By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009
A little more than two years after his release from the Guantanamo Bay military prison, Abdallah Saleh al-Ajmi knelt in front of a white wall, clutched the upturned barrel of an AK-47 rifle and delivered a message before a video camera.
The scraggly beard that his young son once loved to play with had been shaved off, leaving only an exiguous moustache. His curly, shoulder-length locks had been clipped down to a crew cut. Gone, too, were the crisp, white headdress he often wore and any semblance of the good humor once familiar to his family. He was sullen and angry -- still bitter about being locked up for almost four years at the high-security U.S. detention center on the southeastern coast of Cuba.
"Praise be unto God, who evacuated me from Guantanamo prison and joined me with the Islamic State of Iraq," he intoned. As the camera's light cast an outsize shadow behind his head, he wagged his finger and issued a vow: "We are going, with permission from God, to God -- glory be unto him. We will enter the nests of apostasy."
At 6:15 a.m. on March 23, 2008, not long after making the video, Ajmi drove a pickup truck filled with 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of explosives, hidden in what appeared to be white flour sacks, onto an Iraqi army base outside Mosul. He barreled though the entrance checkpoint and past a fusillade of gunfire from the sentries, shielded by bulletproof glass and makeshift armor welded to the cab.
The Easter Sunday blast killed 13 Iraqi soldiers, wounded 42 others and left a 30-foot-wide crater in the ground. It remains the single most heinous act of violence committed by a former Guantanamo detainee.
As President Obama takes the first tentative steps toward fulfilling his campaign promise to close Guantanamo, the case of Abdallah Ajmi has become a symbol of the vexing challenge his administration faces in adjudicating the fates of terrorism suspects held by the United States, a process that almost certainly will result in the release of additional detainees among the approximately 245 now in custody there.
What makes Ajmi's journey from inmate to bomber so disturbing to top government officials is the fact that he never was deemed to be among the worst of the worst. He was not one of the former top al-Qaeda operatives considered "high value" detainees; nor was he regarded as someone who posed a significant, long-term threat to the United States.
Compared with what other Guantanamo detainees were believed to have done, the principal accusation leveled against him -- that he fought for the Taliban -- was unremarkable. At his Combatant Status Review Tribunal, he was not accused of perpetrating any specific violent acts other than "engaging in two or three fire fights with the Northern Alliance," according to a summary of evidence presented by the military.
As one former U.S. government official involved in detainee issues put it, Ajmi was "never on anyone's top 10 list of people we expected to return to the fight."
Since his death, U.S. intelligence agencies have sought to determine when Ajmi became a hard-core jihadist. Was it in the late 1990s, when he came under the sway of a radical preacher while serving in the Kuwaiti army? Was it in 2001, when he allegedly joined the Taliban? Was it upon his release in 2005, when extremists back home celebrated him as the "Lion of Guantanamo"?
Or is the answer potentially more alarming: Was his descent into unrepentant radicalism an unintended consequence of his incarceration?
This account of Ajmi's religious and political journey is based on interviews with his attorneys in Washington and Kuwait, his family, and U.S. government officials familiar with his case, as well as U.S. military documents, court filings in the United States and Kuwait, and other records provided by sources close to the case.
Washington lawyer Thomas Wilner, who represented Ajmi while he was in U.S. custody and visited him more than half a dozen times during his detention, is convinced he knows the answer to his former client's fate.
"What happened to him?" Wilner asked rhetorically. "It was Guantanamo."
Wilner points to the first letter he received from Ajmi:
To the learned attorney Tom
How are you and how is your nice team doing? I hope you are doing well. Tell me how you are doing, Mr. Tom, and what is going on in the outside world. . . .
Mr. Tom, I would like to tell you that I am fine, and so are all my brothers. . . .
I thank you, Mr. Tom, and send you my closing greetings.
The happy detainee Juhayman Al Ajmi.
And then there is the last letter he received:
To the vile, depraved Thomas, descendant of rotten apes and swine,
I greet you with a kick, a spit, and a slap on your lying, rotten, ugly, and sullen face. I hope that this letter finds you burning in hell and receiving a sound beating from men who are to be counted. . . .
Thomas, I shall meet you tomorrow
And hit you with a sharp, two-edged Indian sword
That will tear you to pieces, and you will be thrown to the hyena
To feed on, maul and bite you, and to every wild beast.
