The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras (11) – The Last of the Afghans (Part One) and Six “Ghost Prisoners”

This article was originally published on February 7, 2009. For updated information, please check out the links (by prisoner name and number) in my four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, last updated on April 25, 2012.

Chapter 14 of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, and available from Amazon here and here) tells the story of the notorious US prison at Bagram airbase, where two prisoners (including the taxi driver Dilawar, the focus of the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side) were murdered by US forces in December 2002.

The chapter also tells the stories of 35 prisoners — a mixture of Afghans and foreigners — who ended up in Bagram after being sold to US forces by their Afghan allies (often after being held for several months in Afghan custody), seized in raids based on dubious intelligence, or, in a few cases, after being freed by US forces from Taliban jails. All were seized between November 2001 and May 2002.

This additional chapter features the stories of 24 more prisoners, whose stories were not included in the book, either because they were unknown at the time, or to keep the book at a manageable length. At the time of writing, 22 of the 35 prisoners discussed in the book had been released, and eight more have been released since. Of the 24 discussed in this online chapter, all but six have been released.

In addition, this online chapter tells the stories of six prisoners whose stories were not included in Chapter 16 of The Guantánamo Files, which tells the stories of 32 prisoners — in addition to the 14 “high-value detainees” who arrived at Guantánamo in September 2006 — who were subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and detention in secret prisons, and I’m including them here to keep these online chapters as a manageable project.

Afghans released in 2003

Five Afghans were released in 2003, although little is known about three of them, because the Pentagon has not revealed any documents relating to those released before the tribunal process began in the summer of 2004. According to press reports in March 2003, when the first large group of Afghans was released (18 in total), Mirza Muhammed, who was 28 years old at the time of his capture, said that he was seized by the Taliban and forced to fight with them, and added that he was captured by the Northern Alliance after just five days, and was then sold to the Americans. Described in a report in the Washington Post as “Merza Khan,” he explained that “Americans in Kandahar tied him up and alternately forced him to lie face down on the ground, then squat with his hands on his head for hours. He also said he saw American soldiers throw the Koran on the ground and sit on it while in Kandahar.”

Four other prisoners were part of a group of 16 Afghans released in July 2003. Most complained about their treatment, but Nate Gul, from Khost province, who was 22 years old when he was seized in unknown circumstances, told a reporter from the Associated Press that he was “treated well.” “They didn’t beat us during the interrogation,” he said. “They wrote down anything we said. They interrogated me about 30 to 40 times.” He explained, as the AP described it, that “he was held in a small room that looked like a cage,” but that he “had towels, shampoo, a toothbrush, blankets, three meals a day and time for prayer.”

One of those who complained was Mohammed Akhber, who was 46 years old at the time of his capture. In November 2003, he spoke briefly to the BBC, and although the circumstances of his capture were not discussed, he was clearly nonplussed as to why he had been seized. “Why did they take me to Cuba?” he asked. “My young wife was left with no one to look after her. Who was to feed everyone? Who was to give clothes for God’s sake to my children?”

Noor Habib

Noor Habib (identified by the Pentagon as Noor Habib Ullah), who was 21 when seized, also complained to the BBC, asking, “Is this what they call human rights?” Nothing more was known of him until 2008, when Tom Lasseter of McClatchy Newspapers tracked him down for a major report on 66 released prisoners, but Lasseter conceded that he was unable to work out exactly why he had been captured. “Habib,” he wrote, “might have been a Taliban foot soldier or he might have been what he said he was, a truck driver who was picked up by US-backed Northern Alliance troops who were shooting or arresting anyone who appeared to be an Islamic militant.” He added, “Afghan officials familiar with Habib’s home village and the militant networks there said they had no idea who he was. They guessed that he was either a Taliban grunt who’d have had no information to offer American interrogators or just someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

What is clear, however, is that Habib was seized in Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, in November 2001. According to his own account, he was “helping to transport a load of goats to Kabul,” when he “came to a checkpoint manned by Northern Alliance soldiers, who opened fire at the truck.” He told Lasseter, “They thought we were Taliban. I jumped out of the truck and ran as fast as I could, but they caught me.” He added that he was “thrown into an old Russian transport truck and beaten with rifle butts the whole way back to the city. It was a long ride, he said, as the Northern Alliance troops stopped every few minutes to haul in another suspected batch of Taliban.”

Habib then spent four months in a local jail, where, he explained, “They said I had connections with the Taliban. At the time, I had a long beard. They began beating me — kicking and punching me — saying that I had to confess.” He was then transferred to Kandahar, where, while being taken to interrogation, the guards “pushed me to the ground and jumped on my back. One time they did this, a rock got stuck in my chest. It stayed there, and sank in lower and lower into my flesh, and the skin around it got swollen, with pus coming out.”

Habib explained that he had to wait until he was sent to Guantánamo for a doctor to remove the stone. Apart from this, his time in Guantánamo was clearly uneventful. He told Lasseter that he “spent a year in Cuba, rarely being interrogated and not doing much of anything other than praying and wondering why he was there.” When he was interrogated, he said, they “wanted to know about the top guys from al-Qaeda; they wanted to know if they lived in Jalalabad. I told them that I am just a laborer, that I had no idea. I asked them, ‘Why do you keep asking me the same questions?’ They did not answer.” On his release, the reason for his transfer to Guantánamo was finally revealed, when two interrogators “told him that he’d been sent to Guantánamo because he was suspected of being a senior Taliban commander.”

