Sunday, July 22, 2007
Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man
In March, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the most high-profile al-Qaeda terror suspect in US custody, “confessed” during his tribunal in Guantánamo that he was the architect of 9/11 and had also played a part in 30 other plots (both real and conceptual), there were mixed responses. No one tried to deny Mohammed’s main claim to infamy – the 9/11 attacks – but those who had paid attention to his story knew that there were doubts about the veracity of all his claims, because he was a notorious show-off, and valid complaints were made that, by sidestepping the normal legal channels, the authorities had allowed him to portray himself as a “freedom fighter” – comparing himself to George Washington, who, he said, would have been considered an “enemy combatant” if he had been captured by the British – rather than revealing him for what he actually was: a vile, mass-murdering criminal. Other commentators, who bothered to scrutinize the 26-page transcript of his tribunal, were even more alarmed. In parts of the transcript (some of which was redacted), Mohammed mentioned that he was tortured by the CIA, and added that, as a result, he had made false allegations against other people in US custody:
Tribunal President: What I’m trying to get at is… any statement that youWith the administration refusing to declassify the redacted passages from Mohammed’s testimony, it’s impossible to come up with a comprehensive list of those accused by him, and to investigate whether or not there is any truth in allegations made by a man who was subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including the reviled torture method known as waterboarding, during the three and a half years that he was held in secret prisons by the CIA before his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2006.
made was it because of this treatment, to use your word, you claim torture. [Did] you make any statements because of that?
[The discussion then wandered, before returning to the issue].
Tribunal President: People made false statement[s] as a result of this?
Detainee: I did also.
Tribunal President: Uh-huh.
Detainee: I told him, I know him, yes… This I don’t know him, I never met
him at all.
Recently, however, I was reminded of these doubts when the human rights group Cageprisoners issued a press release after statements by one of the Guantánamo prisoners ensnared in KSM’s web – the 59-year old Pakistani Saifullah Paracha – were declassified by the US military. The press release made for bleak reading, revealing that the health of Paracha, who has suffered three heart attacks in US custody – two in Bagram, and one in Guantánamo – “has seriously deteriorated and could lead to his premature death if his pre-existing heart, prostatic and diabetic disease are not treated urgently.”
Paracha’s lawyer, Gaillard T Hunt, suggested that “his medical treatment is at best incompetent and at worst negligent,” and painted a distressing picture of his client’s prospects, pointing out that several of his brothers and sisters have died of cardiac problems before reaching the age of 65, and that Paracha himself “has been having fainting spells, so we know the problem is worsening.” Hunt went on to explain, “He couldn't submit to a cardiac catheterization at Guantánamo because the rules require all prisoners in the hospital to be shackled to the four corners of the bed. The cardiologist said this was dangerous for a heart patient, but the prison administration would not compromise. The statements filed in court to assure us that Paracha is getting proper treatment are not signed by the doctors. We have to assume the doctors are as disturbed by the situation as we are. The doctors told Paracha that they were acting as military men first, as doctors second.”
This will come as no surprise to those who regard with skepticism the administration’s claims that the Guantánamo prisoners receive medical attention that is “as good as or better than anything we would offer our own soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines,” as Brigadier General Jay Hood, the commander of the Joint Task Force in Guantánamo, declared in 2005. As ex-detainee Moazzam Begg explained (and my own research has confirmed), “Often, as was the case during my time in US custody, prisoners' level of medical treatment would be dependant upon their level of cooperation with interrogators. Simply put, failure to comply could mean failure to receive treatment.” What’s even more disturbing, however, is a comment by Hunt that could easily be overlooked. “Paracha is not the worst case,” he said. “There are people at GTMO literally dying from lack of treatment.”
Given that the recent suicide of a Saudi detainee, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, received relatively little press coverage – and nothing like the international outrage that greeted the deaths of three prisoners in June 2006 – it may well be that the administration believes that it can weather a few more deaths without having to face a tsunami of criticism, but while this may be possible in terms of PR, morally it would be a disaster. Four men have already died in Guantánamo – their names besmirched in reports issued by the Pentagon after their deaths, even though they had never been tried or convicted of any crime – and the same process of demonization would undoubtedly occur were Saifullah Paracha also to die in Guantánamo.
The authorities would declare that he was an al-Qaeda member, who was captured by American operatives as he flew to Bangkok for a business trip on 5 July 2003, and they would assert – as they already have in his tribunal in Guantánamo – that he met Osama bin Laden, made investments for al-Qaeda members, translated statements for Osama bin Laden, joined in a plot to smuggle explosives into the US and recommended that nuclear weapons be used against US soldiers. They would also mention that the eldest of his four children, Uzair, was convicted by a US court in November 2005 on five charges, including providing material support to al-Qaeda (related to the supposed plot to smuggle explosives into the US, in which his father was also accused), and was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment in July 2006, although they would fail to mention that one of his lawyers, Edward Wilford, told the court that the government's claims stemmed from a false confession Paracha gave after he was “subjected to 72 hours of interrogation without being told that he could consult a lawyer or speak with his parents.”
What they would also fail to mention is that Saifullah Paracha is a philanthropist, who helped refurbish a 300-bed hospital and established secular schools rather than madrassas in Karachi – explaining to his tribunal that “We are emphasizing secular education, because you need a formal education to get a livelihood” – and a staunchly pro-American businessman, who studied at the New York Institute of Technology, lived in the United States in the 1980s and was running a successful clothes exporting business – with clients including K-Mart and Wal-Mart – at the time of his capture, in partnership with a New York-based Jewish entrepreneur. They would not point out that anyone with half a brain would realize that a genuine al-Qaeda member would never, under any circumstances, enter into a business deal with a Jewish entrepreneur.
They would also fail to mention that Paracha accepted that he did indeed met Osama bin Laden – on two occasions, at meetings of businessmen and religious leaders in Pakistan in 1999 and 2000, which had nothing to do with terrorism – and that after one of these meetings, when he made the mistake of thinking that it would be a good idea to ask bin Laden to contribute to a TV program about Islam, he was approached by KSM, and through him met Ammar al-Baluchi and Majid Khan, all of whom introduced themselves as businessmen. Also overlooked would be Paracha’s persistent denials of all the other allegations against him, and the fact that he unequivocally told his tribunal, “I believe in the Koran, that killing one innocent person is equivalent to killing all humanity. I believe in that, and practice that.”
The authorities would possibly acknowledge a chain of arrests that led from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (captured in Rawalpindi on 1 March 2003) to Saifullah Paracha, via Majid Khan, captured in Karachi on 5 March 2003, Iyman Faris, an American of Kashmiri origin, who was detained in Ohio on 15 March 2003, and Uzair Paracha, seized by the FBI in New York on 28 March 2003. No doubts, however, would be raised about the integrity of KSM’s initial tip-off, or the effects of coercion on all those ensnared in the web.
And yet there are, I believe, very real doubts that any of these men – apart from KSM – had any involvement with al-Qaeda or terrorism. In the case of Uzair Paracha, for example, the authorities secured a conviction on the basis that, as the Department of Justice described it, he “agreed with his father, Saifullah Paracha, and two al-Qaeda members, Majid Khan and Ammar al-Baluchi, to provide support to al-Qaeda by, among other things, trying to help Khan obtain a travel document that would have allowed Khan to re-enter the United States to commit a terrorist act.” Paracha did not dispute that, on the advice of his father, he had foolishly attempted to secure an immigration document for Khan, as a favor for a fellow Pakistani, and that as a result he “posed as Khan during telephone calls with the Immigration and Naturalization Service,” and also called Khan’s bank, attempted to gather information about his immigration paperwork via the internet, and agreed to use Khan’s credit card to make it appear that he was in the United States, when he was actually in Pakistan.
Crucially, however, he denied stating, as the DoJ attempted to assert, that he “knew from his father” that Khan and al-Baluchi “were al-Qaeda,” that the two men “wanted to give Paracha and his father between 180,000 and 200,000 United States dollars to invest in their company as a loan,” that he “knew the money was al-Qaeda money and that al-Qaeda wanted to keep the money liquid so they could have it back at a moments notice,” and that he “felt it was implied that he had to perform tasks” for Khan and al-Baluchi “on behalf of al-Qaeda because of the money being loaned to their business.” Although he was not allowed to call Majid Khan or Ammar al-Baluchi as witnesses (both men were, at the time, in secret CIA custody), they were allowed to present statements to the court, in which they both asserted that Paracha had no knowledge of any purported al-Qaeda connections, and before the trial another of his lawyers, Anthony Ricco, was so confident that he said that his client was manipulated into helping Khan and was looking forward to a trial to prove that he had no criminal intent. He described Paracha as “a very bright, but, I say, a very naive young man,” and added that he did not expect to have to contest the allegation that Paracha knew that Khan was in al-Qaeda.
Once Uzair Paracha was convicted – prompting Ricco to note that he had rejected a plea deal that would have led to a lesser sentence because he believed he was innocent, and to complain that it was difficult to clear defendants in terror trials because the US government “was at war with al-Qaeda” – his story was supposed to be forgotten, but the tangled web spun by KSM reappeared in March and April 2007 during the tribunals that were held to determine whether the 14 “high value” prisoners transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006 – including KSM, Majid Khan and Ammar al-Baluchi – had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants” and could be put forward for trial by Military Commission. After KSM’s electrifying testimony, the media largely lost interest in the transcripts that were subsequently released – waking up only when another of the prisoners, Waleed bin Attash, claimed responsibility for the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 – but the story resurfaced in Majid Khan’s tribunal, and, almost incidentally, in the tribunal of Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew of KSM who was accused of working with Khan on the explosives plot, but who explained that he was “just a person… introduced through KSM.”
A legal US resident, whose parents live in Maryland, Khan had recently got married and his wife was pregnant at the time of his capture. He was seized in Karachi, just four days after the capture of KSM, at the house of his brother Mohammed, who was also captured, and later released, along with his wife and his baby daughter. In his tribunal, nine allegations were presented, all but one of which – a rather incomprehensible claim that a computer hard drive “seized from a residence where munitions were discovered contained linkages to media seized from the detainee’s residence” – came from the allegations relating to Uzair Paracha (as described above), and statements that were allegedly made by Iyman Faris, and Khan’s own father and brother.
Kashmir-born Faris, who became a US citizen in 1999, and had been living in Columbus, Ohio, where he was working as a trucker, was convicted of providing material support to al-Qaeda for his role in an alleged plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, and was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in October 2003. On the surface, his conviction seemed straightforward. With a failed five-year marriage behind him, and an attempt to commit suicide that involved him being counseled by an imam and given psychiatric evaluation, he appeared to be perfect fodder for terrorist recruitment. Arrested on 19 March 2003, by two FBI agents and an anti-terror officer, who reportedly confronted him with testimony from KSM and the results of an intercepted telephone call, it was alleged that he visited Pakistan and Afghanistan from 2000 to 2001, meeting Osama bin Laden at some point, and that, on his return to the US, he learned of a plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, which involved cutting through its cables with blowtorches, and a second plot that involved derailing a train in Washington DC. According to the US government, Faris’ role in the plots went no further than asking a friend where he could purchase welding equipment, and researching the structure of the bridge on the internet. He apparently concluded that the operation was unfeasible, and sent a message to Pakistan to abandon the plots, stating, “The weather is too hot.”
Although Faris pleaded guilty to the charges, on 1 May 2003, it was not revealed until after the trial that, after his arrest, he had actually been recruited by the FBI as a double agent, and had been moved to a safe house in Virginia where he was instructed to stay in touch with his contacts in Pakistan. Another twist came on 25 September, just before Faris was due to be sentenced, when he attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming that, although he had met Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan, he had refused to be recruited as a member of al-Qaeda, and had concluded that Mohammed had fed false information to the US authorities as revenge. The appeal was disallowed, but both of these issues raise uncomfortable questions about the nature of his conviction, and, specifically, about his part in the terror web spun by KSM.
Further doubts about Faris’ case – and that of Majid Khan – came in April 2007, when Faris was called upon by Khan to explain the allegations relating to him in the Summary of Evidence for his tribunal, in which it was alleged that, on a visit to Khan’s family’s home in Maryland, Faris stated that Khan “spoke to him about the fighting and struggle in Afghanistan,” and that on a subsequent visit Khan told him that he had met KSM in Pakistan, and that he referred to him as “uncle.” It was also alleged that Khan told Faris of “his desire to martyr himself against President Musharraf” by “detonating a vest of explosives inside a building.” In response, Faris explained that he had visited the Khans’ house to “invest in the family business,” and categorically denied all the allegations, stating, “There was no discussion other than religious duty and what he likes to do in life, like work in construction and not in his father’s [financial] business,” emphasizing that “there were never any discussions regarding the fight in Afghanistan – ever,” and responding to the allegation about the Musharraf plot by stating, “This is an absolute lie.” When asked, “Were you coerced, tricked or deceived into making any statements about Majid Khan?” Faris delivered his most devastating statement. “Yes,” he said, “by FBI. If I don’t tell them what they wanted to hear, they were going to take me to GITMO [Guantánamo].”
