Bin Laden Cook Expected to Serve Two More Years at Guantánamo – And Some Thoughts on the Remaining Sudanese Prisoners

24.8.10

Ibrahim al-Qosi at a pre-trial Military Commission hearing at Guantanamo, July 15, 2009 (sketch by court artist Janet Hamlin)On August 11, Ibrahim al-Qosi, a 51-year old former cook and driver for Osama bin Laden, was given a 14-year sentence by a military jury, after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy, and one count of providing material support to terrorism at an earlier hearing on July 7, as I reported here.

The sentence was the first under President Obama and only the fourth in the long and troubled history of the Military Commissions at Guantánamo. The trial system was dragged from the history books by Vice President Dick Cheney in November 2001, ruled illegal by the US Supreme Court in June 2006, revived by Congress later that year, suspended by President Obama on his first day in office, and then revived last November, in a move that was widely criticized as part of a hideously compromised three-tier system of justice for the Guantánamo prisoners, involving federal court trials or Military Commissions for 35 prisoners in total, and indefinite detention without charge or trial for 48 others.

As Reuters explained, al-Qosi, who is Sudanese, met Osama bin Laden in Sudan, traveled with him to Afghanistan, and “acknowledged that he knew al-Qaeda was a terrorist group when he ran one of the kitchens in bin Laden’s Star of Jihad compound in Afghanistan.” He also “admitted helping the al-Qaeda leader escape US forces in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan,” but added that he “had no involvement in or prior knowledge of terrorist attacks.” Putting these admissions in context, Renee Schomp, a Program Associate for Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program, stated:

[A]l-Qosi pled guilty to living on a compound with supporters of Osama bin Laden in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and acting as a cook. His wife and children were with him until about November 2001. Al-Qosi’s guilty plea states that his activities in Afghanistan were the sole means of support for them. Al-Qosi never acted as a bodyguard or security guard for bin Laden, but for 12-18 months he served on defensive lines in a mortar crew — before the “war on terror” began, and not against US forces.

Crucially, al-Qosi’s sentence was part of a plea bargain whose full details have not yet been made publicly available. According to the Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV network, his sentence was capped at two years, although it is clear from the negotiations during his trial — in which the prosecution and the defense called for the military jury to deliver a sentence of between 12 and 15 years — that the jury had not been given any information about the plea deal, and that, essentially, all the details had been worked out behind the scenes to use the jury to deliver a sentence that appeared to validate the system, even though it did no such thing.

What was also apparent during al-Qosi’s sentencing was typical confusion — of the kind that has undermined the Commissions throughout their troubled history — regarding practical considerations; in this case, where his sentence will be served.

As Reuters reported, al-Qosi’s sentencing “hit a snag” because of the military’s inability to develop a coherent policy regarding his desire not to be held in solitary confinement. His plea deal “required the convening authority overseeing the trial [Retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, who replaced President Bush’s appointee Susan Crawford in March this year] to recommend that Qosi serve his time in Camp Four, where detainees live communally under fewer restrictions than in the other camps.” However, “military rules forbid housing convicted criminals with other detainees.”

Of the three men previously convicted, only one, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, is still held, and he is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. Asked to explain the circumstances of al-Bahlul’s confinement, Navy Cmdr. Brad Fagan stated, “He is separated from the general population,” but “declined to elaborate” except to say that “he’s by himself.”

Al-Qosi’s judge, Air Force Lt. Col. Nancy Paul, was clearly unimpressed by the military’s inability to establish a policy regarding the circumstances in which convicted prisoners are to be held. As Reuters explained, “an assistant defense secretary ordered two years ago that the army and the military’s Southern Command, which oversees the Guantánamo base, develop a detailed plan for housing prisoners after their conviction.” As Judge Paul noted, however, “This has not been done.” She added that the absence of an official policy was “especially troubling” because of the possibility of another conviction in the trial of Omar Khadr, the Canadian who was just 15 years old when he was seized in Afghanistan in July 2002.

As a compromise, Judge Paul ruled that al-Qosi’s plea agreement “was valid because it called only for a recommendation that he be housed in the communal camp, and did not guarantee he would be.” She ordered him to “remain in Camp Four for 60 days while the military worked out where he would serve the rest of his sentence.”