Mohammed Naim Farouq

The fourth prisoner released in July 2003 was Mohammed Naim Farouq, a tribal leader in Zormat, in eastern Afghanistan, who was 42 years old at the time of his capture. Speaking to the BBC after his release, he said, “We were in prison only because we are Muslims,” and added that two men who had attempted suicide had been punished with solitary confinement. He also spoke to Amnesty International in August 2003, when he stated, “We were without hope because we were innocent. I was very sad because I could not see my children, family and friends. But what could we do? Yes, we got enough food but what does this mean? My mother lost her eyesight while I was there.”

In 2007, he spoke to Tom Lasseter, explaining that he “had several run-ins with the Taliban during the 1990s, and that his brother was exiled from Afghanistan.” Eventually, he said, “the Taliban relented because its leaders ‘realized that I am from a big tribe … so we came to an agreement.’ Each side agreed to let the other alone.” After the fall of the Taliban, he said that he became the security commander of Zormat district, near the restive city of Gardez, but was arrested by US forces — and sent to Guantánamo, via Bagram and Kandahar — after chasing and threatening a group of US soldiers who had detained some of his police officers.

Farouq explained to Lasseter that he was not subjected to physical violence by the Americans, but described a series of humiliating experiences, which, to a Pashtun, are far worse. After he was first seized, the US soldiers took him to their base, where, he said, “They stripped me naked, out in the open, where everybody could see. I was thinking that these are infidels who have come to a Muslim country to imprison us, just like the Russians.” After 40 days in Bagram, this experience was repeated in Kandahar, where, on the day of his arrival, “they took me into interrogation completely naked. They asked me if I knew Osama bin Laden. I said, ‘Fuck bin Laden and fuck your wife, too. Bin Laden came and destroyed our nation, and you came and destroyed our nation. But at least bin Laden was a Muslim and did not humiliate us like this.’”

Like many other prisoners, Farouq also said that, in Kandahar, he saw a US soldier drop a Koran in a barrel that was being used as a toilet, and declared, “If I had a gun I would have shot that soldier. We began shouting and beating ourselves and asking God to punish this man.” His final humiliation took place in Guantánamo, where he was stripped naked again. As Lasseter described it, “he and a large group of men were stripped naked, then put in a line — blindfolded, he said — and marched to a station where they were issued new clothes. Along the way, he said, soldiers were yelling and laughing at them, and putting cameras up close to their body parts and snapping pictures.”

According to Afghan Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabit, who interviewed Farouq in Guantánamo, although he was part of “a criminal group” involved in kidnapping and extortion, he “was a rural gangster, not a terrorist,” and had no links with the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Lasseter also spoke to a senior UN official in eastern Afghanistan, who was “familiar with Farouq” and “said it was a mistake to detain him.” Speaking anonymously, the official said, “It’s crazy to arrest people who can help bring about stability when there are very few people in these fragile areas who can do that. It’s obviously not constructive to detain people who are not enemies of the state.”

Ironically, as Lasseter noted, it’s unclear in Farouq’s case “whether US troops had captured a Taliban operative or created one.” Since his release, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, he has established ties with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and, in 2006, “was leading a group of Taliban militiamen.” This may well be an exaggeration, as the Pentagon’s claims about ex-prisoners “returning to the battlefield” have been largely debunked in a series of reports by the Seton Hall Law School, but Tom Lasseter explained that an Afghan intelligence official told him that Farouq “now met with Taliban leaders every two weeks to discuss operations,” and added, “Farouq has met several times with the top Taliban commander in this area, but he denies it.” Given his feelings about the humiliation he endured at the hands of US forces, this would not be altogether surprising.

A stray Pakistani

In November 2003, Majid Mehmood, a stray Pakistani, who was 22 years old when seized, was also released. Nothing was known about him until 2008, when he too was interviewed by Tom Lasseter in Karachi, where he was working as a delivery man. After explaining that his name is actually Abdul Majid Mahmoud, he told Lasseter that he, like Noor Habib, had been seized in Bamiyan, where, he said, he had traveled “to attend a friend’s wedding when he was caught in the fighting between US-backed Northern Alliance forces and the Taliban.”

As Lasseter explained, when Mahmoud was “tied up in a kitchen” at the Alliance checkpoint, with “shrapnel wounds to his knees, shoulders and head, no one was buying his tale of being an unlucky wedding guest.” “Sometimes they hit me. Sometimes they kicked me. Sometimes they hit me with sticks,” Mahmoud explained. After about four days, he said, he was “taken to a house that the Northern Alliance was using as a jail, where he was trussed up with a rope and thrown into a storage room.” “They beat me with belts, with the butts of their guns and a few times with sticks,” he said. “When they beat me up they would cuss at me. They would say that I was there to kill them, that I was there to fight them. I said, ‘No, I came here for a friend’s wedding. I’m a tailor.’”

Four months later, US forces arrived at the impromptu jail, and that night, Mahmoud said, “the man who brought his dinner said the Americans had agreed to pay a $5000 bounty” for him. Flown to Bagram, he then came clean, and admitted that he had been recruited by the Taliban at an office that had been established in Karachi. He added, however, that telling the truth made no difference. He was transferred to Kandahar, where he spent about five months, and was then flown to Guantánamo, where he fell into a pattern of regular conflict with the guards. “The riot guards would come in, five to seven of them, and try to pin me down,” he said. “In that struggle I would punch whatever I could … this used to happen all the time.”

