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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Associated Press March 05, 2006

Varied tales emerge from Guantanamo files

By Andrew Selsky

A hardened holy warrior, eager to kill U.S. troops. An Afghan peasant concerned only with feeding his family. A wealthy Londoner who says he spied for British intelligence.

Captured in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, these men — and dozens more — are identified for the first time in Guantanamo Bay transcripts the Pentagon delivered to The Associated Press. Their stories suggest how difficult it is, four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, to determine who is a terrorist, and who was simply swept up in the fog of war.

People from many walks of life were captured and brought to the prison at the U.S. naval base in eastern Cuba, where most remain held without charges. They range from peasants to millionaires, from illiterate villagers to college graduates.

In a typical guerrilla war, conventional forces struggle to distinguish friend from foe. But the U.S. war against terrorism is unique. It is being fought across the globe, against enemies operating from the shadows of the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan to the alleyways of Islamabad to the neighborhoods of London; Madrid, Spain; and Jakarta, Indonesia.

In Afghanistan, men often carry a rifle. Unless they are caught red-handed firing on U.S. troops, it is hard to tell the terrorists from the farmers.

"They're all armed," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military policy think tank in Alexandria, Va. "If they weren't, they'd be in trouble. There are clan rivalries there. Without a weapon they'd feel naked."

Mohammed Gul, from Afghanistan's eastern Khost province, told his military tribunal at Guantanamo that he was captured at his home. A Kalashnikov assault rifle was found in the house, but Gul insisted he was just a farmer and not linked to forces attacking U.S. and coalition troops.

"I am a poor person," Gul said. "I have a small piece of land."

The Bush administration scoffs at such claims of innocence.

"They're bomb-makers," Vice President Dick Cheney said recently. "They're facilitators of terror. They're members of al-Qaida and the Taliban. If you let them out, they'll go back to trying to kill Americans."

Only a few detainees openly acknowledge taking up arms against the United States. One is Abdul Hakim Bukhary, of Saudi Arabia, who told his tribunal he fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s against occupying Soviet troops, then returned to battle invading U.S. forces after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Bukhary said he had a change of heart in American custody and now would support democracy. There is no indication from the transcript whether his tribunal believed him.

Other detainees were nabbed far from any battlefield.

Bisher al-Rawi, a Londoner with wealthy Iraqi and Jordanian parents, was arrested in Gambia. He was accused of harboring radical Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada while in London. Videotapes of Qatada's sermons were found in a Hamburg, Germany, apartment used by three of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

The United States classified al-Rawi as an "enemy combatant," a status the Bush administration says deprives detainees of rights afforded by the Geneva Convention to prisoners of war. Al-Rawi said he was innocent and that he had helped MI5, Britain's domestic spying agency, keep tabs on the Muslim community in London.

"On more than one occasion, after MI5 questioned me, I would go out to the community to find the answers," he said. "On three or four separate occasions, the questions involved Abu Qatada."

The tribunal president told al-Rawi the British did not back up his account.

"The British government didn't say they didn't have a relationship with you, they just would not confirm or deny it," said the judge, whose name was blacked out in the transcript. "That means I only have your word what happened."

There is no indication from the transcripts whether Gul, Bukhary and al-Rawi or any of the other hundreds of detainees who went through "enemy combatant" hearings remain in custody at Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. military will not comment on specific cases.

What the documents do suggest is that in hearing after hearing, the unclassified evidence seems frustratingly inconclusive. Witnesses are not reachable, testimony may be twisted and unanswerable questions — such as weather a detainee would attack the United States if released — are left hanging.

Some analysts say such confusion is emblematic of the type of war being waged.

"Irregular warfare and counterterrorism blur the boundaries between normality and abnormality, between civilians and combatants, between what is legal and illegal," said Prof. Ahmed S. Hashim, an expert in the Middle East and counterinsurgency at the Naval War College. "Shortcuts are taken to achieve results without due process of law."

If al-Qaida attacks the United States again, the Bush administration might be less concerned about distinguishing between friend and foe, Hashim predicted.

"There is a possibility that if there is another major attack, the net will be cast wider, not narrower," Hashim said, "and that people could be arrested for their ethnic background and not because there is any concrete evidence against them."

Copyright 2006, The Associated Press