Press reports also noted that, at the end of his sentence, al-Qosi will be repatriated to Sudan, where, as the Wall Street Journal explained, the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service stated, in correspondence introduced at al-Qosi’s trial by one of his military defense lawyers, Maj. Todd Pierce, that “it would put Mr. Qosi in mandatory ‘rehabilitation,’ monitor his phone calls and email, and deploy ‘informants’ to ensure he ‘no longer [adheres] to a radical ideology.’”

The Wall Street Journal added that the Sudanese intelligence agency reported that its program, used to deal with nine Sudanese prisoners previously released from Guantánamo (between 2004 and 2008), was “85% effective,” and also suggested that the US government “has been working with the Sudanese government to repatriate detainees from Guantánamo Bay.” These men were not named in the report, but there are only two other Sudanese prisoners in Guantánamo, in addition to Ibrahim al-Qosi.

The other two Sudanese prisoners

The first, Ibrahim Idris, who has sometimes been listed as a Yemeni, is clearly of no great significance. Accused of attending al-Farouq (the training camp associated with Osama bin Laden in the years before the 9/11 attacks), and of fighting with the Taliban for two years, he attended a military review board in December 2007, in which he stated that he had actually been seized in Pakistan, where he had traveled for 40 days to work as a missionary. “No disrespect to the interrogators,” he explained. “I said what I had to say, and they made me say things that weren’t true.” This may or may not be accurate (although it is certainly possible), but no information has emerged in the last eight years to indicate that he was involved in any way with terrorist activities.

The case of the other Sudanese prisoner, Noor Uthman Muhammed, who was involved with the Khaldan training camp as a trainer, and who appears to have run the camp when its leader was away, is clearly more problematical for the government. Muhammed was one of 29 prisoners put forward for a trial by Military Commission under President Bush between 2007 and 2008, and was one of five prisoners whose military trials under President Obama were announced by Attorney General Eric Holder last November. Progress in his case has been slow in the months since, with inconclusive wrangling over his defense team’s request for his evaluation by an independent psychologist, but it would be surprising if the government were to be in any great hurry to proceed with the trial, as his case involves two men whose stories the government would prefer to keep hidden. The first is Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the camp’s leader, and the second is Abu Zubaydah, the camp’s mentally troubled gatekeeper.

Al-Libi, who died in mysterious circumstances in a Libyan jail last May, was the notorious CIA “ghost prisoner” who produced a false confession about links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, while being tortured in Egypt on behalf of the CIA, which was used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and Abu Zubaydah, as has become increasingly apparent over the last few years, is the supposed “high-value detainee,” for whom the CIA’s torture program was initially developed, who, in fact, was not part of al-Qaeda and had no knowledge of al-Qaeda’s terrorist plans.

In general, the government has spent the last few years removing all mention of Zubaydah from other prisoners’ cases, and Muhammed’s proposed trial is therefore a potentially disturbing aberration. As McClatchy Newspapers explained in an article on July 1 this year, when Muhammed boycotted a pre-trial hearing, “Declassified documents say Abu Zubaydah has told interrogators that the Khaldan training camp that Noor allegedly ran was a rival to training camps run and sanctioned by bin Laden, wasn’t associated with al-Qaeda, that it was first set up by the US-backed resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and was committed to a defensive, not offensive, jihad.”

As McClatchy also noted, there was “little likelihood” that Muhammed would be tried in the near future, because, in April this year, his judge, Navy Capt. Moira Modzelewski, “said it would take her until January or February to sift through classified evidence the prosecution intends to use against him and that the trial couldn’t begin before she’d done that.”

Pre-trial hearings are scheduled to continue next month, but with al-Qosi’s example, it may make more sense for the government to try to work out a plea bargain in Muhammed’s case that would bypass the potential embarrassment of an actual trial.

Whether any of these proposals have anything to do with justice is debatable. As Melina Milazzo, Pennoyer Fellow with Human Rights First’s Law and Security Project, stated after al-Qosi’s sentence was announced, Judge Paul’s decision that “it was in the best interest for both the government and al-Qosi that the details of his plea agreement should continue to be sealed until after his confinement was completed” was “unprecedented in both US federal court as well as US court martial,” adding, “Moreover, shrouding his plea agreement in secrecy does little to provide much needed transparency to a grossly opaque system.”

