This is Part 32 of the 70-part series. 399 stories have now been told. See the entire archive here.
In late April, I worked with WikiLeaks as a media partner for the publication of thousands of pages of classified military documents — the Detainee Assessment Briefs — relating to almost all of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo since the prison opened on January 11, 2002.
These documents drew heavily on the testimony of the prisoners themselves, and also on the testimony of their fellow inmates (either in Guantánamo, or in secret prisons run by or on behalf of the CIA), whose statements are unreliable, either because they were subjected to torture or other forms of coercion, or because they provided false statements in the hope of securing better treatment in Guantánamo.
The documents were compiled by the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo (JTF GTMO), which operates the prison, and were based on assessments and reports made by interrogators and analysts whose primary concern was to “exploit” the prisoners for their intelligence value. They also include input from the Criminal Investigative Task Force, created by the DoD in 2002 to conduct interrogations on a law enforcement basis, rather than for “actionable intelligence.”
My ongoing analysis of the documents began in May, with a five-part series, “WikiLeaks: The Unknown Prisoners of Guantánamo,” telling the stories of 84 prisoners, released between 2002 and 2004, whose stories had never been told before. This was followed by a ten-part series, “WikiLeaks and the Guantánamo Prisoners Released from 2002 to 2004,” in which I revisited the stories of 114 other prisoners released in this period, adding information from the Detainee Assessment Briefs to what was already known about these men and boys from press reports and other sources. This was followed by another five-part series, “WikiLeaks and the Guantánamo Prisoners Released After the Tribunals, 2004 to 2005,” dealing with the period from September 2004 to the end of 2005, when 62 prisoners were released.
This, as I explained, was the period in which, after the prisoners won a spectacular victory in the Supreme Court in June 2004, in Rasul v. Bush, when the Supreme Court granted them habeas corpus rights (in other words, the right to ask an impartial judge why they were being held), lawyers were allowed to meet the prisoners for the first time, and the secrecy that was required for Guantánamo to function as an interrogation center beyond the law was finally broken.
However, although the Bush administration allowed habeas petitions to proceed, Congress attempted to strip the prisoners of their habeas rights in the Detainee Treatment Act in 2005, and the administration also responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling with its own inferior version of habeas, the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, a sham process designed to rubber-stamp their designation as “enemy combatants” who could be held indefinitely.
With just 38 prisoners cleared for release after the CSRTs, another review process — the annual Administrative Review Boards — took over, reviewing whether prisoners still had ongoing intelligence value, and whether they still posed a threat to the US. These were essentially the decisions being taken by JTF GTMO and CITF, and they reveal how, in the “War on Terror,” prosecuting criminals (the few genuine terror suspects in Guantánamo) and holding soldiers off the battlefield until the end of hostilities had largely given way to the strange mixture of threat assessments and intelligence assessments that fill the Detainee Assessment Briefs.
With 260 prisoners profiled in the first 20 parts of this project, the next ten-part series, “WikiLeaks and the Guantanamo Prisoners Released in 2006,” covered the stories of the 111 prisoners released in 2006 (and the three who died at the prison in June 2006), almost all of whom were freed because of political maneuvering rather than anything to do with justice, as is the case with this latest ten-part series, dealing with the 124 prisoners released in 2007, including two more who died without ever having been charged or tried.
I also hope that readers will reflect on the problems of over-classification that have been thoroughly chronicled in the preceding series analyzing the Detainee Assessment Briefs. My analysis to date has established repeatedly that even patently innocent prisoners seized by mistake were regarded as a “low risk,” rather than as no risk at all, and it is important for readers to bear in mind that the entire process of detaining and processing prisoners and exploiting them for their supposed intelligence was shot through with a drive to conclude that they were all a threat, and to overlook the distressing fact that most of them were seized in a largely random manner, mostly by America’s Afghan and Pakistan allies, at a time when substantial bounty payments were widespread, and were never subjected to anything that resembled an adequate screening process.
And then, of course, as I have outlined above, and as is revealed extensively in the files, they were trapped in a prison where officials, in their ill-conceived desire for “actionable intelligence,” ended up attempting to justifying their detention either by coercing or bribing the prisoners themselves, or their fellow prisoners, to come up with allegations that could be passed off as plausible, whether or not there was any substance to them at all.
