerous to be released but not dangerous enough to be tried (which law book did they find that in then?) and that the rest are “eligible for release” because they are “not or no longer a threat.”

Let’s have a look at that again, shall we? On the one hand, the administration commissions its boys to come up with a report stating that 73 percent of the detainees were a “demonstrated threat,” and 95 percent were a “potential threat,” and on the other hand the administration itself has released, or cleared for release, 75 percent of the detainees because they were “not or no longer a threat” (and that’s not counting the 201 detainees who were released before the tribunal process began). How are we supposed to take these clowns seriously?

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

A detainee in Guantanamo

As published on CounterPunch (as “Why the Pentagon’s Guantánamo study is a joke”) and American Torture.

The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government

Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, the Guantánamo whistleblower, is in the news again. The civilian lawyer, who worked as a military intelligence officer for 26 years in the Army reserves and was decorated for his support of counter-terrorism efforts following 9/11, first came to prominence last month, when he became the first military insider to criticize, in public, the tribunals –- known as Combatant Status Review Tribunals –- which were held at Guantánamo to determine whether the detainees had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants.”

In a declaration submitted in the case of a Kuwaiti detainee, Fawzi al-Odah, Abraham delivered a damning verdict on the tribunal process, which he described as severely flawed, relying on intelligence “of a generalized nature –- often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status.” Additionally, he averred that the process was designed to rubber-stamp the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants.”

In the four weeks since Lt. Col. Abraham’s affidavit first attracted media attention, he has been subjected to a snide response from officials at the Department of Justice, and a malignant attempt at character assassination by Andrew McCarthy in National Review. In an “Opposition to Motion to File Declaration” in the Court of Appeals for the District Court of Columbia Circuit on July 6, the DoJ described Lt. Col. Abraham’s affidavit as “irrelevant,” claiming that his “criticisms of the intelligence agencies and the process of obtaining information from them reflects (sic) a fundamental misunderstanding of how the CSRT process is supposed to work,” and suggesting that, although his declaration “insinuates that the CSRT process was improperly slanted, there is absolutely nothing in the declaration to substantiate this innuendo.” For his part, McCarthy railed against Abraham’s “scant experience,” claiming that he had a “lack of direct knowledge about the vast majority of tribunals,” and attempted to deride him for being a civilian lawyer as well as an Army reservist.

Rising above mudslinging, Stephen Abraham kindly provided me with details of his response to McCarthy’s article, which also serves as a riposte to claims made both by the DoJ and by Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler, a Pentagon spokesman, who chipped in recently, saying that, “In his capacity as database manager during his brief stint on active duty several years ago, Lt. Col. Abraham was not in a position to have a complete view of all the evidence used in the CSRTs, as well as the process as a whole.” On the contrary, the period that Abraham served as a part of the CSRT process –- from September 2004 to February 2005 –- was the period when almost all of the 558 cases were presented before tribunals (and was, therefore, not a “brief stint” at all), and his role was far more substantial than the DoJ’s mentions of “innuendo” would suggest.

“I was assigned to OARDEC from September 2004 to the end of February 2005,” Abraham explained. “During that time, I was personally involved in a wide range of activities relating to the CSRT process. This included serving as one of two intelligence officers tasked with validating the presence or absence of exculpatory evidence, working with research teams (“tiger teams”) compiling materials to be used in the CSRT hearing process, addressing matters raised involving the use of intelligence products, collecting and reporting data on the conduct of all CSRT hearings at all steps (from scheduling, assembling hearing packages, starting, conducting, and completing hearings, reporting the results, legal sufficiency review, and ultimate reporting of the results to Secretary of the Navy Gordon England).” He added, “Moreover, I was engaged in senior leadership meetings, included in a large volume of daily communications regarding the progress of the hearings, and participated in nearly daily discussions with the legal staff assigned to OARDEC relating to the conduct of the hearings in the context of federal court decisions as they were issued or applied to the proceedings.”

In interviews conducted over the last month for a New York Times front page article on Monday, Abraham reiterated his complaints, telling William Glaberson, “What disturbed me most was the willingness to use very small fragments of information,” and explaining how he grew “increasingly uneasy” over the six-month period that he worked with the tribunals. He explained that intelligence reports often “relied only on accusations that a detainee had been found in a suspect area or was associated with a suspect organization,” and that some reports described detainees as “jihadist” without providing any details. Expressing his profound dissatisfaction with this latter point, he told Glaberson, “As an intelligence agent, I would have written ‘junk statement’ across that.” He added that officials were “under intense pressure to show quick results,” and that he swiftly became concerned about the quality of the material used as evidence. “The classified evidence,” he said, “was stripped down, watered down, removed of context, incomplete, and missing essential information,” and, worryingly, “Many detainees implicated other detainees, and there was often no way to test whether they had provided false information to win favor with interrogators” (or, it should, be added, whether they had done so under duress).

Despite the DoJ’s criticism, it seems that Lt. Col. Abraham’s principled stand has already had a major impact on issues of pressing concern to the detainees in Guantánamo, whose last three years imprisoned without charge or trial have been based on decisions made during the CSRT process. Just three days after his affidavit was filed, the Supreme Court took the almost unprecedented decision to reverse a previous opinion regarding the Guantánamo detainees, agreeing to hear an appeal arguing that the tribunals were unjust and that detainees should have the right to challenge the basis of their detention in federal courts. Many lawyers contend that Abraham’s affidavit was a major factor in the Supreme Court’s decision.

What has also emerged in the last month is the identity of the detainee who was cleared by Abraham and his fellow tribunal members in the only CSRT for which he was chosen as a member, after which, having refused to rubber-stamp a deeply flawed process, he was never asked to take part in a tribunal again.

The detainee in question is Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan who was 39 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan towards the end of 2001. Al-Ghizzawi had been living in Afghanistan since the Russians left the country in 1989, and had settled comfortably in his new home. Married to an Afghan woman, he had a six-month-old daughter, and ran a shop that sold bread and honey. When the US-led invasion began, he took his wife and daughter to his wife’s parents’ home in the country, to escape the bombing raids, but was abducted by some locals, who were seduced by American offers of free money for life, publicized through leaflets dropped from planes which stated, “You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life –- pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.” Sold to the Northern Alliance, he was, in turn, sold to the US military, and made his way to Guantánamo via US-run prisons in Afghanistan, where the orders handed down to the interrogators by the military decision-makers based in Camp Doha, Kuwait, were that every Arab should be sent to Guantánamo.

US PsyOps leaflet

The notorious US PsyOps leaflet offering Afghan villagers money for life in exchange for handing over al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.

The story of what subsequently happened to Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi adds unprecedented weight to Stephen Abraham’s concerns, particularly about the administration’s obsession with confirming detainees’ “enemy combatant” status at all costs. Reiterating complaints made in his affidavit, Abraham told Glaberson, “Anything that resulted in a ‘not enemy combatant’ [verdict] would just send ripples through the entire process. The interpretation [was], ‘You got the wrong result. Do it again.’” Once the interfering intelligence officer –- and, presumably, his obdurate colleagues –- had been sacked, the administration convened a second tribunal for al-Ghizzawi, which duly found that he was an “enemy combatant” after all. Over two years later, he remains in Guantánamo, suffering from hepatitis ‘B’ and, possibly, liver cancer, and reportedly the victim of malingering on the part of the medical staff, because he refuses to admit that he was a terrorist and not a shopkeeper.

Although al-Ghizzawi’s case demonstrates, succinctly, Stephen Abraham’s assertions about the authorities’ reliance on vague and unsubstantiated evidence and the ruthless pursuit of verdicts confirming the detainees’ status as “enemy combatants,” his is only one of several cases in which CSRTs were reconvened after dissenting tribunal members had made decisions that were unpalatable to the administration.

In the cases of 18 Uyghur detainees (Muslims from an oppressed outpost of the People’s Republic of China), who were captured on the Pakistani border after fleeing a run-down hamlet in the Tora Bora mountains, where they had been living for several months until it was destroyed in a US bombing raid, the CSRTs determined that –- although their stories were almost identical –- some were “enemy combatants” and others were not. Five of the men were released in May 2006 (and sent to a UN refugee camp in Albania, because the administration had fears for their safety if they returned to China), but the others remain in Guantánamo, and two of them, Anwar Hassan and Hammad Mohammed, went through a process remarkably similar to that of Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi.

Cleared by a CSRT, Hassan was subjected to a second tribunal, on the orders of Matthew Waxman, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs, when he too had his status indiscriminately revised. His lawyers, Angela Vigil and George Clarke, noted that, “[c]ontrary to the government’s suggestion,” the change of determination between the first and second CSRTs was not based on “additional classified information,” (of which there was none) but seemed, instead, to have been based solely on “communications” from Matthew Waxman “pressing for [a] reversal” of the first CSRT determination.

Ahmed Adil, Adil Abdul Hakim and Abu Bakr Qassim

Ahmed Adil, Adil Abdul Hakim and Abu Bakr Qassim, three of the Uyghurs released from Guantánamo, speaking to the BBC from their new home in Tirana in January 2007.