He then joined one of the many hunger strikes that have taken place in the prison, and explained that it started “when a guard knocked a Koran on the floor and left it there.” He also said that, along with dozens of other prisoners, he was taken to the hospital, “where medics forced his mouth open with a metal clamp and poured in liquid meals.”

On his release, he was imprisoned him for a year in Pakistan, but was then fortunate to find work, although he told Lasseter that he “has to report to the police station once a week to describe his recent activities,” and that “an intelligence officer comes to the stand where he parks his truck almost daily to be sure that he hasn’t left Karachi.”

Two Iranians, two Saudis, a Jordanian and an Uzbek

Two Iranians were also captured at this time, and were probably seized close to the Iranian border and sold to the Americans. 20-year old Bakhtiar Bameri (released in September 2004) went to Afghanistan to buy stereo parts but was accused of fighting with the Taliban, and 22-year old Mohammed Anwarkurd (released in August 2005) also went to Afghanistan on a shopping expedition. He said that he had gone to buy electronic equipment for his brother, because it was cheaper than in Iran and could be sold for a profit, but was seized by the Taliban, who stole his money and conscripted him. He added that he “did not want to tell them that he was from Iran as he had heard that they killed Iranian diplomats.” Presumably captured by anti-Taliban forces at a later date, he was accused of traveling to Afghanistan to buy a pistol to kill three people who had destroyed his mosque, or, alternately, of planning to assassinate two key Shia leaders in Zahedan, his home city.

Also seized in late 2001 but not handed over to US forces until several months later were two Saudis, 22-year old Zaban al-Shammari, and 23-year old Jabir al-Qahtani. Al-Shammari was released in September 2007, and at the time of his release I believed that he had been captured in Pakistan, as no documents relating to him had been released by the Pentagon. However, soon after his repatriation the Pentagon released the Unclassified Summaries of Evidence for his tribunal and review boards, which revealed that he had actually traveled to Afghanistan to attend a military training camp, but, according to his own account, “didn’t get to finish his training because he was sick.” After trying and failing to return home — he said “he was told he couldn’t because it was too dangerous and the borders were closed” — he was wounded in the US bombing campaign, and was taken to a military hospital in Kabul, where he was seized, presumably by Northern Alliance soldiers, and then turned over (or sold) to US forces four months later.

Unlike Zaban al-Shammari, Jabir al-Qahtani, who was released in November 2007, appears to have had no connections whatsoever with militancy or the training camp system, and was, instead, a humanitarian aid worker who traveled to Lahore in March 2001 to work for al-Wafa, the Saudi-based charity that was regarded by the US authorities as a front for terrorist activities. After working at a warehouse in Lahore for six months, al-Qahtani traveled to Afghanistan, where he worked at a warehouse in Kabul, until he was captured by soldiers of the Northern Alliance in November 2001, and held for four months before being turned over to US forces. With only one dubious allegation of militancy against him — that he “was identified as a fighter who preferred to spend most of his time lounging around [various] guest houses” — the authorities at Guantánamo resorted to justifying his detention by alleging that he “depicts many counter-interrogation techniques attributed to al-Qaeda training and consistent with al-Qaeda members” (in other words, that he had refused to conceded that he was involved with al-Qaeda), and noting that an unidentified source had claimed that he “was identified as the leader of a cell block, and has issued a fatwa on the United States.”

Also released in November 2007 was the Jordanian Osama Abu Kabir. 31 years old at the time of his capture, Abu Kabir was one of the clearest examples of a naïve, would-be jihadist who never so much as raised a finger against the Americans. A driver by occupation, who also sold clothing with his wife from their home, he told his review board at Guantánamo that he had traveled to Raiwind, in Pakistan, for the annual conference of the vast global missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi (regarded as a front for terrorism by the US authorities, despite having several million members), and had then spent a month preaching, when he was suddenly converted to the idea of jihad because of “the emotion and the excitement from the Afghani people” at a demonstration that he came across unexpectedly. “They were all holding up signs, had writing on T-shirts,” he said. “It was their love that I had seen. I can explain it to you, but you won’t understand how I felt that day.” He did, however, explain that, despite this conversion to the spirit of jihad, he never took up arms, “never met anyone from the Taliban, al-Qaeda or any other group,” and was captured by the Northern Alliance in Jalalabad, where he fled after arriving in Kabul two days before the city fell, and was imprisoned for four and a half months in Kabul before being handed over to the Americans.

Also held for several months before being handed over to US forces was Kamalludin Kasimbekov, a 24-year old Uzbek who is still in Guantánamo, despite being cleared for release in 2006, because of well-founded fears that he will be tortured if returned to his homeland. In his tribunal, Kasimbekov said that he and a friend had fled Uzbekistan after his friend accidentally killed a policeman while driving his car, and had ended up in a training camp run by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant group aligned with the Taliban, where, he said, those in charge of the camp took away his military ID, which he needed to go home, and flew him and five or six others to Kabul, where he worked in an auto shop.

