This article was originally published on May 23, 2008. 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 5 of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (Pluto Press, 2007) tells the stories of 21 prisoners captured in Pakistan, after crossing the border from Afghanistan, on December 15 and 16, 2001, at the tail-end of the battle for Tora Bora, discussed in Chapter 4.
According to a press report at the time, a total of 39 “suspected al-Qaeda members” — mostly Yemenis — were captured at this time, and as I report in Chapter 4, four of these men — Abdallah Tabarak, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, Ibrahim al-Qosi and Mohammed al-Qahtani — were to become regarded as extremely significant.
Although Tabarak was mysteriously released in 2004, the other three remain in Guantánamo. In July 2003 al-Bahlul and al-Qosi were put forward for trial by Military Commission (the system dreamt up in November 2001 by Dick Cheney and his close advisers) for their alleged involvement with al-Qaeda, but the charges were dropped when the Commissions were ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in June 2006. A revised version of the Commissions was passed later that year, and at the start of this year both men were charged again. Joining them in February was al-Qahtani, who was one of six prisoners charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks, but when the charges were finalized in May he was dropped without explanation.
As I explain in Chapter 4, the majority of the men captured at this time — a group of 30, apparently seized together — seem, for the most part, to have been lumped together as members of al-Qaeda, even though the men themselves have presented themselves either as simple Taliban foot soldiers with no insight whatsoever into the events of 9/11 or the workings of al-Qaeda, or as completely innocent men — missionaries or humanitarian aid workers — who joined the group as they were fleeing death and destruction in Afghanistan.
What makes this situation even more complicated is that, although these 30 prisoners were accused of being bodyguards for Osama bin Laden, the allegations were made by Mohammed al-Qahtani, at some point during the long months that he was tortured at Guantánamo, in late 2002 and early 2003. In addition, at least one of the men — Farouq Saif, a young Yemeni discussed in Chapter 4, who had been teaching the Koran to Afghan children — was the victim of deliberate lies on the part of another prisoner in Guantánamo, whose false allegations, against 60 prisoners in total, were unearthed by Saif’s Personal Representative after his military tribunal at Guantánamo in 2004, when he had vehemently denied an allegation that he had been seen at Osama bin Laden’s private airport in Kandahar. With the exception of one other prisoner, a young Syrian named Mohammed al-Tumani (discussed in Chapter 7), the identities of the other falsely accused prisoners have never been revealed, although it’s probable that some of the men discussed below were also victims of this notorious liar, who was first identified by FBI agents working at Guantánamo.
The tribunals — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) — were convened to assess whether the prisoners had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” who could therefore be held without charge or trial. Although the tribunals allowed the prisoners to tell their stories, they were condemned as “kangaroo courts” by lawyers and human rights groups, because the prisoners were not allowed legal representation, and were not allowed to see or hear classified “evidence” that was often obtained through torture, coercion or bribery. Last year, noticeably, the tribunals were savaged by former military insiders who took part in them, and in particular by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who resigned from the military in March.
Of the 21 men profiled in Chapter 4, four had been released at the time of writing, and another two — the Saudis Yahya al-Silami and Abdulrazaq al-Sharikh — were released in July and September 2007. While seven of these men — in addition to the four “significant” prisoners mentioned above — admitted to, or were accused of involvement with the Taliban, the other ten maintained that they were innocent men, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, who had never been involved in any kind of militancy.
Of the 17 other men whose stories are described below, the figures are similar. Six admitted, or were accused of being involved with the Taliban, one stray Pakistani said that he was seized after visiting relatives in Afghanistan, and the other ten insisted that they too were missionaries — and, in one case, a failed drug smuggler — who, for the most part, had hooked up with other Arabs while fleeing Afghanistan, and had no idea why they were apprehended.
Nine of the 17 said that they had traveled to Afghanistan to perform missionary work, and while their stories are not necessarily as expansive or as well-argued as others reported in Chapter 4, it’s worth remembering that they were up against allegations made under torture by Mohammed al-Qahtani, and that some were also possibly prey to the “notorious liar” who falsely accused Farouq Saif of being in Afghanistan when he was at school in the Yemen.
It’s also worth noting that, as with every prisoner at Guantánamo, references to allegations made by unnamed “al-Qaeda” sources should also be treated warily, as, from what I and other researchers have been able to deduce, they frequently refer to confessions made not only by other prisoners in Guantánamo, but also by one or other of the 14 “high-value detainees” who were held and tortured in secret CIA custody for up to three and a half years before being transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006, or, indeed, to other confessions made by “ghost prisoners” whose whereabouts are still unknown.
