As the Underwear Bomber Receives a Life Sentence in Federal Court, Lawmakers’ Obsession with Military Trials Looks Idiotic


Last Thursday, February 16, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” received a life sentence in a courtroom in Detroit. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, had tried and failed to blow up a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, receiving serious burns when the bomb failed to detonate.

After he was apprehended, he was read his Miranda rights, and interrogated non-coercively by the FBI, but this was not acceptable to supporters of torture, who proceeded to demonstrate that a new phase of fearmongering and paranoia was opening up in what should, by then, have been the dying days of the “war on terror.”

In this new spirit of hysteria, the discovery that he had been recruited for his failed mission in Yemen led to a chorus of demands that no more Guantánamo prisoners should be released to Yemen — from Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), Rep. Peter King (R-NY), and even Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who told Politico, “In terms of sending more of them to return to Yemen, it would be a bit of a reach. I’d, at a minimum, say that whatever we were about to do we’d at least have to scrub it again from top to bottom.”

In response to the hysteria, President Obama issued a moratorium on releasing any more Yemenis from Guantánamo, explaining, at a press briefing on January 5, 2010, just eleven days after the failed attack, “I’ve spoken to the Attorney General and we’ve agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time.”

With one exception, that ban remains in place, with no sign of when, if ever, it will be lifted, meaning that the Yemenis cleared for release by the President ‘s own interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force — 58 men in total — may be held forever, even though some of them were first cleared under President Bush in 2004, and even though holding men cleared for release makes a mockery of any notion of justice, and demonstrates only that, in its overreaction to the events of Christmas Day 2009, the US government is prepared to continue holding men on the basis of what can only be described as “guilt by nationality.”

Six days after the failed attack, Rasmussen, alarmingly, found that 58 percent of Americans believed that Abdulmutallab should have been subjected to waterboarding, even though, in March 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder had correctly stated, “Waterboarding is torture. My Justice Department will not justify it, will not rationalize it and will not condone it.” Then, in the Washington Post, another critic of Abdulmutallab’s treatment, Charles Krauthammer, decided to denounce Holder for failing to send Abdulmutallab to Guantánamo.

Holder fought back. “What we did is totally consistent with what has happened in every similar case” since 9/11, he told Jane Mayer of the New Yorker in February 2010, adding, “There’s a desire to ignore the facts to try to score political points. It’s a little shocking.” Mayer also stated, “Without exception, he noted, every previous terrorist suspect apprehended inside the country had been handled as a civilian criminal.” A senior national security official in the White House supported Holder’s position, explaining, “It’s a fantasy! Under what alternative legal system can Special Operations Forces fly into Detroit, and take someone away without court oversight?”

Kate Martin, the director of the Center for National Security Studies, in Washington D.C., added that the proposal for the military to “simply grab suspects inside the US and hold them without charge or a hearing” was unacceptable because it “violates the Constitution, which extends to everyone inside the US. You can’t be seized without probable cause. You have the right to due process, and to a trial by a jury of your peers — which a military commission is not.”

Mayer noted, appropriately, that confusion may have been engendered by George W. Bush’s treatment of US citizen Jose Padilla and the legal US resident Ali al-Marri, who were both “arrested in the US by law-enforcement officials, and indicted on criminal charges,” but were then declared to be “enemy combatants” by President Bush, and held and tortured them in military custody. After pointing out that “[n]either suspect provided useful intelligence,” Mayer explained that, after the administration’s position was challenged in the courts, President Bush, who was “not willing to risk a Supreme Court defeat, returned the suspects to the civilian system,” where they were eventually tried, convicted and sentenced.

Alarmingly, the paranoia that began with the capture of Abdulmutallab led directly to the most disressing provisions in the recent National Defense Authorization Act, in which lawmakers made it obligatory for all terror suspects allegedly associated with al-Qaeda to be held in mandatory military custody, potentially for life, without charge or trial.

President Obama declared his unwillingness to follow these provisions (although he signed the NDAA into law), and it is uncertain whether any President in future would succeed in holding US citizens or residents in military custody without prompting the Supreme Court to rule against it (as was Bush’s fear regarding Jose Padilla and Ali al-Marri), but it is now the law, and the passage of the NDAA was a dreadful day for justice in America.

The successful conviction of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have demonstrated how disproportionate and unjust the many responses to his capture had been — the support for Guantánamo, the support for waterboarding, the enshrining of mandatory military custody for terror suspects in US law. It is disappointing, but not unexpected, that this has barely been mentioned, if at all, since the sentence was passed.

There is, however, another response to Abdulmutallab’s sentencing that should not be ignored either, and that is how it contrasts with the ongoing developments in the military commissions at Guantánamo. This alternative trial system, first dragged from the history books by Dick Cheney in November 2001, is now in its third incarnation, after Congress ruled Cheney’s version illegal in 2006, and President Obama then decided to tinker with Congress’s replacement in 2009, rather than consigning it to the scrapheap, as those with expertise of legal issues and the military advised him to do.

That was a huge mistake, as it allowed opponents of federal court trials to successfully challenge the planned federal court trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement with the 9/11 attacks (on which, coincidentally, Eric Holder had staked his credibility), and, of course, the resurrection of the commissions also fed into the hysteria about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Since reviving the commissions, the Obama administration has secured three successful results — but only by negotiating plea deals, with two Sudanese prisoners, Ibrahim al-Qosi (a cook in Afghanistan), and Noor Uthman Muhammed (a training camp instructor), and also with Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen and former child prisoner whose conviction was a disgraceful travesty of justice, and a betrayal of any notion that either the US or Canada are committed to the rights of child soldiers.