The Complete Guantánamo Files: WikiLeaks and the Prisoners Released in 2007 (Part Two of Ten)
Yahya Al Sulami (ISN 66, Saudi Arabia) Released July 2007
As I explained in Chapter 5 of The Guantánamo Files, Yahya al-Sulami (also identified as al-Silami), who was 22 years old at the time of his capture, said in Guantánamo that he had been teaching the Koran in Afghanistan. I also explained that he was one of many prisoners who came under particular suspicion because he did not have a passport at the time, as the US authorities had realized that those who attended training camps did not have passports because they were required to hand them in at guest houses before training. However, this inevitably meant that those who did not have passports for other reasons — either because they were lost, stolen or abandoned in the rush to leave a hostile environment, or because they were entrusted to others in an attempt to find a legitimate way to leave Afghanistan — were automatically regarded as liars, whether or not this was the case. As I also explained, al-Sulami said that he was given a contact in a village near Khost by a friend in Mecca, where he taught the Koran for four months, but was clearly regarded as lying when he said that he lost his passport in a river while following a group of Afghan refugees to the Pakistani border.
As I also explained at the time of his release, he was one of 30 prisoners accused of being bodyguards for Osama bin Laden, as one of a group of prisoners who became known as “the Dirty Thirty,” although the origin of the allegations was not made clear. In Guantánamo, al-Sulami denied a claim by the US authorities that all 30 were bodyguards, and “were told the best thing they could tell US 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 prisoner whom he described as “mentally unstable and on medication” (presumably Yasim Basardah, known as the most notoriously unreliable informant in Guantánamo), in which he was “identified as the Emir of a group of 10-15 fighters guarding a river crossing leading to the Tora Bora camp.”
In the documents released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, the file relating to al-Sulami was a “Recommendation for Continued Detention Under DoD Control (CD),” dated August 11, 2006, in which it was noted that he was born in February 1979, and was “in good health.”
In telling his story, based largely on his own account, the Joint Task Force noted that, after graduating from high school in 1999, he “attended the Religious Institute in Mecca,” and, after graduating from there, “decided to teach Islam to non-Arabs in accordance with various religious decrees that had been issued by religious scholars.” In “approximately August 2001,” he flew to Karachi, with the assistance of a man named Khalid al-Muslih, who, he said, he “had met while studying at the Holy Mosque in Mecca” (although an analyst described him as “possibly an al-Qaida facilitator”).
On arrival in Karachi, he said, he contacted the Dar al-Ifta (the House of Religious Affairs),” and “informed them of his plan to teach the Koran in Afghanistan.” He then “crossed into Afghanistan via the Miram Shah border crossing and proceeded to Khost,” where a man named Muhammad al-Afghani (also described by an analyst as “a possible al-Qaida facilitator”) took him to a mosque, where, he said, he stayed for four and a half months, teaching the Koran to children.
He “denie[d] receiving any type of military training” during this period, and said that, once the war in Afghanistan started, he “contacted al-Afghani and requested that he arrange for [his] return to Saudi Arabia.” Al-Afghani then “introduced [him] to two Afghan guides who led [him] and 30 other Arabs from Khost back [sic] to Pakistan.” He “stated that the group he was with traveled for six days in the mountains before they arrived in Pakistan,” and, after crossing the border near Parachinar, were seized by Pakistani border guards.
After being held in a Pakistani jail in Peshawar, he was transferred to US custody at the Kandahar Detention Facility on December 27, 2001, and was sent to Guantánamo on January 14, 2002, allegedly for the following reasons: “To provide background information on members of the group with whom detainee was captured, To provide information on the tactics and logistics of the Al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan from 2000 until the fall of Tora Bora [and] The effect of the civil war on the Afghanistan educational infrastructure.”
However, as I explained in my article, “How to Read WikiLeaks’ Guantánamo Files” (originally published on WikiLeaks’ website when the Guantánamo files were first published, as part of my work liaising between WikiLeaks and its media partners):
[T]he “Reasons for Transfer” included in the documents, which have been repeatedly cited by media outlets as an explanation of why the prisoners were transferred to Guantánamo, are, in fact, lies that were grafted onto the prisoners’ files after their arrival at Guantánamo. This is because, contrary to the impression given in the files, no significant screening process took place before the prisoners’ transfer. As Chris Mackey, a senior interrogator who worked in Afghanistan, explained in a book that he wrote about his experiences (The Interrogators), every prisoner who ended up in US custody had to be sent to Guantánamo, even though the majority were not even seized by US forces, but were seized by their Afghan and Pakistani allies at a time when substantial bounty payments for “Al-Qaida and Taliban suspects” were widespread.