A case in point is Ali al-Rahizi, a Yemeni who was 22 years old at the time of his capture. Although al-Rahizi, in common with the majority of the men described here, refused to take part in either his CSRT or the tribunals’ successors, the annual Administrative Review Boards (ARBs), his own story is clear from parts of the Unclassified Summary of Evidence against him from his second ARB in 2006; specifically, that he “did not go to Afghanistan to fight,” and that he “went to Afghanistan to teach the Koran because the Imam at his mosque told him that the Afghans were using magic and were not following the teachings of Islam.” It was also reported that a facilitator, who arranged his visit, had “told [him] that he should go to Afghanistan to teach the Koran,” that he “taught the Koran to Afghan children at the Abu Bakur al-Sadiq mosque in Shurandam” (in Kandahar province), where he “worked directly for the mosque Imam,” that the Imam told him about the US-led invasion of October 2001, and advised him to return home, that he traveled towards the Pakistani border via Ghazni and Khost, and that, after two days of walking towards a small town, he “joined approximately 30 other Arabs who had assembled to flee Afghanistan,” and who subsequently traveled together for eight days before being arrested on the Pakistani border by the Pakistani authorities.
Set up against al-Rahizi’s account — and his explanation of how the group of 30 Arabs had gathered in the first place — are just three unsubstantiated pieces of “evidence”: that he “has been identified as someone who trained at al-Farouq [the main camp for Arabs, associated with Osama bin Laden in the years before 9/11] at the end of May 2000,” that he “has been identified as an Osama bin Laden bodyguard,” and that he was seen “several times” at a guest house in Kandahar, which was presumably associated with military training camps, although this was not actually mentioned.
Noticeably, an earlier allegation — that he was “the Amir of a small mudaffah in Kandahar,” which “billeted fighters pending further training or operational assignment,” and was “operated by the Operations and Logistical elements of al-Qaeda” — had been dropped by the time of his second ARB, and, although it doesn’t necessarily prove anything, his lawyers also submitted a letter in which al-Rahizi’s brother, while noting that their mother had died while Ali was in Guantánamo, and that their father “prays for him all the time,” stated that Ali had “a very beautiful and polite manner” and that his religion, which he took “very seriously,” “forbids him to kill or harm anyone.”
Mohammed al-Ansi and Ahmed al-Hikimi
While it remains difficult to establish the identities of the prisoners against whom false allegations were made by the liar who accused Farouq Saif of being at Osama bin Laden’s private airport in Kandahar, it’s probable that two of his other victims are Yemenis: 26-year old Mohammed al-Ansi and 29-year old Ahmed al-Hikimi.
According to the Summary of Evidence for his second round ARB in September 2006, al-Ansi, who said that he “decided to go to Afghanistan to assist in the Koranic education of Afghans” after hearing a local imam speak in the Yemen, and added that he and some friends taught the Koran in a village outside Khost, was bombarded with allegations, from Mohammed al-Qahtani and others, relating to his purported involvement with Osama bin Laden. A “senior al-Qaeda operative” claimed that he saw him at a training camp and that, moreover, he swore bayat (a pledge of loyalty) to Osama bin Laden, and also allegedly identified al-Ansi as “one of the martyrs (sic) who had been readied for al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asia hijacking plan of 11 September 2001 (a plot that seems uniquely associated with al-Ansi). In addition, the “senior al-Qaeda operative” and other unidentified sources described him as being one of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards, and another source, or sources, claimed that he was “a close friend with the personal secretary to Osama bin Laden,” and that he was seen “many times at Osama bin Laden’s house.” The crucial allegation, which suggests that he was also accused by the liar who made false allegations against 60 prisoners, is that he was identified by a source “guarding Osama bin Laden at the Kandahar, Afghanistan airport.”
Missing from claims aired at al-Ansi’s ARB hearing the year before (which he attended) were his own claims that he had never even been in Afghanistan, and had been captured in Pakistan, where he had been teaching the Koran, and a bin Laden bodyguard allegation that was presumably removed by the military because it undermined almost everything else: a declaration by an “al-Qaeda operative” that “all of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards were arrested two weeks before the fall of Kabul” (i.e. at the end of October 2001). Al-Ansi was so disturbed by the allegations against him that he told his review board, “All of the prisoners here are trying to leave this place. All the prisoners are telling lies about other prisoners just to get out of here. All these allegations are lies and I want the truth.” He also asked to see the papers from his CSRT, saying, “There is no proof whatsoever that I was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, and no proof that I have ever received any training. It is my right to request the people who said these things and made these allegations against me.”