Sabin Willett, a lawyer who represents six of the Uyghur detainees, recently told me that his interest –- and that of other lawyers –- in Abraham’s revelations was “no academic quibble on our part.” Citing just a few cases –- those of Haji Bismullah, an Afghan, and the Uyghurs he represents, whose cases were chosen for the DoJ’s response to Abraham’s affidavit –- Willett explained, “We now know there was a massive amount of exculpatory evidence. Senior Afghan officials provided detailed evidence to US generals showing that Bismullah, a US ally, had been the victim of intertribal grievances.” He added, “Military officials told our Uyghur clients they were innocent in 2003, before there were CSRTs. So getting the exculpatory evidence in front of the panels seems more than trivially important.”

Willett is undoubtedly correct. With the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruling on Friday that the government must hand over “classified” information relating to the detainees, and the Supreme Court due to start reviewing their rights in the fall, there is certainly nothing trivial about the plight of Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, the discrepancies in the status of the Uyghur detainees, or the exclusion of exculpatory evidence relating to an Afghan ally who was shopped to US forces by a rival who knew that they would fail to investigate the background to his story, and there are, moreover, many other cases in Guantánamo with eerie similarities to the stories mentioned above.

I leave the final word to Stephen Abraham, who first wrote to me three weeks ago, in response to my article in which I had also mentioned other insiders who had criticized the tribunal process (though not in public). “While I was and continue to be constrained in terms of what can be said,” he wrote, “your article very well pointed out issues that permeated the entirety of the process and, more fundamentally, highlighted the degree to which so many panels (or majorities) were unwilling or unable to peer below the veneer of the evidence.” He added, “There were few instances where the validity of the information was questioned; rather, the presumption was that information, whether detailed or summarized, no matter what the source, was valid, and in the face of which not even denials carried much weight.”

As the Guantánamo story rolls on to the Supreme Court once more, many dozens of detainees –- in addition to Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, Haji Bismullah and the Uyghurs –- will be grateful that Stephen Abraham had the courage to step forward to highlight the “junk statements,” “generic” intelligence and bullying that characterized the tribunals in Guantánamo.


A footnote to Andrew McCarthy’s National Review article concerns his assertion that the 93% “conviction” rate in the CSRTs –- 520 out of the 558 cases considered –- compares favorably with the DoJ’s overall conviction rate on the US mainland in 2004: 90% out of 83,391 cases. If the Guantánamo results were fair, this statistical analysis could be applauded, but the truth is that, in addition to the 38 detainees released through the CSRTs, 201 detainees were released before the CSRTs began, 169 more have been released through the annual reviews that followed them (the Administrative Review Boards, or ARBs), and, according to figures divulged by J Alan Liotta, the director of the Office of Detainee Affairs in the Department of Defense, another 225 are eligible for release. That’s a rather less respectable 19% “conviction rate”, which becomes even less acceptable with the realization that, of the remaining 144 detainees, only 80 are scheduled to be tried by Military Commissions and the remaining men are in an extra-legal limbo, considered too dangerous to be released, but not dangerous enough to be tried (another arrant novelty conjured up by an administration bent on replacing laws with half-baked and indefensible propaganda).

For more on Guantánamo, the stories of the Uyghurs and the tribunal process, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on the Huffington Post.

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the crucial testimony of Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham and other Guantánamo whistleblowers: Guantánamo whistleblowers: Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham is not the first insider to condemn the kangaroo courts (July 2007), Guantánamo: more whistleblowers condemn the tribunals (August 2007), A New Guantánamo Whistleblower Steps Forward to Criticize the Tribunal Process (October 2007), Guantánamo whistleblower launches new attack on rigged tribunals (November 2007), Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history (December 2007), Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: What Happened? (December 2007), Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham addresses European Parliament (March 2008), The Supreme Court’s Guantánamo ruling: what does it mean? (June 2008), An interview with Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham (Part One) (December 2008), An interview with Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham (Part Two) (December 2008), Guantánamo: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009).

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (November 2007), A transcript of Sabin Willett’s speech in Stockholm (November 2007), Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Former Guantánamo prisoner denied asylum in Sweden (June 2008), Six Years Late, Court Throws Out Guantánamo Case (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (July 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantánamo Uyghurs (October 2008), Guantánamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department (November 2008), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

Gains and losses at Guantánamo: court demands access to “classified” evidence, but gags lawyers

On Friday, the day after a craven/comatose Senate rejected even the merest mention of plans to transfer Guantánamo detainees to prisons on the US mainland, judges in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit advanced the detainees’ faltering legal status by ordering the government to hand over classified information relating to them, frustrating attempts by the Department of Justice to insist that the court should only be given the information included in their hearings at Guantánamo, and not, as the New York Times described it, the “more expansive” information the government might have collected on a detainee.

The court’s decision relates to the first cases filed under a provision in the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 for “limited appeals court review” of the tribunals at Guantánamo (the Combatant Status Review Tribunals), which were convened to assess whether or not the detainees had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” and which have been widely condemned as kangaroo courts, because the detainees were not allowed legal representation, and were not allowed to either see or hear the “classified evidence” against them.

Noting, as the Times put it, that “Congress said the appeals court’s review of the combatant status hearings was limited to determining whether the Pentagon followed its own procedures, and whether an enemy combatant finding was supported by a preponderance of the evidence,” the appeal court judges said that a meaningful review of the tribunals would not be possible “without seeing all the evidence, any more than one can tell whether a fraction is more or less than half by looking only at the numerator and not the denominator.” Writing rather less obliquely, the judges explained, “Counsel [the government] simply cannot argue, nor can the court determine, whether a preponderance of the evidence supports the Tribunal’s status determination without seeing all the evidence. Therefore, we must presume counsel for a detainee has a ‘need to know’ all Government Information concerning his client, not just the portions of the Government Information presented to the Tribunal.”

Sabin Willett, a lawyer who represents six Chinese Muslim detainees in Guantánamo (and whose case was one of those considered by the Court of Appeals), called the ruling “a resounding rejection of the government’s effort to hide the truth,” but what’s perhaps more interesting, in the long run, is whether the “more expansive” evidence concealed by the government will be anything more than a mirage. It has long been known that the unclassified “evidence” against the majority of the detainees consists of almost every shred of hearsay and of false allegations obtained through bribery, coercion and torture that the government could muster, and in the murmurs that have occasionally seeped out after lawyers have reviewed the “classified evidence,” the most shocking revelation about the Pandora’s Box of “classified evidence” is that it contains nothing of substance whatsoever.

The US flag behind barbed wire at Guantanamo

Readers should also note, however, that the appeal court’s decision includes what the Times referred to as “significant victories for the government”; in particular, a decision “allowing the Pentagon to limit the subjects that the lawyers can discuss with detainees and authorizing special Pentagon teams to read the lawyers’ mail and remove unauthorized comments.” This is disturbing news. Ever since lawyers were first allowed access to the detainees in the wake of the Supreme Court’s verdict in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, the administration has done everything in its power to disrupt the process, from intimidating prisoners to obstructing the lawyers themselves.

One lawyer noted that several prisoners told him “they had been interrogated by people who claimed to be their lawyers but who turned out not to be,” the recently released detainee Juma al-Dossari reported that several interrogators told him that his lawyers were liars, and Fouad al-Rabia, a Kuwaiti who is still held in Guantánamo, was told that “if he complained to his lawyers about conditions at Guantánamo Bay he would be kept there for life.” As long ago as October 2004, US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, responding to lawyers’ complaints, ordered the Pentagon to stop eavesdropping on lawyer-client conversations, which she described as a “bedrock” American principle, and in the last year the pressure on lawyers has increased markedly.

In the wake of the suicides of three men in Guantánamo in June 2006, the authorities illegally confiscated large amounts of lawyer-client correspondence, and, outrageously, accused Clive Stafford Smith (whose legal charity, Reprieve, represents several dozen detainees at Guantánamo) of inciting the suicides. Then, in April this year, the administration floated proposals that have resurfaced in amended form in the appeal court’s decision on Friday: to restrict lawyers to only three meetings with their clients, and to be allowed to read their correspondence. In a court filing, the Department of Justice alleged that attorney access via the mail system had “enabled detainees’ counsel to cause unrest on the base” by informing detainees about “military operations in Iraq, activities of terrorist leaders, efforts in the War on Terror, the Hezbollah attack on Israel and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison,” a claim which led Barry M. Kamins, the President of the New York City Bar association, to write to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, declaring, “This is an astonishing and disingenuous assertion,” and to point out that “many detainees have been held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods and have lost hope of a fair hearing to demonstrate their innocence.”

Although the plans appeared to have been dropped, after an outcry by legal groups and complaints in Congress, when Rear Admiral Harry H. Harris, the commander of Guantánamo, conceded that they were measures drawn up in the wake of the suicides that were “no longer warranted,” and the Department of Justice admitted that it was “no longer seeking to incorporate a three-visit threshold for the number of counsel visits,” the cases on Friday brought them lumbering back to malignant life. Here, once more, were the allegations of lawyers fomenting unrest by writing about current affairs, and the government’s assertions that “such information can ‘incite detainees to violence’ or cause ‘unrest’ such as a riot, hunger strike, or suicide –- as, indeed, it has done in the past.”

