How to Build a Human Bomb

When we learnt last week that Abdallah Salih al-Ajmi had blown himself up in Mosul in northern Iraq, the US government presented this as a vindication of its policies. Al-Ajmi was a former inmate of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. The Pentagon says that his attack on Iraqi soldiers shows both that it was right to have detained him and that it is dangerous ever to release the camp’s prisoners.1 On the contrary, it shows how dangerous it was to put them there in the first place.

Al-Ajmi, according to the Pentagon, was one of at least 30 former Guantanamo detainees who have “taken part in anti-coalition militant activities after leaving US detention.”2 Given that the majority of the inmates appear to have been innocent of such crimes before they were detained, that’s one hell of a recidivism rate. In reality it turns out that “anti-coalition militant activities” include talking to the media about their captivity in Guantanamo Bay. The Pentagon lists the Tipton Three in its catalogue of recidivists, on the grounds that they collaborated with Michael Winterbottom’s film The Road to Guantanamo. But it also names seven former prisoners, aside from Al-Ajmi, who have fought with the Taliban or Chechen rebels, kidnapped foreigners or planted bombs after their release. One of two conclusions can be drawn from this evidence, and neither reflects well on the US government.

The first is that, as the Pentagon claims, these men “successfully lied to US officials, sometimes for over three years.”3 The US government’s intelligence gathering and questioning were ineffective, and people who would otherwise have been identified as terrorists or resistance fighters were allowed to walk free, despite years of intense and often brutal interrogation. Should this be surprising? Without a presumption of innocence, without charges, representation, trials or due process of any kind, there is no reliable means of determining whether or not a man is guilty. The abuses at Guantanamo Bay not only deny justice to the inmates, they also deny justice to the world.

Al-Ajmi, the authorities say, initially confessed in the prison camp to deserting the Kuwaiti army to join the jihad in Afghanistan.4 He admitted that he fought with Taliban forces against the Northern Alliance. He later retracted this confession, which had been made “under pressure and threats.”5 When the Americans released him from Guantanamo, they handed him over to the Kuwaiti government for trial, but without the admissable evidence required to convict him. Among his defences was that neither he nor his interrogators had signed his supposed testimony.6 The Kuwaiti courts, without reliable evidence to the contrary, found him innocent.

All evidence obtained in Guantanamo Bay, and in the CIA’s other detention centres and secret prisons, is by definition unreliable, because it is extracted with the help of coercion and torture. Torture is notorious for producing false confessions, as people will say anything to make it stop. Both official accounts and the testimonies of former detainees show that a wide range of coercive techniques – devised or approved at the highest levels in Washington – have been used to make inmates tell the questioners what they want to hear.

In his book Torture Team, Philippe Sands describes the treatment of Mohammed al-Qahtani, held in Guantanamo Bay and described by the authorities (like half a dozen other suspects) as “the 20th hijacker”. By the time his interrogators started using “enhanced techniques” to extract information from him, al-Qahtani had been kept in isolation for three months in a cell permanently flooded with light. An official memo shows that he “was talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing voices, [and] crouching in a corner of the cell covered with a sheet for hours on end.”7 He was sexually abused, exposed to extreme cold and deprived of sleep for a further 54 days of torture and questioning. What useful testimony could be extracted from a man in this state?

The other possibility is that the men who became involved in armed conflict after their release had not in fact been involved in any prior fighting, but were radicalised by their detention. In the video he made before blowing himself up, al-Ajmi maintained that he was motivated by his ill-treatment in Guantanamo Bay. “Twelve thousand kilometers away from Mecca, I realized the reality of the Americans and what those infidels want,” he said.8 He claimed he was beaten, drugged and “used for experiments” and that “the Americans delighted in insulting our prayer and Islam and they insulted the Koran and threw it in dirty places.”3 Al-Ajmi’s lawyer revealed that his arm had been broken by guards at the camp, who beat him up to stop him from praying.9

