New Document Voices Baffled, Brash and Irate in Guantánamo
Newly released documents provide the most detailed information to date about the detainees held at Guantánamo Bay.
This article was reported by Margot Williams, Tim Golden and Raymond Bonner and written by Mr. Golden.
Among the hundreds of men imprisoned by the American military at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, there are those who brashly assert their determination to wage war against what they see as the infidel empire led by the United States.
"May God help me fight the unfaithful ones," one Saudi detainee, Ghassan Abdallah Ghazi al-Shirbi, said at a military hearing where he was accused of being a lieutenant of Al Qaeda.
But there are many more, it seems, who sound like Abdur Sayed Rahman, a self-described Pakistani villager who says he was arrested at his modest home in January 2002, flown off to Afghanistan and later accused of being the deputy foreign minister of that country's deposed Taliban regime.
"I am only a chicken farmer in Pakistan," he protested to American military officers at Guantánamo. "My name is Abdur Sayed Rahman. Abdur Zahid Rahman was the deputy foreign minister of the Taliban."
Mr. Rahman's pleadings are among more than 5,000 pages of documents released by the Defense Department on Friday night in response to a lawsuit brought under the Freedom of Information Act by The Associated Press.
After more than four years in which the Pentagon refused to make public even the names of those held at Guantánamo, the documents provide the most detailed information to date about who the detainees say they are and the evidence against them.
According to their own accounts, the prisoners range from poor Afghan farmers and low-level Arab holy warriors to a Sudanese drug dealer, the son of a former Saudi Army general and a British resident with an Iraqi passport who was arrested in Gambia.
One 26-year-old Saudi, Muhammed al-Utaybi, said he was studying art when he decided to travel to Pakistan to train with the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. He was not much of a militant himself, he suggested, saying the training "was just like summer vacation."
The documents - hearing transcripts and evidentiary statements from the two types of military panels that evaluate whether the detainees should remain at Guantánamo - are far from a complete portrait of those in custody there.
They do not include the classified evidence that is generally part of the review panels' deliberations, nor their final verdicts on whether or not to recommend the detainees' release. Of the about 760 men who have been held at Guantánamo, the documents cover fewer than half.
But a reading of the voluminous files adds texture to the accusations that the men face and the way they have tried to respond to them. It also underscores the considerable difficulties that both the military and the detainees appear to have had in wrestling with the often thin or conflicting evidence involved.
At one review hearing last year, an Afghan referred to by the single name Muhibullah denied accusations that he was either the former Taliban governor of Shibarghan Province or had worked for the governor. The solution to his case should have been simple, Mr. Muhibullah suggested to the three American officers reviewing his case: They should contact the Shibarghan governor and ask him.
But the presiding Marine Corps colonel said it was really up to the detainee to try to contact the governor. Assuming that the annual review board denied his petition for freedom, noted the officer, whose name was censored from the document, Mr. Muhibullah would have a year to do so.
"How do I find the governor of Shibarghan or anybody?" the detainee asked.
"Write to them," the presiding officer responded. "We know that it is difficult but you need to do your best."
"I appreciate your suggestion, but it is not that easy," Mr. Muhibullah said.
Bush administration officials and military leaders have often justified the extraordinary conditions under which detainees are held at Guantánamo by insisting that the detainees are hardened terrorists. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld famously described the Guantánamo detainees as "the worst of the worst."
And while many administration officials have privately backed away from such claims, they argue that most of the 490 detainees still being held would pose a significant threat to the United States if released. Pentagon spokesmen have generally dismissed the detainees' protestations of innocence as the predictable lies of well-trained militants.
Accusations and Replies
The hearing transcripts are from review panels known as Combatant Status Review Tribunals, where three military officers weigh whether a detainee is properly classified as an "enemy combatant." Few of them have made the process as easy as Ghassan Abdallah Ghazi al-Shirbi.
"Honestly," he said, "I did not come here to defend myself, but defend the Islamic nation; this is my duty, and I have to do it."
Among the accusations against Mr. Shirbi recounted in the hearing transcript were that he trained with Al Qaeda, was "observed chatting and laughing like pals with Osama bin Laden," and was known as the "right-hand man" to Abu Zubaydah, a top Qaeda operative. Mr. Shirbi said he was willing to accept all of those accusations.
He then told the hearing officers, "I found the accusations against you to be many."
With that, Mr. Shirbi unleashed a tirade against capitalism, America, homosexuality, Israel, support for Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, and the more recent war against Iraq.
"Your status as enemy combatants does not need a court," he told the officers.
As for his own classification of enemy combatant, Mr. Shirbi was blunt: "It is my honor to have this classification in this world until the end, until eternity, God be my witness."
In other cases, the incriminating evidence has generally been less clear-cut.
Another Saudi, Mazin Salih Musaid al-Awfi, was one of at least half a dozen men against whom the "relevant data" considered by the annual review boards included the possession at the time of his capture of a Casio model F-91W watch. According to evidentiary summaries in those cases, such watches have "been used in bombings linked to Al Qaeda."
