13 Years Ago, Three Men Died at Guantánamo, Victims of a Brutal Regime of Lawlessness That Is Fundamentally Unchanged Today

9.6.19

Yasser al-Zahrani and Ali al-Salami, two of the three men who died at Guantánamo on the night of June 9, 2006, in circumstances that remain deeply contentious. The US authorities insist that they committed suicide, but other troubling accounts have robustly questioned that conclusion. No photo publicly exists of the third man, Mani- al-Utaybi.

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On the night of June 9, 2006, three prisoners at Guantánamo died, their deaths shockingly and insensitively described by the prison’s then-commander, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., as “an act of asymmetrical warfare against us.”

The three men were Yasser al-Zahrani, a Saudi who was just 17 when he was seized in Afghanistan in December 2001, Mani al-Utaybi, another Saudi, and Ali al-Salami, a Yemeni. All three had been prominent hunger strikers.

Al-Zahrani, the son of a prominent Saudi government official, was a survivor of the Qala-i-Janghi massacre, which John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” who was recently released after 17 years in a US prison, also survived. Over 400 fighters, supporting the Taliban, had been told that if they surrendered, they would then be set free, but it was a betrayal. They were taken to a fort, Qala-i-Janghi, run by General Rashid Dostum, one of the leaders of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, where some of the men, fearing they would be killed, started an uprising with concealed weapons. Over the course of a week, the prisoners were bombed, set on fire, and, finally, flooded out of a basement, and when they finally emerged, only 86 of the original prisoners had survived.

In Guantánamo, he was remembered fondly by his fellow prisoners, but the authorities noted a history of him being “non-compliant and hostile to the guard force and staff.” However, he was regarded as having little or no intelligence value, and his classified military file, dated March 2006 and released by WikiLeaks in 2011, noted that, “If a satisfactory agreement can be reached that ensures continued detention and allows access to detainee and/or to exploited intelligence, detainee can be Transferred Out of Control” of the Guantánamo authorities and back to Saudi Arabia (which, in reality, would have meant him being repatriated and put through Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program for jihadists, like numerous other Saudi prisoners).

Mani al-Utaybi, who was around 30 when he died, had been in Pakistan undertaking missionary work with Talbighi Jamaat, a vast proselytizing organization, and there is no evidence that he was anywhere near the battlefields of Afghanistan. He was seized in January 2002, near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, with four other men, all dressed in burkas, who seem to have taken it up on themselves to try to get into Afghanistan in an absurd and thwarted bid to assist the resistance to the US occupation.

Described by the US authorities as having been “belligerent, argumentative, harassing, and very aggressive,” he was also worthless from an intelligence perspective, and, in June 2005, had been cleared to be “transferred to the control of another country for continued detention” (which, as with al-Qahtani, would have meant the Saudi rehabilitation program).

The third man, Ali al-Salami, around 23 years old at the time of his capture, had also been regarded as “aggressive” at Guantánamo, but was also, according to the US authorities, thoroughly insignificant in terms of his intelligence value, “a street vendor who sold clothing,” and “was prompted to travel to Pakistan to receive [a religious] education upon hearing God’s calling.” As with al-Utaybi, there is no allegation that he was anywhere near the battlefields of Afghanistan. He had been studying in Faisalabad at Jamea Salafia University, a madrassa (religious school), but had been living in a dormitory that was allegedly connected to Abu Zubaydah.

The facilitator of an independent training camp, Khaldan, Abu Zubaydah arranged the comings and goings of those seeking military training in Afghanistan, but the CIA mistakenly regarded him as Al-Qaeda’s No. 3, ignoring the FBI, who knew that he was not only not al-Qaeda’s no. 3, but he wasn’t even a member of al-Qaeda at all. On capture, he was flown to a secret CIA “black site” in Thailand, where he became the first victim of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, and was waterboarded on 83 separate occasions. He was later moved to other “black sites” in eastern Europe, before being brought to Guantánamo, with 13 other alleged “high value detainees,” also held in CIA “black sites,” in September 2006, were he has continued to be held, largely incommunicado, ever since.