The accounts of people released from Guantanamo Bay describe treatment that would radicalise almost anyone. In his book Five Years of My Life, published a fortnight ago, Murat Kurnaz maintains that one of the guards greeted him on his arrival with these words. “Do you know what the Germans did to the Jews? That’s exactly what we’re going to do with you.” There were certain similarities. “I knew a man from Morocco,” Kurnaz writes, “who used to be a ship captain. He couldn’t move one of his little fingers because of frostbite. The rest of his fingers were all right. They told him they would amputate the little finger. They brought him to the doctor, and when he came back, he had no fingers left. They had amputated everything but his thumbs.” The young man – scarcely more than a boy — in the cage next to Kurnaz’s had just had his legs amputated by American doctors after getting frostbite in a coalition prison in Afghanistan. The stumps were still bleeding and covered in pus. He received no further treatment or new dressings. Every time he tried to hoist himself up to sit on his pot by clinging to the wire, a guard would come and hit his hands with a billy-club. Like every other prisoner, he was routinely beaten by the camp’s Immediate Reaction Force, and taken away to interrogation cells to be beaten up some more.10

Fathers were clubbed in front of their sons, sons in front of their fathers. The prisoners were repeatedly forced into stress positions, deprived of sleep and threatened with execution. As a senior official at the US Defense Intelligence Agency says, “maybe the guy who goes into Guantanamo was a farmer who got swept along and did very little. He’s going to come out a fully fledged jihadist.”11

In reading the histories of Guantanamo Bay, and of the kidnappings, extrajudicial detention and torture the US government (helped by the United Kingdom) has pursued around the world, two things become clear. The first is that these practices do not supplement effective investigation and prosecution; they replace them. Instead of a process which generates evidence, assesses it and uses it to prosecute, the US has deployed a process which generates nonsense and is incapable of separating the guilty from the innocent. The second is that far from protecting innocent lives, this process is likely to deliver further atrocities. Even if you put the ethics of such treatment to one side, it is surely evident that it makes the world more dangerous.

  1. Josh White, 8th May 2008. “Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Joined Iraq Suicide Attack,” Washington Post. []
  2. Department of Defense, 12th July 2007. Former Guantanamo detainees who have returned to the fight. []
  3. ibid. [] []
  4. Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants at US Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Department of Defense, No date given. Abdallah Salih Ali Al Ajmi: summary of evidence. Pp8-9 of the pdf file. []
  5. Department of Defense, no date given. Summarized Administrative Review Board Detainee Statement. Page 47 of the pdf. []
  6. No author given, 26th May 2006. “5 ex-Guantanamo detainees freed in Kuwait,” Associated Press. []
  7. Philippe Sands, 2008. Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, extracted in Vanity Fair, May 2008. []
  8. Quoted by Alissa J. Rubin, 9th May 2008. “Bomber’s Final Messages Exhort Fighters Against US,” New York Times. []
  9. Ben Fox, 7th M ay 2008. “Ex-Gitmo prisoner in recent attack,” Associated Press. []
  10. Murat Kurnaz, 2008. Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo. Palgrave Macmillan. Extracted in the Guardian, 23rd April 2008. []
  11. Quoted by David Rose, 26th February 2006. “Using terror to fight terror,” The Observer. []
George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain; as well as the investigative travel books Poisoned Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man’s Land. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper (UK). Read other articles by George, or visit George's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas said on May 13th, 2008 at 12:19pm #

    thanx george monbiot,
    i have been urging pals for yrs and iraqis since ’03 not to resist militarily their respective occupations.
    as we now know, pals resistance has uttelry failed; their state all but gone.
    passive resistance might have also failed but may have been a better way to go.
    what US/IOF may fear the most is massive passive resistance; thus, continuous violence by IOF in order to provoke pals into any militancy.
    iraqi resistance will also fail. their resistance cannot be compared with partisan resistance. partisan resistance succeeded because empires also fought germans/italians.
    nobody is fighting US. thus, US cannot lose in iraq; if for no other reason than that of US ruling class writing the history and not a hobo, a housewife.
    actually, bush may yet receive accolades. thank u

  2. Mulga Mumblebrain said on May 13th, 2008 at 6:10pm #

    bozhidar’s analysis is, in my opinion, pure bunk. Passively resist violent, aggressive, racists like the Israelis and the US and they will simply massacre you the more readily. The first intifada showed that clearly enough. Arm and fight as Hezbollah and the resistance in Iraq have shown, and you have a chance. Imagine anyone advocating that the Soviets had ‘passively resisted’ the Nazi occupation? It is to laugh!

