As 2007 drew to a close, the tally of detainees released from Guantánamo throughout the year rose to 122, as another 10 Saudis were repatriated, to add to the 53 sent home between February and November.
With 492 detainees now released -- and 281 remaining -- the administration's initial claim that the prison housed the "worst of the worst" grows ever more hollow. It should be noted, however, that, unlike most of the other detainees freed last year, the Saudis were not sent home because they had been cleared by the military review boards convened to assess whether they still posed a threat to the United States, but because of successful diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Saudi governments.
After initial doubts, the Americans seem satisfied that the Saudi government's rehabilitation program -- which involves psychological counseling, religious reeducation, job training, art therapy and financial support -- is proving successful.
Even with this caveat, however, it appears that none of the 10 Saudis just released was involved with al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks. Like many others released in the last few years, four were Taliban foot soldiers, mostly recruited through fatwas issued by radical sheikhs in their homeland, ordering them to aid the Taliban in their inter-Muslim civil war against the Northern Alliance, which had begun long before 9/11. Four others were missionaries or humanitarian aid workers, including one, the charity director mentioned above, who had long been regarded by the Americans as a major player in al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Of the remaining two, the status of one is still difficult to ascertain, even after six years in U.S. custody, and the story of the other -- Bandar Ali al-Rumaihi -- is completely unknown, as his name does not correspond with any of the names on the Pentagon's lists of detainees.
The Taliban foot soldiers captured in Afghanistan
Three of the four Taliban foot soldiers were captured during the surrender of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in November 2001, six weeks after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began. 21-year old Mishal Saad al-Rashid was typical of numerous men captured at this time, in his insistence that he went to Afghanistan, over a year "before any problem happened in America," to help the Taliban fight General Dostum and Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance.
He was confused that the Northern Alliance had formed a coalition with the United States, as the only coalition that he knew of was between the Northern Alliance and Russia. Although this confusion, repeated by several other detainees, was partly due to the propaganda issued by the pro-Taliban sheikhs in Saudi Arabia, it also had some basis in fact, at least in the case of Dostum, who had fought with the Russians during the Soviet invasion, before switching sides in the early 1990s.
In his tribunal at Guantánamo, al-Rashid accepted an allegation that he was a member of the Taliban, and also acknowledged that he had received military training in Afghanistan. He was one of several hundred Taliban fighters who surrendered after the fall of Kunduz, believing that they would be freed after handing over their weapons, but who discovered, instead, that they were to be imprisoned in Qala-i-Janghi, a fortress run by General Dostum. After lax security enabled some of the prisoners to stage an uprising against their captors, the majority were killed during a week-long battle with the Northern Alliance, backed up by U.S. and British Special Forces, and supported by American bombing raids.
Responding to an allegation that he had taken part in the uprising he exclaimed, "What uprising? We didn't do any uprising. We had given up our weapons, so how could we be part of an uprising? They [Dostum's troops] were the ones that had all the weapons. We tried to defend ourselves but we couldn't because they had the weapons."
Also held in Qala-i-Janghi was 22-year old Nayif al-Usaymi, a college student, who explained that, as with several other detainees, he had been inspired to travel to Afghanistan to receive military training so that he could fight in Chechnya.
After a facilitator "provided him with instructions on obtaining a Pakistani visa as well as a specific route to take," he arrived in Afghanistan in March 2001, where, after meeting two men who told him the history of the Taliban, he agreed to be recruited, and spent eight months on the front lines at Khawaja Ghar, in northern Afghanistan. Captured after the fall of Kunduz, he was taken to Qala-i-Janghi, but reported that he managed to escape from the fort. This was a rare occurrence, as most who tried to do so were shot and killed, but he was recaptured six weeks later.
In Guantánamo, he insisted that he "never saw any fighting because he was stationed at the rear of the front line," and it was noted that he was regarded as "being of low intelligence or law enforcement value to the United States and also as unlikely to pose a threat to the U.S. or its interests" by a Saudi delegation in 2002.
