Lost In Guantnamo: The Faisalabad 16

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On the evening
of March 28, 2002, an armed group of FBI agents and Pakistani commandos,
accompanied by a hundred local police, stormed
Shabaz Cottage
, an apartment in a quiet neighborhood in the
city of Faisalabad, Pakistan. Their target, who had been tracked
by the careless use of a satellite phone, was Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad
Husayn, more commonly known as Abu Zubaydah. Acknowledged as a facilitator
for recruits attending the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan,
Zubaydah was regarded by the CIA as a far more significant figure.

Apprehended
as he attempted to flee the house, Zubaydah reportedly received
gunshot wounds in his stomach, one of his legs, and his groin, and
after his capture was immediately rendered to a secret CIA prison
in Thailand, where, as General Michael Hayden, the CIA’s director,
acknowledged in February this year, he was subjected to the ancient
torture technique known as waterboarding,
a form of controlled drowning. He was later transferred to other
secret prisons – in Poland,
and possibly on the island of Diego
Garcia
– until his eventual transfer to Guantánamo,
along with 13 other “high-value detainees,” in September
2006.

Disputes within
the U.S. administration over Zubaydah’s alleged significance
have never been resolved. Dan Coleman, a senior FBI operative, maintains
that he was “insane, certifiable, split personality,”
based on an analysis of his dairies, which revealed mundane accounts
of life as recorded by three different personalities, and according
to Ron Suskind, in his book The
One Percent Doctrine
, other officials confirmed that
Zubaydah appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations, and
was, instead, a minor logistician. Nevertheless, the CIA took over
his interrogations from the FBI and subjected him to torture, and
after he arrived at Guantánamo, President Bush took the opportunity
to declare,
“We believe that Zubaydah was a senior terrorist leader and
a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden.”

While the
story of Abu Zubaydah has been reported extensively in the media,
there has been far less coverage of the seven men seized with him
during the Faisalabad raid, and almost no mention whatsoever of
16 other men seized in a raid on another house in Faisalabad that
same evening, even though the stories of two of these prisoners
shed light on the CIA’s policy of rendering terror suspects
to third countries for torture, and others cast doubt on the Pentagon’s
justifications for holding prisoners in Guantánamo.

Information
about the two suspects who were rendered to torture was provided
by the journalist Stephen Grey in his book Ghost
Plane
, following an interview with Abdullah
Almalki
. A joint Syrian-Canadian national, Almalki was seized
by Syrian intelligence agents in May 2002, at the request of the
Canadian authorities, and imprisoned and tortured for 22 months
in the notorious military prison known as the “Palestine Branch,”
before being released without charge. He explained to Grey that
two suspects seized with Zubaydah – Omar Ghramesh and an unnamed
teenager – were rendered to the “Palestine Branch”
on May 14, 2002, along with Abdul Halim Dalak, a student seized
in Pakistan in November 2001. Ghramesh, he said, had explained to
him that in Pakistan U.S. agents had shown him photos of Abu Zubaydah
looking battered and bruised, and had told him, “If you don’t
talk, this is what will happen to you.”

As in the
cases of dozens of other “ghost prisoners,” the U.S. government
has never acknowledged its role in the rendition and torture of
Ghramesh, Dalak and the unnamed teenager, and their current whereabouts
are unknown.

However, more
is known about the prisoners who were transferred to Guantánamo.
Four of the men seized with Zubaydah – Ghassan al-Sharbi and
Jabran al-Qahtani (both Saudis), Sufyian Barhoumi (an Algerian)
and Noor Uthman Muhammed (a Sudanese) – were put forward for
trial
by military commission
in June this year, accused of various
plots involving explosives, and, in Muhammed’s
case
, of being the deputy emir of the Khaldan training camp.

Their cases
are notable because the charges against them were dropped
by the Pentagon in October, after their prosecutor, Lt. Col. Darrel
Vandeveld, resigned,
stating that the trial system was designed to prevent the disclosure
of evidence essential to the defense, and citing examples in one
of the cases he was prosecuting, that of an Afghan prisoner named
Mohamed
Jawad
. The Pentagon gave no explanation for dropping the charges,
but commentators suggested that officials were concerned that, if
the cases proceeded to trial, Vandeveld would cause them further
embarrassment by testifying for the defense.

It is not
known whether Vandeveld possesses information that undermines the
Pentagon’s claims against these men, but the recent release
from Guantánamo of another prisoner captured with Abu Zubaydah
indicates that not everyone seized in the Faisalabad raids was connected
with al-Qaeda.

Labed Ahmed,
a 50-year-old Algerian (also identified as Abdallah Husseini), was
repatriated on November 10, after being “approved for transfer”
by a military review board. During a review in 2006, he explained
that he had ended up at Zubaydah’s house by accident.

A former drug
dealer in Europe, Ahmed told the military panel that he had been
imprisoned many times in Germany and Italy, and explained that he
decided to go to Afghanistan in March 2001, after someone he met
at a mosque in Hamburg recruited him by showing him videos of mujahideen
in Afghanistan and Chechnya, although he added that he actually
hoped to buy heroin to sell in Europe so that he could buy his own
nightclub.