While the lawyers insisted that, as established by a legal precedent, the attorney-client privilege was intended to “encourage full and frank communication between attorneys and their clients and therefore promote broader public interests in the observance of law and the administration of justice,” their assertions were, rather disturbingly, overruled by the judges, who, “[w]ithout expressing any view as to whether the attorney-client privilege applies in this context,” agreed with the government that “past breaches” by “some counsel for detainees” justified the government’s proposal to “narrow the topics about which all counsel may correspond with a detainee and to hold all counsel accountable by screening the legal mail they send to their detainee clients.”

The Court of Appeals is to be applauded for its demands that the government release all information relating to the detainees, but its evidence-free backing of the government’s claims that lawyers have stirred up trouble in Guantánamo in the past, and its approval of plans to limit the subjects available for discussion between lawyers and their clients, and to employ human snooper dogs to monitor their mail, should be resisted as yet another shabby attempt by a paranoid administration to undermine the “bedrock” American principle of lawyer-client confidentiality, and to prevent detainees from exercising what, in some cases, is their only lifeline to sanity: a meeting with a human being who is not a part of the military machine that has kept them imprisoned without charge or trial for five and a half years.

For more on Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on CounterPunch.

If the US administration had behaved intelligently, ex-Guantánamo inmate who blew himself up would never have been released

The news that Abdullah Mehsud, a 32-year old Taliban commander released from Guantánamo in March 2004, has killed himself with a hand grenade after being cornered by security forces in Pakistan, has unleashed a wave of belligerent bombast from right-wing commentators. Leaving aside the fact that he was reportedly killed in March 2005, bloggers such as those at Eye on the World have used his death as an occasion to announce, “To all the liberal do-gooders who cry out for human rights for the terrorists locked up in Guantánamo Bay, I just want to ask, ‘what do you have to say about this zero who returned to a life of murder and was killed after getting released by the Yanks?’ I mean, according to your lot, he was wrongly incarcerated.”

Abdullah Mehsud

The truth, however, is that, had the US administration not behaved with such arrogant unilateralism, neither Mehsud nor the handful of other released detainees who returned to the battlefield would have been freed from Guantánamo in the first place. Mehsud came to prominence in October 2004, after two Chinese engineers working on a dam project in Waziristan were kidnapped, when he spoke to reporters on a satellite phone and said that his followers were responsible for the abductions. He went on to explain that he had spent two years in Guantánamo after being captured in Kunduz in November 2001 while fighting with the Taliban. At the time of his capture he was carrying a false Afghan ID card, and throughout his detention he maintained that he was an innocent Afghan tribesman. He added that US officials never realized that he was a Pakistani with deep ties to militants in both countries, and also told Gulf News, “I managed to keep my Pakistani identity hidden all these years.”

Mehsud was not the only Taliban commander released by mistake. Mullah Shahzada, who was released in May 2003, gave the Americans a false name and claimed that he was an innocent rug merchant. “He stuck to his story and was fairly calm about the whole thing,” a military intelligence official told the New York Times. “He maintained over a period time that he was nothing but an innocent rug merchant who just got snatched up.” After his release, Shahzada seized control of Taliban operations in southern Afghanistan, recruiting fighters by “telling harrowing tales of his supposed ill-treatment in the cages of Guantánamo,” and masterminded a jailbreak in Kandahar in October 2003, in which he bribed the guards to allow 41 Taliban fighters to escape through a tunnel. His post-Guantánamo notoriety came to an end in May 2004, when he was killed in an ambush by US Special Forces. Another Afghan Taliban commander, Maulvi Abdul Ghaffar, who was released in March 2004, was killed six months later in Uruzgan by Afghan soldiers, who believed that he was leading the Taliban forces in the province.

Here’s the rub, however. While right-wing commentators, back in 2004, seized on the release of Mehsud, Shahzada and Ghaffar as evidence that no one should ever be released from Guantánamo, a rather different interpretation was offered by Gul Agha Sherzai, the post-Taliban governor of Kandahar, who pointed out that Shahzada would never have been freed if Afghan officials had been allowed to vet the Afghans in Guantánamo. “We know all these Taliban faces,” he said, adding that repeated requests for access to the Afghan prisoners had been turned down. Sherzai’s opinion was reinforced by security officials in Hamid Karzai’s government, who blamed the US for the return of Taliban commanders to the battlefield, explaining that “neither the American military officials, nor the Kabul police, who briefly process the detainees when they are sent home, consult them about the detainees they free.”

Do I need to spell that out again? Abdullah Mehsud, Mullah Shahzada, Maulvi Abdul Ghaffar and at least three other Taliban commanders –- Mullah Shakur, and two men known only as Sabitullah and Rahmatullah –- were released, and returned to the battlefield, because the US authorities were so blinkered, arrogant and stupid that they refused to allow their allies in Afghanistan to have any involvement in screening the prisoners to ascertain who was actually dangerous. How dumb can you get?

This article draws on passages in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

Guantánamo’s library: adding insult to injury

The following is a declassified letter from a Guantánamo detainee named Abdul Aziz, who has been held in US custody without charge or trial for over five and a half years. Abdul Aziz traveled to Afghanistan in late September 2001, after taking his final exams at the Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University in Riyadh, to search for his brother, and to persuade him to return home. He was caught up in the chaos surrounding the fall of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, and, despite never undertaking any kind of military training or raising arms against the Northern Alliance or the US-led coalition, was treated brutally in US custody in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantánamo.

I found his comments on the “library” at Guantánamo to be an extraordinarily eloquent insight into the all-pervading repression of the regime at the prison. Unlike convicted criminals on the US mainland, who watch TV and have regular access to reading and writing materials, the prisoners in Guantánamo –- who have never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted –- are deprived of almost all “comfort items” to relieve the crushing monotony of their daily lives and the desperate uncertainty of their fate, and Abdul Aziz’ comments on the deliberate paucity of reading matter for the detainees is as damning, in its own way, as the stories related in the forthcoming book Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, which reveal how, in order to express themselves, and to shake off –- albeit temporarily –- the dehumanizing regime of mental and physical isolation, detainees scratched poems onto Styrofoam cups and passed them from cell to cell when the guards were not looking.

It also strikes me that, by failing to provide educational possibilities to the detainees –- offering English lessons, for example –- and by providing them with almost nothing to read except the Koran, the authorities in charge of Guantánamo are not only demonstrating the meanness of their spirit, but are also doing absolutely nothing to bridge the gap between their own culture and those of the detainees, reinforcing the bellicose aspects of the “War on Terror” at the expense of bridge-building exercises that would not only provide a shred of humanity, but would also provide opportunities to break down cultural barriers through mutual understanding.

This is the text of Abdul Aziz’ letter, as first reproduced on Cageprisoners:

“I was meeting with my attorney in Guantánamo Bay. After conversing about some legal questions related to my case, we turned to the issue of the Delta Camp library in Guantánamo, and about the false propaganda being spread by the camp administration about that library.

“Some people think that the Gitmo camp library is a big hall with large drawers, well-organized shelves, shiny marble floors, state-of-the-art electronic catalog system for a rich library in which the detainees browse morning and evening, choosing the best of the available books in all fields and sundry sciences, in many different languages –- just like that magnificent library I used to walk through five years ago when I was a student at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University in Riyadh, conducting my scholastic research work at the time.

“The truth, as all will attest, is that the Gitmo camp library is nothing more than two small gray boxes with which guards walk around in some cell blocks, carrying them above their heads to protect themselves from the burning sun, or, at best, dragging them on a dolly with two little wheels. Inside the two boxes, there are no more than a combination of old, worn-out books, with their covers and some of their leaves torn by rain and other adverse factors that surround these two boxes. Furthermore, they are the same books that have been passed by the detainees for years. Arabic-speaking detainees are given access to a collection of boring works of fantasy fiction in addition to books filled with atheism and possibly attacks on Islam and some of its precepts. After continuous, arduous efforts by detainees and their counsel, one religious book was finally allowed in Camp 4 [the camp for the ‘most compliant’ detainees] for each 40 detainees.

“Afghani detainees, on the other hand, are provided with several literary works in Pashto and Farsi. These books have not changed since the itinerant box library was formed some years ago. If we look at the books that are available in the other common camp languages, we will not fail to see a book or two in each language –- worn out and covered with cobweb[s]. The opposite –- and shining –- side of this itinerant box is the majority of reading material available in English, which is not spoken or read by the overwhelming majority of inmates. You will surely find books about American history and the founding fathers. The detainees can do no more than turn these books this way and that and enjoy their shiny covers, not knowing what the books are about or gaining any knowledge of their contents.

“In addition, you will find worn-out copies and old issues of National Geographic. A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of that magazine from the ruins of books in that dilapidated box and was astonished that the issue I picked up was dated 1973 –- over 30 years ago. I asked the itinerant box carrier (the librarian, as the administration likes to call him) if I could have a more recent issue, dated 2000 or above. Evidently tired of carrying these boxes and walking around with them, he replied very calmly, ‘You have five more minutes to choose the books you want. This is all we have.’ I thanked him for performing this arduous task and making this strenuous effort, placed that magazine on top of the stack of books in the box, and told him as nicely as I could, ‘please take my number off the check-out list. As of today, I will have no need for your plentiful library.’ He smiled broadly, looked at his wrist watch, carried his box on his head, and retreated to where he came from.”