Writing from Guantánamo, Saifullah Paracha also refuted the claims against Majid Khan (and, by extension, against both himself and his son Uzair), confirming that he did not know that either Khan (or Ammar al-Baluchi, who introduced Khan to him in Pakistan) were members of al-Qaeda, insisting that he never discussed a loan with him – “I never discussed any financial matters with Majid Khan” – and reiterating that he only agreed to ask Uzair to help Khan as a favor to a fellow countryman: “I was told he had an issue with US Immigration and wanted to keep his bank account in the USA active, which I asked my son to assist him with as a fellow Pakistani.”
The only other allegations against Khan, as noted above, were reportedly made by one of his brothers, who, according to the US authorities, “stated the detainee was involved with a group that he believed to be al-Qaeda, and as of December 2002 was involved in transporting people across the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and points elsewhere,” and his father, who allegedly “stated the detainee recently began to be influenced by anti-American thoughts and became extremely religious in his behavior.” Although Khan’s brother had not responded by the time of his tribunal, his father Ali mounted a vigorous defence of his son, querying the statements that were supposed to have been made by himself and his son, asking, “Where and when did we make these statements that you claim we made? Who did we make these statements to, exactly? The government has refused to give us this information. Anything we may have said… was simply out of shock because we knew [he] had disappeared and was pure speculation based on what FBI agents in the United States told us and pressured us to say.”
He continued: “If you think that he did something wrong, show me the evidence. Charge him with a crime and give him a fair trial in a real court. This tribunal is not a real court… It is only for show and the outcome has probably already been decided.” Crucially, he added, “Anything that he may have confessed to, or that other prisoners may have said about him, should also be considered with suspicion because these statements were probably tortured or coerced out of them. Under these circumstances, how could anyone believe what the government says about my son?”
In passages, which, remarkably, were not redacted, Ali Khan then described Majid’s torture at the hands of US and Pakistani agents, explaining that “after eight days of interrogation by US and Pakistani agents,” his son Mohammed was allowed to see Majid, who “looked terrible and very, very tired,” and proceeded to explain to his brother that “the Americans tortured him for eight hours at a time, tying him tightly in stressful positions in a small chair until his hands, feet and mind went numb,” that they “re-tied him in the chair every hour, tightening the bonds on his hands and feet each time so that it was more painful,” and that they “beat him repeatedly,” subjected him to sleep deprivation, and, when not being interrogated, held him in a small, mosquito-infested cell, which was “totally dark, and too small for him to lie down in or sit in with his legs stretched out.” In Ali’s testimony, the most devastating statement was the following: “This torture only stopped when Majid agreed to sign a statement that he was not even allowed to read,” although he also noted that the torture resumed when he “was unable to identify certain streets and neighborhoods in Karachi that he did not know,” and critics of US behavior should read the whole of his testimony, as it also includes claims by Mohammed Khan that both he and Majid were held in a prison where two of KSM’s children, “aged about six and eight,” had been held before their father’s capture, where they were “denied food and water,” and had “ants or other creatures put on their legs to scare them and get them to say where their father was hiding,” and that “Americans once stripped and beat two Arab boys,” aged 14 and 16, who were then “thrown like garbage onto a plane to Guantánamo” (it’s more likely that they were actually sent to Bagram), and also held women prisoners, including some who were pregnant and “forced to give birth in their cells.”
While this article only scratches the surface of the “tangled web” woven by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in CIA custody, I hope it illuminates the possibility that the plots and networks trumpeted by the US authorities may not be quite what they seem. It’s possible that everything the authorities claim is true, but my interpretation, reading between the lines, is that, through the informal social networks of the various business communities in Pakistan – which, as Saifullah Paracha pointed in Guantánamo, are based on traditional notions of hospitality, even though, in the political chaos of modern-day Pakistan, it is “very difficult for any civilian to determine who is who” – he, his son Uzair and Majid Khan were caught up in the orbit of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and that their subsequent torture, abuse and imprisonment are the result of naïve trust rather than any connection whatsoever with terrorism. Even murkier are the stories of Iyman Faris and Ammar al-Baluchi, and behind them all, towering like a malign colossus, and with fingers reaching into all corners of Pakistani society and its vast diaspora through his successful disguise as a legitimate businessman, is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his many false allegations – made during his torture at the hands of the CIA – that the US administration would rather bury than acknowledge.