He went on to explain that in 2001 he requested to go home, and asked for money and his military ID, but that when he received no response he decided to run away, only to be captured while traveling from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif in a minivan taxi, imprisoned by the IMU for six months and then released on September 16, 2001 “with agreement that I will help in a battle.” Sent to the front lines in Kunduz, the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan, he explained that he was “helping with all kinds of household work for about a month or so,” but that, after the aerial bombardment of Kunduz by US forces, when there were “lots of dead bodies” and a surrender was negotiated between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, he refused to retreat with the IMU and instead went to Abdul Mumin, a Northern Alliance commander, and handed himself in with his gun. He added, “There were no bullets shot from my weapon.”

More random Afghans, released in 2005 and 2006

Of the other eleven Afghans who were captured at this time but who are not discussed in The Guantánamo Files, six have been released and five are still held. The first to be released was Padsha Wazir, one of just 38 prisoners cleared after the Combatant Status Review Tribunals in 2004-05. A shopkeeper from a village near Khost, Wazir, who is married with three children and was 29 years old at the time of his capture, was freed in April 2005, after telling his tribunal that the allegations against him — that he was involved with the renegade warlord Pacha Khan Zadran in a military capacity, and that he was responsible for  “securing” a village for him — were a pack of lies. The baleful influence of Zadran (one of the most dubious US allies in the years following the US-led invasion) permeates many of the Afghan stories in Guantánamo, and Wazir was clearly another victim.

He told his tribunal that he had only ever seen Zadran “for five minutes and that was after the Taliban left and the Americans came. He was with the Americans.” He explained that he was actually working with the local commander, Mohammed Yousef, helping to secure the area for the Americans, and also stated that he was arrested at a checkpoint, with his brother and two friends, while traveling to Miram Shah in Pakistan to see members of his family. He pointed out that, although the other three were released on the spot, the commander at the checkpoint (one of Zadran’s men), told lies about him to an American soldier after he refused to hand over his gun, for which he had a permit, which led to his capture and transfer to Guantánamo.

Also captured at this time, and not released until October 2006, was Shams Ullah, who was just 15 or 16 years of age when he was seized by US forces, some months before his arrival at Guantánamo in October 2002. According to the US military, he had fired “a whole magazine of ammunition” at the American and Afghan soldiers who had stopped him during a patrol, but although Shams himself had vague recollections of the events, his uncle, Bostan Karim, who was seized some months later by US forces (and is still held in Guantánamo), noted that he had “a mental problem,” and gave an alternative explanation for the circumstances surrounding his capture, when he appeared as a witness at his review board hearing. “When the Americans came to our house there was a Kalashnikov in our house and he knew that the Americans would take this gun,” Karim said. “So, he took the gun and went to the mosque. The Americans asked him to stop and he didn’t stop, so they shot him and he became lame.”

As with all but three of the 22 confirmed juveniles held at Guantánamo, Shams was never treated with anything approaching the kind of care that juveniles are required to receive under the terms of the Optional Protocol to the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child (on the involvement of children in armed conflict), and in fact, in his book Enemy Combatant, the released British prisoner Moazzam Begg, explained how the authorities’ disregard for Shams’ age — and his wounds — was apparent when they were held together at the US prison in Kandahar airport. “Shams had been shot in the upper thigh, and the bone was shattered so he couldn’t walk,” Begg wrote. “He couldn’t make it to the toilet, he couldn’t get his own medications, or his water, or his food. And he couldn’t wash, so he started smelling quite badly.”

Begg ended up teaching the boy how to walk again, and also explained the story of his capture, as it had been explained to him, which backed up the story told by Bostan Karim: “Shams told me the story of his wounds: US helicopters had descended one night and attacked his house during a sweep of the area. He fired his uncle’s weapon at them. They fired back. He was hit, and captured.”

Disturbingly, Shams Ullah was not the only former juvenile released in October 2006. Qari Esmhatulla, who was only 16 years old at the time of his capture, was seized by Afghan soldiers, and has the dubious distinction of being the only prisoner captured during Operation Anaconda, a much-touted, but ultimately inconclusive mission to oust al-Qaeda remnants from the Shah-i-Kot valley in Paktia province in March 2002. In his review board at Guantánamo, Esmhatulla stated that he was arrested while returning home after visiting a shrine. He explained that he was accused of “returning from a fight, even though I was unarmed and had never been in a fight,” and was beaten to make a false confession. He added, “I heard my captors talk about receiving a bounty from American forces for people they captured. They placed a grenade near me so they could have an explanation for arresting me.” As with Shams Ullah, there is no evidence that he was ever held separately from the adult population at Guantánamo, or treated any differently.

Released in 2007

Three more prisoners were not released until 2007. Aminullah (identified by the Pentagon as Amin Ullah), who was released in August 2007, was 46 years old when he was seized from his home in October 2002. During his tribunal at Guantánamo, in which he was accused of having “assembled a team to hijack a United Nations aircraft,” as commanded by the Taliban, he said that he was actually “a poor person” with three small children, who had been forcibly recruited by the Taliban. He explained that they had first taken his brother-in-law Najib to jail and had killed him, and had then tried to recruit him, but he had refused and had also been taken to jail. There, he said, someone told the Taliban to let him go because he was an old man, but then advised him to join them because “there was no one [else] in my household.” He added, “I then decided to go with them.”