Fiercely and harshly, Juhayman Al Ajmi.Ominous Signs
Arrested in Pakistan in December 2001, Ajmi was among the first wave of terrorism suspects to be transported to Guantanamo. He was "inprocessed" on Jan. 17, 2002, clad in an orange jumpsuit, shackled at the wrists and ankles, and placed in an open-air chain-link cell. He was 23 years old.
At Guantanamo, names are not used. There are too many Ahmeds and Abdallahs. And transliterating from Arabic to English can often lead to inconsistencies. To the guards patrolling outside the razor wire, Ajmi was known by his Internment Serial Number, 220. They called him ISN 220. Or Detainee 220. Or just 220.
Ajmi's days mainly consisted of sitting in his cell. For his first few years there, detainees had no access to reading material -- save for copies of the Koran. Interrogations, which occurred randomly and could last days, were the only breaks from the monotony.
In early 2002, Ajmi's family and 11 other Kuwaiti families sought to hire a prominent U.S. law firm to look into the fate of their relatives who had gone missing in Afghanistan. Back then, nobody knew whether they were at Guantanamo -- the U.S. military deemed the prisoner manifest confidential. But the Kuwaitis were turned down by the first several firms they approached. Sticking up for terrorism suspects in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, they were told, was too politically radioactive. Finally, a headhunter working for the Kuwaitis called Wilner, then a partner in the Washington office of Shearman & Sterling.
Wilner is an international trade specialist, not an expert on human rights law, and his résumé was even more Establishment than some of those who rebuffed the Kuwaitis: St. Albans, Yale, the Supreme Court bar. He has practiced law in Washington for more than 30 years. He wasn't sure whether any of the dozen Kuwaitis were innocent, but that didn't matter to him. What did were two basic legal principles: that the United States shouldn't be holding people incommunicado and that even terrorism suspects should have the right to defend themselves. He gave the headhunter the answer that others wouldn't.
Other partners at Shearman were not happy about Wilner's decision to represent the Kuwaitis, and a few made their displeasure known to him. Wilner told his critics that Shearman would not be profiting from the case -- the firm would donate all the fees, which eventually reached $1.5 million, to charity.
Within a few weeks, he was on a plane to Kuwait to meet with relatives of the detainees. He saw two of Ajmi's brothers and his father, an elderly man with a gray beard, a pointy nose and piercing eyes. He still cannot forget the father's plaintive request to help free his son.
It was during that trip that Wilner learned where the 12 men were. The State Department informed the Kuwaiti government that eight of them were at Guantanamo. Within days, the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that the four others were there, as well.
But when Wilner sought to see his clients, the military refused. The Bush administration contended that Guantanamo detainees didn't have the right to be represented by civilian attorneys.
So Wilner filed a lawsuit, arguing that Ajmi and the 11 other Kuwaitis deserved to have a federal judge review their detention. The case was consolidated with another habeas corpus petition, Rasul v. Bush, and eventually wound its way up to the Supreme Court, which, in June 2004, ruled that Guantanamo detainees had the right to challenge their incarceration in federal courts.
Although it would take four more years for habeas hearings to commence, because of additional legal challenges by the Bush administration and attempts by Congress to legislate a compromise, the most significant practical impact of the Rasul decision was that it cleared the way for lawyers such as Wilner to visit their clients.
And so the last week of December 2004, after months of squabbling with the Pentagon over rules and logistics -- the Defense Department initially insisted that it be allowed to monitor some of the attorney-client conversations -- the Shearman team arrived at Guantanamo.
Ajmi was placed in a small metal-walled hut for the visit. His legs were shackled to an eyelet in the floor. One hand was chained to a belt around his waist.
The lawyer who talked with him, Kristine Huskey, brought him a box of baklava from a bakery in Detroit and explained that she was part of a team of lawyers in Washington working on his behalf. She told him that his family had met with Wilner. She even showed him a DVD of his relatives.
Wilner and Huskey were worried about winning the trust of the detainees, who had no way of knowing whether they were really lawyers or just another set of interrogators. "We had to convince them we were there to represent them," Huskey said. "We hardly gave them a chance to talk, so they wouldn't say, 'Who the hell are you? Go away.' "
Their fears were not entirely unfounded. In subsequent meetings, said Wilner, who is Jewish, one of the Kuwaiti detainees, Fouad Mahmoud al-Rabiah, told him that one of his interrogators urged him to be wary of his attorneys because of their faith. "How could you trust Jews? Throughout history, Jews have betrayed Muslims. Don't you think your lawyers, who are Jews, will betray you?" the interrogator said, according to Rabiah.
At that first meeting, Huskey remembers Ajmi as "polite and reserved." He said he was grateful for legal representation and for the time she was spending on his case. He asked about his family, and he expressed a sense of resignation about his detention. "Despite all the mistreatment, we are happy being here. It is the will of God," he told Huskey.
But there were also ominous signs. The sergeant who led them into the hut warned that Ajmi was a "behavior issue." Unlike most inmates, Ajmi was dressed in orange shorts. Huskey saw scabs on his knees. It seemed to her that he had been dragged by guards. She inquired but he didn't want to discuss it, other than to say that his captors "had defamed Islam" and that he had had "a problem" with his guards.
One of the other Kuwaiti detainees told her that Ajmi's Koran and his blanket had been removed because of misbehavior. But he didn't know what offense Ajmi had committed.
Huskey did not press Ajmi to explain what he was doing before he was apprehended, and he did not proffer anything beyond one statement: "I am here as an enemy combatant, and I will leave here as an enemy combatant. Tell my family that."'A Kid Who Was Lost'
Two weeks later, Wilner met with Ajmi. Their three-hour conversation began with a lengthy description of how Ajmi and his fellow detainees had been treated. Ajmi claimed torture. Halfway through, though, he told his attorney that he had a problem.
"My whole story is made up," he said, according to Wilner's notes and his recollection of the conversation. "I didn't carry weapons. I didn't fight. I was not a member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda."
Ajmi said he had told U.S. interrogators at a detention center in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he had been held prior to Guantanamo, that he fought with the Taliban because the guards "were beating the hell out of me."
"I wanted it to stop," he said. "I told them what they wanted to hear."
Ajmi sought Wilner's advice. "What do I do?" he asked. "Do I change my story?"
Wilner told him to tell the truth, even if it meant contradicting earlier statements. Ajmi struck Wilner "as one of the least dangerous people at Gitmo. He just seemed like a kid who was lost."
While Ajmi's story sounded believable to Wilner, he couldn't know for sure whether it was true. All he could be certain of was that in early 2001, Ajmi left a comfortable life in Kuwait, and that in December of that year, he was apprehended in the Bannu district of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, not far from the Afghan border.
What happened in between? Was he only in Pakistan, as he claimed, studying and performing volunteer work? Or did he go to Afghanistan, as the U.S. military contended, to fight with the Taliban? There may never be a conclusive answer to those questions, but even some of his relatives are convinced that his departure from Kuwait was not entirely for peaceful purposes.
Ajmi had 11 brothers and eight sisters. His father, who has two wives, used to be a machine technician with the Kuwaiti national oil company. The family lived in a two-story stucco house on a quiet side street in Almadi, a company town south of Kuwait City that was designed for British engineers and their families. Save for the occasional mosque and the Arabic script on the street signs, it could be mistaken for a lower-middle-class subdivision in West Texas: The streets are wide and tree-lined; there is a small zoo, a movie theater and a community center; the acrid odor of petroleum hangs in the humid air.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Ajmi's family members, like many other Kuwaitis, fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia. When they returned two years later, Ajmi dropped out of school. He was 14 and had made it only through eighth grade.
He began working as a security guard at a technical school but quit after a few months. He preferred a life of indolence. "He was a quiet, peaceful and fun-loving kid," his elder brother Ahmed recalled.
By the time Ajmi was 19, however, he decided he needed a job. Lacking the education for professional employment, he joined the Kuwaiti army. He learned how to use an M-16 rifle and an M-60 machine gun. He eventually was assigned to a unit called the Prince's Guard, which was stationed in the town of Subhan, near Kuwait International Airport.
Ajmi soon began attending Subhan's main mosque, an imposing two-story structure surrounded by a large courtyard and a series of outbuildings. Although it receives government money -- a sign proclaims that a new addition to the complex is funded by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments -- the mosque is known among Kuwaitis as a hotbed of radicalism. Sermons dwell on the oppression of Muslims and include exhortations to participate in jihad.
According to a two-page investigative summary prepared by the U.S. government, Ajmi took a leave of absence from the army to travel to Pakistan in January 2001. He was motivated to go by a fatwa, issued over the Internet by a Saudi sheik and posted at the Subhan mosque, that called for jihad against the Russians in Chechnya.
When he got to Pakistan, he discovered that there was no way to travel from there to Chechnya. After two weeks, he returned to Kuwait.
Two months later, a friend in the Kuwaiti military distributed another fatwa in the Subhan mosque. This one called for Muslims to fight against Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, which was battling the Taliban in Afghanistan.
On March 26, Ajmi left Kuwait for Pakistan. Before leaving, he called his mother. "I'm going for jihad," he said, according to his brother Ahmed. "Count me as a martyr for God."
Ahmed said their mother yelled at him. He hung up on her.
After his brother left, Ahmed said, he went to the Subhan mosque to inquire about his whereabouts. "They told me, 'We taught your brother the right things. We set him on the right path.' "
When Ajmi arrived at the Islamabad airport, the investigative summary says, he was approached by a man named Mawla Rifqat, who asked him whether he had come to Pakistan for prayer or jihad. Ajmi said he was there for jihad. Rifqat then took him on a bus to Peshawar. During the trip, Rifqat told Ajmi that he had fought with the Afghan mujaheddin against the Soviets in the 1980s.
From Peshawar, the two men took a car to North Waziristan, where Rifqat handed Ajmi over to four men from Afghanistan who were escorting a group of Pakistanis to join the Taliban. They drove to Khost, and then to Kabul, where they changed cars and continued north toward Bagram, the front line between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.
Ajmi was issued an AK-47, ammunition and grenades and assigned to a defensive position against the Northern Alliance. The Taliban burned his passport, the investigative summary says, and he was told he would be killed if he tried to leave.
In the months he spent there, according to the summary, Ajmi "fired his weapon only one time when he heard movement one night near his position. He does not know if he killed anyone. Most of the fighting was on his flanks."
When the Northern Alliance advanced on Kabul in November 2001, he was dispatched east to Jalalabad, where Afghans seized his weapons, according to the summary. He walked in the direction of the Tora Bora mountains with a group of fellow Arabs and decamped in a village north of the area being bombarded by the U.S. military. After two weeks, he crossed into Pakistan, where security forces arrested him.
The Pakistanis soon handed him over to the Americans. It is unclear whether the United States paid a bounty for him, although doing so was common practice at the time.
The penultimate paragraph of the investigative summary states that Ajmi "never met anyone with Al Qaeda."
As Wilner learned more about Ajmi's story, he became convinced that he never should have been sent to Guantanamo. "This was a kid who could be nothing more than a lowly foot soldier. He was clearly not a leader or a planner or anything else like that," the lawyer said. "He struck me as one of the least dangerous people I'd seen at Gitmo."'A Hostile, Hardened Individual'
The next time Wilner went to Guantanamo, Ajmi had a cast on his right arm. A few days earlier, he disobeyed a guard's order -- he had been praying, Ajmi said, and did not want to stop -- so, in the jargon of Guantanamo, he was "IRFed."
The Immediate Reaction Force, a team of soldiers clad in riot gear and armed with truncheons, stormed into his cell and pinned him to the floor, he told Wilner. His arm was broken in the melee, and he was back in solitary confinement.
Wilner tried to talk to Ajmi about his upcoming administrative review board hearing -- the Guantanamo equivalent of a parole board meeting -- saying it would give him an opportunity to tell the truth about what he was doing before his capture. But Ajmi wasn't interested. He wanted to talk about how he was being treated at Guantanamo, about the IRFing, about how the guards rifled through his papers.
Wilner urged him to focus on legal issues. If he wanted Shearman to keep representing him, he needed to sign a form to that effect. If he did not sign, Wilner said, he would not be able to see him anymore.
Ajmi tried to change the subject again. Wilner's interpreter, a young Egyptian American man, interjected. "This guy is just trying to help you," he said. "Can't you address him?"
Ajmi glowered. He bared his teeth. Then he threw a cup of hot tea in the interpreter's face.
Wilner ended the session, but he soon forgave Ajmi. The detainee's hostility, he believed, was a result of mental deterioration caused by his confinement at Guantanamo.
Wilner does not believe Ajmi was subjected to the harshest interrogation tactics. But he thinks his condition was the result of the cumulative impact of detention in a place where prisoners are never told how long they will be held captive, where family visits are prohibited, where letters from home often are heavily redacted, and where blankets and books are deemed luxury items that can be confiscated at the slightest infraction.
In Wilner's view, Ajmi's initial misbehavior may have accelerated his downward spiral because of the punishment it elicited. He was placed in isolation, with all of his meager personal effects removed, provoking more anger and more misconduct, which was in turn punished with more time in the detention blocks.
"Guantanamo took a kid -- a kid who wasn't all that bad -- and it turned him into a hostile, hardened individual," Wilner said.
Despite Ajmi's protestations of innocence and the investigative summary that noted he had not met anyone with al-Qaeda, the military seemed to be convinced he was a terrorist.