The dormitory — known as the Crescent Mill guest house — was raided on the same night that the house Abu Zubaydah was staying in was also raided, when al-Salami and 15 other men were seized, but although the US authorities tried to tie them to al-Qaeda, it was fruitless task, and they have all since been freed — except for al-Salami, of course. For a devastating analysis, by a US judge, of the paucity of the US’s claims about those seized in the guest house, see my 2009 articles, Judge Condemns ‘Mosaic’ Of Guantánamo Intelligence, And Unreliable Witnesses and Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies.

Investigating the deaths

The US authorities have always stuck to their line about the men’s deaths, even though others have questioned whether the men killed themselves, or whether they were, in fact, deliberately killed by operatives of the US government, or accidentally killed as a result of a torture session that went too far.

The most prominent dissenter from the official line is former Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, who was in charge of the watch towers on the night of the deaths. Hickman’s account of the deaths, which he bottled up until Barack Obama became president, thinking that it might lead to the truth being exposed, was first reported in Harper’s Magazine, in an article entitled, “The Guantánamo Suicides,” by the lawyer and journalist Scott Horton, in January 2010.

In it, Hickman was reported as stating that frantic activity in response the men’s deaths followed the movement of vehicles to and from the direction of a shadowy facility that he and other personnel had dubbed “Camp No,” because whenever they asked about it, they were told that it didn’t exist. It was Hickman who suggested that,. on the night of the deaths, the men had either been deliberately, or accidentally killed in this facility away from the main base.

However, hopes that Hickman’s account would lead to an honest, impartial investigation were dashed. The Justice Department, which initially expressed interest in it, dropped an investigation before the Harper’s article was published.

Hickman later wrote a book about the alleged suicides, Murder At Camp Delta, which was published in January 2015, and he was also the lead investigator on a 2013 report, “Uncovering the Cover-Ups,” by The Center For Policy and Research at Seton Hall University School of Law, whose director, Mark Denbeaux, had been Hickman’s first port of call when he decided to go public. The report forensically went through documentation released following a report on the deaths by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which found it to be full of glaring holes.

For a detailed article following up on all of the above, please check out “To Live and Die in Gitmo”, published in Newsweek to coincide with the publication of Hickman’s book, and written by Alexander Nazaryan.

As a result of the refusal of the authorities to revisit the alleged suicides, the events of June 9-10, 2006 still remain deeply contentious, even though “Camp No” has subsequently come into sharper focus, as it has been revealed that there were two facilities outside of the control of the US military at Guantánamo — Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, named after two celebrated songs by the Beatles.

Strawberry Fields was a CIA “black site” from the fall of 2003 until spring 2004, when it was moved because the authorities recognized that a US judge was about to grant habeas corpus rights to the prisoners, allowing lawyers into the prison, piercing the veil of secrecy required for Guantánamo’s brutality to go unnoticed.

Penny Lane, meanwhile, was where double agents from the prison’s population were groomed, or, as Alexander Nazaryan put it, “its purpose was supposedly to turn detainees into CIA assets who could infiltrate jihadist networks.” He added that it “appears to have been shuttered for about four months after the three men died.”

According to Joe Hickman’s assessment, it was at this facility that, on the night of the men’s deaths, they were subjected to a torture session that involved what has become known as “dry-boarding,” in which they had rags stuffed down their throats. That would certainly explain what otherwise remains one of the great stumbling blocks to accepting the US authorities’ account of the deaths: how, to paraphrase Alexander Nazaryan, the three men had managed to stuff rags down their own throats, tie their feet together, tie their hands together, create a noose, climb up onto the cell’s sinks, put the noose around their neck, and then jump with sufficient force to die by self-inflicted strangulation, all while shielding their activities from the guards, who were supposed to persistently keep a watch on the cells.