Aminullah told his tribunal that he was then given weapons and ten men to command, but that, when the Americans invaded, he took his ten men to fight the Taliban in Kunduz, and then joined the US-led coalition at Mazar-e-Sharif, fighting with the Americans against the Taliban. Four or five months later, he said, he turned in his weapons to a sergeant called Abdul Basir and went home. He added, “I like the current government in Afghanistan and I like the Americans because they sent two of my children to school.” Describing the circumstances of his capture, he said that, about a year later, Afghan forces came to his house and arrested him for no discernible reason. “I have told you the truth,” he added. “The accusations are wrong, please help me. I have a wife and kids and no one to take care of them.”

As is so often the case, the truth about Aminullah was difficult to ascertain. When he was released from Afghan custody in April 2008, and was asked why he thought he had been detained, his reply was, “God only knows.” Tom Lasseter attempted to find out more, but ran up against two diametrically opposed opinions. According to Ghulam Mohammed Farhad, the police chief in Kunduz from late 2001 until 2003, he “fought against the Taliban, but was sent to Guantánamo because of false information fed to American troops,” but according to Mohammed Daoud Daoud, the former head of the Afghan army corps in Kunduz and now a deputy interior minister in the Karzai government, he was “a ruthless Taliban leader who deserved to be locked away for a long time.” As Lasseter pointed out, both men are at odds with each other, because Farhad is a Pashtun, like Aminullah, and Daoud is a Tajik, closely aligned with the Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks. And while Daoud insisted that Aminullah “was a Taliban commander, he was a very bad guy … he killed people, he beat people,” Farhad claimed that it was Daoud himself who “orchestrated Aminullah’s detention by giving US officials false information,” because he wanted to remove any rivals who might threaten his power. A hint that Farhad — and Aminullah — might have been telling the truth came when Lasseter spoke to Wazir Gul Rahman, the head of the Afghan government’s Peace and Reconciliation Commission for northeast Afghanistan, who explained that Aminullah was detained because of “some feuds.”

Abdullah Hekmat, who was 30 years old when he was seized, was released in November 2007. In his tribunal at Guantánamo, he was accused of commanding the third police precinct in Mazar-e-Sharif under the Taliban and of grabbing young men off the street to fight, but he denied the allegation about forced recruitment and claimed that his father-in-law was in charge of the precinct and that he had only filled in for him for two months. He complained bitterly that, although he had been separated from his family for years, no case had been presented against him, and claimed that justice was swifter when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan. “In the Russian time,” he said, “they would just kill you and you wouldn’t have to worry about it.”

Also released in November 2007 was Abdul Nasir. A 20-year old student at a madrassa at the time of his capture, Nasir told his tribunal that another student, a Pakistani member of the Taliban, had tricked him into taking part in a rocket attack on a US base. He pointed out that he was the only one of the group of 30 to be captured, after handing himself in to the authorities and turning over the bullets and grenades that he’d been forced to carry, and complained that he was then taken to Bagram, where, he said, “I had to stay standing up for ten days, 24 hours a day. [B]ecause I am human and I get tired … they handcuffed me and they tied me up there with my hands above my head.” He added that he thought that he had perhaps been singled out for particularly bad treatment because “they could not catch or arrest [the] other people.”

Still in Guantánamo

Six of the Afghans not mentioned in Chapter 14 are still in Guantánamo. The first, Awal Gul, who was 40 years old when he came into US custody, was a military commander for the Afghan warlord Younis Khalis, who had ties with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and was suspected of providing assistance to Osama bin Laden during the Tora Bora campaign.

In his tribunal at Guantánamo, Gul said that he had resigned from the Taliban (even though it did not appear that he had ever been working directly for them), and, in a volte-face that was typical of Afghan politics, had begun working with the pro-US warlord Hazrat Ali, one of three Afghan commanders who had fought at Tora Bora on the Americans’ behalf (as discussed in Chapter 4). He explained that, on Ali’s advice, he handed himself in to Northern Alliance commanders in Kabul in February 2002, in an attempt to quell rumors about his involvement with the Taliban, but was then handed over to the Americans.

What was remarkable about his tribunal was that the Tribunal President failed to recognize Mullah Omar’s name. When Gul stated that he had tried to resign from the Taliban, but that this was something that only Mullah Omar could approve, the Tribunal President asked him, “What was his position?” and Gul was obliged to attempt to explain Omar’s role in the Taliban. “He was just like the King of Afghanistan,” he said, “all of the military was under him.”

The second of the five, Mohammed Nabi Omari, who was 34 years old when he was seized, refuted allegations that he was involved with Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin and al-Qaeda, but only by telling a rambling and incoherent story about working in an office for an American called Mark. He admitted that he had worked for the Taliban and had been “in charge of the border,” but insisted that “that was before the Americans came to Afghanistan.” If there was a hint of something darker that could be gleaned from his tribunal, it was that Omari seemed to be indicating that he had only ended up in Guantánamo because someone had told lies about him to US forces, which may well have been true if he had actually been working with Americans. “There are lots of good people and bad people that are in Khost,” he said. “You asked all of the bad people and did not ask any of the good people in Khost about me.”