  3. bozhidar balkas said on May 14th, 2008 at 6:58am #

    hezbo’s have the right to resist militarily israel’s invasions. hezbos have shown that they can defeat or drive the invaders out. and i gladhand that.
    but israel is occupying most of palestine. u must have been awful angry to have equated an invasion with an occupation.
    actually, i affirm, that pals are morally and legally obligated to resist the occupation by any means whatsoever.
    but a resistance must of have a scintilla of hope to oust the occupiers or beat back invasions.
    czech have not resisted german invasion. russians have; justifiably so.
    i’m not condemning pals. i cannot urge them to resist occupation by military means; unless, of course they had wmd.
    have u considered that Israel may be US’ 51st state. thus, occupation of palestine being an occupation by US?
    and u think pals can oust US/IOF? thank u

  4. evie said on May 14th, 2008 at 9:30am #

    Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years illegally and brutally confined to a small cell, the floor his bed, a bucket for a toilet, and forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. He could write and receive one letter every six months. He did not become a killer on release.

    Nor did the doddering McCain return from a foreign prison to blow anyone up. Nor have hundreds if not thousands of Americans at home wrongly convicted and abused in prison murder others after eventually gaining their freedom.

    Making excuses for Abdallah Salih al-Ajmi is as repugnant as those who would torture. The only thing that has become clear to me is the “left” is as full of shit as the “right.”

  5. hp said on May 14th, 2008 at 9:45am #

    The ‘right’ tells a man; ‘if we see you walking down the road we’ll run you over.’
    Then they run him over.

    The ‘left’ tells a man; ‘if we see you walking down the road we won’t run you over.’
    Then they run him over.

  6. Chris Crass said on May 14th, 2008 at 11:41am #

    This isn’t making an excuse, it’s drawing a conclusion: Concentration camps tend to upset people to the point of reciprocal action.
    As far as I know, Al-Ajmi was just some guy the CIA decided they didn’t like.
    Hell, the article includes this quote from some DIA goon: “maybe the guy who goes into Guantanamo was a farmer who got swept along and did very little. He’s going to come out a fully fledged jihadist.”

  7. bozhidar balkas said on May 14th, 2008 at 12:43pm #

    i am somewhat surprised that none of the commenters have written ab. the probability that US fears passive resistance more than military resistance of iraqi people?
    Israel also may fear a strong, unified passive resistance by pals more than military one!?
    i am basing my preferance for passive resistance on the fact that US has not lost a war yet.
    even in s.e. asia, the harvest was in ratio of 57td dead US soldiers to an estimated 3-6mn dead asians.
    i also have concluded that US will be a winner in iraq, regardless of what kind resistance by iraqis. by US, i mean a few million people will have amassed fortunes and important piece of real estate.
    and who do u think will write history of iraqi invasion/occupation?
    and who will teach it to children in schools?
    and who owns schools/education?
    and i do not think even for a second that ruling class regrets loss of soldiers.
    has anyone considered a possibility/probability that the ruling class is displeased with own soldiers for not having done da job? or even officers for not pushing soldiers to do more?
    and can we expect the rulers to shout all this from rooftops? thanx

  8. evie said on May 14th, 2008 at 2:15pm #

    As far as any of us know Al-Ajmi could also have been a jihadist from the git-go, or he may not have existed anywhere but in the minds of the War on Terror script writers.

    But orgasm is hard to come by when “journalism” includes fourth, third, and secondhand quotes from an anonymous goon “source” …. ooh aaah.

  9. hp said on May 14th, 2008 at 3:00pm #

    bozhidar, whether they resist passively or not, those rockets will keep flying and landing in Israeli grave yards and empty lots.
    Right on schedule..(wink wink)

  10. John Wilkinson said on May 15th, 2008 at 3:24pm #

    “have u considered that Israel may be US’ 51st state. thus, occupation of palestine being an occupation by US?”

    again, how many times do i have to repeat this, israel is not the 51st state but the first and only state that matters. no other state really matters. how many times do you hear the word israel in congress, every hour on the hour, and how many times do you hear oregon or wisconsin. each and every one of our traitor politicians has to go over there and pledge allegiance to israel — how many pledge allegiance to ny or delaware? we are their colony, that’s all there is to it. and maybe we should start thinking about resistance in this occupied country.