Sunday, May 1, 2011

Guantanamo – more a comedy of errors than a foil to terror

The following was originally published in The National on April 30, 2011

In 2010, the black comedy Four Lions premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It told the stories of four British Muslims and their attempts to become members of al Qa'eda. In one of the climactic scenes, the men agonise over what to blow up. One, Barry, wants to bomb a mosque "to radicalise the moderates". Two of the others had been kicked out of a training camp in Waziristan for being soft city boys; they also accidently killed Osama bin Laden. Like all the best comic dramas, wrapped up in the farcical antics are kernels of sorry truth.

Nine years after the first 20 prisoners were taken to the Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre in Cuba, portions of the classified case files of all 772 persons held at the camp have been released by WikiLeaks and numerous news sites. There isn't much that is funny in these files, but there is plenty of farce.

Barry may have wanted to blow up a mosque, but Majid Khan - the only legal resident of the United States held at Guantanamo and one of 16 so-called "high value detainees" - wanted to use his experience working as a petrol pump attendant in Baltimore to stage co-ordinated attacks on fuel stations across the US. The wheeze was vetoed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

Khan also had the bright idea of renting a number of flats, then leaving on the gas with the pilot lights lit. That plan was also placed on the back burner.

Khan was instructed to go home to his wife in Baltimore - the city where he had been brought up and where he went to school - but he was insistent that he wanted to die for the cause. So al Qa'eda told him to wear a suicide vest to a mosque where Pervez Musharraf, the then president of Pakistan, was supposed to be visiting. Khan obeyed his orders, but there was no Musharraf and the vest was a dud.

Khan's dedication to the cause was mirrored by Abd Rahim al Nashiri, one of three detainees the US authorities admitted waterboarding - an "advanced interrogation technique" that most people, including the authors of the Geneva Conventions, would consider torture. Born in Saudi Arabia, al Nashiri was alleged to have been the mastermind for the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 that killed 17 US sailors when it was at anchor in Aden. So single-minded was al Nashiri that he confessed he received injections to render him impotent. The al Qa'eda operative was determined, he claimed, to avoid distractions from the fairer sex "so that more time could be spent on the jihad".

Some of the seemingly inconsequential details revealed in the WikiLeaks files about al Qa'eda's training camps are almost as bizarre as the stories of the wannabe terrorists themselves. For example, graduates of al Qa'eda's bomb-making school all receive a plastic Casio digital watch instead of a formal diploma. The detention assessments of more than 50 prisoners cited possession of this watch as evidence that the men posed potential threats to the US.

Britons might be surprised to read that the relatively prosperous north London district of Finsbury Park is Europe's version of the Tora Bora mountains. Abu Hamza, the Egyptian-born imam who lost both hands and one eye in Afghanistan, is singled out as a prime recruiter for the Taliban and al Qa'eda. As a firebrand preacher at the Finsbury Park mosque he is alleged to have recruited 35 of the Guantanamo detainees to fight in Afghanistan. His extradition to the United States has been prevented by European human rights law. Meanwhile, his sojourn in the UK has been paid for by British taxpayers, causing no little resentment.

A former Libyan detainee, Abu Sufian bin Qumu, is now one of the leaders of the Libyan rebels. He fights in the town of Darnah, previously infamous for sending more suicide bombers per capita to Iraq than any other city in the world. The entirety of eastern Libya, in fact, sent more foreign fighters per capita to Iraq than any other region in the Arab world. But then, the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is often in the eye of the beholder - particularly if the beholder is an American.

Some of the cases are already well known, such as the shameful detention of Sami al Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman. According to his captors, al Hajj financed a global terrorism network while working as an executive secretary to a beverage company. He was also accused of distributing pro-jihad propaganda designed to recruit more people to the cause cleverly disguised as interviews. One of the reasons used to justify his almost seven years at Guantanamo was to extract additional information on Al Jazeera's suspicious links to Osama bin Laden.

Al Jazeera was not the only media outlet to arouse suspicion. Among the "pocket litter" found on several people sent to Guantanamo was a number linked to the BBC World Service. According to an analyst's note from a file quoted by the UK's Daily Telegraph: "Numerous extremist links to this BBC number indicates a possible propaganda media network connection." Note to all war correspondents: think twice before handing out those business cards.

What about the inevitable question: was Guantanamo worth it? When you weigh the evidence contained in the files against the many reports of inhumane treatment and the worldwide outrage that they generated, the answer is probably "no". In fact, it could be argued that in acting as a recruiting sergeant for militant groups across the globe, the detention centre did far more harm than good.

Empirically, the potential intelligence trove that was used to justify keeping so many of these men in prison failed to stop the July 7 bombings in the UK. It failed to win the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. It destroyed the moral standing of an entire country and a war initially built on righteous anger at unprovoked attacks on New York and Washington. It may have radicalised detainees further or provoked them into committing acts of terrorism once they were released, which a considerable number of them did.

In time, Guantanamo might come to be considered a joke, if one in very poor taste. Closing down the detention centre is an undeniably difficult task, one that confounds legal experts. Trying the worst of the actors has become nearly impossible because of US congressional opposition to civilian trials, tainted evidence and a litany of bad legal decisions. Any way that Barack Obama looks at this situation, the president must see a losing proposition, but close Guantanamo he must.

The White House alleges that WikiLeaks's misguided activism does more harm than good, and that might be true. But that does not make the stain on the moral fibre of the US any less indelible. The information in these files will shock and horrify readers more than it will amuse them, but it is also a stark reminder that no one has a monopoly on wrongdoing.