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

24.7.07

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.

11 Responses

  1. pounce says...

    Hang on, let me get this right.
    You are blaming the yanks for letting this Gezzer free as the reason he is took up terrorism (Again) and is now brown bread?
    Remind me again about how you promote on your blog how Guantánamo is America’s Illegal Prison.
    and Andy before you post
    I’m brown skinned, have a muslim name and look like a terrorist.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the reply. No, I’m blaming the Yanks for letting this geezer free because he was one of the few genuinely dangerous Taliban leaders in Guantánamo, and because he would not have been released if the US authorities had taken the advice of their allies in Afghanistan, instead of acting with unilateral arrogance. I don’t think everyone in Guantánamo is innocent of any wrong-doing. I know that there are (still) a handful of Taliban leaders who should have been tried and convicted of war crimes, and a few dozen al-Qaeda members who should also have been tried as criminals. My concerns about the illegal prison at Guantánamo are two-fold: firstly, that imprisoning innocent men and Taliban foot soldiers, who were in Afghanistan before 9/11 to fight other Muslims, for five and half years without charge or trial, in an experimental prison devoted to extracting “actionable intelligence” from people who had no “actionable intelligence,” and where the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” was widely practiced, is both wrong and counter-productive, and secondly, because, by its actions, the administration has made it extremely difficult – if not impossible – to prosecute successfully the handful of people who are genuinely dangerous.

  3. pounce says...

    Thank you for the swift reply.
    You do have a point, while i admit i disagree with what you have to say. You do make a valid point a point which i agree the US needs to address.
    Good luck with your blog and have fun
    Pounce

  4. AR says...

    excellent insight. as someone who has filed habeas petitions on behalf of some guantanamo prisoners, I would also point out that these individuals were released before any attorneys were even allowed to represent the prisoners. this falls squarely upon the us government, and its lack of a coherent process in determining who stays and who goes.

    one thought — is it confirmed that mehsud was in guantanamo? or could he have been claiming that to bolster his “street cred”?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi “AR”,
    Thanks forthe comments, and the insight into the government’s sole responsibility for releasing detainees prior to Rasul v. Bush.
    As for the veracity of Mehsud’s story, I’ve no idea. He may well have lied, but it remains apparent that the administration released several Taliban leaders because of its refusal to cooperate with well-informed Afghans. What disturbs me is the way that figures in the administration have recently been claiming that as many as 30 released detainees have “returned to the fight,” thereby ignoring the validity of your comments and mine. I also have to say that I find it inconceivable that they have any accurate way of knowing who has actually taken up arms again, despite what they say.

  6. Identification of ex-Guantanamo Suicide Bomber Unleashes Pentagon Propaganda | freedetainees.org says...

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    [...] killed himself with a hand grenade after being cornered by security forces in Pakistan last July, I pointed out that, had the U.S. administration not behaved with arrogant unilateralism, neither Mehsud nor the [...]

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  10. Dave says...

    We should just warn civilians that whoever puts himself near a terrorist puts himself in danger.
    Can’t keep fighting like we do.. they figured it out and now they take advantage of our morality.

  11. WikiLeaks and the Guantánamo Prisoners Released from 2002 to 2004 (All Ten Parts) – Andy Worthington « freedetainees.org says...

    [...] [...]

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