Note: For security reasons, Abdul Aziz does not wish to be identified by his surname.

Guantanamo's library

The “library” in action.

For more on Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on the Huffington Post.

In US Senate, NIMBYism and narcolepsy over Guantánamo

On Thursday, in an overwhelming display of conservative paranoia and liberal befuddlement, the US Senate voted by 94-3 to approve an amendment by Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, the Senior Republican Senator for Kentucky and a champion of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), declaring that prisoners in Guantánamo should not be transferred to facilities on the US mainland. McConnell’s amendment stated that detainees, “including senior members of al-Qaeda, should not be released to American society” or transferred into “facilities in American communities and neighborhoods.” According to, “The bill was titled in a way that [Senators] had to vote yes to vote no, and no to vote yes,” adding that, “Before the Democrats, who clearly hadn’t read the amendment, realized they screwed up, the vote was recorded.”

Having blind-sided the sleeping Democrats to such an extent that entitled its article, “The Night Mitch McConnell became the leader of the Republican Party,” McConnell spelled out his concerns in an outpouring of NIMBYist sentiment, ignoring the fact that the military brigs to which detainees would likely be transferred –- Fort Leavenworth and Charleston –- are located in Kansas and South Carolina, and raising the ludicrous specter of a bin Laden in every neighborhood. “Some in Congress have actually proposed that we require the President to move terrorist detainees held at Guantánamo Bay to the continental United States and keep them here,” he fulminated. “That means moving them into facilities in cities and small towns across America in states like California and Illinois and Kentucky. Well, I can guarantee you that my constituents don’t want terrorists housed in their backyards in Fort Knox, Fort Wright or anywhere else within the Commonwealth. I know I don’t.”

Mitch McConnell

Senator McConnell, as featured in a Public Campaign Action Fund feature, complaining about his opposition to efforts to clean up elections, and his devotion to the interests of “pharmaceutical companies, big oil, and the credit card industry.”

Those pressing for the transfer of prisoners from Guantánamo to the US mainland don’t want “terrorists” transferred to your backyards either, Senator, and no one is suggesting that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the handful of other dangerous men held in Guantánamo would end up on day release seeking out electrical components in a yard sale in suburban Louisville. We could argue endlessly about what will happen to the “hard-core” al-Qaeda members held in Guantánamo (up to 80 men, according to the government, but no more than three dozen, according to senior officials cited by the New York Times in June 2004, plus the “high value” detainees transferred in September 2006). What the proposal to close Guantánamo is really about, however, as Donald Rumsfeld’s replacement Robert Gates stated when he took the job of defense secretary in November (before he was muffled by Dick Cheney), is to overcome the fact that the current system of indefinite detention without trial has “become so tainted abroad that legal proceedings at Guantánamo would be viewed as illegitimate.”

Any move to amend the current situation would, of course, be fraught with problems –- a tsunami of civil litigation if the detainees were allowed access to the federal courts; rather less if the military brig option were pursued –- but a collective hissy fit by a group of (mostly) old men with no imagination beyond the parochial is no answer to the ongoing injustice of the Guantánamo regime. 365 men are currently held in Guantánamo, and not a single one of them has actually been found to be a “terrorist” in anywhere other than the recesses of the President’s brain, or in the tribunals at Guantánamo, in which, as former insider Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham recently explained, the gathering of materials was severely flawed, relying on intelligence “of a generalized nature,” which was often outdated and often “generic,” and the whole system was geared towards rubber-stamping the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants.”

Senator McConnell may wish to reflect that one of “terrorists” to whom he alludes –- a Yemeni named Mahmoud al-Mujahid, who is still in Guantánamo –- was judged as having an association with Osama bin Laden because he saw him on TV. “I have never physically seen Osama bin Laden,” al-Mujahid explained to his tribunal. When pressed that he had “admitted to knowing Osama bin Laden” during prior interrogation, he again explained, “I never knew Osama bin Laden. When the interrogators kept bothering me with this question, I told them, ‘I saw him five times, three on al-Jazeera, and twice on Yemeni news.’ After this they kept after me really hard. I told them, ‘OK, I know him, whatever you want. Just give me a break.’”

Note: For confirmation of just how dopey the Democrats were on Thursday evening, check out this short report from –- ulp –- National Review Online, in which Kathryn Jean Lopez, noting that those voting in favor of the amendment included Senators Jeff Bingaman, Sherrod Brown, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, Dianne Feinstein, Edward Kennedy, Tom Harkin, and Sheldon Whitehouse, declared that this was “strange, given that just last week, all those Senators co-sponsored an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill, amendment number 2125, directing the President to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, transfer all detainees from the facility, while providing that no detainee ‘may be transferred to a facility that is located outside the continental United States.’” Sad but true. Admittedly, McConnell’s “Sense of the Senate” amendment is “non-binding,” but even so only Robert Byrd, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders voted against it. Wake up, please, Democrats.

Additional note: After this article was published on Counterpunch, Katherine Hughes, who has reported extensively on the existence of a secretive new prison for Arab/Muslim prisoners, the special Communication Management Unit (CMU) in Terre Haute, Indiana, wrote, “I read your article and thought you might be interested in this piece of information from Dr. Rafil Dhafir, an inmate of the CMU. In a June 25 letter he wrote, ‘We have all sorts of rumors going on here that this place will close by December to accommodate the GITMO people when their prison is closed. Who knows?’” For more information about the CMU and the wrongful imprisonment of Dr. Dhafir, the head of a Muslim charity, see Katherine’s recent article in Washington Report On Middle Eastern Affairs (WRMEA). It’s worth it.

For more on Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on CounterPunch (as “Narcolepsy on Gitmo detainees”).

Tajikistan: ex-Guantánamo prisoner plans to sue President Bush

From the website comes news of a former Guantánamo detainee, Abdul-Karim Ergashev, who was sold to gullible US forces by an unscrupulous Afghan official, and who “intends to slap US President George W Bush and the Pentagon with an injury claim.” 42-year old Ergashev (also known as Abdulrahmon Rajabov) travelled to Afghanistan in 2001 to search for his brother, and, at the time of his capture, was staying with Uzbek refugees, who had fled their homeland to escape the brutal regime of President Islam Karimov, often taking their entire families with them.

Abdul-Karim Ergashev

Abdul-Karim Ergashev at his home in January 2005.

“I was a driver in their camp,” Ergashev explained. “Everyone scattered when the Americans invaded Afghanistan and bombardments began. I wanted to go home too but couldn’t because I did not have any papers or even money. Closer to the end of winter [2001], I drifted to the town of Tahor and the rais or chairman of a nearby village offered me a job. He said I would become his personal driver. I said “Why not?” It was a chance to earn my fare back. The man said the auto was waiting in one of the kishlaks (settlements) in Mazar-e-Sharif and we went there to collect it. The man brought me to some household and asked me to wait while he went and fetched the keys. The Afghani police broke into the building as soon as he left. They had me handcuffed and blindfolded in no time at all and turned me over to the waiting Americans. The Americans had been waiting nearby, you know. They ordered me to don a special blue coverall marking me as a POW. It occurred to me then that they had deliberately left me in the house in order to sell me to the Americans as a terrorist or Talib … I was taken to the city of Bagram where I was imprisoned with very many others for March-May 2002. It was Kandahar after that and finally Guantánamo, in September that year.”

Describing the situation in Afghanistan at the time of Ergashev’s arrest, in the months following the US-led invasion in October 2001, the reporter for Ferghana declared, “The Americans paid $5,000 for a Talib soldier and twice that for [an] officer. The Afghani police found it quite to their liking. When they discovered that there was nobody else to be sold to the US Army, they turned on pedestrians. As a matter of fact, some men the Americans ended up with were mental cases.”

This is not the first time that Ergashev has been in the news. In January 2005, he spoke to Radio Free Europe, describing, in detail, what had happened to him during the two and a half years that he had spent in US custody, until his release from Guantánamo in April 2004. He explained that US military interrogators had used psychological pressure to force him to falsely confess to fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan: “They told me you have ties to the al-Qaeda and the Taliban. I said I don’t know al-Qaeda; the Taliban I know were in control of most of Afghanistan. I didn’t think the Afghans would hand me over to the Americans and that the Americans would take me to Guantánamo. I [still] don’t know why. I didn’t understand what the Americans wanted from me.”

Describing what happened to him during his time in Guantánamo, Ergashev said that he was often kept in solitary confinement, and added that whenever a detainee clashed with the authorities the other prisoners would be punished for it. He also claimed that he suffered from a liver ailment during his detention, but was denied “consistent medical care,” and said that after his release he had been diagnosed with hepatitis C. “I was sick and I asked to see a doctor,” he explained. “The soldier told me tomorrow. The next day I told another soldier that I’m feeling worse. He also said, ‘tomorrow.’ After three days I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I told the soldier, ‘three days has passed, why are you lying to me?’ but he told me, ‘no more talk.’ So I threw some water on his face. After that, several persons came, chained and stripped me but they didn’t beat me. They left me only in my underwear in a [cold] cell with iron walls.”