The third of the six, Shawali Khan, a shopkeeper who sold gas, kerosene and petrol, was 39 years old when he was seized. During his review board at Guantánamo (in August 2005), much of the board’s attention focused on his activities before the 9/11 attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. In the list of allegations against him, under the sub-heading “commitment” in the “factors favoring continued detention,” it was alleged that he had claimed that he was conscripted by the Taliban in 1998 and forced to perform duties as a guard and general laborer for approximately two months. It was also alleged that he was involved in one battle with the Northern Alliance, but he said that the whole of his group — of about 70 individuals — “retreated and ran back to the Taliban facilities when the fighting started.” He also denied allegations that he worked for Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin during the mujahideen period as a communications system operator.

When the board finally moved on to more contemporary reasons for his imprisonment in Guantánamo, it was alleged that before his arrest he used his shop, which sold gas, kerosene and petrol, for HIG meetings, that in September 2002 he was directed by HIG commander Zabit Jalil “to carry out a terrorist operation targeted at US military personnel located at Gecko base, Kandahar,” that he delivered “a radio-controlled binary detonation device and two blasting caps” to a HIG operative in November 2002, that he tried to purchase rockets in September 2002, that he undertook military and explosives training at a HIG camp in Pakistan, and that after his arrest tanks, rockets and guns were found in his family orchard, and that he was “found with a 50m spool of detonation cord.”

This was a fairly comprehensive list, but the allegations seem to have been based on the fact that Zabit Jalil was his uncle (his mother’s brother). Khan denied all knowledge of his uncle’s activities. As far as he was concerned, Zabit Jalil worked for the Karzai government, and he told the tribunal that he (Khan) had also worked for the government “for a while” as a driver. In a personal statement, he said, “the Afghans caught me and took me to the Americans. I talked to the Americans and I showed them my house and I showed them my shop. Those Afghan people took my money and my motorcycle and gave me to the Americans.” He explained that a list of weapons that was in his possession at the time of his capture was a receipt, given to him by his uncle, because all weapons had to be accounted for to the Karzai government, but he repeatedly denied knowledge of the alleged weapons cache in his orchard. He also said that the Afghans gave him “a hard time” in Kabul, but that the Americans had treated him better. He suggested that “the intelligence people, the reporters, or spies … were capturing everybody to give them to the Americans for money.”

Although he did not seem to realize it, the board members were frustrated that he seemed to be evading further questioning about the alleged weapons cache in his orchard, but it appeared to me that he had already stated that all the allegations about HIG and weapons had no substance whatsoever. As with many other stories, it would have made sense for the US military to try and contact the Afghan authorities in the Kandahar area, to find out whether Zabit Jalil had in fact been working for the Karzai government, but as usual there is no evidence that any attempt was made to conduct even the most rudimentary investigation of Khan’s story, with the result that he remains imprisoned in Guantánamo, still regarded as an “enemy combatant.”

The other three Afghans who are still held have, inexplicably, been put forward for trial by Military Commission, the deranged judicial novelty dreamt up by Vice President Dick Cheney and his close advisers in November 2001. As I explained in an article last June, one of the three, Mohammed Hashim, who was 25 years old at the time of his capture, was, at best, a minor Afghan insurgent (one of five put forward for trial by Military Commission), whose activities, even if proven to have taken place, should not have been regarded as “war crimes.” When Hashim was charged in June, he was accused of spying for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and conducting a rocket attack on US forces, but these claims were complicated by the fact that his publicly available testimony from his tribunal at Guantánamo — which is sprinkled with implausible references to knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, a relationship with Osama bin Laden and links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein — suggests that he either has mental health problems, or has dreamt up the biggest lies possible to secure more favorable treatment.

If anything, the case against Obaidullah, who was 22 years old when he was seized, is even less explicable. In September 2008, he was charged with hiding explosives, which he “knew or intended” would be “used in preparation for and in carrying out a terrorist attack.” The charges were astonishing, because he was not actually accused of attacking US forces, and, according to the transcripts of his tribunal and review boards at Guantánamo, he made it clear that he had come up with false confessions while being threatened by US forces in a prison at the airport in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, and then at Bagram. The following is a revealing exchange from his review board in 2005:

Board Member: Who forced you to say things?
Detainee: Americans.
Board Member: How did they force you?
Detainee: The first time when they captured me and brought me to Khost they put a knife to my throat and said if you don’t tell us the truth and you lie to us we are going to slaughter you.
Board Member: Were they wearing uniforms?
Detainee: Yes … They tied my hands and put a heavy bag of sand on my hands and made me walk all night in the Khost airport … In Bagram they gave me more trouble and would not let me sleep. They were standing me on the wall and my hands were hanging above my head. There were a lot of things they made me say.

The case of Mohamed Jawad, the other Afghan to be put forward for trial, is even more inexplicable, and considerably more distressing. A juvenile — aged 16 or 17 — when he was seized after a grenade attack on a jeep containing two US Special Forces soldiers and an Afghan translator in a marketplace in Kabul in December 2002, Jawad has always denied throwing the grenade, but, like the other juveniles mentioned in this chapter, has never been given appropriate care, and has, in fact, been treated with appalling brutality, including, in 2004, a two-week period when he was subjected to horrendous sleep deprivation, moved from cell to cell every few hours in what was euphemistically referred to as the “frequent flier program.”

For further details on Jawad’s case, including, in particular, the principled stance taken by his former prosecutor, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who turned against the whole system when he discovered how a wealth of exculpatory evidence had been hidden in Jawad’s case, see, in particular, The Afghan teenager put forward for trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo (October 2007), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials (October 2008), New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials (October 2008), and Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (January 2009).

