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Experiencing Guantanamo Part One | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Guantanamo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Over the past four years, some 450 prisoners belonging to the Al Qaeda terrorist network or the Taliban have been held in at the Guantanamo military base in Cuba. So far, only ten of the detainees have been officially charged. Asharq Al Awsat visited the US detention center for the second time last month. The first visit took place in 2002 before Camp X-Ray was shut down. Asharq Al Awsat entered the Delta camp prison cells, the heavily guarded Fifth Camp, the Fourth Camp (the detainees of which are considered “lucky”). Asharq Al Awsat also met camp officials from the Pentagon’s Joint Task Force and visited the kitchen where food for Al Qaeda prisoners is prepared.

“If you have not visited the Fifth Camp in Guantanamo you have not visited Guantanamo,” a guard at Camp Delta told Asharq Al Awsat during our visit to the prison, because of the importance of the leading Al Qaeda members who are detained in this camp. There are 70 detainees from Al Qaeda in the Fifth Camp, where security measures are extremely tight. The camp is divided into wards with air-conditioned cells for “highly valued” or “uncooperative” prisoners, both on the right and left sides of each ward.

In the middle of the Fifth Camp, there is an electronic central monitoring system that controls the entries to the ward. It is like the control tower at airports because it controls everything inside the camp. The control center has colored glass to hide the guards and officers inside, who describe it as the “brain” of the detention center.

Within the wards, guards are continuously moving to watch the detainees through small holes in the doors of their cells. The guards in these wards refuse to have pictures taken as detainees have threatened to kill them, they claim.

The fifth camp was inaugurated in May 2004. Officials of the Delta prison say that the cells are not used for solitary confinement as the prisoners are allowed to communicate with those in adjacent cells on both sides. The fifth camp accommodates 100 prisoners. The sixth camp, which is near completion, will accommodate 200 detainees. It is more advanced technologically and would be “comfortable” for both prisoners and guards alike.

The Yemeni national Salim Ahmad Hamdan, Osama Bin Laden’s chauffeur, whose case was considered the most important in the history of the Guantanamo camp, is detained at the second camp. The other ten suspects, who appeared at a military court and were officially charged by the US authorities, are in the fifth Camp. They are: The Yemeni Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al-Bahlul, the Australian Taliban member David Hicks, the Sudanese Ibrahim Ahmad Mahmud al-Qusi, the son of Al Qaeda financier Omar Khadr al-Kindi of Egyptian origin, the Ethiopian Binyam Mohammed, the Algerian Sufyan Barhumi, alias Abu-Ubaydah, Jubran Said al-Qahtani, and Abdul Zahir who was a translator with the Taliban and later worked with Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, who is the most prominent of Bin Laden’s field commanders.

The ten detainees are charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, to attack civilians and carry out acts of terrorism and other crimes against the US authorities. Asharq Al Awsat saw the guards in the Fifth Camp wearing protective vests during their shifts despite the hot weather. They feared the risk of being stabbed by the prisoners with sharp tools. When they come closer to the prisoners inside the wards, they wear ties around their necks to protect them against bites or stabs in the neck.

In the Fifth Camp, where there are interrogation rooms, you find detainees who in the past trained terrorists, made bombs, recruited new members, helped in terrorist operations, and financed terrorist operations; as well as Bin Ladin guards and extremists who are prepared to carry out suicide operations. Among the detainees in this camp was an instructor who trained others on how to manufacture bombs. He provided information on the assassination of the leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Masood, and on how Al Qaeda uses mines.

In the camp, there was also a member of a terrorist cell in Afghanistan who targeted civilians, especially reporters and members of international relief missions. He carried out an operation in which he hurled a hand grenade at a car driven by a foreign journalist. There is also an Al Qaeda member who designed a model for an explosive shoe to be used to bomb planes and another model of a magnetic bomb to attack ships. There was also an instructor who trained others on how to use explosives and how to use cellular telephones to detonate bombs.

During the visit, Asharq Al Awsat received copies of documents demonstrating that during interrogations with the detainees, the authorities gained much information on the methods of recruitment used by Al Qaeda, and the Taliban and how to form terrorist cells. One document says, “We also learned how they contact each other and how they train, the sources of their money, and their destinations. The documents also revealed that some of the detainees had been trained on making bombs by using home appliances and other devices that can be bought from markets. Documents indicate that one detainee holds a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering. Another detainee was so cooperative during interrogation that he provided drawings of bombs that had been used in Chechnya and Iraq.

A detainee in the Fifth Camp identified eleven of Bin Laden’s guards who received training at the Al-Farouk Camp in Afghanistan, as well as the spiritual adviser to the Al Qaeda leader. The documents say that ten percent of the Guantanamo detainees hold university degrees and some of them hold postgraduate degrees from Western universities.

Among the detainees in the Fifth Camp were physicians of various specializations, civilian pilots, navigators, engineering experts, divers, and lawyers. They also include a computer engineer who was used by Al Qaeda to produce videotapes, and by the Taliban movement to copy some of its programs. In the Fifth Camp, a prisoner threatened the guards and admitted terrorizing the United States. His records show that he studied in Texas for 18 months.

Another suspect is charged with providing logistical support and arms to Al Qaeda. He studied aerial navigation at the Embry Riddle Aviation School in Arizona and obtained a university degree in navigation from the same university. Two other detainees hold Master’s degrees, one of them in Aviation management and the other in petroleum engineering.

The detainees in the Fifth Camp provide unique information on the leaders of Al Qaeda in Guantanamo and their special skills in recruiting the Mujahideen or transferring money and arms or as Shariaa theoreticians. The types of detainees in Guantanamo demonstrates the kind of individuals who are likely to be recruited, to participate, or to lead extremist fundamentalist movements. The detainees possess expertise, high levels of education as well as motivation. It is likely that many detainees at Guantanamo had been able to reach leading positions in Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups. Since Afghanistan is no longer a haven for Al Qaeda cells, the organization experienced a transitional phase and has became a looser network. In many cases, this network has had to rely on extremist regional or local networks to carry out its operations.

It is not essential that the detainee is an Al Qaeda member to be able to provide valuable intelligence. Officials responsible for the Guantanamo jail say, “The information offered by detainees who had been members of unknown extremist groups would prove to be valuable in the future as we continue to work to prevent the reemergence of groups like Al Qaeda and its supporters.”

One basic part of the strategy that the Joint Task Force is working on in detention center is the silence around what awaits detainees in their home countries, abroad, or more specifically, “inside these wire cages,” says one guard. The US Government refuses to talk about release dates of the detainees and does not give reasons for the continuation of the detention of these prisoners even though the information that they have provided has become obsolete and useless.

The detainees persistently question when they would be released. The prison officials say that they cannot provide an answer because they are also unaware of any information on the matter. However, if they look around, one can see that nobody will be going anywhere anytime soon. Meanwhile, the Joint Task Force, which is responsible for detaining and interrogating the prisoners, is building and rehabilitating homes to accommodate hundreds of US soldiers. At the same time, the Sixth Camp is about to be completed.

As for the guards, it is extremely tiring to work all year round at the detention camp as they spend hours walking in front of the lines of cells. Each line holds 48 prisoners. This means that 24 cells are lined on each side in the wards of the Fifth Camp. The aim is to assure at all times that no detainee would attempt to harm himself or the guards. This requires care and extreme alertness during the shifts, which sometimes extend to 12 hours per day. The guards, officers, and men always find themselves under scrutiny. The entire world is watching them as they carry out the assigned task to “treat the detainees in a humane and fair manner” in accordance with the law, as they put it.

However, the inexplicable conditions of the detainees have led many to complain of cramps. Every now and then, some would refuse to take a bath. They would spend their days in wire cages that are 1.2 meters wide and 5.2 meters high. Sometimes, the detainees complain that they are in pain in order to go to hospital and escape the routine of their imprisonment. Interrogation of the prisoners takes place day and night by US interrogators who gather data and analyze the detainees with the aim of uncovering any plans or possible attacks, both inside or outside the United States. One officer said, “Any piece of information, however small, can be useful in the war against terror.”

It is worth mentioning that the presidential order to establish the detention center in Guantanamo was issued on 13 November 2001, the day the Coalition forces took over Kabul. This required a pretext to receive in the United States those whom the US President described as “enemy combatants,” inventing a new concept that is outside US and international laws.

During its visit to Camp Delta, Asharq Al Awsat interviewed Commander Katie Hampf. Hampf is one of the senior officers of the Joint Task Force that supervises security in Guantanamo. She is highly respected by officers and soldiers and has been in the US navy for the past 21 years. She took over the task of supervising the Camp Delta eleven months ago.

