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 U.S. military, 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 Ajmi had recorded a martyrdom tape before his mission,
which was translated by the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors
jihadist Web sites. On the audiotape, 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 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 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 U.S. 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 U.S. officers should not
be admissible as evidence, because they "do not bear signatures of the
U.S. 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
In Guantánamo, 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 Ajmi was lying in Guantánamo
– which is, of course, a possibility – or whether the abuse he suffered for
four years in U.S. 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 U.S. custody.
Speaking to the Washington Post, U.S. lawyer Thomas Wilner, who represented
Ajmi and several other former Kuwaiti prisoners, recalled 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 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, 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 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 U.S. 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 Ajmi's homicidal suicide has prompted Robert Gates,
the U.S. 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 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 U.S. custody
and gone on to fight U.S. forces."
As I have explained before, and will, no doubt, continue to explain 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 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 U.S. 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 U.S. authorities refused to allow their allies in Afghanistan to
have any involvement in screening the prisoners to ascertain who was actually
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, 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
U.S. courts – remain fit for this 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.