In the years since Joe Hickman first surfaced with his account, it — and Scott Horton’s Harper’s article — have been criticized by some commentators, and, in general , dismissed out of hand by representatives of the US government. However, on re-reading Alexander Nazaryan’s article, I was struck by the following paragraph: “A highly placed source in the Department of Defense who deals with detainees’ affairs, and who asked to remain anonymous because he is not permitted to speak to the media without receiving prior clearance, wrote to me in an email: ‘After reviewing the information concerning the three deaths at Camp Delta on June 9, 2006, it is painfully apparent the personnel involved in fact created an illusion of an investigation. When you consider the missing documents, the lack of key interviews, and the questionable evidence found on the bodies, it is blatantly obvious there was something that occurred that night that is not documented.’”

A damning conclusion

13 years on from the deaths, as I make my annual effort to not let them be forgotten, what strikes me as the most depressing aspect of this sad and unresolved episode in Guantánamo’s long and depressing history is how three men, none of whom had any kind of intelligence value, died at Guantánamo, whether by accident or design, not because of what they had done prior to their capture, but because they had responded with resistance to the appalling ways in which they were treated after capture.

Think about that: three men died at Guantánamo, not because of what they had done prior to their capture, but because, in the pointless brutality of Guantánamo’s grinding, dispiriting, day-to-day existence, they had either killed themselves, in despair at how very far they had ended up from any notion of justice whatsoever, or, even more damningly, because, in resisting that endless injustice, they had angered the authorities to such an extent that they were killed.

Remember too that 40 men are still held at Guantánamo, and that, although some are regarded as significant terrorist suspects, others are still held because they, like the men who died on the night of June 9, 2006, refused to passively accept the injustice of Guantánamo, engaging in hunger strikes and non-compliant behavior, even though they too were nothing more than, at most, insignificant foot soldiers from a long-forgotten war, with no intelligence value and no good reason for their ongoing imprisonment, seemingly for the rest of their lives, without charge or trial.

Note: There have, officially, been nine deaths at Guantánamo since the prison opened on January 11, 2002, and some of those other deaths — also of long-term hinger strikers — are also suspicious. For further information, please check out the links in my article about the deaths from last June, and a detailed report from this year about Haji Naseem, who died in 2011, by Jeffrey Kaye, an investigative journalist and retired psychologist, who has been extraordinarily tenacious in his pursuit of the truth about several of the deaths at Guantánamo.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, remembering the three men who died at #Guantanamo exactly 13 years ago – Yasser al-Zahrani, Ali al-Salami and Mani al-Utaybi. The US authorities claimed that their deaths were a triple suicide, but they have strenuously ignored robust and credible accounts made by other commentators, including US military personnel who were there on the night, who have suggested that the men were either deliberately killed, or accidentally killed during torture sessions.

    13 years on, what particularly depresses me is that none of these men were even vaguely significant from an intelligence perspective, because they were either low-level Taliban foot soldiers, or civilians rounded up by mistake, but – whether they were killed for not – they died because, at Guantanamo, they resisted the brutality and lawlessness of their confinement, through hunger strikes and non-compliant behavior that led to them either killing themselves or being killed.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Marie Meza wrote:

    Brilliantly written article!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Marie!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Laura Dexter Lance wrote:

    Thank you, Andy.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Laura. Thanks for not forgetting.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Pam Arnold wrote:

    the horrors of Amercan.impunity and lawlessness and barbarity .. and it’s even darker than ever

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it certainly is in some ways, Pam. Obviously we’re not still actively caught up in Bush and Cheney’s program of rendition and torture, but one of those torturers heads the CIA, the warmonger John Bolton holds high office, and America under Trump is unapologetically enthusiastic about keeping Guantanamo open forever, never releasing anyone currently held – and, if possible, sending new prisoners there.
    And that’s before we’ve even scratched the surface of the general racism and hostility of the Trump administration and the Republican Party in general. Not that the outlook is any rosier in the UK …