Although Radio Free Europe stated that Ergashev was “receiving medical care” in Tajikistan in January 2005, Ferghana’s reporter described him as still suffering from “grave health problems,” and determined to sue President Bush because the US authorities had shown themselves to be “absolutely indifferent” to his plight and “disinclined to offer him any recompense or aid.”

Despite Ergashev’s suffering, we at least know that he is still alive. In the case of three other Tajik ex-prisoners –- one released in August 2005, and two of the three men released in February 2007 –- we don’t even know their identities. The US authorities never reveal the names of the prisoners they release, and no news reports have surfaced to indicate who they are, or how they are being treated in Tajikistan. Stripped of their identities from the moment they were first taken into US custody, it is as though they have ceased to exist.

For more on the Tajik detainees in Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

Who are the 16 Saudis released from Guantánamo?

Juma al-DossariFollowing the recent announcement that 16 detainees had been returned to Saudi Arabia from Guantánamo, the world’s media were swift to pick up on the story of one of these men: Juma al-Dossari, a joint Bahraini-Saudi national, who had attempted to commit suicide on at least 14 occasions in Guantánamo, and whose poignant laments –- and blood-curdling narratives of his imprisonment –- had been released to the public by his lawyers, after being declassified by the Pentagon.

But what of the other 15 detainees? After analyzing a list of names released by Arab News, liaising with lawyers and drawing on research I conducted while writing my book, The Guantánamo Files, I can reveal that the stories of the other 15 men represent a microcosm of Guantánamo’s many failures, both in terms of the sometimes spectacularly unreliable allegations against the men, which were used to justify their long detention without charge or trial, and their status as extra-legal “unpeople.”

Despite the administration’s attempts to create an illusion of transparency at Guantánamo, the regime is so generally inscrutable that eight of the 15 men had no legal representation at the time of their release, and had never seen any non-military personnel except representatives of the Red Cross, and the stories of three of the eight are completely unknown. Readers can google Saud al-Mahayawi, Saad al-Zahrani and Khalid al-Zaharni and will find numerous mentions of their names and Internment Serial Numbers (ISNs) –- the dehumanizing replacements for names by which all the Guantánamo detainees are known –- but will find no other information whatsoever. Having refused to take part in any of the tribunals in Guantánamo, these men have returned to their homes as spectral as they were for 2,000 days in captivity.

Saad al-Zahrani

Saad al-Zahrani (from Cageprisoners)

Fortunately, the stories of eleven of the men are known, because they agreed to take part in the tribunals and administrative hearings that have been conducted at Guantánamo since July 2004, when, in an attempt to stave off the Supreme Court’s ruling that the detainees had the right to challenge their detention in the US courts, the administration introduced Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), legally corrupt alternatives to real trials and due process in which, in exchange for being able to tell their stories, they were refused legal representation, and were not allowed to see or hear classified evidence against them, which, as has steadily been revealed over the last three years, could be based on hearsay, or on false confessions obtained through bribery, coercion or torture.

Released under Freedom of Information legislation in spring 2006, these transcripts –- and those of their successors, the annual Administrative Review Boards (ARBs), convened to assess whether the detainees still constitute a threat to the US and its allies, or have ongoing “intelligence value” –- are often the only means by which the detainees’ stories are known.

The tribunal transcripts reveal that three of the men had no connection with militancy whatsoever. Abdul Rahman al-Juad, a student who was 21 years old at the time of his capture, had been in Afghanistan on a humanitarian aid mission. Having collected 10,000 Riyals (around $2,700) at various mosques in his hometown, he travelled between Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad, distributing the money to the poor and needy, and was in Jalalabad when he heard that Kabul had fallen to the Northern Alliance, which was when he decided to leave the country (without his passport, which was back in Kabul), subsequently paying a guide to take him over the mountains to Pakistan.

When he handed himself in to the Pakistani authorities on the border, he was promptly delivered (or sold) to the Americans, who eventually decided that he had been raising money for al-Haramain, a blacklisted Saudi charity (al-Juad denied the allegation), and claimed that one of his aliases was found on a list of captured al-Qaeda members on a computer hard drive “associated with a senior al-Qaeda member.” Al-Juad replied that he never used an alias, adding, “After I turned myself in and was detained in Pakistan, there were people taking my picture. I never saw my picture on the Internet, but the interrogator told me it is on the Internet. If it is, I have no idea how it got there.”

Two other men –- 34-year old Muhammad al-Jihani and 22-year old Yahya al-Silami (also captured on the Pakistani border) –- had been teaching the Koran in Afghanistan. A grumpy al-Jihani revealed little in his tribunal, responding to the question, “Did you have a place to do that? Did you already contact the mosque or something where you were going to teach?” by saying, “All these questions are in my files. Go back to the file and read the file,” but al-Silami was more forthcoming.

After explaining that a friend in Mecca had given him a contact in Khost, where he taught the Koran for four months, he said that he fled to Pakistan, after the US-led invasion began, by following a group of Afghan refugees to the border, and was arrested on arrival, having lost his passport in a river on the way. Al-Silami was one of 30 detainees accused of being Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards in a notorious example of confessions obtained through torture. The man who made the allegation –- and later retracted his “confession” –- was Mohammed al-Qahtani, an alleged “20th hijacker” for the 9/11 attacks, who was subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” for several months at the end of 2002. In response to the allegation, al-Silami denied a claim by the US authorities that all 30 bodyguards “were told the best thing they could tell US forces when interrogated was they were in Afghanistan to teach the Koran,” and also refuted another allegation, which he said was made by a Yemeni detainee whom he described as “mentally unstable and on medication,” that he was “identified as the Emir of a group of 10-15 fighters guarding a river crossing leading to the Tora Bora camp.”

The other eight detainees were nominally part of the military training camp system in Afghanistan, in which, as a result of pro-Taliban fatwas issued by radical clerics, and the supportive activities of facilitators, tens of thousands of young men made their way to Afghanistan to support the Taliban in their civil war with the Muslims of the Northern Alliance. In reality, however, the men largely proved to be unsuccessful jihadi recruits: one failed to attend a training camp at all, three failed to complete their training through illness, and two were severely disillusioned.

The first to be captured, Fahad al-Qahtani, was just 19 at the time. Recruited for jihad and aided in his travel by a facilitator, he explained, “I went for jihad to Afghanistan, but when I got there I changed my mind. I saw some things there that were against my religion … Things like worshipping a cemetery where people have died. That has nothing to do with our religion, worshipping graves.” Refuting allegations that he attended al-Farouq, the main camp for Arabs, and that Osama bin Laden visited while he was there, he insisted that he spent most of his time in a house in Kabul that was “a cooking facility for the [Taliban] front line,” and then fled with others to Kunduz, the last Taliban bastion in the north, “until we were surrounded and there was an agreement to have all the Arabs delivered to Mazar-e-Sharif.”

Delivered, with several hundred others, to Qala-i-Janghi, a nearby fort, he survived a US-led massacre, which took place after some of the prisoners started an uprising, by somehow escaping from the fort without being killed. “I was present but did not participate in the fighting,” he explained. “I escaped during the fighting and turned myself in one day after. I went to the market to turn myself in. I met people in the market who were in the army of [General] Dostum [one of the leaders of the Alliance]. That is where I was when I was recaptured … Dostum sold me to the Americans … They put me in jail and I was tortured by Afghans and made to say things. I was moved to Kandahar. When I got to Cuba I told the interrogators the real story.” Despite apparently telling the truth, the most extraordinary piece of “evidence” against al-Qahtani emerged in Guantánamo, when it was shamelessly alleged that he “admitted under duress that he was an al-Qaeda (sic) and had met Osama bin Laden.”

Corpses at Qala-i-Janghi

Northern Alliance soldiers pick through the corpses of slain Taliban fighters at the Qala-i-Janghi fort, November 2001. © Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images.

Another disillusioned recruit was 22-year old Mazin al-Oufi, a former traffic policeman who said that he went to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 to support –- but not to fight for –- the Taliban government. “I went with good intentions,” he explained, “and then realized bad things were happening and I wanted to get out.” Captured after crossing the Pakistani border, he told his tribunal in Guantánamo that he had no connection whatsoever to Salah al-Awfi, a name that had, according to the US authorities, turned up on a computer hard drive seized during raids on al-Qaeda safe houses in Pakistan. He was also one of many detainees accusing of being a terrorist because he owned a Casio F-91W watch, a model that the authorities claimed was used as a timer in bombs. Although he admitted owning the watch he was incredulous about the accusation. “Millions and millions of people have these types of Casio watches,” he said. “If that is a crime, why doesn’t the United States arrest and sentence all the shops and people who own them?”

