Rather horribly, it seems, a former Guantánamo prisoner, Abdullah al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti who was repatriated in November 2005 and who later married and had a child, blew himself up as a suicide bomber in Mosul, Iraq, last month. According to the US military, al-Ajmi was one of three suicide bombers responsible for killing seven members of the Iraqi security forces on April 26.
An article in the Washington Post explained how al-Ajmi had recorded a martyrdom tape before his mission, which was translated by the US-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist websites. On the audiotape, al-Ajmi apparently condemned conditions at Guantánamo as “deplorable,” and stated, “Whoever can join them and execute a suicide operation, let him do so. By God, it will be a mortal blow. The Americans complain much about it. By God, in Guantánamo, all their talk was about explosives and whether you make explosives. It is as if explosives were hell to them.”
This is disturbing news, of course, although it does not follow that al-Ajmi’s release, and his subsequent actions, demonstrate that the administration’s post-9/11 anti-terror policies — abrogating from the Geneva Conventions and holding men without charge or trial in an offshore prison and interrogation center — are justified.
If al-Ajmi was a threat to the United States, he should either have been held as a Prisoner of War, protected by the Geneva Conventions, or prosecuted in a recognized court of law as a criminal. Instead, his imprisonment at Guantánamo involved “evidence” compiled by unnamed interrogators and other military personnel that was so far from the standards demanded by any acceptable judicial process that, on his return to Kuwait, he was acquitted of the charges against him — primarily, that he fought with the Taliban against US forces in Afghanistan — and set free.
At his trial, his lawyer, Ayedh al-Azemi, told the court that transcripts of interrogations conducted in Guantánamo by US officers should not be admissible as evidence, because they “do not bear signatures of the US officers nor the defendants and thus should not be admissible as legal evidence by the court.” He added that the transcripts were “not a proper investigation” but “simple reports that included neither questions nor answers.”
In Guantánamo, al-Ajmi, a lance corporal in the Kuwaiti army, had specifically denied fighting with the Taliban, saying that he had taken a leave of absence from the army in order to study in Pakistan with Jamaat-al-Tablighi, a conservative but apolitical proselytizing organization that has millions of members worldwide. He insisted that he had only confessed to fighting with the Taliban because of the circumstances in which he was held and interrogated.
“These statements were all said under pressure and threats,” he said. “I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t bear the threats and the suffering so I started saying things. When every detainee is captured they tell him that he is either Taliban or al-Qaeda and that is it. I couldn’t bear the suffering and the threatening and the pressure so I had to say I was from [the] Taliban.”
The question remains, therefore, whether al-Ajmi was lying in Guantánamo — which is, of course, a possibility — or whether the abuse he suffered for four years in US custody radicalized him and led to his final manifestation as a suicide bomber. The clues provide mixed messages. In Guantánamo, the authorities certainly regarded him as a threat, noting that his behavior had been so “aggressive and non-compliant” that he had “resided in the disciplinary blocks throughout his detention,” but there appears to be no way of knowing if he was “aggressive and non-compliant” because he was a sworn militant or because he was profoundly angered by his experiences in US custody.
Speaking to the Washington Post, US lawyer Thomas Wilner, who represented al-Ajmi and several other former Kuwaiti prisoners, recalled al-Ajmi’s anger and despair. He explained that his client was ”young and not well educated, and that he appeared deeply affected by his incarceration” at Guantánamo. He said that during five meetings in 2005 al-Ajmi had told him that he had been “badly abused after his capture in Afghanistan and later at Guantánamo, at one point coming to a meeting with a broken arm [he] said he sustained in a scuffle with guards.”
Wilner added that over the course of his visits, al-Ajmi became “more and more distraught … about the way he was treated and the fact that he couldn’t do anything about it.”
While he too was unable to know for certain what had provoked al-Ajmi to become a suicide bomber, he maintained that this “horrible tragedy” could have been avoided if the administration had not turned its back on the due process of the law. “All we sought for him was a fair hearing, a process, and he was released by the US government without that process,” he said, adding pertinently, “The lack of a process leads to problems. It leads to innocent people being held unfairly and not-so-innocent people going home without any hearing.”
Disturbingly, the news of al-Ajmi’s homicidal suicide has prompted Robert Gates, the US defense secretary, to wheel out some long-discredited statistics relating to the number of prisoners released from Guantánamo who have allegedly “returned to the battlefield.” As reported by Reuters, Gates declared, “I was told today that the recidivism rate … those who return to the battlefield, is probably somewhere between 5 and 10 percent — maybe 6, 7 percent, something like that,” adding, “We don’t have a lot of specific cases. We’re talking about one, two, three dozen that we have data on.”
The Washington Post, however, hinted at quite how vague this analysis was by describing how the Defense Intelligence Agency has “estimated that as many as three dozen former Guantánamo detainees are confirmed or suspected of having returned to terrorist activities” (emphasis added). The Post also took note of legitimate concerns by international human rights groups and lawyers for the Guantánamo prisoners, who have “disputed that estimate, saying only a handful of former detainees have left US custody and gone on to fight US forces.”
As I have explained before, and will, no doubt, continue to do so until I’m blue in the face, those who have studied the stories in any detail (myself included) not only dispute the Pentagon’s figures, but also, crucially, point out that the US administration has refused to acknowledge the shocking truth about its own responsibility for releasing the half-dozen men whom all parties agree were released by mistake.
When Abdullah Mehsud, a Taliban commander released from Guantánamo in March 2004, killed himself with a hand grenade after being cornered by security forces in Pakistan last July, I pointed out that, had the US administration not behaved with arrogant unilateralism, neither Mehsud nor the handful of other released Afghan and Pakistani prisoners who returned to the battlefield would have been freed from Guantánamo in the first place.
Mehsud came to prominence in October 2004, after two Chinese engineers working on a dam project in Waziristan were kidnapped, when he spoke to reporters on a satellite phone and said that his followers were responsible for the abductions. He went on to explain that he had spent two years in Guantánamo after being captured in Kunduz in November 2001 while fighting with the Taliban. At the time of his capture he was carrying a false Afghan ID card, and throughout his detention he maintained that he was an innocent Afghan tribesman. He added that US officials never realized that he was a Pakistani with deep ties to militants in both countries, and also told Gulf News, “I managed to keep my Pakistani identity hidden all these years.”
Another Taliban commander, Mullah Shahzada, who was released from Guantánamo in May 2003, gave the Americans a false name and claimed that he was an innocent rug merchant. “He stuck to his story and was fairly calm about the whole thing,” a military intelligence official told the New York Times. “He maintained over a period time that he was nothing but an innocent rug merchant who just got snatched up.” After his release, Shahzada seized control of Taliban operations in southern Afghanistan, recruiting fighters by “telling harrowing tales of his supposed ill-treatment in the cages of Guantánamo,” and masterminded a jailbreak in Kandahar in October 2003, in which he bribed the guards to allow 41 Taliban fighters to escape through a tunnel. His post-Guantánamo notoriety came to an end in May 2004, when he was killed in an ambush by US Special Forces.
Another Afghan Taliban commander, Maulvi Abdul Ghaffar, who was released in March 2004, was killed six months later in Uruzgan by Afghan soldiers, who believed that he was leading the Taliban forces in the province.
However, while right-wing commentators seized on the release of Mehsud, Shahzada and Ghaffar as evidence that no one should ever be released from Guantánamo, a rather different interpretation was offered by Gul Agha Sherzai, the post-Taliban governor of Kandahar, who pointed out, in an article in Time magazine, that Shahzada would never have been freed if Afghan officials had been allowed to vet the Afghans in Guantánamo. “We know all these Taliban faces,” he said, adding that repeated requests for access to the Afghan prisoners had been turned down. Sherzai’s opinion was reinforced by security officials in Hamid Karzai’s government, who blamed the US for the return of Taliban commanders to the battlefield, explaining that “neither the American military officials, nor the Kabul police, who briefly process the detainees when they are sent home, consult them about the detainees they free.”
So there you have it. Abdullah Mehsud, Mullah Shahzada, Maulvi Abdul Ghaffar and at least three other Taliban commanders — Mullah Shakur, and two men known only as Sabitullah and Rahmatullah — were released, and returned to the battlefield, because the US authorities refused to allow their allies in Afghanistan to have any involvement in screening the prisoners to ascertain who was actually dangerous.
In conclusion, then, while the story of Abdullah al-Ajmi’s post-Guantánamo militancy is horrific in and of itself, it should not give the Pentagon free rein to indulge in dubious propaganda that whitewashes its own culpability for the release of Taliban fighters from Guantánamo, and nor should it deflect from the failures of the Guantánamo regime to provide an adequate method of screening, assessing and prosecuting those who are a genuine threat to the United States. The rules laid down by the Geneva Conventions — and the US courts — remain fit for purpose.
The alternative, as the right-wing bloggers are currently explaining, is to continue to allow the President to capture anyone he regards as a terrorist anywhere in the world and hold them forever without charge or trial. By this rationale, none of the 501 prisoners released from Guantánamo would ever have been released, not even the 92 or 93 percent of them — that’s around 460 men — who, according to the Pentagon’s own estimates, are not alleged to have returned to the battlefield.
ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (published by Pluto Press). Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org