Al-Hikimi was subjected to similar allegations. An “al-Qaeda operative” claimed to have seen him at the al-Farouq camp and in Kabul in 1999, and said that he “would drive from the front line to the mountains once a week to supply food to the brothers.” Other unnamed sources also identified him as a driver, and “an escort for Osama bin Laden and his family” said that he saw him fighting on the front lines against the Northern Alliance. Crucially, another anonymous source identified him “as an associate of the Kandahar Airport Group.”
Al-Hikimi’s own, detailed story was rather different. He said that in 1999 a man described, unnecessarily, as a “facilitator,” suggested that he “could become a better Muslim by going to a Muslim country to teach children the Koran.” He explained that, after selling his taxi business, he traveled to Khost, where he met a local student with whom he spent about eight months teaching in various villages, and then returned to the Yemen, traveling again in February 2001, when, he said, he hooked up with the student once more and resumed teaching. He added that in November, when he heard that General Dostum of the Northern Alliance had taken the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif from the Taliban, and then heard that the Northern Alliance had taken Kabul, he decided to leave because they “were killing Arabs.” He went on to explain that his friend threw his passport out of a taxi window as they left Khost, telling him that without it he “could not be positively identified as an Arab,” but that when he crossed the Pakistani border on December 15, 2001 (“with 30 suspected al-Qaeda members,” as the US authorities put it), he was seized by the Pakistani authorities.
Abdullah al-Yafi, a 31-year old Yemeni farmer, who had served for two and a half years in the Yemeni army when he was younger, explained that “at various times,” in mosques he attended, he had “listened to sermons urging Muslims to seek a better life for themselves.” After hearing a particular sermon by Sheikh Muqbil al-Wadi, al-Yafi said that, although it was “a tough decision,” he “decided to return home and sell his sheep so that he could travel to Afghanistan to teach.” Overlooked by the US authorities, although readily available through Wikipedia, is the fact that Sheikh al-Wadi, who died in 2001, had been critical of Osama bin Laden, accusing him of being the head of all sectarianism, partisanship, division, and religious ignorance, and blaming him for putting money into weapons while ignoring his religion.
In Guantánamo, al-Yafi explained that he spent two years in Afghanistan teaching the Koran, and fled in early December 2001, when he “joined a group of thirty-one Arabs guided by three guides.” He added that they traveled “through the mountains and valleys for many days” before reaching the border, where they were arrested.
Against this, the US authorities produced another array of unsubstantiated allegations, which appear to have involved the exploitation of several “high-value detainees”: one, a “senior al-Qaeda commander,” apparently “recognized the detainee’s face as a Yemeni he saw at the Kabul guest house, probably in the 1999-2000 time frame”; another, a “senior al-Qaeda lieutenant,” stated less confidently that he “recalled possibly seeing the detainee at the al-Zubayr guest house” before 9/11; and an alleged “bodyguard of Osama bin Laden stated he saw the detainee (circa 1999) at an Arab compound in Kandahar.” It was also stated, without any additional explanation whatsoever, that he “was seen at Tora Bora.”
A prisoner captured at Tora Bora, December 2001.
Although almost nothing is known about any of these prisoners’ experiences at Guantánamo, al-Yafi appears to have taken part in the vast hunger strike, involving as many as 200 prisoners, which began in summer 2005, and which was only finally broken in early 2006, when the military shipped in a number of restraint chairs to break the strikers’ will by rendering them completely immobile throughout their force-feeding. According to records of the prisoners’ weight that were released in 2006, al-Yafi weighed 165 pounds (11 stone 11 pounds) on arrival, but his weight dropped to just 109 pounds (7 stone 11 pounds) in September 2005.
Idris Qader Idris
The story of Idris Qader Idris, a 22-year old Yemeni, was unknown while I was writing The Guantánamo Files. The transcripts for the CSRTs and the first round of the ARBs, on which the majority of my research was based, were released by the Pentagon between March and May 2006, after the Associated Press, who had first filed requests under Freedom of Information legislation, took the government to court — and won — when the administration refused to cooperate. A second batch of documents, which included new documents relating to the second round of the ARBs, but which also included additional information about the CSRTs and the first round of the ARBs, was released after another FOIA request by the AP in September 2007, and it is from these documents that Idris’s story emerged, along with the stories of several dozen other detainees, which were, until that time, completely unknown.
