al-Zahrani was just 17 years old when he was seized, and was, therefore one of at least 22 juveniles at Guantánamo who should have been rehabilitated rather than punished, according to America’s obligations under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which the US ratified on December 23, 2002. However, only three juveniles were ever treated differently from the adult prisoners (as described in “WikiLeaks and the Guantánamo Prisoners Released from 2002 to 2004 (Part Ten of Ten)”), whereas al-Zahrani and the others were treated as harshly as all the other prisoners — or, in al-Zahrani’s case, worse than most, as he was a long-term hunger striker, who had been force-fed on a daily basis for many months before his death.
The administration’s response to the deaths was extraordinarily callous. Rear Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of Guantánamo, said, “This was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us,” and Colleen Graffy, the deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, described the suicides as a “good PR move to draw attention.” Stung by international criticism, the administration rapidly back-tracked, and Cully Stimson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, was put forward to say, “I wouldn’t characterize it as a good PR move. What I would say is that we are always concerned when someone takes his own life, because as Americans, we value life, even the lives of violent terrorists who are captured waging war against our country.”
In an attempt to stifle further dissent, and to bolster their view that the three men were hardened terrorists, the Pentagon released details of the allegations against them, which served only to highlight almost everything that was wrong with the system at Guantánamo. Al-Zahrani, who survived the Qala-i-Janghi massacre in northern Afghanistan in November 2001, was accused of being “a front line fighter for the Taliban who facilitated weapons purchases for offensives against US and coalition forces,” even though this scenario was highly unlikely (to say the least) for a 17-year old who had only recently arrived in Afghanistan. Similarly deluded and/or heartless allegations were also levelled against the other two prisoners.
In the documents released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, the file relating to al-Zahrani was a “Recommendation for Continued Detention Under DoD Control (CD),” dated March 20, 2006, in which it was confirmed that he was born on September 22, 1984, and was therefore, just 17 when he was seized. It was also noted that he had “a history of rheumatoid arthritis,” and that he “went on three hunger strikes in the past, most recently in July 2005,” although it was not noted that he maintained this hunger strike until his death (or shortly before his death), and that, although he weighed 118 pounds on arrival at Guantánamo, his weight dropped to just 87 pounds in January 2006.
The Task Force also noted that he had “a history of dehydration due to hunger strike treated with intravenous fluids,” that he “had surgery to remove a cyst from his lower back while detained,” that he had “a history of recurrent Pilonidal cyst,” and that he “suffered a gunshot wound to his right calf prior to his detention.”
In telling his story, the Task Force noted that his father was a senior official in the Saudi Interior Ministry, and that, after completing the eleventh grade in June 2001, al-Zahrani stayed at home for two months until, after “hearing that sheikhs from neighboring towns were saying jihad in Afghanistan (AF) was a religious duty, [he] decided to travel to Afghanistan.” He reportedly “financed the trip himself with savings he had earned selling perfumes to hajj pilgrims,” and “intended on returning in approximately October/November 2001.”
On arrival in Karachi, Pakistan, after being met by a go-between, he was apparently taken to Kunduz, where he received weapons training in a place call the Talban Center, and “was then assigned a guard position at a second line post between Kunduz and Tallogan.” He and his group then retreated Kunduz which fell approximately nine days later, when “a deal was struck with General Dostum of the Northern Alliance allowing fighters to leave with their weapons and travel to Mazar-e-Sharif, AF, where they would surrender.” They were then taken to the Qala-i-Janghi prison,” where al-Zahrani was one of 86 survivors of the uprising and subsequent massacre. As was explained in his file:
The day after they arrived at the prison, detainee and others were taken to a square in the prison yard. Detainee heard gunfire and explosions coming from the prison and then a firefight ensued injuring detainee in the leg and foot. He fell to the ground and remained in the same position until nightfall, when other prisoners retrieved him and carried him back to the underground prison. They remained there for seven days before they were forced to surrender. Detainee was removed from the prison, taken to a prison/clinic in Sheberghan, AF.