The third foot soldier, 18-year old Khalid al-Ghatani, was recruited through a notorious pro-Taliban fatwa issued by the octogenarian Sheikh Hamoud al-Uqla. After traveling to Afghanistan in autumn 2000, he spent six months at a camp named Pakistani Center No. 5, and then moved to the front lines at Khawaja Ghar, where he "guarded sleeping quarters/bunkers for Pakistani troops who fought at the front lines." He was apparently captured after being shot by a sniper and spending time in a hospital in Kunduz.
After his tribunal, the Presiding Officer noted that he "did not fire his weapon at any soldiers or persons," and mention was also made of al-Ghatani's own statement that he did not go to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban, but to receive weapons training and to "stand guard." He was, however, criticized for his behavior in Guantánamo, where, apparently, he had been "cited for assault, hostile activity and harassment of guards on numerous occasions," and once for "making a weapon" -- although how this would have been possible, in the paranoid, security-obsessed cell blocks of Guantánamo, was not explained.
The Taliban foot soldier captured in Pakistan
In the Summary of Evidence against the fourth foot soldier, 25-year old Abdul Hakim al-Mousa, it was alleged that he traveled to Afghanistan for combat training and was recruited in Saudi Arabia by someone who "introduced him to the safe house system." According to this account, he subsequently spent time at safe houses in Quetta, Khost, and Kandahar, and was arrested on February 7, 2002 with at least a dozen other detainees in a safe house -- or a number of safe houses -- in Karachi, which reportedly belonged to Abdu Ali Sharqawi.
Also known as Riyadh the Facilitator, Sharqawi is a supposedly "high-value" detainee, described as "part of the al-Qaeda network responsible for moving Arabs to and from Afghanistan." Subjected to "extraordinary rendition" after his capture, he was sent to Jordan, to be "interrogated" by the Americans' proxy torturers in the Jordanians' notorious General Intelligence Department prison in Amman, where, he said, he was tortured continuously.
"I was told that if I wanted to leave with permanent disability both mental and physical, that that could be arranged," he explained in a statement made in April 2006 that was released last month. "They said they had all the facilities of Jordan to achieve that. I was told that I had to talk, I had to tell them everything." In January 2004, he was rendered back to a secret CIA-run facility in Afghanistan, where he stayed until September 2004, when he was finally transferred to Guantánamo.
Unlike Sharqawi, the other men captured in the raid were transferred to Guantánamo after processing in the U.S. prison at Kandahar airport. Several of these men, including two Kuwaitis, have already been released, and there is no evidence that most of the others -- including al-Mousa -- had anything to do with al-Qaeda.
In Guantánamo, it was noted that a Saudi delegation had deemed him to be "of low intelligence or law enforcement value to the United States, and unlikely to pose a terrorist threat to the U.S. or its interests." Al-Mousa's own explanation for his presence in Afghanistan was rather weak -- he said that he traveled "to defend himself against thieves, defend Saudi Arabia, and learn how to shoot a weapon for the purpose of hunting" -- although the Americans' allegations were no better.
Desperate to pin something on him, they resorted to guilt by association, alleging that one of the people he was captured with attended al-Farouq and "was escorted by a senior al-Qaeda member to a meeting where he presented money to Osama bin Laden," and that another attended al-Farouq and "was present at a speech given by Osama bin Laden at the camp."
Two of those released maintained throughout their imprisonment that they were missionaries. 28-year old taxi driver Jamil al-Kabi explained that, in 2000, he "sold his taxi and decided to devote more time to the Dawa, or 'the call.'" After starting his mission in Mecca, by "going out and finding young Muslims who were not following the word of Islam and trying to get them to the mosque," he then spent six months in Lahore, the home of Jamaat-al-Tablighi, the vast, worldwide missionary organization whose annual meetings in Pakistan and Bangladesh attract millions of followers.
Despite the size of the organization and its avowedly non-political manifesto, the US authorities have persistently maintained that it was actually "used as a cover to mask travel and activities of terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda." In al-Kabi's case, his subsequent missionary ventures in Indonesia and Malaysia attracted generic allegations, unrelated to him, that Tablighi "recruits" from both countries traveled to militant training camps in Pakistan.
Describing the circumstances of his capture, al-Kabi said that, after traveling to Karachi, where he stayed at the Tablighi mosque for a month, he met four men and traveled with them to Kabul. He said that he stayed for four months at the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque and continued the Dawa, aided of one of his companions, who "helped him translate with people who did not speak Arabic."
When Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance, in November 2001, he said that "word began to spread" that the Alliance soldiers "were killing all of the Arabs." He and his companions fled to Jalalabad, where they stayed for a month before walking through the mountains to the Pakistani border, where he was captured.
The status of the other purported missionary, 21-year old Abdul Rahman al-Hataybi, had not been satisfactorily explained by the time of his release, even after nearly six years of interrogation. According to the allegations against him, after failing his military entrance exam he was "immediately contacted by a recruiter for al-Qaeda", and was sent to Afghanistan, with all his expenses paid, to train at al-Farouq, a camp for Arab recruits, established by the Afghan warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf in the early 1990s, but associated with Osama bin Laden in the years before 9/11.
Although the U.S. administration claimed that he had been "identified as a member of al-Qaeda by a foreign government service," and reported that his name had been found on various documents recovered in raids on suspected al-Qaeda safe houses, al-Hataybi's own story was consistently at odds with the American version.
The authorities acknowledged that he was a member of Jamaat-al-Tablighi, but largely overlooked his insistence that he had worked only as a missionary. In a number of comments listed under factors favoring release or transfer, al-Hataybi said that he "traveled to Pakistan for the sole purpose of providing missionary work to those individuals in need of assistance." He claimed "never to have set foot in Afghanistan," having conducted all his missionary work in Karachi and Lahore, and also claimed that "a Pakistani police intern tortured him, and forced him to say that he was part of al-Qaeda and that he had traveled to Afghanistan for the purpose of jihad." He added that he "lied because he wanted the torture to stop."
The humanitarian aid workers
Of the three humanitarian aid workers, the first, 19-year old Ziyad al-Bahuth, was captured by Pakistani forces after crossing the border in December 2001.
He explained that he took 90,000 riyals (about $24,000) from Saudi Arabia to help the poor people in Afghanistan, and said that he gave the money to a man named Mohammed Khan to distribute via the Taliban, adding that he stayed for approximately a year to see how the money was distributed.
He admitted attending a Taliban training camp near Kabul for a week, and also admitted that he spent time in Kabul with a known member of the Taliban, who, he believed, facilitated his weapons training in order to encourage him to join the Taliban, but denied that he either joined the Taliban or had any relationship with al-Qaeda.
His tribunal was particularly noteworthy for the following exchange, which, while possibly demonstrating a healthy skepticism on the part of the U.S. authorities, could also demonstrate how little they understood about the charitable obligations of Islam:
Presiding Officer: When you were around 18 years old, you raised 90,000 Riyals ... to take to a country you had never been to before to give the money to the needy and the poor people. Is that right?
Presiding Officer: That is remarkable.
The second humanitarian aid worker, 29-year old Abdullah al-Utaybi, said that he left Saudi Arabia with $30,000 and traveled to Turkey, where he was looking for a wife. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began in October 2001, he said that he "decided to travel to Pakistan to offer his assistance and cash to Afghan refugees." He stated that he flew to Pakistan but was captured at a checkpoint in Quetta, near the border, where the money was discovered and he was seized and handed over to U.S. forces.
Al-Utaybi maintained that he had never set foot in Afghanistan, even though several unnamed individuals alleged that he had been the director of the Herat office of al-Wafa, a Saudi charity, based in Kabul, which was blacklisted by the US authorities in September 2001 for alleged ties with terrorism.
It has not been possible to establish whether there was any truth in these allegations, but one man who would certainly have known is Abdullah al-Matrafi, the director of al-Wafa in Afghanistan, whose inclusion in the latest batch of released detainees was genuinely surprising.
The director of a blacklisted charity
A father of three, Abdullah al-Matrafi, who was 38 years old at the time of his capture, had directed a fund-raising committee in Bosnia, and had worked as an imam in Mecca before establishing al-Wafa. At the time of his release, he was presumably aware that most of the other detainees who had worked for al-Wafa had been freed, as their claims that they were involved in genuine humanitarian aid work were accepted one by one. He, however, was regarded as a "high-value" detainee, against whom was stacked an array of allegations of his deep involvement with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
After the invasion of Afghanistan began, al-Matrafi sent his family to safety in Pakistan, but stayed on in Kabul, even though the organization's stores were the targets of bombing raids, in which seven aid workers were killed. He finally left the capital when he was seriously injured in a bombing raid, and his family last heard from him on December 10, 2001, as he was about to board an Emirates flight from Lahore to Dubai. He never made it onto the plane. Abducted at the airport by U.S. agents, he was transferred back to Afghanistan and put on the first flight to Guantánamo.