Ahmed said
that he arrived in Afghanistan at the start of September 2001, trained
at al-Farouq (the main camp for Arabs) for 12 days until the camp
closed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and then fought with the
Taliban until December, when he left for Pakistan with a group of
20 other people, staying for three months in safe houses in Bannu
and Lahore. He said that he was then told to go to Faisalabad, where
some people would come to give him his passport and send him back
to Germany. He explained that he was with two other people, a Russian
and a Yemeni, but that, after they arrived at Shabaz Cottage, they
were told that they had been brought there by mistake and would
be moved to another house after the evening prayer.

Ahmed insisted
that he didn’t want to leave, because the previous houses had been
crowded, whereas this house was “big and nice” and “everybody
had their own room,” and explained that he refused to leave
in the vehicle that was brought in the evening. Several days later,
he said,

The guy from al-Qaeda, Daoud [identified in the hearing as Zubaydah]
questioned me as to who I was, what I was doing here and who brought
me. I said I’m from Germany waiting on my passport. When I get it,
I will leave. He said, no problem, you can stay here for a week.
I stayed there for about 12 days and the Pakistani police came.
They took us to prison. Daoud was arrested with us, you can ask
him about us.

The house
to which Ahmed and his companions were supposed to have been delivered
was the Crescent Mill guest house (also referred to as the “Issa”
guest house, after its owner, and “the Yemeni house,”
after most of its guests), and it was here that the Russian and
the Yemeni who arrived at Shabaz Cottage with Ahmed were seized,
along with another 14 prisoners. Mostly aged between 18 and 24,
there were 11 Yemenis, an Algerian, a Palestinian, and a Saudi,
and all are still in Guantánamo, with the exception of Ali
Abdullah Ahmed al-Salami, one of three prisoners who died
in Guantánamo
in June 2006, apparently after committing
suicide.

Of the remaining
15 prisoners, only one has been approved for release from Guantánamo,
even though there is little in any of the men’s stories to
suggest that they were involved in any kind of militant activity.
Ten of the 17 have maintained that they were students at Salafia
University, run by the vast missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi,
and that the guest house was a university dorm, two have stated
that they traveled to receive medical treatment, and another, Fahmi
Ahmed, said that he went to Pakistan to buy fabrics, taking money
that he had borrowed from his mother, but explained that he actually
spent most of his time “like a wild man,” drinking and
smoking hashish. The prisoner cleared for release, Mohammed Hassen,
was not even living at the house, and was caught up in the raid
after visiting for dinner and staying the night.

Only three
of the men have admitted that they ever set foot in Afghanistan:
Ahmed Abdul Qader, a Yemeni, who said that he went to Afghanistan
for charitable work, and Ravil Mingazov and Jamil Nassir, the Russian
and Yemeni who were taken to Abu Zubaydah’s house by mistake
just two weeks before the raid. Nassir’s story involves conflicting
claims that he either undertook military training in Afghanistan,
was a humanitarian aid worker, or had traveled to Pakistan for medical
treatment, and Mingazov, a former ballet dancer, fled religious
persecution in his homeland, and has stated that he was with Jamaat-al-Tablighi
in Lahore when he joined Labed Ahmed on the ill-fated trip to Faisalabad.

The allegations
made against these prisoners give little reason to doubt their stories.
They contain claims by the U.S. authorities, as with many other
prisoners involved with Jamaat-al-Tablighi, that the organization
was “used to mask travel and activities of terrorists,”
but this allegation has never been regarded as legitimate outside
Guantánamo. For the most part the prisoners’ insistence
that they traveled from their home countries to study in Faisalabad
via Karachi (and often via Jamaat-al-Tablighi mosques in Lahore
and Raiwand, where the organization has its headquarters) is at
odds with a catalog of other allegations made under unknown circumstances
by unidentified “al-Qaeda operatives” and other unidentified
“sources,” who claimed to have seen the men at various
times in Afghanistan.

With
Labed Ahmed now released, it is unclear how the Pentagon can maintain
that it has any reason to hold the 16 other prisoners seized in
the Crescent Mill guest house. One particular comment that Ahmed
made during his military review, when he stated that, because he,
Mingazov and Nassir “did not have a connection or relationship
with Abu Zubaydah,” they “should have been placed in the
Yemeni house,” indicates that, although Abu Zubaydah had some
sort of contact with the house, it was not a place that had any
connection with terrorism, and was, at best, a place where a few
foreigners fleeing from Afghanistan could be concealed alongside
a group of students.

Mohammed Hassen’s
lawyer, David Remes, says his client has paid dearly for being at
the wrong place at the wrong time: “Mohammed has spent a quarter
of his life behind bars because he made the mistake of visiting
a friend at a guest house the night it was raided.” Noting
that Mr. Hassen was cleared for release nearly three years ago but
remains imprisoned at Guantánamo, Remes added,

This is more than injustice. It’s a nightmare. My client is particularly
unfortunate, because he was not even living at the house, but nothing
I have either seen or heard, in my discussions with other lawyers
and my analysis of Mr. Hassen’s case, indicates that any of these
men constitutes a threat to the United States.

December
9, 2008

Andy
Worthington is the author of
The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in
America’s Illegal Prison
(published by Pluto Press).
Visit his website.

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