Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Gitmo

Whether to impress the Supreme Court with its sense of justice prior to next month’s showdown over detainees’ rights, or, more likely, to placate the Saudi government following the death of a third Saudi detainee in Guantánamo in May, the Bush administration released another 14 Saudi detainees on Saturday. Whichever way you look at it, however, the administration loses. Of the 136 Saudi detainees originally held as the "worst of the worst," 107 have now been released (45 in the last four months alone). Removing from these figures the three men who died, this means that just 26 Saudi detainees remain in Guantánamo.

Drawing on the research I conducted for my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison – and additional information released by the Pentagon just two months ago – I can reveal exclusively that the stories of these men do nothing to bolster the administration’s claims, first voiced nearly six years ago, that those detained in the "War on Terror" were so uniquely dangerous that it was worth breaking domestic and international law, shredding the Constitution, abandoning the Geneva Conventions, and introducing torture as official U.S. policy to hold them without charge or trial – potentially forever – in conditions that are worse than those endured by the most hardened convicts on the U.S. mainland.

The Missionaries

Of the 14 men, seven – five humanitarian aid workers and two missionaries – had no connection whatsoever with any kind of militancy. I found the story of the first of the missionaries, 24-year-old Khalid al-Bawardi, utterly convincing while conducting my research. After pompously lecturing his tribunal about the finer details of Sunni Islamic practice, he explained that he had traveled around Pakistan and Afghanistan hectoring his fellow Muslims for their failings (mainly to do with raised graves and good luck charms) and also providing food and clothing. He was handed over to U.S. forces by opportunistic border guards after crossing into Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began.

The second, 26-year-old Sultan al-Uwaydah, did not take part in any of the tribunals or review boards in which, though deprived of legal representation and subject to secret evidence obtained through torture, coercion, or bribery, the detainees were at least allowed to present their stories. His explanation for being in Afghanistan – that he traveled to "teach the Koran to poor and disadvantaged Muslims," and that he duly taught the Koran to children in various locations before meeting with his uncle in Khost and escaping to Pakistan, where he was arrested – was severely at odds with the authorities’ version.

The U.S. alleged that Uwaydah was "arrested after crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan with 30 other persons suspected of being Osama bin Laden bodyguards." Other allegations, from an unidentified "source," from "an al-Qaeda operative," and from "a senior al-Qaeda operative," purported to reinforce this notion that he was one of 30 bodyguards for bin Laden. One of these "sources," for example, stated that "he knew the detainee and that he was probably an Osama bin Laden bodyguard because the detainee was always with Osama bin Laden." Noticeably, however, it has been established that the bodyguard story was concocted by a fellow detainee, Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged "20th hijacker" on 9/11, during the four months that he was tortured in Guantánamo in late 2002. It’s therefore difficult to lend much credence to all the other unsubstantiated accusations.

The Humanitarian Aid Workers

Of the five humanitarian aid workers, the most complete story was told by 28-year-old Mohammed al-Harbi, whose release was clearly long overdue. A successful grocer in Saudi Arabia, Harbi batted away an allegation that he was a mujahedeen fighter in Kandahar, insisting that he had never been to Afghanistan and explaining that he traveled to Pakistan in November 2001 to deliver nearly $12,000 to those in need of humanitarian aid. Harbi contended that he was only planning to stay for a few weeks at most, because his wife was pregnant at the time.

"The Pakistani police sold me for money to the Americans," he explained, even though "I had a return ticket home and it was clear I wasn’t planning to stay or ever cross into Afghanistan." He added that, although the Saudi authorities intervened to help him while he was in custody in Pakistan, the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence services) deliberately hid his passport, presumably to protect the reward money they were receiving from the Americans, who were paying an average of $5,000 a head for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.