In the Unclassified Summary of Evidence against Idris, it was alleged that he “decided to go to Afghanistan in April 2001 at the suggestion of Mohammed al-Qadi, imam of the al-Khair mosque,” and that he taught the Koran in Kabul for approximately eight months. It was also noted, under “primary factors favor[ing] release or transfer,” that he “denied going to fight or train in Afghanistan and said he has never fired a weapon of any kind. [He] continues to say he went to Afghanistan to teach the Koran.”
Set against Idris’s own story were just two allegations: that the individual who facilitated his travel to Afghanistan “has been identified by a known al-Qaeda member as a fund collector and recruiter for al-Qaeda,” and that the group of 30 Arabs that he joined as he fled Afghanistan for Pakistan was “organized” by Mohammed Annas, a “known alias” of Ali Hamza Ismail (aka Ali Hamza al-Bahlul), described as a “media coordinator for Osama bin Laden,” who allegedly “promised to help the detainee and others raise funds to permit their return to Yemen once the party reached Pakistan.”
Similarly inconclusive is the story of Saud al-Mahayawi, a 25-year old Saudi (released in July 2007), whose story was completely unknown until two months after his release, when, like that of Idris Qader Idris, it was part of the package of documents released by the Pentagon. According to the allegations against him, he had not even traveled to Afghanistan until “the latter part of 2001,” when his “religious pilgrimage” began, following a meeting at a prayer session with an Afghan, who “explained that the people of his country needed to be instructed concerning the Koran.” Revealing their cultural ignorance, those who compiled the Summary of Evidence against al-Mahayawi noted that he “later contacted the Afghan and expressed interest in going to Afghanistan to teach the Koran, despite [his] inability to speak the language,” an observation which indicates that the authors had clearly failed to comprehend that, as the literal word of God transmitted to the Prophet Mohammed in Arabic, the Koran is always learned and recited in Arabic, even if those learning it speak other languages.
Al-Mahayawi said that he sold his business and his car to raise the money to travel to Peshawar in Pakistan, where he was met by the Afghan, who took him to Khost to teach the Koran. He explained that he believed that, after about a month, his Afghan friend stole about 5,000 Saudi Riyals from him (about $1,300), which made him “very depressed and angry” so that he “thought about going home.” When the US-led invasion began, he stated that he “feared for his life,” and asked the owner of the house he was staying in to arrange for a guide to take him to the Pakistani border, where, he said, he “surrendered himself to the Pakistani border patrol,” who “subsequently turned [him] over to the American authorities.”
In contrast to al-Mahayawi’s story, the US authorities alleged that he “was captured with an individual who stated he first met the detainee in Tora Bora,” and that he “was identified as an al-Qaeda fighter at a guard post in the valley” between Jalalabad and Tora Bora, where he “was armed with a Kalashnikov (AK-47) and fired his weapon after coming under fire from Afghans in the valley.” Another mysterious individual “stated that although the detainee claimed affiliation with Jamaat-al-Tablighi [a vast apolitical proselytizing organization, with millions of members worldwide], he was actually a fighter at Tora Bora.” In addition, Mohammed al-Qahtani’s allegation about Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards surfaced in the claim that “Several of the individuals in the group with whom the detainee was captured are believed to have been bodyguards of Osama bin Laden,” and there was also one more unspecified, and very vague allegation attributed to a “senior al-Qaeda operative,” who apparently “identified the detainee and believed he saw him in Afghanistan.”
Osama bin Laden and bodyguards, from al-Qaeda footage bought by CNN and CBS in 2002.
Also released in July 2007 was Muhammad al-Jihani, a former taxi driver from Saudi Arabia who was 34 years old at the time of his capture, and who was so unforthcoming in his tribunal that it was impossible to ascertain anything other than the fact that he claimed that he too had been teaching the Koran. The Summary of Evidence against him, also released after he was freed, adds a little to the picture, but not very much.
Al-Jihani said that he had traveled to Afghanistan in June 2000, using his own money to pay for his travel, in order “to perform Islamic missionary work after hearing several fatwas issued by Imams in Jeddah,” and clearly refuted all claims that he had traveled for other reasons, including those made by “a source” (presumably Mohammed al-Qahtani) who identified him “as one of 30 men who were Osama bin Laden bodyguards and drivers,” and another unidentified source who identified him as “one who visited Kabul, Afghanistan for approximately two weeks between fighting on the front lines.” In addition, a “senior al-Qaeda operative” allegedly claimed that al-Jihani “might have stayed at the Hamza al-Ghamdi guest house in Kabul,” and an “admitted jihadist” described him as a mujahideen fighter in Afghanistan, who “taught the Koran, fought at Tora Bora, Afghanistan and was one of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards.”
The thinnest set of allegations were those leveled against 24-year old Musa al-Wahab, a Saudi who was released in June 2006. By his own account, he “received a fatwa to conduct Dawa activity [providing religious guidance] in Afghanistan,” and “used his own money to pay for his trip,” but he was, typically, the brunt of other, unsubstantiated claims. Although he was not specifically accused of being a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden — it was noted, instead, that he was “captured with a group of 30 individuals that include some of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards and a weapons trainer” — he “was reported to have attended a known terrorist training camp,” and to have “been in Tora Bora,” where it was additionally “reported” that he was “an Emir of a group of fighters.” Apparently jailed in Saudi Arabia for theft (with two Nigerians who were later deported), he was variously — and confusingly — described as being on a foreign government watch list for a supposed trip to Chechnya (not mentioned elsewhere), regarded as a “high priority” detainee by the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, and regarded by a foreign government service (the Saudis again, surely?) as being of “low intelligence or law enforcement value to the United States and also unlikely to pose a terrorist threat to the US or its interests.” His release, of course, suggests that the latter was true.
Abdul Rahman Shalabi, a long-term hunger striker
The last of the prisoners who claimed that they were missionaries is Abdul Rahman Shalabi, a Saudi who was 26 years old at the time of his capture. Shalabi is mentioned in The Guantánamo Files, because he is one of Guantánamo’s most persistent hunger strikers, and, with another prisoner, Ahmed Zuhair, has been on hunger strike since August 2005. According to the weight records issued by the Pentagon in 2007, Shalabi, who weighed 124 pounds (8 stone 12 pounds) on arrival at Guantánamo in January 2002, also took part in a hunger strike in the fall of 2003, when he was force-fed daily, and weighed just 100 pounds (7 stone 2 pounds) in November 2005. When the publicly issued records ended in December 2006, he apparently weighed 150 pounds (10 stone 10 pounds), but even if this is true — and released al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj recently noted that the staff often cheat during the weighing sessions by leaning on the equipment or adding the weight of the prisoner’s shackles — the toll on his health of being strapped into a restraint chair twice a day for over two and a half years and force-fed through a tube inserted into his stomach through his nose (and removed after each session to make the experience even more uncomfortable) must be immense.
A diagram of the restraint chair used at Guantánamo. Its manufacturers describe it as “like a padded cell ‘on wheels.’”
Shalabi’s story, typically, follows the pattern established above. According to certain statements in his Unclassified Summary of Evidence, he “stated he left college without obtaining a degree after being urged by several of the instructors at the college to go to Afghanistan to teach Islam to the Afghanistan (sic) people,” and an unidentified source stated that he “was teaching at a madrassa” in Kandahar, which was, incidentally, “funded by senior Taliban officials,” and that, moreover, he “taught over 300 men” at the madrassa and was “very well known.”
Set against this picture of a knowledgeable religious figure was an array of unattributed allegations of militancy, including claims that he “came to Afghanistan around 1997 and became a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden after 1998,” or, perhaps, that he was “related to a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.” Other unidentified sources said that they saw him in Kabul and Jalalabad “approximately ten times with Osama bin Laden in the latter part of 2001 and identified him as Osama bin Laden’s security guard,” that they saw him “speaking directly with Osama bin Laden” and that he “was with him at all times while in Tora Bora,” and that they saw him with bin Laden “at a stone house built into a mountain while they were on their way to Tora Bora.”
The drug dealer
The story of Salim al-Harbi, a 33-year old Saudi (released in December 2006), was unknown until nine months after his release, when the Pentagon released its second big batch of documents, but it provided a break from most other narratives with its bold statements that al-Harbi, who “left Mecca to get away from debts he owed from his failing business,” sold his automobile and decided to go to Afghanistan “to make a profit from the drug trade,” or, as he put it elsewhere, because he wanted “to get away from everything and stay high,” as opium and hashish were “very cheap in Afghanistan.” He was apparently no stranger to drugs and jails, as it was stated in his Unclassified Summary of Evidence that he was jailed in Mecca “after some financial problems with Interpol in 1998-99,” that he was also jailed — both in Riyadh and the UAE — for defrauding a telephone company, and that he also “spent two years in prison for stealing and possession of a controlled substance.”
Al-Harbi claimed that he stayed with a drug dealer in Khost, and “had access to the drug trade,” and he also seems to have come into contact with Jamaat-al-Tablighi, who, he pointed out, were “known to pay off the debts of members willing to travel for the group,” and, it should be noted, were also more than likely to want to “save” a drug addict who came into contact with them. Although the US authorities doubted his story that he was taken to the Pakistani border and apprehended either after being injured in a motorbike accident or while traveling in a bus that was hit in a US bombing raid, they secured little in the way of allegations against him, other than a claim that his trip was facilitated by a man who later became a jihadist martyr, and, bizarrely, that his alias was found “in the pocket litter of a Mujahedin (sic) traveling from Bosnia to Croatia in 1996.” It is unknown whether his stated aim on his return to Saudi Arabia — to “build a house and open a restaurant” — came true.
A random Pakistani
The stray Pakistani captured at this time is Asadullah Jan, identified by the Pentagon as Asad Ullah, who was released from Guantánamo in July 2003. Interviewed by Tom Lasseter of McClatchy Newspapers for a major report on 66 released prisoners in 2008, Jan was clearly nervous when he met Lasseter in Abbottabad, in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. Now working as a construction worker, Jan explained that he “has to check in regularly with police,” who “watch his movements closely,” and added that in 2007, after he met with representatives of a Western aid group, who “wanted to know about his experiences in Guantánamo and his treatment in Pakistan after he was released,” agents of Pakistan’s notorious military intelligence service (the ISI) “hauled him in for four days of interrogations and threats.”
Although the Pentagon claimed that Jan was 20 years old when he was seized, he explained to Lasseter that he was just 16 when, as he described it, Pakistani police arrested him at a checkpoint in Kohat, Pakistan, as he returned from visiting members of his extended family in the Afghan province of Zormat. Lasseter was unable to verify this story, of course, although he noted that Jan’s father, who had spoken to a Pakistani translator working for McClatchy, had mentioned that he had said that his son “had been convinced to go [to Afghanistan] by some friends.”
However, while this may suggest that he had in fact traveled to assist the Taliban, it was clearly no basis for what happened next. As Jan explained, he was taken to Peshawar jail, where many of the foreigners captured crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan were also held, and after about a month was taken to be interrogated by three CIA agents, who, he said, had some “surprising questions.” “One of them asked if I was the son of Osama bin Laden,” he said, adding, “The Pakistani intelligence had told them this.” Despite explaining that he was “born to a family of Afghan refugees in Pakistan who originally were from Zormat and that he made regular trips back to his ancestral home,” he was transferred to the US prison at Kandahar airport a few days later.
His descriptions of his experiences match many other accounts of the typical abuse at Kandahar, which I reported at length in Chapter 8 of The Guantánamo Files. “They took us to a tent, and stripped off all my clothes and took pictures of me naked, wearing shackles,” he said. “The soldiers were laughing at me. Then four of the soldiers came around me and began kicking and punching me. I fell down and tried to stand up but they kept hitting me. I could hear them laughing.” He also described how he and 15 other men “slept on the dirt, surrounded by a perimeter of concertina wire.” “We were sitting on the ground, in winter, with no blanket,” he said. “I had bruises on my body from the beating; my bones hurt.”
After about a month at Kandahar, Jan was flown to Guantánamo. He explained that, although he weighed about 132 pounds when he was initially arrested, his weight had dropped to 100 pounds on his arrival at Guantánamo. He also said that he was “interrogated more than 100 times: What is your name? Where are you from? Why were you in Afghanistan? Are you a member of the Taliban? Are you a member of al-Qaeda?” And although he only spent 18 months in Guantánamo, he said that he was still haunted by the experience. “I never feel relaxed,” he said. “There’s always something bothering me, there’s always something pressing down on my mind.” He added, “pointing to his receding hairline and haggard face,” as Lasseter described it, “I used to be very healthy and good-looking. But look at me now. You would never guess that I’m 22.”