Of the three detainees who failed to complete their training because of illness, two –- 22-year old Bandar al-Jabri and 28-year old Humoud al-Jadani –- explained that they wanted to receive military training so that they could fight in Chechnya. Al-Jabri, who insisted that he “did not graduate from the training camp” and “had to stop training because he was experiencing asthma attacks,” admitted that he had received training from the Taliban, but denied being a member, and added that he had never fought against either the Northern Alliance or the US. Al-Jadani, an airline steward, admitted that he had trained at al-Farouq and had attended two lectures by Osama bin Laden, but said that he too became ill, and both men were arrested after crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

A more comprehensive story was told by 27-year old Ghanim al-Harbi, who said that he went to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 because he “felt the need to defend myself and my family.” He explained that some of his family members had been killed or imprisoned during the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, and had subsequently moved to Saudi Arabia, and that, in 2000, when it was felt that the Iraqi leader was causing problems again, he decided that he should learn to defend himself. When his attempts to join the Saudi navy came to nothing, his quest led him to Afghanistan. He admitted training at al-Farouq, but added, “I never completed my training because I became ill. Every week I had to travel to Kandahar to receive medical treatment or I was at the camp hospital.”

Explaining the circumstances of his arrest, al-Harbi said that, after leaving al-Farouq, he went to Kabul and hired a guide to help him leave the country by Jalalabad, but that, when the guide realized that he was unable to help him cross the border, he took him to the Tora Bora mountains and turned him over to a group of 65 Arabs who were also heading for the border. He said that he stayed for a month with this group, and described them as civilians rather than fighters. “Some of them were teachers,’ he explained, “some of them were running away from the war and were just regular civilians who were trying to get to the Pakistan embassy so they could get back to their homes.” The group finally managed to recruit two guides to take them to the Pakistani border, but as they passed through a village the whole area was targeted in a huge US bombing raid, in which 60 to 70 of the villagers died, “40 of the Arabs with me were killed and 20 were injured,” and al-Harbi himself suffered serious injuries to his stomach and one of his legs. He added that he “stayed three days in a valley with the other wounded before a group of Afghanis picked them up,” and was then taken to a hospital in Jalalabad, where he stayed for six weeks until he was handed over (or sold) to the Americans.

The detainee who failed even to attend a training camp, Bandar al-Otaibi, a 21-year old mechanical engineering student, explained that he went to Afghanistan for a month’s vacation with a friend because “I watched a lot of Hollywood movies and wanted to learn how to use pistols as a hobby.” While this seems rather implausible, he backed it up by saying, “Since there was no place to learn how to use a weapon in my country unless you are a soldier my friend suggested that we go to Afghanistan during the school break and learn. I had tried to apply to a military college but was not accepted because I was underweight.”

After arriving in Afghanistan, two weeks before 9/11, he said that he met up with another Saudi and that the two of them stayed in guest houses in Kandahar and Jalalabad, but did not train at al-Farouq because “we were told that they would not bring us to the training camp because they didn’t know us.” As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, he said that he fled to the mountains, leaving his friend behind, and was captured by Afghan villagers. “Afghans kidnapped me and others and demanded money to be released,” he explained. “Some of the others were able to buy their freedom … but I didn’t have any money so I was kept in captivity.”

The last two stories to be discussed are those of Muhammad al-Qurashi and Bijad al-Otaibi. Neither took part in their tribunals, but it may be assumed that many of the allegations against them –- contained in the “Unclassified Summary of Evidence” for their cases, also released to the public in 2006 –- were revealed as inaccurate, leading to the authorities’ decision to release them. Al-Qurashi, who was 24 years old at the time of his capture, was accused of travelling to fight with the Taliban after his high school graduation in May 2001, and of training at “a facility used to train and house Taliban soldiers who fought on the Bagram front lines.” It was also alleged that his name was found “on an undated letter which listed probable al-Qaeda members incarcerated in Pakistan, along with materials linked to al-Qaeda.” This meager fodder was supplemented by claims relating to his behavior in Guantánamo: that he had “struck guard force personnel on multiple occasions,” had threatened an officer by saying, “I will cut your throat,” and had “encouraged other detainees to harass guard force.”

Al-Otaibi, who was 30 years old at the time of his capture, was accused of stating that he traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban, that he was trained at a camp near Kabul, and that he fought on the front lines until ordered to surrender to General Dostum at Mazar-e-Sharif. Like Fahad al-Qahtani, he was then imprisoned in Qala-i-Janghi, where he was one of 86 men who survived in the basement of the fort for a week, despite being bombed and flooded. His story may or may not be true, but it was probably more reliable than the claim that he knew Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, described as one of Osama bin Laden’s “closest commanders and the person in charge of al-Qaeda fighters in the Afghani Northern Front” (captured in 2006 and sent to Guantánamo in April 2007) and that, moreover, he knew al-Iraqi “very well” and was, in fact, an assistant commander in the Taliban’s “Arab Brigade.”

As I bring this article to a close, astute readers will notice that I have only mentioned 15 detainees so far. Such is the obfuscation surrounding Guantánamo –- and the authorities’ inability to transliterate Arabic names –- that one of the detainees, referred to by Arab News as Abdullah al-Zahrani, has not yet been identified, as his name bears no resemblance to any of the detainees’ names recorded by the Pentagon. This, again, is a familiar story. Lawyers for Bandar al-Otaibi, for example, pointed out that it was difficult to identify him on the list of released detainees because, for five and a half years, he was obstinately referred to by the authorities as Abdullah al-Tayabi.

While this is, perhaps, a good note on which to leave the released detainees to be reunited with their families, I must add one final observation. Heartening though it is that these 16 men –- none of whom were among the “worst of the worst” –- have finally been released, it remains apparent that the process by which they were released remains as arcane and impenetrable as ever, and that no statement will be forthcoming to explain why some of the other 60 Saudi detainees –- some of whom were also either innocent or inept –- are still in custody. As the Supreme Court prepares, once more, to debate whether the detainees should be given habeas rights (which were shamefully removed in last year’s Military Commissions Act), the cases of the 16 Saudis released this week demonstrate, yet again, that imprisonment without charge or trial, brutal treatment in detention, forced confessions, hearsay and innuendo are poor substitutes for due process.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on the Huffington Post.


The prisoners’ numbers (and variations on the spelling of their names) are as follows:

ISN 261: Juma al-Dossari
ISN 179: Abdul Rahman al-Juad (al-Juaid)
ISN 62: Muhammad al-Jihani (al-Juhani)
ISN 66: Yahya al-Silami (al-Sulami)
ISN 13: Fahad al-Qahtani (Fahed Nasser Mohamed)
ISN 154: Mazin al-Oufi (al-Awfi)
ISN 182: Bandar al-Jabri
ISN 230: Humoud al-Jadani (Humud al-Jad’an)
ISN 516: Ghanim al-Harbi
ISN 332: Bandar al-Otaibi (Abdullah al-Tayabi)
ISN 214: Mohammed al-Qurashi (Muhammad al-Kurash)
ISN 122: Bijad al-Otaibi (al-Atabi)
ISN 53: Saud al-Mahayawi (no information available at the time of his release — see Website Extras 3)
ISN 204: Saad al-Zahrani (no information available at the time of his release — see Website Extras 1)
ISN 234: Khalid al-Zahrani (al-Zaharni) (no information available at the time of his release — see Website Extras 4)
Abdullah al-Zahrani (not identified at the time of his release, he is Abd al-Hizani (ISN 370) — see Website Extras 7)

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the eleven prisoners released from February to June 2009, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here).

Notes on Guantánamo and the ‘War on Terror’ (18 July)

Military psychologists and torture

In Rorschach and Awe (great title!), a must-read article in Vanity Fair, Katherine Eban explores how two military psychologists, James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen –- trained in the secretive SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), which conditions soldiers to endure captivity in enemy hands –- were largely responsible for “reverse-engineering” the techniques to provide the core of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” so beloved by Bush and his cronies that the President boasted about them when he announced the delivery of 14 “high value” detainees –- including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah –- to Guantánamo in September 2006.

Abu ZubaydahAt the heart of the article, which deals with the “interrogation” of Abu Zubaydah –- a supposed leader of al-Qaeda who was actually nothing more than an administrative assistant with mental health issues –- is the revelation that Zubaydah’s great confession about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s role as the architect of 9/11 came about not through SERE-influenced torture applied by the CIA, but through old-fashioned rapport-building conducted by the FBI. As Eban describes it, the CIA’s modus operandi –- with the complicity of medical professionals –- was “to conduct a psychic demolition in which they’d get Zubaydah to reveal everything by severing his sense of personality and scaring him almost to death,” whereas, without resorting to torture, “America learned the truth of how 9/11 was organized because a detainee had come to trust his captors after they treated him humanely.”

There’s much, much more in the article and I urge you to read it.

Disillusioned CIA agents spill the beans

Meanwhile, over in the Guardian, in what happens to be an allied story, Suzanne Goldenberg reports from America that CIA officials who were “deeply opposed to the secret transfer of terror suspects to interrogation centres across Europe” cooperated with a recent Council of Europe investigation into the CIA’s undisclosed network of jails. Dick Marty, the Swiss senator who produced the report on “extraordinary rendition,” told a European parliament committee that he had “received information about the secret programme from dissident officers within the upper reaches of the CIA.”

Goldenberg spoke to three former CIA officers who explained that Marty was “correct about the deep divisions within the CIA,” although Vincent Cannistraro, a former counter-terrorism chief, doubted that he would have met serving officials, but admitted that, as Goldenberg described it, “the depths of anger within the CIA remained real.” “There are people who decided to take early retirement,” Cannistraro said, explaining that there were a couple of “relatively senior officials whose upward career was blocked because of their lack of wholehearted endorsement of the programme.” Another ex-CIA officer, Larry Johnson, endorsed Marty’s claims. “I know officers who thought this was wrong-headed,” he said, “who thought this was counterproductive and who stayed away from it. So the fact that there are some people getting up and publicly expressing their concern and dissent is not surprising.”

Expect more beans to be spilled as the long, slow countdown to the end of Bush’s ignominious Presidency approaches.

For more on Abu Zubaydah and US torture techniques, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man

Khalid Sheikh MohammedIn March, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the most high-profile al-Qaeda terror suspect in US custody, “confessed” during his tribunal in Guantánamo that he was the architect of 9/11 and had also played a part in 30 other plots (both real and conceptual), there were mixed responses. No one tried to deny Mohammed’s main claim to infamy –- the 9/11 attacks –- but those who had paid attention to his story knew that there were doubts about the veracity of all his claims, because he was a notorious show-off, and valid complaints were made that, by sidestepping the normal legal channels, the authorities had allowed him to portray himself as a “freedom fighter” –- comparing himself to George Washington, who, he said, would have been considered an “enemy combatant” if he had been captured by the British –- rather than revealing him for what he actually was: a vile, mass-murdering criminal.

Other commentators, who bothered to scrutinize the 26-page transcript of his tribunal, were even more alarmed. In parts of the transcript (some of which was redacted), Mohammed mentioned that he was tortured by the CIA, and added that, as a result, he had made false allegations against other people in US custody:

Tribunal President: What I’m trying to get at is … any statement that you made was it because of this treatment, to use your word, you claim torture. [Did] you make any statements because of that?
[The discussion then wandered, before returning to the issue].
Tribunal President: People made false statement[s] as a result of this?
Detainee: I did also.
Tribunal President: Uh-huh.
Detainee: I told him, I know him, yes … This I don’t know him, I never met him at all.

With the administration refusing to declassify the redacted passages from Mohammed’s testimony, it’s impossible to come up with a comprehensive list of those accused by him, and to investigate whether or not there is any truth in allegations made by a man who was subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including the reviled torture method known as waterboarding, during the three and a half years that he was held in secret prisons by the CIA before his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2006.

Saifullah Paracha

Saifullah ParachaRecently, however, I was reminded of these doubts when the human rights group Cageprisoners issued a press release after statements by one of the Guantánamo prisoners ensnared in KSM’s web –- the 59-year old Pakistani Saifullah Paracha –- were declassified by the US military. The press release made for bleak reading, revealing that the health of Paracha, who has suffered three heart attacks in US custody –- two in Bagram, and one in Guantánamo –- “has seriously deteriorated and could lead to his premature death if his pre-existing heart, prostatic and diabetic disease are not treated urgently.”

Paracha’s lawyer, Gaillard T. Hunt, suggested that “his medical treatment is at best incompetent and at worst negligent,” and painted a distressing picture of his client’s prospects, pointing out that several of his brothers and sisters have died of cardiac problems before reaching the age of 65, and that Paracha himself “has been having fainting spells, so we know the problem is worsening.” Hunt went on to explain, “He couldn’t submit to a cardiac catheterization at Guantánamo because the rules require all prisoners in the hospital to be shackled to the four corners of the bed. The cardiologist said this was dangerous for a heart patient, but the prison administration would not compromise. The statements filed in court to assure us that Paracha is getting proper treatment are not signed by the doctors. We have to assume the doctors are as disturbed by the situation as we are. The doctors told Paracha that they were acting as military men first, as doctors second.”

This will come as no surprise to those who regard with skepticism the administration’s claims that the Guantánamo prisoners receive medical attention that is “as good as or better than anything we would offer our own soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines,” as Brigadier General Jay Hood, the commander of the Joint Task Force in Guantánamo, declared in 2005. As ex-detainee Moazzam Begg explained (and my own research has confirmed), “Often, as was the case during my time in US custody, prisoners’ level of medical treatment would be dependant upon their level of cooperation with interrogators. Simply put, failure to comply could mean failure to receive treatment.” What’s even more disturbing, however, is a comment by Hunt that could easily be overlooked. “Paracha is not the worst case,” he said. “There are people at GTMO literally dying from lack of treatment.”

Given that the recent suicide of a Saudi detainee, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, received relatively little press coverage –- and nothing like the international outrage that greeted the deaths of three prisoners in June 2006 –- it may well be that the administration believes that it can weather a few more deaths without having to face a tsunami of criticism, but while this may be possible in terms of PR, morally it would be a disaster. Four men have already died in Guantánamo –- their names besmirched in reports issued by the Pentagon after their deaths, even though they had never been tried or convicted of any crime –- and the same process of demonization would undoubtedly occur were Saifullah Paracha also to die in Guantánamo.

The authorities would declare that he was an al-Qaeda member, who was captured by American operatives as he flew to Bangkok for a business trip on 5 July 2003, and they would assert –- as they already have in his tribunal in Guantánamo –- that he met Osama bin Laden, made investments for al-Qaeda members, translated statements for Osama bin Laden, joined in a plot to smuggle explosives into the US and recommended that nuclear weapons be used against US soldiers. They would also mention that the eldest of his four children, Uzair, was convicted by a US court in November 2005 on five charges, including providing material support to al-Qaeda (related to the supposed plot to smuggle explosives into the US, in which his father was also accused), and was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment in July 2006, although they would fail to mention that one of his lawyers, Edward Wilford, told the court that the government’s claims stemmed from a false confession Uzair Paracha gave after he was “subjected to 72 hours of interrogation without being told that he could consult a lawyer or speak with his parents.”

What they would also fail to mention is that Saifullah Paracha is a philanthropist, who helped refurbish a 300-bed hospital and established secular schools rather than madrassas in Karachi –- explaining to his tribunal that “We are emphasizing secular education, because you need a formal education to get a livelihood” –- and a staunchly pro-American businessman, who studied at the New York Institute of Technology, lived in the United States in the 1980s and was running a successful clothes exporting business –- with clients including K-Mart and Wal-Mart –- at the time of his capture, in partnership with a New York-based Jewish entrepreneur. They would not point out that anyone with half a brain would realize that a genuine al-Qaeda member would never, under any circumstances, enter into a business deal with a Jewish entrepreneur.

They would also fail to mention that Paracha accepted that he did indeed met Osama bin Laden –- on two occasions, at meetings of businessmen and religious leaders in Pakistan in 1999 and 2000, which had nothing to do with terrorism –- and that after one of these meetings, when he made the mistake of thinking that it would be a good idea to ask bin Laden to contribute to a TV program about Islam, he was approached by KSM, and through him met Ammar al-Baluchi and Majid Khan, all of whom introduced themselves as businessmen. Also overlooked would be Paracha’s persistent denials of all the other allegations against him, and the fact that he unequivocally told his tribunal, “I believe in the Koran, that killing one innocent person is equivalent to killing all humanity. I believe in that, and practice that.”

The authorities would possibly acknowledge a chain of arrests that led from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (captured in Rawalpindi on 1 March 2003) to Saifullah Paracha, via Majid Khan, captured in Karachi on 5 March 2003, Iyman Faris, an American of Kashmiri origin, who was detained in Ohio on 15 March 2003, and Uzair Paracha, seized by the FBI in New York on 28 March 2003. No doubts, however, would be raised about the integrity of KSM’s initial tip-off, or the effects of coercion on all those ensnared in the web.

Uzair Paracha

Uzair ParachaAnd yet there are, I believe, very real doubts that any of these men –- apart from KSM –- had any involvement with al-Qaeda or terrorism. In the case of Uzair Paracha, for example, the authorities secured a conviction on the basis that, as the Department of Justice described it, he “agreed with his father, Saifullah Paracha, and two al-Qaeda members, Majid Khan and Ammar al-Baluchi, to provide support to al-Qaeda by, among other things, trying to help Khan obtain a travel document that would have allowed Khan to re-enter the United States to commit a terrorist act.”

Paracha did not dispute that, on the advice of his father, he had foolishly attempted to secure an immigration document for Khan, as a favor for a fellow Pakistani, and that as a result he “posed as Khan during telephone calls with the Immigration and Naturalization Service,” and also called Khan’s bank, attempted to gather information about his immigration paperwork via the internet, and agreed to use Khan’s credit card to make it appear that he was in the United States, when he was actually in Pakistan.

Crucially, however, he denied stating, as the DoJ attempted to assert, that he “knew from his father” that Khan and al-Baluchi “were al-Qaeda,” that the two men “wanted to give Paracha and his father between 180,000 and 200,000 United States dollars to invest in their company as a loan,” that he “knew the money was al-Qaeda money and that al-Qaeda wanted to keep the money liquid so they could have it back at a moments notice,” and that he “felt it was implied that he had to perform tasks” for Khan and al-Baluchi “on behalf of al-Qaeda because of the money being loaned to their business.”

Although he was not allowed to call Majid Khan or Ammar al-Baluchi as witnesses (both men were, at the time, in secret CIA custody), they were allowed to present statements to the court, in which they both asserted that Paracha had no knowledge of any purported al-Qaeda connections, and before the trial another of his lawyers, Anthony Ricco, was so confident that he said that his client was manipulated into helping Khan and was looking forward to a trial to prove that he had no criminal intent. He described Paracha as “a very bright, but, I say, a very naive young man,” and added that he did not expect to have to contest the allegation that Paracha knew that Khan was in al-Qaeda.