The Six “Ghost Prisoners”

The first of the six prisoners not mentioned in Chapter 16, Ahmed Mohammed al-Darbi, a Saudi, was 26 years old when he was seized in Azerbaijan and rendered to Afghanistan, where, he has said, he was severely abused in the US prison at Bagram airbase. Apparently the brother-in-law of Khalid Almihdhar, one of the 9/11 hijackers, he is accused of “being an admitted member of al-Qaeda,” training at al-Farouq, where he allegedly became an instructor, meeting Osama bin laden and plotting attacks on shipping for al-Qaeda, but little is known of his case, even though he has been put forward for a trial by Military Commission, in large part because he has boycotted the proceedings. At his arraignment in April 2008, he refused to take part in the Commissions, prompting his military-appointed lawyer, Army Lt. Col. Bryan Broyles, to comment that, in order to comply with established legal rules that prevent lawyers from representing clients who refuse their services (which are worryingly at odds with the Commissions’ own rules), his role in al-Darbi’s forthcoming trial was now equivalent to that of a “potted plant.”

At a short pre-trial hearing in September, Broyles announced his resignation from the case, reiterating his complaints about compelled representation, and explaining that al-Darbi never came to trust him because “the attorney-client relationship is close to impossible to establish” in a system in which a lawyer is imposed on a prisoner, and that it was “compounded by the fact that counsel wear the same uniform as [the prisoner's] interrogators.” As a parting shot, Broyles was asked what he thought about the chief prosecutor’s claim that al-Darbi’s trial would be completed before the new administration takes office. “It’s not about timing,” he said, “it’s about doing justice.”

Sanad al-Kazimi, a 32-year old Yemeni, and one of ten prisoners transferred to Guantánamo from secret prisons in September 2004, has had a particularly bleak time. Accused of training in Afghanistan in 2001, swearing bayat to Osama bin Laden, and then of being involved with al-Qaeda activities in the Gulf in 2002 after his escape from Afghanistan, he was seized in the United Arab Emirates in January 2003, handed over to US forces, and tortured in various facilities in Afghanistan, including the “Dark Prison” and Bagram, until his transfer to Guantánamo. He has explained that, in this period, he “endured horrific physical abuse”; specifically, that he was “subjected to sensory deprivation techniques, causing extreme disorientation and psychological stress, physical and sexual assault, threat of rape, and repeated plunging into pools of cold water while suspended in the air by a mechanical lift.”

More of his story is reported here, based partly on a report by Jane Mayer, who interviewed his lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, but what has not been explained — if al-Kazimi is really so dangerous — is why he was not put forward for a trial by Military Commission. My hunch is that, although he was tortured as though he were a “high-value detainee” with knowledge of the workings of al-Qaeda, he was actually nothing of the sort, and was, at most, a peripheral character. Or it may even be, as he stated at his tribunal in Guantánamo, that, although he had sworn bayat to bin Laden; he “later swore against him, and was wondering why that second sworn statement was not put into this evidence.”

The other four prisoners — 24-year old Ayoub Ali Saleh, 23-year old Bashir al-Marwalah, 21-year old Shawki Balzuhair and 28-year old Said Nashir — were part of a group of six Yemenis captured on September 11, 2002 after a shoot-out in Karachi that led to the capture of alleged 9/11 conspirator Ramzi bin al-Shibh (photo, left) and Hassan bin Attash, the teenage brother of another alleged 9/11 conspirator, Waleed bin Attash. However, while bin al-Shibh was rendered to a secret CIA prison in Thailand, the others were rendered to the “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan. From there, bin Attash was soon rendered to be tortured in Jordan, but the other six remained in Afghanistan, subjected, as the other two explained (and as I reported in The Guantánamo Files) to several months of torture.

Although the men were captured with bin al-Shibh, they claimed that they had been staying in a second apartment, and had few dealings with him, and although this may sound implausible, I believe that it’s possible, as I stated in The Guantánamo Files, and as with other prisoners seized in Pakistan, that they were “recent Taliban recruits who ended up in Karachi as part of an extended safe house system that was sheltering all Arabs from arrest, and not just those who were committed to al-Qaeda.”

Certainly, their stories show little sign that they were anything more than novice foot soldiers. Nashir, for example, was accused of attending the al-Farouq camp from July to September 2001, and also attending two speeches by Osama bin Laden while he was there, which was typical of the experiences of new recruits, and Balzuhair was accused of traveling to Afghanistan in April or May 2001, attending al-Farouq on three occasions, and serving on the Taliban front lines near Bagram. A greater degree of commitment was hinted at in the case of Saleh, who reportedly traveled to Afghanistan to join the jihad in 2000, and trained extensively at al-Farouq, but al-Marwalah’s story is probably the most revealing, as he was the only one of the four who took part in his tribunal.

Al-Marwalah admitted traveling to Afghanistan in September 2000 and training at al-Farouq and another camp (the Malek Military Center), but said that he then returned to Yemen to see his family, and especially his father, who was ill. He said that he then returned to Afghanistan in August 2001 and attended al-Farouq again, but refuted an allegation that he had participated in military operations against the US-led coalition, and said that he had fled to Pakistan, where he was later arrested. When the tribunal asked him why he had gone to Afghanistan, he said that he wanted to train to fight in Chechnya, and when he was asked, “Are you a member of al-Qaeda?” he said, “I don’t know. I know I am an Arab fighter.” He also stated that he had never seen Osama bin Laden.