The Taliban foot soldiers
Of the six men who admitted fighting with the Taliban — or were unable to come up with any other viable explanation for their presence in Afghanistan — it’s noticeable that none of them qualify as significant players with any meaningful connection to al-Qaeda or those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. As with the prisoners described above, mentions of al-Qaeda are strictly a one-way process, with allegations made by unidentified “al-Qaeda members,” and no means provided of verifying whether any of the claims are trustworthy.
The first of the six, Muaz al-Alawi, a 24-year old Yemeni, is probably the most noteworthy, because he admitted that he had initially told a false story — about traveling to Afghanistan “to teach the Koran to young Afghan children” — but later confirmed that in fact he had “decided to go join the Taliban and fight the Northern Alliance,” and that both he and his cousin “decided to travel to Afghanistan to seek martyrdom fighting for their faith.” On arrival in Afghanistan, al-Alawi apparently spent five to six months on “a middle line position” near Bagram, north of Kabul, and then moved further north to Kunduz, where he fought until air strikes drove him and others south to Khost. He then “joined a group led by an individual [he] identifies as one of the most important al-Qaeda members” for the flight to Pakistan, where he was arrested “for not having a passport and transferred to United States custody.”
Noticeably, amongst a scattering of allegations by “al-Qaeda operatives” that appeared to add conflicting details to al-Alawi’s own story — a claim by one “al-Qaeda operative” that he had met him in 1998 at a training camp in Khost, for example, and a patently untrue allegation that a “source” identified him as “a Mujahedin (sic) who was captured at Tora Bora” — were two other familiar and suspicious allegations: that a source observed him “pulling security at the Kandahar, Afghanistan airport compound” belonging to Osama bin Laden, and that another source “claimed that the detainee was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, and stated the (sic) he personally saw the detainee with Osama bin Laden approximately one month before Ramadan.”
A second soldier, Majid Ahmad, a 21-year old Yemeni, straightforwardly admitted that he “first learned of jihad in Afghanistan “ at an institute in the Yemen, “and then wanted to fight along with the Taliban.” He added that he “prayed and fell in love with the idea of dying for the sake of God,” and after being given a fatwa by a sheikh, who told him during a telephone call that “it was a good thing for Muslims to go fight jihad,” traveled to Afghanistan and “fought for the Taliban the two years he was in Kabul.” While there were numerous allegations about bin Laden — the most suspicious being a claim that he “was an Osama bin Laden bodyguard and was usually by his side” — another strikingly dubious allegation was that Sheikh al-Wadi — mentioned in connection with one of his followers, with whom Ahmad had apparently studied in the Yemen — was “said to have ideological links with Osama bin Laden,” whereas the truth, as established above, was exactly the opposite.
If these two examples at least provide some sort of evidence of militancy — albeit of would-be martyrs joining the Taliban to fight other Muslims, rather than joining al-Qaeda to wage war on the United States — the stories of the other “soldiers” are far more vague. Saif bin Abdullah, for example, a Tunisian-born Italian resident, who was 28 years old at the time of his capture, is so insignificant that he has been cleared for release from Guantánamo. Apparently persuaded to travel to Afghanistan during a vacation from work, he spent some time at a mountain outpost north of Kabul, and was later wounded when a truck he was traveling in was shot at. Hospitalized, first in Kabul, and then in Khost, he was transported to the Pakistani border, where he was “detained and captured by the Pakistani authorities.”
Frustratingly little is known of Abdullah al-Hamiri, a 22-year old citizen of the United Arab Emirates, who allegedly “served as an interpreter” for the physician of a small training camp, “manned an observation post and constructed defensive positions” on the front lines in Kabul, and “was linked to various individuals suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda.” Al-Hamiri has probably been regarded with particular suspicion because he was apparently a student at Portland State University and left the United States “to help the Taliban build an Islamic State in Afghanistan,” but as the authorities also concede, he has “continued to refuse to speak or answer questions posed to him during interviews.”
The last two stories are, simply, confusing. Abdel Qadir al-Mudafari, a 25-year old Yemeni, apparently “stated that he wanted a struggle or jihad and chose to travel to Afghanistan rather than Palestine.” Allegedly “observed” at al-Farouq, where he was “identified as a trainer,” who “taught topography and weapons use to all the classes at the advance (sic) training camp,” he was also identified by “an al-Qaeda operative” as being “a friend of Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary,” was also, predictably, identified as a guard or security guard for bin Laden, and was also “identified as being at a Taliban Supreme Leader’s (sic) compound.” Confusing matters were notes that he had received instruction in Yemen from Sheikh al-Wadi (who was opposed to bin Laden, as mentioned above), and a claim by another unidentified source, who “stated that he did not think that the detainee ever fought with the Taliban because he was against the Taliban.”
