Following the recent announcement that 16 detainees had been returned to Saudi Arabia from Guantánamo, the world's media were swift to pick up on the story of one of these men: Juma al-Dossari, a joint Bahraini-Saudi national, who had attempted to commit suicide on at least 14 occasions in Guantánamo, and whose poignant laments -- and blood-curdling narratives of his imprisonment -- had been released to the public by his lawyers, after being declassified by the Pentagon.
But what of the other 15 detainees? After analyzing a list of names released by Arab News, liaising with lawyers and drawing on research I conducted while researching my forthcoming book, The Guantánamo Files, I can reveal that the stories of the other 15 men represent a microcosm of Guantánamo's many failures, both in terms of the sometimes spectacularly unreliable allegations against the men, which were used to justify their long detention without charge or trial, and their status as extra-legal "unpeople."
Despite the administration's attempts to create an illusion of transparency at Guantánamo, the regime is so generally inscrutable that eight of the 15 men had no legal representation at the time of their release, and had never seen any non-military personnel except representatives of the Red Cross, and the stories of three of the eight are completely unknown. Readers can Google Saud al-Mahayawi, Saad al-Zahrani and Khalid al-Zaharni and will find numerous mentions of their names and Internment Serial Numbers (ISNs) -- the dehumanizing replacements for names by which all the Guantánamo detainees are known -- but will find no other information whatsoever. Having refused to take part in any of the tribunals in Guantánamo, these men have returned to their homes as spectral as they were for 2,000 days in captivity.
Fortunately, the stories of 11 of the men are known, because they agreed to take part in the tribunals and administrative hearings that have been conducted at Guantánamo since July 2004, when, in an attempt to stave off the Supreme Court's ruling that the detainees had the right to challenge their detention in the U.S. courts, the administration introduced Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), legally corrupt alternatives to real trials and due process in which, in exchange for being able to tell their stories, they were refused legal representation, and were not allowed to see or hear classified evidence against them, which, as has steadily been revealed over the last three years, could be based on hearsay, or on false confessions obtained through bribery, coercion or torture. Released under Freedom of Information legislation in spring 2006, these transcripts -- and those of their successors, the annual Administrative Review Boards (ARBs), convened to assess whether the detainees still constitute a threat to the U.S. and its allies, or have ongoing "intelligence value" -- are often the only means by which the detainees' stories are known.
The tribunal transcripts reveal that three of the men had no connection with militancy whatsoever. Abdul Rahman al-Juad, a student who was 21-years-old at the time of his capture, had been in Afghanistan on a humanitarian aid mission. Having collected 10,000 Riyals (around $2,700) at various mosques in his hometown, he traveled between Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad, distributing the money to the poor and needy, and was in Jalalabad when he heard that Kabul had fallen to the Northern Alliance, which was when he decided to leave the country (without his passport, which was back in Kabul), subsequently paying a guide to take him over the mountains to Pakistan. When he handed himself in to the Pakistani authorities on the border, he was promptly delivered (or sold) to the Americans, who eventually decided that he had been raising money for al-Haramain, a blacklisted Saudi charity (al-Juad denied the allegation), and claimed that one of his aliases was found on a list of captured al-Qaeda members on a computer hard drive "associated with a senior al-Qaeda member." Al-Juad replied that he never used an alias, adding, "After I turned myself in and was detained in Pakistan, there were people taking my picture. I never saw my picture on the Internet, but the interrogator told me it is on the Internet. If it is, I have no idea how it got there."
Two other men -- 34-year old Muhammad al-Jihani and 22-year old Yahya al-Silami (also captured on the Pakistani border) -- had been teaching the Koran in Afghanistan. A grumpy al-Jihani revealed little in his tribunal, responding to the question, "Did you have a place to do that? Did you already contact the mosque or something where you were going to teach?" by saying, "All these questions are in my files. Go back to the file and read the file," but al-Silami was more forthcoming. After explaining that a friend in Mecca had given him a contact in Khost, where he taught the Koran for four months, he said that he fled to Pakistan, after the U.S.-led invasion began, by following a group of Afghan refugees to the border, and was arrested on arrival, having lost his passport in a river on the way. Al-Silami was one of 30 detainees accused of being Osama bin Laden's bodyguards in a notorious example of confessions obtained through torture. The man who made the allegation -- and later retracted his "confession" -- was Mohammed al-Qahtani, an alleged "20th hijacker" for the 9/11 attacks, who was subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" for several months at the end of 2002. In response to the allegation, al-Silami denied a claim by the U.S. authorities that all 30 bodyguards "were told the best thing they could tell U.S. forces when interrogated was they were in Afghanistan to teach the Koran," and also refuted another allegation, which he said was made by a Yemeni detainee whom he described as "mentally unstable and on medication," that he was "identified as the Emir of a group of 10-15 fighters guarding a river crossing leading to the Tora Bora camp."