"I am a bit surprised at this piece of evidence," Mr. Awfi said. "If that is a crime, why doesn't the United States arrest and sentence all the shops and people who own them?"
Another detainee whose evidence sheet also included a Casio F-91W, Abdullah Kamal, was an electrical engineer from Kuwait who once played on his country's national volleyball team. He was also accused of being a leader of a Kuwaiti militant group that collected money for Mr. bin Laden.
As for the Casio allegation, Mr. Kamal said the watch was a common one in Kuwait and had a compass that could be used to find the direction of Mecca for his prayers. "We have four chaplains" at Guantánamo, he said. "All of them wear this watch."
While many of the detainees are citizens of Afghanistan or were captured there during and after the Taliban's overthrow, the documents also make clear the long reach of the American campaign against terror.
One unidentified Pakistani detainee was seized as he tried to cross into the United States from Mexico. He said he had paid an immigrant smuggler $16,000 to $18,000 to take him to Guatemala and then north; his smuggler was known to the American authorities for having ties to Arab militant groups, documents from his case show.
Another Pakistani, Saifullah Paracha, was arrested in Thailand in July 2003. Mr. Paracha, a wealthy real estate developer who said he attended the New York Institute of Technology, was accused of making investments for Qaeda members, plotting to smuggle explosives into the United States and urging the use of nuclear weapons against American soldiers. He acknowledged having met Mr. bin Laden twice, but denied the other allegations.
An unidentified 34-year-old Mauritanian who appears to be Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the onetime imam of a mosque in Montreal who was linked in Germany to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, told of being "kidnapped" after he turned himself in to the Mauritanian authorities and of being taken to Jordan for eight months while "they tried to squeeze information out of me." He said he was flown from Jordan to Afghanistan, and then on to Guantánamo.
Yet for all the gravity of the global fight against terrorism, the give-and-take at the Guantánamo hearings is sometimes reminiscent of a local arraignment court.
Consider the exchange over a Belgian detainee, captured in Afghanistan. One allegation, read in court, was that he was a member of the Theological Commission of the GICM.
"What is GICM?" asked the detainee, who was not identified.
The tribunal president asked a clerk, "Could you explain what GICM is? I have the same question."
The clerk said he was not sure, either. Another accusation was read: that GICM is associated with Al Qaeda. The detainee answered again, "I don't know this group."
The tribunal president announced a short break so the clerk could "find out, for everyone's benefit, What GICM stands for." When the tribunal reconvened, the clerk announced that GICM stood for Groupe Islamiste Combatant du Maroc, or the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group.
To which the detainee responded, "I never before heard of all this."
Defining the Details
The files are replete with retractions. Detainees who had confessed to having ties to Al Qaeda or the Taliban or terrorism frequently told the tribunals that they had only made those admissions to stop beatings or torture by their captors.
"The only reason for my original statements is because I was tortured when I was captured," said a former mechanical engineering student from Saudi Arabia who was accused of training at a Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. "In Kabul, an Afghan interrogator beat me and told me they would kill me if I didn't talk. They shot and killed someone in front of me and said they would do the same if I didn't cooperate."
Another common defense of the detainees, particularly those captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan, is that they were turned over to American forces in exchange for some kind of bounty, or that they were arrested when they refused to or could not pay bribes to the local authorities.
"The Pakistanis are making business out of this war," said a detainee from Tajikistan who was arrested in Pakistan in November 2001. "The detainees are not being captured by U.S. forces, but are being sold by the Pakistan government. They are making 2, 3, or $10,000 to sell detainees to the U.S."
As the Pentagon has defined the term enemy combatant for purposes of the tribunals, it includes anyone "who was part of or supporting the Taliban or Al Qaeda forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners."
But many of the detainees protested in their hearings that such a wide net was catching many who were not real enemies of the United States.
One 29-year-old Saudi acknowledged having fought with jihadist groups in the Philippines and Afghanistan, saying he had been a "zealous" younger man. But he also said that he had a brother and a cousin who had both married Americans, and he had a complex set of views on the United States.
"I'm an educated guy and I understand politics," the detainee said, suggesting that he had had a change of heart. "The United States has made some wrong decisions, but that doesn't give me the right to consider them an enemy or kill their people."
However improbably, many of the detainees said that the allure of Afghanistan for them was not jihad. Maasoum Abdah insisted that his mission was entirely personal.
In 2000, he said, he left Syria and traveled to Turkey and Iran and finally Afghanistan. He was accused of living in a Taliban safe house in Kabul. The authorities said his name was on a list of men being trained as snipers.
He acknowledged that he knew how to shoot from his days in the Syrian police. But even in the police, he said, "in a year and a half, I only shot seven bullets." And he said he had no allegiance to the Taliban.
Then why the long, arduous journey to Afghanistan, a tribunal officer asked. "I wanted to go to Afghanistan to find a wife and get married and stay there," Mr. Abdah answered through a personal representative.
Why not find a wife in Syria?
"It is very expensive to find a wife," Mr. Abdah explained. "The price is at least $3,000. I might work for years and still not be able to collect that much money. In Afghanistan, it is very cheap. The most is $300."
Tom Torok contributed reporting for this article.