The story of Majid al-Barayan, a Saudi, released in September 2007, who was 29 years old when he was captured, is similarly inconclusive. Accused, probably, by the notorious liar, who said that he “saw the detainee at Osama bin Laden’s private airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan in early 2001,” he was also identified, by unnamed sources and “an al-Qaeda member,” as “being on the front lines near Taloqan,” in northern Afghanistan, in April 2001, when he apparently “was assigned to an anti-aircraft artillery weapon,” of attending al-Farouq, of being in Tora Bora, and, most bluntly, of being “a member of al-Qaeda.” For his part, al-Barayan had clearly attempted to portray himself as a missionary, but his interrogators were unconvinced, noting that, although he claimed that he taught children in an orphanage, he did not know the name of the orphanage or any of the children’s names, and could not remember how many children were at the establishment. In addition, a hint that he may indeed have been at Tora Bora came in the following passage: “When the detainee was asked if things were confusing during the fighting, with people running up the hills and back down again, and many people dying, he replied, yes. When the detainee was asked if he fired at the Americans, he replied, no, not at the Americans. We could not see them.”
Readers can, of course, draw their own conclusions from these stories (although they should, I stress, be read in conjunction with Chapter 5 of The Guantánamo Files, which contains far more detailed accounts), but while the overriding rationale for detaining these men — their alleged role as bodyguards for Osama bin Laden — remains as dubious as ever (not only because of al-Qahtani’s infamously tortured confession, but also because it is, frankly, unthinkable that bin Laden would surround himself with anyone other than long-serving and deeply trusted bodyguards), nothing in the stories of any of these men — whose only “crime” seems to have been a desire to join the Taliban in an inter-Muslim civil war with the Northern Alliance that long predated 9/11 — indicates that they should still be locked up without charge or trial after six and a half years.
The truth, sadly, is that in the game of politics that constitutes the rationale for releasing the prisoners, almost all the Yemenis — including those described above — are still held in Guantánamo, even though the majority of the Saudis, whose circumstances were remarkable similar, were repatriated last year.
Al-Rahizi (ISN 45): ARB 2 Factors Set 1, pp. 86-8; ARB Factors Set 1, pp. 38-40; ARB Set 17, pp. 1-6; al-Ansi (ISN 29): ARB 2 Factors Set 1, pp. 38-40; ARB Set 5, pp. 22-35; al-Hikimi (ISN 30): CSRB Set 3, p. 186; ARB 2 Factors Set 1, pp. 41-4; al-Yafi (ISN 34): ARB Set 5, pp. 53-62; ARB 2 Factors Set 1, pp. 56-8; Idris (ISN 35): ARB 2 Factors Set 1, pp. 59-61; al-Mahayawi (ISN 53): ARB 2 Factors Set 2, pp. 8-10; al-Jihani (ISN 62): CSRT Set 34, pp. 29-30; ARB 2 Factors Set 2, pp. 25-6; al-Wahab (ISN 58): CSRB Set 3, p. 145; ARB Factors Sep 07 Set 1, pp. 83-4; Shalabi (ISN 42): ARB 2 Factors Set 1, pp. 74-7; al-Harbi (ISN 57): ARB 2 Factors Set 2, pp. 14-17; Asad Ullah (ISN 47); al-Alawi (ISN 28): CSRB Set 3, pp. 230-1; ARB 2 Factors Set 1, pp. 34-7; Ahmad (ISN 41): ARB 2 Factors Set 1, pp. 71-3; bin Abdullah (ISN 46): ARB 2 Factors Set 1, pp. 89-93; al-Hamiri (ISN 48): ARB 2 Factors Set 1, pp. 94-5; al-Mudafari (ISN 40): ARB 2 Factors Set 1, pp. 69-70; al-Barayan (ISN 51): CSRB Set 3, p. 79; ARB 2 Factors Set 2, pp. 1-3.
This online chapter was published on May 23, 2008. On February 6, 2009, the story of Asadullah Jan (ISN 47), identified as Asad Ullah by the Pentagon, was added, based on an interview with McClatchy Newspapers.
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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