After a month, he was transferred to US custody, and was initially screened on December 29, 2001. He was sent to Guantánamo on January 20, 2002, on the spurious basis that it was to “provide information on the following: Taliban training center in Kunduz [and] Taliban training center outside Kunduz used as a rear operating base.”
In assessing his story, it was noted that he had “provided a fairly consistent timeline that ha[d] been corroborated (for the most part) by other detainees,” and this was indeed the case, as he was identified by John Walker Lindh (the US citizen who was seized at Qala-i-Janghi, but was never held at Guantánamo), who said that he “was approximately 17 years old and was always joking and talking.” Lindh also said that he “was involved in food services,” along with Ghaleb al-Bihani (ISN 128).
He was also identified by Ali al-Tayeea (ISN 111, released January 2009), who was the source of unbelievable claims that he “trained at Al-Farouq, that he “purchased weapons for the Taliban,” and that he “was a money courier and a man with a suspicious nature.” Al-Tayeea was known as a notoriously unreliable witness in Guantánamo, and it was noticeable that an analyst had noted that his identification of al-Zahrani “as attending training at Al-Farouq [was] a contradiction to detainee’s story in which he indicate[d] he attended training outside Kunduz with seven others for one month,” and also noted that “[n]o other reporting identifies detainee as a money courier or weapons broker,” even though the latter claim was shamefully used by the Pentagon after al-Zahrani’s death.
It was also noted that, “When shown detainee’s picture, senior Al-Qaida detainees were unable to identify detainee,” and, as an analyst explained, “While not conclusive, this suggests that detainee lacked both experience and rank within the organization,” which was, of course, true as far as it went, although it stopped far short of recognizing that, in analyzing Al-Qaida, there was a big difference between the leadership interested in pursuing acts of international terrorism, and the much bigger military side of things, which was only concerned with supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In conclusion, the Task Force assessed al-Zahrani as “a high threat from a detention perspective,” because his “overall behaviour ha[d] been non-compliant and hostile to the guard force and staff,” and amongst the behavior noted was a description of him as “a major participant in the voluntary total fast of 2005-2006.” He was also “assessed to be a jihadist who traveled to Afghanistan (AF) to fulfill what he perceived to be a religious duty,” and was described as being “of low intelligence value,” and as “a medium risk, as he may pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.”
It was also noted that, “If a satisfactory agreement can be reached that ensures continued detention and allows access to detainee and/or to exploited intelligence, detainee can be Transferred Out of DoD Control (TRO).”
That, of course, never happened, as al-Zahrani died less than three months after this updated assessment was completed. However, the claim that the men committed suicide was doubted by the men’s fellow prisoners at the time, and also by other commentators, although it was not until December 2009 and January 2010 that serious doubts were expressed in a concerted and thoroughly researched manner.
In December 2009, the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey published a 136-page report, “Death in Camp Delta” (PDF), which comprehensively undermined the conclusion of the official investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and in January 2010, Harper’s Magazinepublished an extraordinary article by law professor Scott Horton (which I discussed here), revealing the story of Army Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, and a number of other soldiers — the tower guards who “had the responsibility and ability to observe all activity in the camp, [but] were not interviewed” by the NCIS — who suggested that, earlier in the evening on which the men allegedly committed suicide, they had been taken from the cell block in which they were held to a secret facility outside the main perimeter fence of Guantánamo — known to the soldiers as “Camp No” — where they had either been deliberately killed, or had a died as the result of particularly brutal torture sessions. “They didn’t die in their cells,” Sgt. Hickman explained to me in March 2010.
Despite these claims, the Justice Department shut the door on a proposed inquiry in November 2009, and an attempt by family members (including al-Zahrani’s father) to pursue accountability in the US courts was turned down in September 2010, and is currently being appealed.