The other eight detainees were nominally part of the military training camp system in Afghanistan, in which, as a result of pro-Taliban fatwas issued by radical clerics, and the supportive activities of facilitators, tens of thousands of young men made their way to Afghanistan to support the Taliban in their civil war with the Muslims of the Northern Alliance. In reality, however, the men largely proved to be unsuccessful jihadi recruits: one failed to attend a training camp at all, three failed to complete their training through illness, and two were severely disillusioned.
The first to be captured, Fahad al-Qahtani, was just 19 at the time. Recruited for jihad and aided in his travel by a facilitator, he explained, "I went for jihad to Afghanistan, but when I got there I changed my mind. I saw some things there that were against my religion... Things like worshiping a cemetery where people have died. That has nothing to do with our religion, worshiping graves." Refuting allegations that he attended al-Farouq, the main camp for Arabs, and that Osama bin Laden visited while he was there, he insisted that he spent most of his time in a house in Kabul that was "a cooking facility for the [Taliban] front line," and then fled with others to Kunduz, the last Taliban bastion in the north, "until we were surrounded and there was an agreement to have all the Arabs delivered to Mazar-e-Sharif." Delivered, with several hundred others, to Qala-i-Janghi, a nearby fort, he survived a U.S.-led massacre, which took place after some of the prisoners started an uprising, by somehow escaping from the fort without being killed. "I was present but did not participate in the fighting," he explained. "I escaped during the fighting and turned myself in one day after. I went to the market to turn myself in. I met people in the market who were in the army of [General] Dostum [one of the leaders of the Alliance]. That is where I was when I was recaptured... Dostum sold me to the Americans... They put me in jail and I was tortured by Afghans and made to say things. I was moved to Kandahar. When I got to Cuba I told the interrogators the real story." Despite apparently telling the truth, the most extraordinary piece of "evidence" against al-Qahtani emerged in Guantánamo, when it was shamelessly alleged that he "admitted under duress that he was an al-Qaeda (sic) and had met Osama bin Laden."
Another disillusioned recruit was 22-year old Mazin al-Oufi, a former traffic policeman who said that he went to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 to support -- but not to fight for -- the Taliban government. "I went with good intentions," he explained, "and then realized bad things were happening and I wanted to get out." Captured after crossing the Pakistani border, he told his tribunal in Guantánamo that he had no connection whatsoever to Salah al-Awfi, a name that had, according to the U.S. authorities, turned up on a computer hard drive seized during raids on al-Qaeda safe houses in Pakistan. He was also one of many detainees accusing of being a terrorist because he owned a Casio F-91W watch, a model that the authorities claimed was used as a timer in bombs. Although he admitted owning the watch he was incredulous about the accusation. "Millions and millions of people have these types of Casio watches," he said. "If that is a crime, why doesn't the United States arrest and sentence all the shops and people who own them?"
Of the three detainees who failed to complete their training because of illness, two -- 22-year old Bandar al-Jabri and 28-year old Humoud al-Jadani -- explained that they wanted to receive military training so that they could fight in Chechnya. Al-Jabri, who insisted that he "did not graduate from the training camp" and "had to stop training because he was experiencing asthma attacks," admitted that he had received training from the Taliban, but denied being a member, and added that he had never fought against either the Northern Alliance or the US. Al-Jadani, an airline steward, admitted that he had trained at al-Farouq and had attended two lectures by Osama bin Laden, but said that he too became ill, and both men were arrested after crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
A more comprehensive story was told by 27-year old Ghanim al-Harbi, who said that he went to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 because he "felt the need to defend myself and my family." He explained that some of his family members had been killed or imprisoned during the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, and had subsequently moved to Saudi Arabia, and that, in 2000, when it was felt that the Iraqi leader was causing problems again, he decided that he should learn to defend himself. When his attempts to join the Saudi navy came to nothing, his quest led him to Afghanistan. He admitted training at al-Farouq, but added, "I never completed my training because I became ill. Every week I had to travel to Kandahar to receive medical treatment or I was at the camp hospital."
