The Forgotten Anniversary of a Guantánamo Suicide

Abdul Rahman al-Amri committed suicide in Guantánamo after been held without charge or trial for five and a half years. He said his intent was to fight for a cause he believed in as a Muslim toward jihad, not to fight against the Americans.
06/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Exactly one year ago today, on May 30, 2007, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi prisoner in Guantánamo who, like most of his companions, had been held without charge or trial for five and a half years, died, allegedly after committing suicide. A long-term hunger striker, according to imprisoned al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj, who compiled an extraordinary report about the hunger strikes, he was apparently suffering from hepatitis and stomach problems at the time of his death.

Unlike the year before, however, when three prisoners -- Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani -- died in what was widely reported as a suicide pact (and was, notoriously, referred to by Guantánamo's commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, as "an act of asymmetric warfare"), there was little media interest in al-Amri's death.

Largely unchallenged, the Pentagon responded to his death by declaring that he was "a mid-level al-Qaeda operative with direct ties to higher-level members including meeting with Osama bin Laden," whose "associations included (bin Laden's) bodyguards and al-Qaeda recruiters." It was also stated that he "ran al-Qaeda safe houses."

In response, I pointed out at the time how ludicrous it was that the Pentagon's assertions were allowed to pass unchallenged:

Quite how it was possible for al-Amri, who arrived in Afghanistan in September 2001, to become a "mid-level al-Qaeda operative" who "ran al-Qaeda safe houses" in the three months before his capture in December has not been explained, and nor is it likely that an explanation will be forthcoming. Far more probable is that these allegations were made by other prisoners - either in Guantánamo, where bribery and coercion have both been used extensively, or in the CIA's secret prisons. In both, prisoners were regularly shown a "family album" of Guantánamo prisoners, and were encouraged - either through violence or the promise of better treatment - to come up with allegations against those shown in the photos, which, however spurious, were subsequently treated as "evidence."

As with so many Guantánamo prisoners, the contradictory allegations against al-Amri beggar belief. By his own admission, he traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, having served in the Saudi army for nine years and four months. US Southern Command expanded on his activities as a Taliban recruit, claiming that, "by his own account," he "volunteered to fight with local Taliban commander Mullah Abdul al-Hanan, and fought on the front lines north of Kabul", and that he subsequently "fought US forces in November 2001 in the Tora Bora Mountains." This may or may not be true, but it is at least within the realms of plausibility. Claiming that he ran al-Qaeda safe houses, on the other hand, is simply absurd, and should alert all sensible commentators to scrutinize with care the allegations made by the US authorities against the majority of those held in Guantánamo without charge or trial (I've studied all of them, and allegations that are either groundless or contradictory are shockingly prevalent).

I concluded my article by stating:

If we are to believe this callous attempt to blacken the name of a man who, having apparently taken his life in desperation, appears to have made the mistake of traveling to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban at the wrong time, one question in particular needs answering: when, during the three months that al-Amri stayed in a guest house in Kabul, trained at a "school for jihad" in Kandahar, fought on the front lines, retreated to Tora Bora and crossed into Pakistan, was he supposed to have located the al-Qaeda safe houses that he was accused of running?

In the year since Abdul Rahman al-Amri's death, the silence that followed the Pentagon's callous outburst has been broken only once, in October, when Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy, the senior lawyer on Guantánamo's management team, stated in an interview that he had personally seen "all four men dead - each one hanging - and that the first three men had used sling-style nooses." Speaking specifically about the death of al-Amri, he said that he had fashioned "a string type of noose" to kill himself.

On this somber anniversary, the best I can do to mark the shameful circumstances of Abdul Rahman al-Amri's passing (without having been granted an opportunity to present his case in a court of law) is to repeat one of the few statements attributed to him during his imprisonment in Guantánamo, which demonstrates, I believe, how he never presented a threat to the United States or its interests.

Responding to an allegation that he admitted to "carrying an AK-47 while retreating" to Pakistan (which was supposed to suggest militancy against the United States), he pointed out that "Americans trained him during periods of his service" with the Saudi army, and insisted that, "had his desire been to fight and kill Americans, he could have done that while he was side by side with them in Saudi Arabia. His intent was to go and fight for a cause that he believed in as a Muslim toward jihad, not to go and fight against the Americans."