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Elliott wrote:

    Imagine their nightmare Andy. They either knew nothing of significance or even nothing at all. It’s so important that you point this out as another reason to CLOSE this hell-hole.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna. Yes, that angle really struck me when I was writing this year’s memorial article – two of the three men unconnected to any kind of militancy, and the other just a low-level foot soldier. None with any intelligence value. The US might as well have announced that, at Guantanamo, its intention was to create a regime that would provoke foot soldiers and mistakenly-apprehended foreign civilians – all held fundamentally without rights – to resist the injustice of their imprisonment through hunger strikes and non-compliant behavior, thereby transforming them into what was perceived as a threat, with no acknowledgment that this was a situation entirely created by the US in the first place.

  10. Jeffrey Kaye says...

    Thanks for the important review, Andy! There Is much still to be discovered about these deaths, even after Joe Hickman’s excellent book. For instance, in my own research, I discovered that Army investigators knew that crucial evidence had been falsified concerning the whereabouts of the three detainees at the time of their deaths. Such documented evidence is crucially important, and that’s the only reason to see that media accounts have ignored it.

    In summary, a declassified Army report on the 2006 deaths at Guantanamo showed that the guard’s standard “random headcount” of detainees late on the night of June 10 was “falsely reported” by an “unknown member of the Alpha Block guard team.” Investigators could never track down who made the headcount. But that’s nonsense, since the guard who made the check on prisoners would have documented his name, and it would have been recorded when he or she logged into the Gitmo computer database to make his entry. This – as someone who helped create that database at Guantanamo told me directly – is basic security protocol.

    From my Feb. 2017 article at Truthout (https://truthout.org/articles/mystery-surrounds-guantanamo-detainee-s-suicide/):

    ‘… according to the Army AR 15-6 report on the 2006 “suicides,” investigators found that the 2350 (or 11:50 pm) random headcount of detainees the night of the 2006 “suicides” had been “falsely reported” by “an unknown member of the Alpha Block guard team.” Such headcounts, recorded in DIMS, “required immediate visual confirmation of detainee [two or three words redacted] in each cell.”

    ‘According to the Army’s investigation, “no guard remembers performing the 2350 headcount.” Yet, the report was there in DIMS.

    ‘This is a crucial finding of falsification of evidence contemporaneous to events in the 2006 detainee deaths. It should have been a red flag. But Army investigators minimized the fact that someone was lying about the headcount of cellblock prisoners, three of whom would soon be found dead. Instead, they found the falsification of the cellblock census (which is what a random headcount is) to be “insignificant.” Their reasoning? Medical teams had concluded the bodies were already dead an hour before the 2350 headcount was made.

    ‘Army authorities never asked why the headcount was falsified, or explained how they knew it was.

    ‘In fact, the falsified headcount is not “insignificant” at all if one concludes the detainees did not die the way the government said they did.’

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for these important additions, Jeff – and, of course, for your persistence in researching and exposing information that the authorities would rather keep hidden, and that the mainstream media, sadly, seems to have no interest in investigating.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Debra Sweet wrote:

    thank you Andy. it is so widely NOT known that people have died, and been killed in Guantanamo.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Showing yet again, Debra, how the powerful can get away with whatever they want when they have an uninformed population. Others, of course, think that Guantanamo is closed because Obama said he would close it, and far too few people know that hardly any of the men held could realistically be described as “the worst of the worst,” and that most were merely foot soldiers or civilians seized by mistake.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    If anyone is interested in helping support my work like the above, I’ve just launched my latest quarterly fundraiser: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2019/06/10/quarterly-fundraiser-seeking-2500-2000-to-support-my-guantanamo-work-activism-and-photo-journalism-for-the-next-three-months/

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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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