Explaining the circumstances of his arrest, al-Harbi said that, after leaving al-Farouq, he went to Kabul and hired a guide to help him leave the country by Jalalabad, but that, when the guide realized that he was unable to help him cross the border, he took him to the Tora Bora mountains and turned him over to a group of 65 Arabs who were also heading for the border. He said that he stayed for a month with this group, and described them as civilians rather than fighters. "Some of them were teachers," he explained, "some of them were running away from the war and were just regular civilians who were trying to get to the Pakistan embassy so they could get back to their homes." The group finally managed to recruit two guides to take them to the Pakistani border, but as they passed through a village the whole area was targeted in a huge U.S. bombing raid, in which 60 to 70 of the villagers died, "40 of the Arabs with me were killed and 20 were injured," and al-Harbi himself suffered serious injuries to his stomach and one of his legs. He added that he "stayed three days in a valley with the other wounded before a group of Afghanis picked them up," and was then taken to a hospital in Jalalabad, where he stayed for six weeks until he was handed over (or sold) to the Americans.
The detainee who failed even to attend a training camp, Bandar al-Otaibi, a 21-year old mechanical engineering student, explained that he went to Afghanistan for a month's vacation with a friend because "I watched a lot of Hollywood movies and wanted to learn how to use pistols as a hobby." While this seems rather implausible, he backed it up by saying, "Since there was no place to learn how to use a weapon in my country unless you are a soldier my friend suggested that we go to Afghanistan during the school break and learn. I had tried to apply to a military college but was not accepted because I was underweight." After arriving in Afghanistan, two weeks before 9/11, he said that he met up with another Saudi and that the two of them stayed in guest houses in Kandahar and Jalalabad, but did not train at al-Farouq because "we were told that they would not bring us to the training camp because they didn't know us." As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, he said that he fled to the mountains, leaving his friend behind, and was captured by Afghan villagers. "Afghans kidnapped me and others and demanded money to be released," he explained. "Some of the others were able to buy their freedom... but I didn't have any money so I was kept in captivity."
The last two stories to be discussed are those of Muhammad al-Qurashi and Bijad al-Otaibi. Neither took part in their tribunals, but it may be assumed that many of the allegations against them - contained in the "Unclassified Summary of Evidence" for their cases, also released to the public in 2006 -- were revealed as inaccurate, leading to the authorities' decision to release them. Al-Qurashi, who was 24 years old at the time of his capture, was accused of traveling to fight with the Taliban after his high school graduation in May 2001, and of training at "a facility used to train and house Taliban soldiers who fought on the Bagram front lines." It was also alleged that his name was found "on an undated letter which listed probable al-Qaeda members incarcerated in Pakistan, along with materials linked to al-Qaeda." This meager fodder was supplemented by claims relating to his behavior in Guantánamo: that he had "struck guard force personnel on multiple occasions," had threatened an officer by saying, "I will cut your throat," and had "encouraged other detainees to harass guard force."
Al-Otaibi, who was 30 years old at the time of his capture, was accused of stating that he traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban, that he was trained at a camp near Kabul, and that he fought on the front lines until ordered to surrender to General Dostum at Mazar-e-Sharif. Like Fahad al-Qahtani, he was then imprisoned in Qala-i-Janghi, where he was one of 86 men who survived in the basement of the fort for a week, despite being bombed and flooded. His story may or may not be true, but it was probably more reliable than the claim that he knew Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, described as one of Osama bin Laden's "closest commanders and the person in charge of al-Qaeda fighters in the Afghani Northern Front" (captured in 2006 and sent to Guantánamo in April 2007) and that, moreover, he knew al-Iraqi "very well" and was, in fact, an assistant commander in the Taliban's "Arab Brigade."
As I bring this article to a close, astute readers will notice that I have only mentioned 15 detainees so far. Such is the obfuscation surrounding Guantánamo -- and the authorities' inability to transliterate Arabic names -- that one of the detainees, referred to by Arab News as Abdullah al-Zahrani, has not yet been identified, as his name bears no resemblance to any of the detainees' names recorded by the Pentagon. This, again, is a familiar story. Lawyers for Bandar al-Otaibi, for example, pointed out that it was difficult to identify him on the list of released detainees because, for five and a half years, he was obstinately referred to by the authorities as Abdullah al-Tayabi.
While this is, perhaps, a good note on which to leave the released detainees to be reunited with their families, I must add one final observation. Heartening though it is that these 16 men -- none of whom were among the "worst of the worst" -- have finally been released, it remains apparent that the process by which they were released remains as arcane and impenetrable as ever, and that no statement will be forthcoming to explain why some of the other 60 Saudi detainees -- some of whom were also either innocent or inept -- are still in custody. As the Supreme Court prepares, once more, to debate whether the detainees should be given habeas rights (which were shamefully removed in last year's Military Commissions Act), the cases of the 16 Saudis released this week demonstrate, yet again, that imprisonment without charge or trial, brutal treatment in detention, forced confessions, hearsay and innuendo are poor substitutes for due process.