Since then, there have been fumbling steps towards the prosecution of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi held for over nine years, including four years in secret CIA prisons, where, early on, he was waterboarded, and, last week, military prosecutors announced that they were charging Majid Khan, another of the 14 “high-value detainees” transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006. Khan, a Pakistani national who is now 31 years old, lived as a child in the suburbs of Baltimore, where he graduated from high school in 1999, and then spent some time working at gas stations owned by his family. However, after returning to Pakistan, he allegedly joined al-Qaeda, working with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and is accused of plotting to blow up underground fuel tanks in the US, plotting to assassinate President Musharraf, and allegedly delivering $50,000 to an al-Qaeda group in Indonesia.

Whether any of this is true or not remains to be seen — as does the possibility that Khan is being prepared for a plea deal, which will involve him being a witness against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Little is known about him, because, shamefully, every single word exchanged between the 14 “high-value detainees” and their lawyers over the last five years remains classified, so that their attorneys have been unable to provide any information about them to the public.

What is clear, however, is that there are reasons to believe that Majid Khan was subjected to torture after his capture in Pakistan in March 2003, and that therefore the case against him may not be reliable. As I explained in an article in July 2007, drawing on the military review process (the Combatant Status Review Tribunal) that Khan undertook at Guantánamo in 2007, his father, Ali, wrote to the tribunal, and this is how I described his statements:

“If you think that he did something wrong, show me the evidence. Charge him with a crime and give him a fair trial in a real court. This tribunal is not a real court … It is only for show and the outcome has probably already been decided.” Crucially, he added, “Anything that he may have confessed to, or that other prisoners may have said about him, should also be considered with suspicion because these statements were probably tortured or coerced out of them. Under these circumstances, how could anyone believe what the government says about my son?”

In passages, which, remarkably, were not redacted, Ali Khan then described Majid’s torture at the hands of US and Pakistani agents, explaining that “after eight days of interrogation by US and Pakistani agents,” his son Mohammed was allowed to see Majid, who “looked terrible and very, very tired,” and proceeded to explain to his brother that “the Americans tortured him for eight hours at a time, tying him tightly in stressful positions in a small chair until his hands, feet and mind went numb,” that they “re-tied him in the chair every hour, tightening the bonds on his hands and feet each time so that it was more painful,” and that they “beat him repeatedly,” subjected him to sleep deprivation, and, when not being interrogated, held him in a small, mosquito-infested cell, which was “totally dark, and too small for him to lie down in or sit in with his legs stretched out.”

In Ali’s testimony, the most devastating statement was the following: “This torture only stopped when Majid agreed to sign a statement that he was not even allowed to read,” although he also noted that the torture resumed when he “was unable to identify certain streets and neighborhoods in Karachi that he did not know.”

This is disturbing, but not unexpected, of course, because all of the “high-value detainees” were subjected to torture. What rings out, however, when comparing Majid Khan’s case to that of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is Khan’s father’s plea for “a fair trial in a real court,” which is still not something that can be remotely guaranteed, nearly nine years after his capture, and five years since that plea was made by his father.

In contrast, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was not tortured or abused, was sentenced to life in prison just over two years after his capture. Those who support Guantánamo, torture and the mandatory military custody of terror suspects ought to learn from this that their desires are not only unjust, but also counterproductive.

POSTSCRIPT: Today (February 23), the Washington Post announced that Khan, whose wife and daughter live in Pakistan, had “reached a plea agreement with military prosecutors that calls for him to testify at the trials of other detainees in exchange for a much-reduced sentence and eventual freedom, according to officials familiar with the case.” The Post added, “In recent days, Khan, a Pakistani citizen who was a legal US resident, was moved out of the top-security Camp 7, which houses the high-value detainees, in anticipation of an arraignment next week at which he will enter a guilty plea, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity in advance of the hearing.”

The Post also noted, “Khan has agreed, if requested, to testify at military commission trials in the next four years, and he would then be eligible to be transferred to Pakistan at some point after that, the officials said. [They] would not specify the amount of time Khan would serve if he fulfilled his obligations under the agreement.”

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.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Karin Friedemann wrote:


  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    seeing the big picture huh

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Donald Pratt wrote:

    Demands by those on the far right for torture and other extralegal measures against terrorism suspects may not entirely eliminate the use of civilian law in terrorism cases, but it may prevent people from questioning how the civilian legal system operates in such cases, e.g., the application of mandatory life sentences to every case.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’m in Kuwait, working on ways to secure the repatriation from Guantanamo of the last two Kuwaiti prisoners, so I wasn’t able to respond because, after posting this, I had to catch up on some sleep. It’s morning now, and I’d just like to say that, Donald, you have touched on a very important topic — the imposition of disproportionate sentences in federal court trials involving Muslims and terrorism, which is a situation that needs to be challenged as much as the unjustifiable existence of the military commissions.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    If you don’t read anything else today, at least read this article. We are forever indebted to Andy Worthington for keeping these issues alive even as the US continues its slide into fascism.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Eric Smith wrote:

    wow, the nation really has no idea about this stuff.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    No, and Andy Worthington, a Brit, is keeping the issue alive. I don’t know what we would do without him.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    Best of luck Andy Worthington.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Toia. The film I co-directed, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo” is showing now on Alrai TV in Kuwait, if anyone has access to it. It’s a good show, with me and Tom Wilner talking in the studio as well.

  10. Rainbow says...

    Got to love Bush and the Federal Reserve Bank among others. Fraud of 15 trillion dollars so far and I bet it gets worse. Seems these guys should be in prison never to see the light of day again.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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