Little was heard about him in Guantánamo, although it was clear that the authorities regarded him as a major supporter of terrorism, alleging in his tribunal that he knew Osama bin Laden, that his plan to provide funds to bin Laden for training caused disagreement within al-Wafa, that he admitted that al-Wafa purchased weapons and vehicles for the Taliban, and that he "negotiated a deal that allowed the Taliban to direct al-Wafa's activities."
In his review boards, further allegations were added, including claims that he "admitted he took orders from Osama bin Laden," that he "provided financial support to al-Qaeda after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and that he purchased medical laboratory equipment for a microbiologist who was "developing anthrax for al-Qaeda."
Set against these allegations, however, were a number of counter-claims, which, typically, were ignored when the authorities declared him an "enemy combatant." On several occasions, al-Matrafi stated that there was no relationship between al-Wafa and al-Qaeda, "explaining that al-Qaeda disliked al-Wafa, and both organizations were in disagreement." It was also noted in the Summary of Evidence for his second review board that, two months before 9/11, he met with bin Laden at his house in Kandahar, and stated that the purpose of the meeting was "to discuss unresolved issues" from a previous meeting, "concerning disagreements between al-Wafa and al-Qaeda."
A brief survey of al-Matrafi's statements before his capture is sufficient to explain his refusal to accept that he was affiliated with terrorists. In October 2001, after al-Wafa was blacklisted, he appeared on the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera, protesting his innocence and offering to open up the organization's accounts to public scrutiny.
In addition, two detainees in Guantánamo who had worked for al-Wafa backed up his statements. Ayman Batarfi, a Yemeni doctor who tended wounded soldiers during the battle of Tora Bora, pointed out that, although al-Wafa had a good working relationship with the Taliban, this was required to pursue its humanitarian work. Both Batarfi and another man, Mustafa Hamlili, an Algerian-born Pakistani resident who has been cleared for release, but is still in Guantánamo, reinforced al-Matrafi's claim that the organization was regarded with suspicion by al-Qaeda because of its Saudi links.
Batarfi may, in fact, be the alleged "al-Qaeda facilitator" mentioned in the Summary of Evidence from al-Matrafi's first review board, who identified him as "having problems with Osama bin Laden because [he] had come to do charity work in Afghanistan and was funded by the Saudi royal family, who Osama bin Laden rejected and denounced." This source added, moreover, that al-Matrafi "would take Saudis from al-Farouq and try to send them back to Saudi Arabia."
What was largely overlooked, however, was an even more compelling statement on al-Matrafi's behalf. In May 2006, an audiotape from Osama bin Laden, whose authenticity was not called into doubt by U.S. intelligence, explicitly stated that two detainees in Guantánamo - al-Matrafi and the al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj - had no connection whatsoever with al-Qaeda.
None of this helped him, however, and what probably counted against him more than anything else was the discovery, in August 2002, of a store of chemicals in offices used by al-Wafa in Kabul, which included "36 types of chemical, explosives, fuses and terrorist guide books." Whether this had anything to do with him is unknown. His brother, Mohammed, reiterated that the organization had no links to al-Qaeda. "My brother and I have repeatedly said we have no terrorist links, and that any organization, official or non-governmental, is free to come and investigate our headquarters," he told the press, adding, "We are only helping the Muslim people of Afghanistan."
Time alone will tell what the Saudi government makes of Abdullah al-Matrafi on his return, but, like the allegations against his workers that disappeared under scrutiny like a malevolent mirage, it may well be that those who vouched for him were correct in their appraisal that he was the head of a charity that was required to work with the Taliban, but that was otherwise committed to bringing humanitarian aid to some of the most deprived people on earth.
This article draws on passages from my book, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison.