By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008
As the lights flickered off above them, more than two dozen detainees began to raise their voices in prayer and other songs, a din the guards dismissed as harmless. Three of the detainees furtively stuffed water bottles and toilet paper under their bedsheets to create the illusion of sleeping bodies, and they each strung up walls of blue blankets in their metal-mesh cells, seeking cover from their captors' glances.
Then, with strips of white sheets, T-shirts and towels wound into nooses, the three detainees in Guantanamo Bay's Camp 1, Block Alpha, hid behind the blankets and hanged themselves, their toes dangling inches above the floor while their bodies became blue and rigid. For hours, the guards failed to notice the first deaths to occur at the controversial U.S. military detention facility.
The simultaneous suicides on June 10, 2006, raised claims from top U.S. military commanders that the detainees were engaging in "asymmetric warfare" against the United States. More than two years later, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) probe and other documents reveal that the men took advantage of lapses in guard protocol and of lenient policies toward compliant detainees to commit what suicide notes described as an attack on the United States.
"I am informing you that I gave away the precious thing that I have in which it became very cheap, which is my own self, to lift up the oppression that is upon us through the American Government," wrote Ali Abdullah Ahmed Naser al-Sullami, of Yemen, a 26-year-old detainee who had been on one of the longest hunger strikes at Guantanamo, ultimately earning him forced feedings through a tube. In a note neatly folded into his shirt pocket, Sullami wrote: "I did not like the tube in my mouth, now go ahead and accept the rope in my neck."
Sullami also attacked the International Committee of the Red Cross, accusing it of conspiring in the detainees' suffering because it had been "covering the American Government repugnance since the first day." The ICRC has a policy of not publicly discussing its meetings with detainees or its reports to detaining governments.
Contained in more than 3,000 pages of military investigative documents, medical records, autopsies, and statements from guards and detainees is a rare view inside the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and one of the worst episodes of its six-year history. The documents from the NCIS investigation, which will be released under the Freedom of Information Act, were obtained yesterday by The Washington Post.
They make clear that that Sullami, along with Saudis Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, 22, and Mana Shaman Allabard al-Tabi, 32, carefully planned their suicides so that they would be able to prepare and carry them out without their guards taking notice. Investigators and military officials believe, according to the documents, that other detainees were aware that the suicides were about to happen and at one point chanted a song called "Kill Them All" -- used by al-Qaeda and the Taliban after killing Americans -- possibly to mask the sounds of death on the cellblock.
Investigators found that guards had become lax on certain rules because commanders wanted to reward the more compliant detainees, giving them extra T-shirts, blankets and towels. Detainees were allowed to hang such items to dry, or to provide privacy while using the toilet, but were not supposed to be able to obscure their cells while sleeping.
Guards told officials that it was not unusual to see blankets hanging in the cells and that they did not think twice when they passed several cells on the night of June 9, 2006, with blankets strung through the wire mesh. Authorities believe the men probably hanged themselves around 10 p.m., but they were not discovered until shortly after midnight on June 10.
An internal investigation into the guards' actions found six violations of Guantanamo's standard operating procedures, procedures that have since been revamped. Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., then Guantanamo's commander, wrote that the investigation's findings "clearly reflect that the three deceased detainees required significant time to prepare the instruments with which they committed suicide" and that "the possibility that the detainees used this uninterrupted gap in guard coverage . . . to prepare these instruments cannot be ruled out."
Sullami's lawyer, David Engelhardt, said he will review the documents closely and added: "It's simply astounding that it took the government over two years to conclude a so-called investigation of three men who died in a small cage under the government's exclusive control. The investigation itself is what needs to be investigated, along with the people who've perpetrated the disgraceful, extra-constitutional detentions."
Zahrani, in Cell A-8, was the first detainee to raise concern among guards. One guard passed his cell and thought the silhouette under his sheets looked too small. When guards inspected further, they found the sheet concealing random items and Zahrani hanging from a noose in the darkness. As guards worked to try to save Zahrani, another guard yelled out: "We've got another one!"
That was Sullami, hanging in Cell A-5. Another gruesome discovery followed, with Tabi's body found in Cell A-12. The men were cut down and brought to the hospital, where they were pronounced dead less than an hour later.
Some of the guards were "very emotional," according to the report.
"I feel that the guards and myself on Alpha block did an inadequate job monitoring the detainees that night to make sure that they were following the rules as to show some kind of skin while sleeping," said one guard, who name was redacted from the documents.
NCIS officials, in a statement released last night, said that in addition to the martyrdom notes found on the bodies, they found other written statements throughout the cellblock, suggesting more suicides could follow. Another detainee killed himself at Guantanamo a year later.
"Due to the similarities in the wording of the statements and the manner of suicides, as well as statements made by other detainees interviewed, there was growing concern that someone within the Camp Delta population was directing detainees to commit suicide and that additional suicides might be imminent," according to the statement. "Representatives of other law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation were later told that on the night in question, another detainee (who did not later commit suicide) had walked through the cell block telling people 'tonight's the night.' "
Said one guard, whose name is also redacted: "I believe the detainees on Alpha block knew this was going on and they encouraged them to commit suicide. I believed they plotted it and utilized our own rules against us."
Sullami had been on hunger strikes throughout 2005 and 2006 and had been force-fed as a result.
The military's Criminal Investigation Task Force had decided years earlier that Sullami, who was arrested near his college in Pakistan in March 2002 and was turned over to U.S. authorities on May 2, 2002, in Afghanistan, was not someone they could prosecute.
"Although many of the individuals apprehended during the raid have strong connections to al Qaeda, there is no credible information to suggest Ahmed received terrorist related training or is a member of the al Qaeda network," investigators wrote in a previously "secret" document.
Zahrani, according to Guantanamo records, was next on the "Saudi DMO" list, which meant he was imminently going to be part of a "Detainee Movement Operation" that would have transferred him to Saudi Arabia's reintegration program and ultimately to freedom.