Guantanamo's Child Soldiers: Files Reveal Many Inmates Were Minors

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The Guantanamo files reveal many of the inmates in the controversial detention camp were under 18 at the time of their capture and thatthe charges against them were often based on hearsay. Even detainees who US interrogators admitted were innocent had to waita long time before being freed.

A US Navy sailor stands guard in Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center (March 2010 photo). Zoom
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A US Navy sailor stands guard in Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center (March 2010 photo).

The file reads like a description of a fighting machine. Omar Ahmed Khader, who was given the prisoner number US9CA-000766DP, was a skilled fighter. While training in Afghanistan, he learned to detonate mines and blow up bombs, not to mention "configuring IEDs for remote detonation using hand held devices."

And the man had used his skills well, according to his risk assessment written by US interrogators in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp -- a document which SPIEGEL has seen and which has now been made public by the whistleblowing platform WikiLeaks, together with 778 other files.

"Detainee admits to having participated in several mining operations and harassing attacks against US Forces," the file reads. He is even alleged to have killed an American soldier with a grenade.

The detainee did not appear to regret his actions, however. "Detainee has never expressed any genuine remorse for the killing of that soldier," the file reads. On the contrary, while in Guantanamo he grew "increasingly hostile towards his interrogators and the guard force," despite being willing to cooperate. "He remains committed to extremist Islamic values."

Everything in the file makes the detainee sound like a hardcore jihadist. With one exception: the date of birth. Omar Ahmed Khader was born on Sept. 19, 1986. The detainee was only 17 years old at the time when his file was created.

'Understands the Gravity of His Actions'

Omar Ahmed Khader was a child soldier. According to his file, his own father was close to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. He "encouraged" his teenage son to travel to Afghanistan to take part in the fight against the US.

The fact that Khader was just a boy does not seem to have affected his treatment in Guantanamo. The interrogators write coolly: "Detainee, though only 16 years old at the time of his travel to Afghanistan, … understands the gravity of his actions and affiliations." Their recommendation, dated Dec. 22, 2003, reads: "Retain under DoD (Department of Defense) control."

Today, more than seven years later, little has changed. In August 2010, Khader was finally brought before a military tribunal in Guantanamo. If he wanted to avoid life in prison, he was supposed to agree to a deal. He was treated like an adult -- even though he had later recanted his confession and accused his US interrogators of torture. The chances are good that he will also spend his 25th birthday in September 2011 in the camp.

The American view of the situation is always the same, and always very clear: Khader may have been arrested as a minor, but in the eyes of the US Department of Defense he is still an "enemy combatant."

Khader's case reveals one of the saddest aspects of the many sad stories surrounding the US detention camp. As the "assessments" now reveal, many of the Guantanamo detainees were minors at the time of their alleged terrorist acts. Often they were held on the basis of "hearsay evidence," oral statements made by third parties, which probably would not stand up before any court of law.

Scant Evidence

That also proved true in the case of Yousef Abkir Salih el Gharani, prisoner No. US9CD-000269DP. He was born in Saudi Arabia, but possesses Chadian citizenship, as his parents are from that country. Gharani is described as a "Qaida suicide operative" who was associated with two Saudi nationals who wanted to carry out a suicide attack in their own country.

That's not all. The detainee, according to his "assessment," was captured together with a group of Taliban fighters in Pakistan, who had fled from Tora Bora, the cave complex in Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden successfully used to flee from American troops at the end of 2001. The report clearly categorized Gharani as a "high risk."

The problem is that little evidence is provided in the file to back up those claims. It consists of the following:

  • Gharani had in his possession letters to al-Qaida leaders, including one that was decorated with a bleeding heart used to spell out the word "battle."
  • Further evidence was his behavior in Guantanamo, where he exposed his genitals and "threw feces on the guard force" as well as "inappropriate use of bodily fluids."
  • And then there are statements made from an informant with the prisoner number US9YM-000252DP, who said: "If you were in Tora Bora, you were not innocent, you were there to fight." Another detainee appeared to have identified Gharani as a member of a London-based al-Qaida cell.

But even the Americans admitted that nothing was airtight in the case. "Detainee's intelligence value remains difficult to accurately assess because of the limited details in detainee's account and single-source reporting that has not been corroborated," a report states.

The allegations become particularly absurd when one considers the actual age of the alleged child soldier. Gharani's attorneys claim that their client was born in 1987 and not 1981 as his Guantanamo file claims. To prove it, they presented his birth certificate.

According to the birth certificate, at the time of his alleged terrorist activities in London, he would have only been 11 years old. In reality, he was still living with his parents in Saudi Arabia at that age. Gharani has since been released following the ruling of a US judge in January 2009, who decided against the recommendation of the US military. Five months later, Gharani was, because of his citizenship, handed over to Chad, a country where he has never lived and whose language he does not speak. By then, he had spent more than seven years of his life in Guantanamo.

Embarrassment for US Authorities

The Americans prefer to avoid the issue of young prisoners at Guantanamo because it embarrasses them. When three minors who were Guantanamo detainees were released in January 2004, the US authorities were quick to make assurances that they were the only ones in that age group at Guantanamo.

But the US military considers minors to be people under 16 years of age -- and not under 18, as defined by most human rights groups. According to the latter definition, more than 60 inmates at Guantanamo would have been considered minors at the time of their detainment.

In many cases it was difficult to accurately determine the age of detainees, however. Most of the age determinations were made through bone measurements, but even that isn't truly reliable. With some of the minors at Guantanamo, it quickly became clear to the Joint Task Force that they were harmless. Nevertheless, the alleged enemy combatants were often forced to remain in the detention camp for years.

Mohammed Ismail, detainee number US9AF-00930DP, is one of them. While searching for work at the end of 2002 as a 14-year-old in Afghanistan, he fell into the hands of Afghan soldiers who -- claiming he was a Taliban fighter -- turned him over to a commander, who arrested him. During his detention in Afghanistan, Ismail was apparently told that he would be freed if he admitted to being a member of the Taliban. When he did this, however, he wound up being transported to Guantanamo on Feb. 7, 2002.

Even the Americans quickly came to the conclusion that he was harmless, noting in his file that he was neither a member of al-Qaida nor the Taliban.

The official recommendation issued in mid-2003 stated that he should be released, but this was blocked because his case had not been "fully assessed." It wasn't until the beginning of 2004 that officials finally freed Mohammed Ismail.

'Jihad Is When a Person Travels to another Country'

Mohammed Omar, inmate number US9PK-000540DP, who was brought to Guantanamo in June 2002, had a similar experience. The Americans investigated him and estimated he was at least 16 years and nine months old. Because his "long bone growth plates are fully mature," they said, Omar "is an adult, anatomically."

Mohammed Omar had literally taken a wrong path. He said that a friend had persuaded him to go to Afghanistan to learn hand-to-hand combat of the kind he had seen in movies. He thought it was a cool idea.

But the alleged sports camp turned out to be a Taliban training camp that was under bombardment. Omar tried to make his way back to Pakistan, but he was caught by Afghans who then passed him on to the Americans, who in turn sent him to Guantanamo "because of his knowledge of a training camp."

The interrogations are at times tedious -- for example, when Omar's file states, "Detainee believes a jihad is when a person travels to a foreign land and is separated from his family." On May 31, 2003, the disappointed Americans wrote that the information he had provided was "neither valuable nor tactically exploitable."

Nevertheless, he remained in Guantanamo until the end of 2004.

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