At Guantanamo detention camp, Asharq Al Awsat was prohibited from contacting any of the Al Qaeda prisoners despite being face to face with them in the Fourth Camp. However, strict warnings were issued stating that reporters must not get close to them, take pictures, respond to their greetings or even speak to them. The instructions were to remain silent, ignore them, and avoid their inquisitive eyes as they see these strangers walking around.

The soldiers under Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the Guantanamo jail and head of the Joint Task Force, who takes his orders directly from the Pentagon, spend the nights watching the detainees. Reporters who visit this facility can only see the inmates of the Fourth Camp where the “cooperative” prisoners are accommodated. Prison management visits reporters every night in their sleeping quarters to check the pictures that that have taken with their cameras. Sometimes they ask reporters to remove certain pictures because they violate security measures, revealing the faces of the detainees, the names of the guards, or the Prison’s military towers. Reporters signed agreements that they would not publish these pictures and recognize that the violation of this could lead to legal battles.

Authorities have continued to expand the camp since late 2001 and the Afghan war. The number of civilians and military personnel at the camp has tripled and now totals 10,000. Inside the US military base today there are McDonalds restaurants and Starbucks cafes, high standard physical fitness centers, and other restaurants and duty-free shopping centers in to order to make the lives of officers and soldiers more enjoyable. As we approach the heavily guarded areas, we see the orange color barriers that force the visitors’ cars to enter on two different paths so that guards can inspect each car. The security measures have been doubled since the prison preacher Captain Yusuf Yee and two translators were detained after they were accused of spying.

Camp Delta, which is divided into five sections, can accommodate 1,000 people. When we toured the camp, there were 450 detainees of various nationalities. Asharq Al Awsat visited part of the camp where the cells were vacated for maintenance work.

Camp Delta is surrounded by wire walls covered by green plastic sheets and topped by barbed wire. The prisoners whose cells remain lit throughout the night, are constantly watched by the guards who walk around in a circle or remain in their booths.

The Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees in Guantanamo between them speak 17 languages. Commander Hampf stated that the detainees threaten and insult the officers and soldiers. Sometimes they throw mud and water. She notes that many of them speak fluent English. She said that most of the trouble comes from the Arab prisoners and that most of the Arabs speak English.

During Asharq Al Awsat’s tour of Camp Delta, Commander Hampf insisted on using the word “detention” center rather than prison because most of the prisoners are yet to be charged. She stressed that there are no friendships of any kind between the prisoners and the guards. She said that sometimes she hears prisoners trying to flirt with female guards saying, “You are a very beautiful woman.” Smiling, she said that some of the prisoners had proposed to her. She added, “Relationships are prohibited between the prisoners and guards.”

Hampf denied that any prisoners have attempted to escape the camp but spoke of prisoners’ attempts to attack the guards, saying that the punishment for this is solitary confinement for 30 days. She spoke about special uniforms for dangerous prisoners who might commit suicide. These new security measures were taken after two Saudi prisoners and a Yemeni committed suicide last June by hanging themselves using their clothes and bedcovers, according to the prison administration. The three had been staying in separate cells at Camp one where security measures are the strictest. The three were found unable to breathe and medical teams tried to resuscitate them but they were soon declared dead. The families of the detainees doubt that the detainees committed suicide.

The daily routine for the Delta Camp prisoners is broken only by a 20-minute walk in within a large wired cage built on a cement base. Detainees are allowed to take a bath for a few minutes three times a week. Throughout this however, the prisoner remain shackled. Commander Hampf said that she has prevented female guards from watching the prisoners while bathing.

Outside the Delta Camp cells, Asharq Al Awsat saw a board with a sign written in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu notifying detainees of the killing of Al-Zarqawi, Nuri al-Maliki’s assumption of power as head of Iraqi Government, and the imprisonment of Zacarias kariya al-Musawi, the suicide bomber No. 20. Commander Hampf said that some of the prisoners have not yet been convinced that Al-Zarqawi was killed. She said that the news announcement board is updated twice a month.

Hampf praised the qualities of the Delta Camp in terms of the neat arrangement of the cells and the security and safety measures, in addition to an attached hospital that uses the most sophisticated medical equipment in the world.