Notes

Muhammed (ISN 644); Gul (ISN 636); Akhber (ISN 635); Habib Ullah (ISN 626); Farouq (ISN 633); Mehmood (ISN 624); Bameri (ISN 623); Anwarkurd (ISN 676): ARB Factors Set 1, pp. 75-6; al-Shammari (ISN 647): ARB 2 Factors Set 7, pp. 90-2; al-Qahtani (ISN 650): ARB 2 Factors Set 7, pp. 93-4; Abu Kabir (ISN 651): CSRT Set 52, pp. 116-24; Kasimbekov (ISN 675): CSRT Set 49, pp. 36-45; Wazir (ISN 631): CSRT Set 36, pp. 28-36; Shams Ullah (ISN 783): CSRT Set 11, pp. 11-12; Esmhatulla (ISN 591): ARB Set 1, pp. 1-7; Karim (ISN 975): ARB Set 3, pp. 71-4; Amin Ullah (ISN 848): CSRT Set 34, pp. 12-16; Hekmat (ISN 670): CSRT Set 50, pp. 59-70; Nasir (ISN 874): CSRT Set 47, pp. 5-10; Gul (ISN 782): CSRT Set 11, pp. 13-28; Omari (ISN 832): CSRT Set 36, pp. 37-41; Shawali Khan (ISN 899): CSRT Set 24, pp. 1-8; ARB Set 9, pp. 118-130; Hashim (ISN 850): CSRT Set 34, pp. 17-19; Obaidullah (ISN 762): CSRT Set 42, pp. 42-52; ARB Set 8, pp. 219-30; Jawad (ISN 900): CSRT Set 44, pp. 33-8; ARB Set 9, pp. 131-41; al-Darbi (ISN 768): CSRT Factors Set 7, p. 8; al-Kazimi (ISN 1453): CSRT Set 34, pp. 26-8; Saleh (ISN 836): CSRB Set 3, p. 152; al-Marwalah (ISN 837): CSRT Set 4, pp. 65-70; Balzuhair (ISN 838): CSRB Set 3, p. 276; Nashir (ISN 841): CSRT Set 10, pp. 24-6.

Additional note

This online chapter was published on February 7, 2009. On February 15, 2009, the story of Shawali Khan (ISN 899) was added.

Abbreviations used in the Notes (amended April 2012)

“CSRT” and “ARB” refer to the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which were held at Guantánamo from July 2004 to March 2005, and the first round of Administrative Review Boards, annual reviews held from December 2004 onwards. The transcripts of these hearings, released by the Pentagon in March and April 2006, can be found here. In addition to the transcripts of the CSRT and ARB hearings, this page also provides access to the Unclassified Summaries of Evidence for over a hundred ARB hearings.

“CSRB” refers to the Combatant Status Review Boards. These documents, which comprise the Unclassified Summaries of Evidence for 517 of the 558 CSRT hearings, were released by the Pentagon in 2005 under Freedom of Information legislation, although they are no longer online. For these transcripts, I have chosen a numbering system similar to that used for the CSRT and ARB hearings, so that, for example, “March 2005 Release” becomes “CSRB Set 3.”

“ARB 2” refers to the second round of Administrative Review Boards. The transcripts of these hearings, released by the Pentagon in September 2007 (after I completed The Guantánamo Files) can be found on the same Pentagon page as linked to above, under the heading “Administrative Review Board (ARB) Documents –- Round Two” and the sub-heading “Transcripts and Certain Documents from Administrative Review Boards (ARB) Round Two (held at Guantánamo in 2006).” Also included are the Unclassified Summaries for all the second round ARB hearings, under the sub-heading “Summaries of Detention-Release Factors for Administrative Review Boards (ARB) Round Two (held at Guantánamo),” which are referred to in the Notes as “ARB 2 Factors,” and below these are heavily redacted documents explaining decisions relating to the release or transfer of detainees. Also included are links to detailed and very useful indexes.

The documents released in September 2007 also augmented the information contained in previously released documents. This release has now been incorporated into the Pentagon page linked to above, but in the Notes above there are references to all the Unclassified Summaries from the CSRT process (with names and ISN numbers) — only 517 of which had been previously issued without names or numbers (see “CSRB” above) — which were included in this release of documents, and references to these documents are labeled as “CSRT Factors.” This release also included all the Unclassified Summaries from the first round ARBs, instead of the limited number released in 2006 (see “ARB Factors” above), and references to these documents in the Notes are labeled “ARB Factors Sep 07.” Also included are heavily redacted documents explaining decisions relating to the release or transfer of detainees.

“ISN” refers to “Internment Serial Numbers,” the unique number assigned to each prisoner in Guantánamo. A list of the 558 prisoners (identified by name, nationality and ISN) who went through the CSRT process can be found here. A list of 759 prisoners, including the 201 released or transferred before the CSRT process began (identified by name, nationality, date and place of birth and ISN), can be found here.

Some of the references in the Notes will not correspond to the files on the Pentagon’s current CSRT/ARB page, and if this is the case, then readers are directed to the New York Times‘ excellent project, The Guantánamo Docket, where all the CSRT and ARB documents can be searched for using the prisoners’ names or ISN numbers.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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Andy Worthington

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