How Guantanamo became a recruiting ground for militants

McClatchy NewspapersJune 17, 2008 

Mohammed Naim Farouq was a thug in the lawless Zormat district of eastern Afghanistan. He ran a kidnapping and extortion racket, and he controlled his turf with a band of gunmen who rode around in trucks with AK-47 rifles.

U.S. troops detained him in 2002, although he had no clear ties to the Taliban or al Qaida. By the time Farouq was released from Guantanamo the next year, however — after more than 12 months of what he described as abuse and humiliation at the hands of American soldiers — he'd made connections to high-level militants.

In fact, he'd become a Taliban leader. When the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency released a stack of 20 "most wanted" playing cards in 2006 identifying militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan — with Osama bin Laden at the top — Farouq was 16 cards into the deck.

A McClatchy investigation found that instead of confining terrorists, Guantanamo often produced more of them by rounding up common criminals, conscripts, low-level foot soldiers and men with no allegiance to radical Islam — thus inspiring a deep hatred of the United States in them — and then housing them in cells next to radical Islamists.

The radicals were quick to exploit the flaws in the U.S. detention system.

Soldiers, guards or interrogators at the U.S. bases at Bagram or Kandahar in Afghanistan had abused many of the detainees, and they arrived at Guantanamo enraged at America.

The Taliban and al Qaida leaders in the cells around them were ready to preach their firebrand interpretation of Islam and the need to wage jihad, Islamic holy war, against the West. Guantanamo became a school for jihad, complete with a council of elders who issued fatwas, binding religious instructions, to the other detainees.

Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, until recently the commanding officer at Guantanamo, acknowledged that senior militant leaders gained influence and control in his prison.

"We have that full range of (Taliban and al Qaida) leadership here, why would they not continue to be functional as an organization?" he said in a telephone interview. "I must make the assumption that there's a fully functional al Qaida cell here at Guantanamo."

Afghan and Pakistani officials also said they were aware that Guantanamo was churning out new militant leaders.

In a classified 2005 review of 35 detainees released from Guantanamo, Pakistani police intelligence concluded that the men — the majority of whom had been subjected to "severe mental and physical torture," according to the report — had "extreme feelings of resentment and hatred against USA."

The report warned that unless steps were taken to rehabilitate the men, they had the potential of "becoming another Abdullah Mehsud," a former Guantanamo detainee who became a high-ranking Taliban commander in the Pakistani tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Mehsud killed himself with a grenade last July to avoid being taken prisoner by Pakistani troops.

"A lot of our friends are working against the Americans now, because if you torture someone without any reason, what do you expect?" Issa Khan, a Pakistani former detainee, said in an interview in Islamabad. "Many people who were in Guantanamo are now working with the Taliban."

According to Afghan authorities, Mohammed Naim Farouq was a rural gangster, not a terrorist.

"He was with a group that was kidnapping people. It was a criminal group. It did a lot of extortion," said Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabit, who interviewed Farouq in Guantanamo.

But, Sabit found, Farouq wasn't linked to the Taliban or al Qaida when the Americans arrested him.

No more. Since Farouq was released from Guantanamo, the Defense Intelligence Agency said, he's had a relationship with al Qaida and the Taliban and heads a group of Taliban militiamen.

"Naim was a very, very small guy before, but now that he's been released, he's a very big problem," said Taj Mohammed Wardak, a former Afghan interior minister who also served as the governor of Farouq's province. "It has a really bad effect when these men return to their communities."

Discussing the effect that Guantanamo had on him, Farouq measured his words.

"Why did the Americans treat me this way?" he said during an interview with McClatchy in Gardez. "I wanted to keep my district peaceful."

A NETWORK FOR RADICALIZING

In interviews, former U.S. Defense Department officials acknowledged the problem, but none of them would speak about it openly because of its implications: U.S. officials mistakenly sent a lot of men who weren't hardened terrorists to Guantanamo, but by the time they were released, some of them had become just that.

Requests for comment from senior Defense Department officials went unanswered. The Pentagon official in charge of detainee affairs, Sandra Hodgkinson, declined interview requests even after she was given a list of questions.

However, dozens of former detainees, many of whom were reluctant to talk for fear of being branded as spies by the militants, described a network — at times fragmented, and at times startling in its sophistication — that allowed Islamist radicals to gain power inside Guantanamo:

  • Militants recruited new detainees by offering to help them memorize the Quran and study Arabic. They conducted the lessons, infused with firebrand theology, between the mesh walls of cells, from the other side of a fence during exercise time or, in lower-security blocks, during group meetings.
  • Taliban and al Qaida leaders appointed cellblock leaders. When there was a problem with the guards, such as allegations of Quran abuse or rough searches of detainees, these "local" leaders reported up their chains of command whether the men in their block had fought back with hunger strikes or by throwing cups of urine and feces at guards. The senior leaders then decided whether to call for large-scale hunger strikes or other protests.
  • Al Qaida and Taliban leaders at Guantanamo issued rulings that governed detainees' behavior. Shaking hands with female guards was haram — forbidden — men should pray five times a day and talking with American soldiers should be kept to a minimum.