The story of the second aid worker, 28-year-old Sa’id al-Shihri, was unknown until the Pentagon released its new batch of documents in September. According to the government’s own "evidence," Shihri decided to do charity work in Pakistan after hearing a speech by a sheik in his local mosque. Twelve days after 9/11, he flew to Pakistan and "traveled with an Afghan driver, another Saudi man who worked with the Red Crescent, and a member from the Saudi embassy in Pakistan" in a vehicle taking supplies to a refugee camp near the Afghan border between Spin Boldak and Quetta. Presumably wounded in a bombing raid (though this was not stated), he was taken to a Red Crescent hospital in Quetta, where he and four others stayed for a month and a half, "awaiting a plane to come and take them back to Saudi Arabia. However, when they were moved from the hospital they were put on a plane and taken to Kandahar," to the U.S. prison at the airport, where Shihri stayed for 10 days before being flown to Guantánamo. To counter this detailed and non-military explanation for Shihri’s presence on the Afghan border, the authorities managed to come up with nothing more than a few wildly tangential allegations: that he "trained in urban warfare at the Libyan Camp north of Kabul," and, even more improbably, that, according to "an individual," he "instigated" another person to assassinate a writer, based on a fatwa issued by a radical sheik.

Al-Wafa: Terrorist Entity or Legitimate Charity?

The other three aid workers were, to varying degrees, involved with the Saudi charity al-Wafa, whose headquarters were in Kabul. Blacklisted two weeks after 9/11 and regarded as a front for al-Qaeda, dozens of detainees were tarred as terrorists because of their association with the charity, even though humanitarian aid was clearly the main focus of the organization.

Twenty-seven-year-old Zaid al-Husain al-Ghamdi, whose family did not even know he was in Guantánamo until earlier this year, because the U.S. authorities had described him as a Jordanian, traveled to Afghanistan in July 2001. Ghamdi was declared an "enemy combatant" after his tribunal in October 2004 on the basis of three particularly thin allegations: that he was a member of al-Wafa, that he "carried a weapon in Afghanistan," and that he was "present and wounded during military operations at Khost" in December 2001. These allegations were augmented in the years that followed, but nothing about these additional claims suggests that they were reliable. The authorities alleged that he "was identified" as the "occasional leader" of a group of fighters in the northern city of Taloqan, but they ignored another narrative that could be pieced together from other statements: that Ghamdi reported that he left home "to provide help for the refugees in Afghanistan," that he worked for al-Wafa as a laborer in Kabul, and that he traveled to Taloqan because, after approaching Taliban representatives in Kabul to find out "places needing assistance with orphans," he had been told that Taloqan was a suitable area. The additional information compiled by the authorities also provided an explanation of the circumstances of his capture, which contradicted the claim that he was "wounded during military operations." After fleeing to Khost, Ghamdi said that he "stopped in the first Taliban center he came to," which was subsequently bombed. Injured and "rendered unconscious," he awoke in a hospital in Miram Shah, in Pakistan, where he was arrested and transferred to U.S. custody.

The stories of the other two were unknown until this September, because they did not take part in any tribunals or review boards, and the Pentagon had not released any of the "evidence" against them. Al-Wafa litters the story of 23-year-old Jabir al-Qahtani, but none of the allegations come close to any evidence of militant activity. By the time of his last administrative review, in April 2006, all the authorities had managed to come up with were allegations that he traveled to Lahore in March 2001, "with his travel partly financed by the head of al-Wafa," that he worked in a warehouse in Lahore for six months, and that he then moved to a warehouse in Kabul. Captured by the Northern Alliance in November 2001, he was held for four months before being turned over to U.S. forces. With only one dubious allegation of militancy – that he "was identified as a fighter who preferred to spend most of his time lounging around [various] guest houses" – the authorities resorted to alleging that he "depicts [sic] many counter-interrogation techniques attributed to al-Qaeda training and consistent with al-Qaeda members," and that, in Guantánamo, he "was identified as the leader of a cell block, and has issued a fatwa on the United States."

A more shocking set of allegations was leveled against 35-year-old Abdullah al-Wafi al-Harbi. He told his interrogators that he traveled to Afghanistan via Iran, approximately three weeks after 9/11, and that, when he reached the border and told the guards that "he had come to Afghanistan to assist in humanitarian efforts," they "informed him about a group called al-Wafa and advised him to join the group if he wished to help the poor." After two weeks in Kabul – as the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began – he said that "he was told by the Afghanis that they had to leave because there was a problem with Arabs" and that representatives of al-Wafa provided him "with directions on how to leave Afghanistan." He then traveled by taxi, with three other men, to Khost, where they stayed for a month before crossing into Pakistan, where he was arrested.

Ranged against this account was a bewildering array of unsubstantiated allegations: that he "was identified as an experienced fighter who allegedly fought against the Russians in Afghanistan and Bosnia [sic]," that a "source" – or various sources – claimed that he "was in Bosnia with a known al-Qaeda operative," that he attended the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, that he was "well known by clerics and imams in Saudi Arabia as a recruiter and fundraiser for jihad," and that he, along with others from Mecca known as "the Mecca Group," "ate with Osama bin Laden while at Tora Bora." Another unidentified "individual" made the astonishing claim that Harbi told him that several of the 9/11 hijackers "stayed at his house during Haj, possibly in 1999." A "source" also said that Harbi "told him he had lied to interrogators" in Kandahar, claiming to work for al-Wafa "rather than admitting to fighting in the jihad," even though this was directly contradicted by the next allegation from another "source," who stated that he was "ranked high in al-Wafa."

The Taliban Foot Soldiers

Of the seven men who fought with the Taliban, three of the stories appear fairly straightforward, although two of the men – 26-year-old Turki al-Asiri and 19-year-old Nayif al-Nukhaylan – did not take part in any tribunals or review boards. Asiri was accused of answering a fatwa urging support for the Taliban, of training at al-Farouq (the main camp for Arabs, associated with Osama bin Laden), and of fleeing, via Tora Bora, from Jalalabad to Pakistan, where he was arrested. Nukhaylan, who was also accused of attending al-Farouq, apparently received additional training at a Moroccan camp in Jalalabad, where he was wounded in a U.S. air strike and spent some time in a coma in an Afghan hospital. The third man, 25-year-old Fahd al-Sharif, who had been a policeman in Mecca, apparently remained seduced by the jihadist fantasies that had been used to recruit him. He told his review board that he traveled to Afghanistan in 2000 "for the purpose of jihad with the Taliban government" and that he hoped to become a martyr, but added that he went only to fight the Northern Alliance, "to help thousands of millions of Afghan Muslims to return their hopes, their countries, and their lives."

The stories of two other willing recruits are notable only because of the additional allegations that mounted against them. Twenty-nine-year-old Hani al-Khalif, who had served as a soldier in the Saudi army during the Gulf War, explained that he "had been taught the doctrine of jihad in the mosque he attended," and "specifically that it was a Muslim’s duty to wage jihad against anyone who killed Muslims." He added that he wanted to fight in Chechnya, which was "a greater jihad," because "the fight was not against other Muslims as in Afghanistan," but he was unable to arrange travel to Chechnya. He settled on Afghanistan instead, where he trained at al-Farouq and then fought on the front lines against the Northern Alliance until he was ordered to surrender to Gen. Dostum, one of the Alliance leaders. Despite the coherence of this narrative arc, however, it was also alleged that "a senior al-Qaeda operative" identified him as the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in Karachi, Pakistan.

The story of 29-year-old Faha Sultan (described on his release as Fahd al-Osaimi al-Otaibi) was unknown until just two months ago. After responding to a fatwa, he traveled to Afghanistan in January 2001 and was identified by two detainees as having worked in a distribution center. Less reliable was an allegation that he was "identified as a friend of a senior al-Qaeda leader and had a good relationship with another individual who was a close associate of the senior al-Qaeda leader." Although U.S. authorities claimed that he had "acted as if in a catatonic state during interviews," on one occasion being overheard "telling another detainee that he had fooled the interrogator into thinking that he was ‘messed up,’" they also said that as long ago as July 2002, "a foreign delegation" – presumably Saudi intelligence – identified him as being "of low law enforcement and low intelligence value."

Hunger Strikes in Guantánamo

The stories of the last two Taliban recruits are particularly depressing, not because of their military recruitment, which followed a well-established pattern, but because of what happened to them in Guantánamo. Yousef al-Shehri was just 16 years old when he was captured by Northern Alliance soldiers, in a group of around 120 fighters, after the surrender of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in November 2001. Although dozens of juveniles have been held at Guantánamo, the U.S. (one of only two nations that has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) has, with few exceptions, pointedly refused to recognize that all juveniles – even "child soldiers" – should be treated differently from adults. Shehri was not one of the exceptions: he was held throughout his detention as an adult, and treated as a dangerous terrorist rather than a child. His suffering became particularly pronounced when he took part in a prison-wide hunger strike, which involved at least 200 detainees, in the summer of 2005. In July 2005 and again in January 2006, his weight, which had been 141 pounds when he arrived at Guantánamo in February 2002, dropped to just 97 pounds. His lawyers, who visited him in October 2005, said that he was "emaciated and had lost a disturbing amount of weight," adding that he was "visibly weak and frail" and "had difficulty speaking because of lesions in his throat that were a result of the involuntary force-feeding" to which he had been subjected.

Murtadha Makram, who was 25 years old when he was captured, was an even more committed hunger striker. A Taliban recruit who spent 16 months in Afghanistan, Makram "was identified as having fought at Tora Bora" and was seized after crossing into Pakistan. Makram was force-fed at least once a week from October 2005 onwards, and daily from Dec. 17, 2005, to Jan. 27, 2006, when his weight, which had been 142 pounds when he arrived in Guantánamo, fell to just 87 pounds. After resuming his hunger strike later in the year, he was then force-fed on a daily basis from Nov. 16, 2006, until at least Dec. 10, when the records end. In March 2007, when detailed notes about the ongoing hunger strikes – compiled by the imprisoned al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj – were declassified, Haj explained that Makram "has tried to kill himself many times. He last tried to do this on May 18, 2006. Now he is on a hunger strike to try to kill himself. He has been without food for three months and is being force-fed." Though no one in the administration has admitted it, it’s plausible that Makram was released in this latest batch of detainees because of fears that his desire to kill himself was close to becoming another PR-damaging reality.

In conclusion, though many readers may have no sympathy for the suffering of Taliban recruits (whether on hunger strike or not), the unpalatable truth is that force-feeding competent prisoners against their will is widely considered illegal, and it is only being done because otherwise Guantánamo would be filled with emaciated corpses. The reason for these men’s despair – which is such that many have sought to end their lives, even though Islam prohibits suicide – is, quite simply, the intolerable burden of indefinite detention without charge or trial, which is unique to Guantánamo and the administration’s secret prisons.

The cases of the innocent men described above are clearly a moral outrage and a colossal miscarriage of justice. Even in the cases of the Taliban foot soldiers – who, lest we forget, traveled to Afghanistan before 9/11 to take part in an inter-Muslim civil war – it has yet to be demonstrated that the administration’s flight from domestic and international law has been justified. After depriving these men of the protections of the Geneva Conventions, refusing to allow them to challenge the basis of their detention, and interrogating them for nearly six years, the administration’s decision to release them, though clearly affected by diplomacy, also suggests that, in the end, they had no inside knowledge of al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks.

Author: Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is a historian based in London. He is the author of The Guantánamo Files, the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in Guantanámo. He writes regularly on issues related to Guantánamo and the "War on Terror" on his Web site.