Once Uzair Paracha was convicted –- prompting Ricco to note that he had rejected a plea deal that would have led to a lesser sentence because he believed he was innocent, and to complain that it was difficult to clear defendants in terror trials because the US government “was at war with al- Qaeda” –- his story was supposed to be forgotten, but the tangled web spun by KSM reappeared in March and April 2007 during the tribunals that were held to determine whether the 14 “high value” prisoners transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006 –- including KSM, Majid Khan and Ammar al-Baluchi –- had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants” and could be put forward for trial by Military Commission.

After KSM’s electrifying testimony, the media largely lost interest in the transcripts that were subsequently released –- waking up only when another of the prisoners, Waleed bin Attash, claimed responsibility for the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 –- but the story resurfaced in Majid Khan’s tribunal, and, almost incidentally, in the tribunal of Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew of KSM who was accused of working with Khan on the explosives plot, but who explained that he was “just a person … introduced through KSM.”

A legal US resident, whose parents live in Maryland, Khan had recently got married and his wife was pregnant at the time of his capture. He was seized in Karachi, just four days after the capture of KSM, at the house of his brother Mohammed, who was also captured, and later released, along with his wife and his baby daughter. In his tribunal, nine allegations were presented, all but one of which –- a rather incomprehensible claim that a computer hard drive “seized from a residence where munitions were discovered contained linkages to media seized from the detainee’s residence” –- came from the allegations relating to Uzair Paracha (as described above), and statements that were allegedly made by Iyman Faris, and Khan’s own father and brother.

Iyman Faris

Iyman FarisKashmir-born Faris, who became a US citizen in 1999, and had been living in Columbus, Ohio, where he was working as a trucker, was convicted of providing material support to al-Qaeda for his role in an alleged plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, and was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in October 2003. On the surface, his conviction seemed straightforward. With a failed five-year marriage behind him, and an attempt to commit suicide that involved him being counseled by an imam and given psychiatric evaluation, he appeared to be perfect fodder for terrorist recruitment.

Arrested on 19 March 2003, by two FBI agents and an anti-terror officer, who reportedly confronted him with testimony from KSM and the results of an intercepted telephone call, it was alleged that he visited Pakistan and Afghanistan from 2000 to 2001, meeting Osama bin Laden at some point, and that, on his return to the US, he learned of a plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, which involved cutting through its cables with blowtorches, and a second plot that involved derailing a train in Washington DC. According to the US government, Faris’ role in the plots went no further than asking a friend where he could purchase welding equipment, and researching the structure of the bridge on the internet. He apparently concluded that the operation was unfeasible, and sent a message to Pakistan to abandon the plots, stating, “The weather is too hot.”

Although Faris pleaded guilty to the charges, on 1 May 2003, it was not revealed until after the trial that, after his arrest, he had actually been recruited by the FBI as a double agent, and had been moved to a safe house in Virginia where he was instructed to stay in touch with his contacts in Pakistan. Another twist came on 25 September, just before Faris was due to be sentenced, when he attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming that, although he had met Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan, he had refused to be recruited as a member of al-Qaeda, and had concluded that Mohammed had fed false information to the US authorities as revenge. The appeal was disallowed, but both of these issues raise uncomfortable questions about the nature of his conviction, and, specifically, about his part in the terror web spun by KSM.

Majid Khan

Majid KhanFurther doubts about Faris’ case –- and that of Majid Khan –- came in April 2007, when Faris was called upon by Khan to explain the allegations relating to him in the Summary of Evidence for his tribunal, in which it was alleged that, on a visit to Khan’s family’s home in Maryland, Faris stated that Khan “spoke to him about the fighting and struggle in Afghanistan,” and that on a subsequent visit Khan told him that he had met KSM in Pakistan, and that he referred to him as “uncle.” It was also alleged that Khan told Faris of “his desire to martyr himself against President Musharraf” by “detonating a vest of explosives inside a building.”

In response, Faris explained that he had visited the Khans’ house to “invest in the family business,” and categorically denied all the allegations, stating, “There was no discussion other than religious duty and what he likes to do in life, like work in construction and not in his father’s [financial] business,” emphasizing that “there were never any discussions regarding the fight in Afghanistan –- ever,” and responding to the allegation about the Musharraf plot by stating, “This is an absolute lie.” When asked, “Were you coerced, tricked or deceived into making any statements about Majid Khan?” Faris delivered his most devastating statement. “Yes,” he said, “by FBI. If I don’t tell them what they wanted to hear, they were going to take me to GITMO [Guantánamo].”

Writing from Guantánamo, Saifullah Paracha also refuted the claims against Majid Khan (and, by extension, against both himself and his son Uzair), confirming that he did not know that either Khan (or Ammar al-Baluchi, who introduced Khan to him in Pakistan) were members of al-Qaeda, insisting that he never discussed a loan with him –- “I never discussed any financial matters with Majid Khan” –- and reiterating that he only agreed to ask Uzair to help Khan as a favor to a fellow countryman: “I was told he had an issue with US Immigration and wanted to keep his bank account in the USA active, which I asked my son to assist him with as a fellow Pakistani.”

The only other allegations against Khan, as noted above, were reportedly made by one of his brothers, who, according to the US authorities, “stated the detainee was involved with a group that he believed to be al-Qaeda, and as of December 2002 was involved in transporting people across the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and points elsewhere,” and his father, who allegedly “stated the detainee recently began to be influenced by anti-American thoughts and became extremely religious in his behavior.”

Although Khan’s brother had not responded by the time of his tribunal, his father Ali mounted a vigorous defense of his son, querying the statements that were supposed to have been made by himself and his son, asking, “Where and when did we make these statements that you claim we made? Who did we make these statements to, exactly? The government has refused to give us this information. Anything we may have said … was simply out of shock because we knew [he] had disappeared and was pure speculation based on what FBI agents in the United States told us and pressured us to say.”

He continued: “If you think that he did something wrong, show me the evidence. Charge him with a crime and give him a fair trial in a real court. This tribunal is not a real court … It is only for show and the outcome has probably already been decided.” Crucially, he added, “Anything that he may have confessed to, or that other prisoners may have said about him, should also be considered with suspicion because these statements were probably tortured or coerced out of them. Under these circumstances, how could anyone believe what the government says about my son?”

In passages, which, remarkably, were not redacted, Ali Khan then described Majid’s torture at the hands of US and Pakistani agents, explaining that “after eight days of interrogation by US and Pakistani agents,” his son Mohammed was allowed to see Majid, who “looked terrible and very, very tired,” and proceeded to explain to his brother that “the Americans tortured him for eight hours at a time, tying him tightly in stressful positions in a small chair until his hands, feet and mind went numb,” that they “re-tied him in the chair every hour, tightening the bonds on his hands and feet each time so that it was more painful,” and that they “beat him repeatedly,” subjected him to sleep deprivation, and, when not being interrogated, held him in a small, mosquito-infested cell, which was “totally dark, and too small for him to lie down in or sit in with his legs stretched out.”

In Ali’s testimony, the most devastating statement was the following: “This torture only stopped when Majid agreed to sign a statement that he was not even allowed to read,” although he also noted that the torture resumed when he “was unable to identify certain streets and neighborhoods in Karachi that he did not know,” and critics of US behavior should read the whole of his testimony, as it also includes claims by Mohammed Khan that both he and Majid were held in a prison where two of KSM’s children, “aged about six and eight,” had been held before their father’s capture, where they were “denied food and water,” and had “ants or other creatures put on their legs to scare them and get them to say where their father was hiding,” and that “Americans once stripped and beat two Arab boys,” aged 14 and 16, who were then “thrown like garbage onto a plane to Guantánamo” (it’s more likely that they were actually sent to Bagram), and also held women prisoners, including some who were pregnant and “forced to give birth in their cells.”

While this article only scratches the surface of the “tangled web” woven by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in CIA custody, I hope it illuminates the possibility that the plots and networks trumpeted by the US authorities may not be quite what they seem. It’s possible that everything the authorities claim is true, but my interpretation, reading between the lines, is that, through the informal social networks of the various business communities in Pakistan –- which, as Saifullah Paracha pointed out in Guantánamo, are based on traditional notions of hospitality, even though, in the political chaos of modern-day Pakistan, it is “very difficult for any civilian to determine who is who” –- he, his son Uzair and Majid Khan were caught up in the orbit of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and that their subsequent torture, abuse and imprisonment are the result of naïve trust rather than any connection whatsoever with terrorism.

Even murkier are the stories of Iyman Faris and Ammar al-Baluchi, and behind them all, towering like a malign colossus, and with fingers reaching into all corners of Pakistani society and its vast diaspora through his successful disguise as a legitimate businessman, is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his many false allegations –- made during his torture at the hands of the CIA –- that the US administration would rather bury than acknowledge.

For more on Guantánamo and the “high-value” detainees, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on CounterPunch (as “Gitmo’s Tangled Web”) and American Torture.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison, Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here) (all May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA), and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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