Noticeably, however, it is pragmatism and diplomacy rather than justice that have largely enabled prisoners to leave Guantánamo, and if President Obama is at all serious about closing the prison, then he should be aware that the Sudanese government has at least provided him with an opportunity to close one more chapter in Guantánamo’s sordid history by facilitating the repatriation of all three of the remaining Sudanese prisoners.

Note: The courtroom sketch above is by Janet Hamlin, and is courtesy of Janet Hamlin Illustration.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners. Cross-posted on New left Project.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Predictable Chaos As Guantánamo Trials Resume (July 2009), David Frakt: Military Commissions “A Catastrophic Failure” (August 2009), 9/11 Trial At Guantánamo Delayed Again: Can We Have Federal Court Trials Now, Please? (September 2009), Torture And Futility: Is This The End Of The Military Commissions At Guantánamo? (September 2009), Resisting Injustice In Guantánamo: The Story Of Fayiz Al-Kandari (October 2009), Military Commissions Revived: Don’t Do It, Mr. President! (November 2009), The Logic of the 9/11 Trials, The Madness of the Military Commissions (November 2009), Rep. Jerrold Nadler and David Frakt on Obama’s Three-Tier Justice System For Guantánamo (November 2009), Guantánamo: Idealists Leave Obama’s Sinking Ship (November 2009), Chaos and Confusion: The Return of the Military Commissions (December 2009), Afghan Nobody Faces Trial by Military Commission (January 2010), Lawyers Appeal Guantánamo Trial Convictions (February 2010), When Rhetoric Trumps Good Sense: The GOP’s Counter-Productive Call for Military Commissions (March 2010), David Frakt’s Damning Verdict on the New Military Commissions Manual (May 2010), Prosecuting a Tortured Child: Obama’s Guantánamo Legacy (May 2010), The Torture of Omar Khadr, a Child in Bagram and Guantánamo (May 2010), Bin Laden Cook Accepts Plea Deal at Guantánamo Trial (July 2010), Defiance in Isolation: The Last Stand of Omar Khadr (July 2010), Omar Khadr Accepts US Military Lawyer for Forthcoming Trial by Military Commission (July 2010), A Letter from Omar Khadr in Guantánamo (July 2010).

7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Susan Hall wrote:

    There are two things that solitaire imprisonment can bring, neither of which helps keep the world safer. First it keeps information hidden from the public, which is and has been a high priority for both the Bush and Obama administrations.
    Second it is one of the worst kinds of torture that causes humans to become ill and in absolute control of whoever is in control of them. The African-Americans had undergone such terrorizing until the end of the civil war. Of course the slaves of the south who underwent solitaire torture did not have to be guilty of anything except cooking for the wrong people at that time either.

  2. ANDY WORTHINGTON: Introducing the Definitive List of the Remaining Prisoners in Guantánamo | My Catbird Seat says...

    [...] refused to mount a defense, and another — Ibrahim al-Qosi, a cook in an al-Qaeda compound — is waiting to hear how much longer he will be imprisoned after accepting a plea deal in his trial by Military [...]

  3. ANDY WORTHINGTON: Introducing the Definitive List of the Remaining Prisoners in Guantánamo | Dark Politricks says...

    [...] refused to mount a defense, and another — Ibrahim al-Qosi, a cook in an al-Qaeda compound — is waiting to hear how much longer he will be imprisoned after accepting a plea deal in his trial by Military [...]

  4. In the Case of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, Torture Apologists Are Everywhere « Margot B. News says...

    [...] of view in spite of compelling evidence that the Commissions have been an abject failure, securing only four convictions, and permanently blighted by the fact that they have been established to try non-existent [...]

  5. Gvantanamo aizspogulija « socialismslv says...

    [...] instead. We don’t officially know how long he’s going to serve but the rumor is that he’ll serve two more years and then go back to [...]

  6. No War No Torture » Blog Archive » Ibrahim Idris says...

    [...] Idris says, according to the report of his appearance at the kangaroo court in Guantanamo, (link to Worthington’s website here), that he was seized in Pakistan where he had gone as a missionary.  He is quoted as saying that [...]

  7. Hiding Horrific Tales of Torture: How Guantanamo Fuels Injustice (Andy Worthington) says...

    [...] not play a role in the training of men who later became involved in terrorist activities, despite Abu Zubaydah’s claim that it was “committed to a defensive, not offensive, jihad” (as it appears that the mentally [...]

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