    The recruiting and organizing don't end at Guantanamo. After detainees are released, they're visited by militants who try to cement the relationships formed in prison.

"When I was released, they (Taliban officials) told me to come join them, to fight," said Alif Khan, an Afghan former detainee whom McClatchy interviewed in Kabul. "They told me I should move to Waziristan," a Taliban hotbed in Pakistan.

Most of the 66 former Guantanamo detainees whom McClatchy interviewed were hesitant to talk about their religious and political transformations in prison.

Ilkham Batayev, a Kazakh, described his stay at Guantanamo in bitter, angry terms. "I learned the traditions of many people," he said. "Of course it changed me inside, but this is something private." He said that Arab detainees spent a lot of time teaching him Arabic and giving him lessons about the Quran.

Others said that fellow detainees showed them the path of fundamentalist Islam.

Taj Mohammed, an Afghan detainee, said that the time he spent at Guantanamo studying the Quran and discussing Islam with radicals helped him see the world more clearly.

"There were detainees who did not pray or who spoke with female soldiers," Mohammed said. "We stopped speaking with these men. Sometimes we beat them."

The U.S. government accused Mohammed of being a member of two insurgent groups in Afghanistan's Konar province and taking part in an attack on a U.S. military base.

Mohammed maintained that he was a shepherd. Mohammed Roze, an official with the Afghan government's peace commission in Konar province, said Mohammed was set up by a cousin with whom he was feuding.

U.S. ATTEMPTS AT SEPARATION BACKFIRE

American officials tried to stop detainees from turning Guantanamo into what some former U.S. officials have since called an "American madrassa" — an Islamic religious school — but some of their efforts backfired.

The original Guantanamo camp, Camp X-Ray, was little more than a collection of wire mesh cells in which detainees were grouped together without much concern for their backgrounds.

In April 2002, U.S. officials shifted the detainees to Camp Delta, which grew to include a series of camps organized by security level.

For example:

  • Camp One was for better-behaved detainees, who were given toiletry items such as toothpaste and shampoo and more time for outdoor exercise.
  • Camp Two was set up for cooperative detainees — especially those who helped interrogators — who still posed a high security threat to guards. They were given time in exercise areas, but were watched carefully.
  • Camp Three was a high-security facility where detainees spent most of their time in cells with steel mesh walls and little more than mattresses and copies of the Quran.
  • Camp Four was for the best-behaved detainees, and featured communal living spaces, librarian visits and lawns for soccer.
  • Camp Five resembled a U.S. maximum-security prison, with automatic sliding cell doors and a central guard station.
The idea was that detainees who presented graver threats and were uncooperative would be separated from those with looser ties to international terrorism.

What the plan overlooked — according to several detainees and a former U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject — is that even midlevel al Qaida members had been trained in resistance techniques, and that one of them was to avoid calling attention to yourself. An angry cabdriver from Kabul, in other words, may have been more likely to attack a guard and end up in Camp Three than an al Qaida militant was.

As a result, some senior radicals ended up in Camp Four, free to preach their message of international jihad to petty criminals, Taliban conscripts and detainees who had little or no previous affiliation with Islamic militancy.

At times, detainee leaders would order other men to break camp rules so that the guards would send them to higher-security blocks, where they could carry messages from their leaders, said Charles "Cully" Stimson, who was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs from January 2006 to February 2007.

"The communications network there is like the communications network in any jail," Stimson said. "When Americans are in captivity, they respect rank. . . . I suspect it's no different down there."

Buzby, the Guantanamo commander, said that he, too, suspected that information flowed freely between militant leaders and their men at Guantanamo's camps.

"It would be foolish to not believe that there is a hierarchy of information being passed up and down the chain of command," Buzby said.

Abdul Zuhoor, an Afghan detainee who spent time in Camp Four, said that radical detainees used the system to their full advantage.

Zuhoor said he remembered watching groups of senior Taliban and Arab detainees meet in the exercise yard.

"They considered themselves the elders of Guantanamo," Zuhoor said in an interview in the Afghan town of Charikar. "They met as a shura (religious) council."

The group, Zuhoor said, acted in concert with others across Guantanamo to issue fatwas, which then were disseminated by detainees who were being moved to other areas for medical checkups, interrogations or transfers to higher-security blocks.

An attorney for one Arab detainee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared implicating his client, said his client told him at one point that he couldn't meet with his legal team anymore.

"He said there were five or six detainees who had assumed positions of leadership in the camp, and that he had to deal with them," the attorney said. "And they said that he would need a fatwa to continue speaking with us, to continue speaking with Americans."

The fatwa, the shura council told the attorney's client, couldn't come from just any imam; it had to be from a senior cleric in Saudi Arabia, a hotbed of fundamentalist Sunni Islam.

In June 2006, Zuhoor said, a Taliban member at Guantanamo bragged to him that there soon would be three "martyrs."

"The Arabs and some Taliban sat together and issued a verdict," Zuhoor said. "Three of the men volunteered to kill themselves to get more freedom for the other detainees."

The next morning, Zuhoor said, the news spread across Guantanamo: Three Arabs had committed suicide.

The Guantanamo commander at the time, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, called the suicides acts of "asymmetric warfare."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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