A week after the tea incident, Ajmi was brought in front of the administrative review board. The three military officers -- their names have been blacked out from publicly released transcripts -- had the power to determine whether he should remain at Guantanamo or be released. Another unnamed officer, who held the title of "assisting military officer," played the part of prosecutor.
Assisting Military Officer: In August of 2004, Al Ajmi wanted to make sure that when the case went in front of the tribunal, that the tribunal members know that he is now a jihadist, an enemy combatant and that he would kill as many Americans as he possible [sic] can.
Detainee: That is impossible that I would say such a thing. How could I fight the Americans? They were with me in the military in Kuwait. I would've fought them in Kuwait, not here. . . .
Assisting Military Officer: Upon arrival at the Guantanamo detention facility, Al Ajmi has been constantly in trouble. Al Ajmi's overall behavior has been aggressive and non-compliant and [he] has resided in the disciplinary blocks throughout his detention.
Detainee: Yes, I never did any harm to anybody. Yes, it is true that they put me in a different block but only because I wanted to tell my voice to the people. I didn't have a lawyer to defend me. I didn't have anybody to defend me. . . .
Assisting Military Officer: Based upon a review of the recommendations from the United States agencies and classified and unclassified documents, Al Ajmi is regarded as a continued threat to the United States and its allies.
Detainee: You are the judge and the president. You are everything here. You can do whatever you wish. I never meant harm to anybody. I never attacked anybody. I don't have a grudge against the Americans. . . .
The board refused to release him.'I'm Falling Off a Cliff'
Ajmi's next meeting with Wilner, in mid-February 2005, was far more amicable. Wilmer brought him a video from his family. Ajmi conveyed his complaints politely: The guards had taken away his blanket for talking to other prisoners; the guards watch him when he uses the toilet; the guards seized everything in his cell and stripped him of his clothes, leaving him dressed only in shorts.
"It's always the detainee's fault," he told Wilner.
Wilner told Ajmi he would file a complaint in federal court in Washington. He asked Ajmi to make a declaration.
Sometimes the guards turn the temperature so hot that you cannot wear a shirt. Sometimes they turn it so cold that is like the North Pole and they take your blanket away. At the beginning I was very badly beaten by U.S. soldiers and guards. . . . But the worst torture to me is that the guards make fun of my religion and dishonor the Koran.
The next time Wilner met Ajmi, he dispensed what he called fatherly advice: "Abdallah, don't let them get your goat. Control yourself. Realize that maybe this is a lesson in life -- there's a lesson to see how well you can react to the harshness and unfairness."
Ajmi thanked Wilner. "That is so wise," he said. "I will try to do this."
But by the next session, in May 2005, Ajmi was in trouble again. A few weeks earlier, he grabbed a guard's microphone. It was tied into the camp's public-address system. "This is General al-Ajmi and I'm in control now," he announced. "Everyone is going free."
Ajmi was sent to an isolation cell. He lost access to books, to a pen and paper, to his blanket. He told his lawyers that he was being forced to take medication. A relaxant, he said. If he didn't swallow the pills, he'd be punished.
"I feel like I'm falling off a cliff," he told a member of the Shearman team.
A month later, his behavior was combative again -- and it would remain that way during every successive session. Instead of sitting across a table from Wilner, Ajmi was placed behind a plexiglass screen. Guards told Wilner that it was for his protection. Ajmi had developed a propensity for hurling his feces and urine.
In October 2005, Wilner finally came bearing good news.
"They're going to release you," he said.
Ajmi responded by cursing at his attorney.
The decision to release Ajmi, as opposed to other Kuwaitis who had not been in trouble at Guantanamo, surprised Wilner. Although he knew that the U.S. and Kuwaiti governments had agreed on terms of a prisoner transfer -- the Kuwaitis had promised to treat the detainees humanely, to monitor them if they were released from custody and to share information about them with the United States -- the U.S. military has never explained why Ajmi and four other Kuwaitis were freed, and why six others were still being held. (One Kuwaiti was released in January 2005.)
To Wilner, the process seemed completely arbitrary.
Less than a week before Ajmi would be transferred home, Wilner sat in front of his computer and drafted an e-mail to the Kuwaiti man who served as an interlocutor between the government there and the families of the detainees. He attached the letters he had received from Ajmi, the one to the "learned attorney Tom" and the one to "the vile, depraved Thomas."
"These letters," Wilner wrote, "make clear that he needs help."
On Nov. 3, 2005, Ajmi was handed over to Kuwaiti security agents for the 14-hour flight home from Cuba.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.