In assessing his story, the Task Force described his “claim of traveling to Afghanistan to teach the Koran” as “highly suspect,” although their rationale for doubting him was questionable. Firstly, it was noted that “[t]he only language [he] speaks is Arabic; however, he claims that without a translator, he taught to children who only spoke Pashtu.” This analysis rather shamefully ignores the fact that the Koran, regarded as the literal word of God, is taught and learned in Arabic regardless of whether those learning it are actually Arabic speakers.
Another reason for disputing al-Sulami’s story was that one of the men seized with him apparently “stated that a prison warden instructed the members of [his] group, when they were captured, to claim they were in Afghanistan to teach the Koran,” although this, to be honest, was the kind of reasoning used in the 17th century witch hunts, and it made it impossible for a genuine teacher of the Koran to establish that he was not a liar.
Most alarmingly, however, the main allegations against al-Sulami came, as I suspected, from Yasim Basardah, the most notoriously unreliable witness in Guantánamo — and also from another unreliable witness, a well-known victim of torture. Basardah “reported numerous times that detainee was the commander of approximately 15 fighters responsible for guarding a river crossing leading to a Tora Bora camp,” although no one else said he was, and he “also stated that detainee had become one of [Osama bin Laden]‘s bodyguards while [he] was at Tora Bora.”
This was a typical allegation, as the group of men of which al-Sulami was a part were described as the “Dirty Thirty,” and were all regarded initially as bin Laden bodyguards, although, on close inspection, these claims all seem to have been made either by Basardah or by other prisoners who were tortured, and whose statements are therefore unreliable. Alarmingly, in al-Sulami’s case, an analyst noted that Basardah had “stated that detainee was a bodyguard on only one occasion,” and added, crucially, “In every interview where [Basardah] was questioned on detainee, [he] has changed his story. Detainee’s identity as a bodyguard has not been substantiated through other known sources.”
Basardah also “speculated that detainee probably received special mission training,” and “stated that there was a special group at Al-Farouq that trained and then disappeared,” with “[a]dditional special training for the group” being “conducted at the Kandahar Airport.” He also “stated that detainee once possessed a computer disc showing this training,” and that he “knows important people in Yemen and Afghanistan,” but as the analyst’s comments reveal (above and beyond what is known of Basardah’s general unreliability), all of the above is worthless because he couldn’t even maintain a coherent story when it came to conjuring up information about al-Sulami.
The torture victim who also apparently identified al-Sulami was Abdu Ali al-Haji Sharqawi (ISN 1457, still held, and also identified as Sharqawi Abdu Ali al-Hajj), who was tortured in Jordan and in CIA facilities in Afghanistan. His worthless claim was that he “believed detainee went to Afghanistan after 11 September 2001″ (he didn’t), and he also said that he “believed detainee was part of Hamzah al-Qaiti’s group in Kabul,” because he “saw him at al-Qaiti’s guesthouse.” Al-Sulami said that he hadn’t been in Kabul, but, instead of believing him, the authorities persuaded an Egyptian, Fadel Roda al-Waleeli (ISN 663, released in July 2003, and also identified as Reda Fadel El-Weleli), “met detainee once in Bagram,” prompting an analyst to claim, “This corroborates [Sharqawi]‘s placement of detainee in the Kabul area, which is located near Bagram.”
In conclusion, the Task Force claimed that al-Sulami “continue[d] to hide his true activities while in Afghanistan, such as in which cities and guesthouses he stayed,” adding, “Further exploitation is necessary to assess [his] true threat and intelligence potential.” As the Task Force explained, “Due to the lack of available information about detainee,” JTF-GTMO determined that he was “at least medium intelligence value,” and that he posed “a medium risk, as he may pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.” It was also noted that he was “assessed as a high threat from a detention perspective,” because his “overall behaviour ha[d] been non-compliant and sometimes hostile to the guard force and staff.”
As a result, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the commander of Guantánamo at the time, updating a recommendation for his continued detention at Guantánamo (dated September 19, 2005), repeated that recommendation, although it was also noted, “If a satisfactory agreement can be reached that ensures continued detention and allows access to [al-Sulami] and/or to exploited intelligence, [he] can be Transferred Out of DoD Control (TRO).” This was particularly significant because, in a key passage in his file, it was stated, “After the 2002 Saudi delegation visit, [he] was identified by the Saudi Mabahith as one of the seventy-seven Saudi nationals of low intelligence and law enforcement value to the US Government, but whom the Saudi Government would attempt to prosecute if transferred to their custody from JTF-GTMO.” Even so, it took another 11 months for an agreement to be reached that led to his repatriation, when he was put through the Saudi government’s extensive rehabilitation program.