AFTER GUANTANAMO | Anger Turns to Action
A 'Ticking Time Bomb' Goes Off
Monday, February 23, 2009
KUWAIT CITY -- After arriving here from Guantanamo Bay in November 2005, Abdallah Saleh al-Ajmi was transported by Kuwaiti security agents to a military hospital, where he was allowed to meet with his family. He was soon moved to the city's central jail and placed in a high-security wing.
Every few days, he was taken to a small interrogation room, this time by officials of his own government who wanted to know what he had been doing in Afghanistan. Ajmi insisted that he never traveled to Afghanistan, that he never fought with the Taliban -- that he had simply gone to Pakistan to study the Koran and that he was apprehended when he traveled toward the Afghan border to help refugees. He kept trying to steer the sessions toward a discussion of his nearly four years at Guantanamo and what had happened to him there.
After four months, a judge ordered him freed on $1,720 bail. He was later tried in a criminal court and acquitted of all charges.
Senior U.S. government officials were deeply disappointed -- they had hoped that Kuwait, an American ally, would find a way to detain Ajmi for years -- but they refrained from any public criticism. At the very least, the officials figured, Kuwaiti authorities would keep a close watch on him. And they expected Ajmi to move on, to put his Guantanamo experience behind him, to get a job and settle down after his time in one of the toughest prisons on the planet.
Ajmi chose a different path. Last March, he drove a truck packed with explosives onto an Iraqi army base outside Mosul, killing 13 Iraqi soldiers and himself. It was the denouement of a nihilistic descent that his lawyers and family believe commenced at Guantanamo.
His case illuminates a key challenge facing the Obama administration as it considers how to close the U.S. military prison and resolve the futures of the approximately 245 incarcerated there. Once detainees are sent home, even to friendly nations, the United States has very little influence over what happens to them. Convictions are not guaranteed. Neither is surveillance by home countries. And for those allowed to go free, assistance in resuming a normal life is rare.
Although the United States may never say so publicly, it is likely to want more explicit promises from the countries where detainees are repatriated, and the administration will seek the establishment of rehabilitation programs, along the lines of one in Saudi Arabia, that provide former jihadists with jobs, homes and money to pay for dowries.
But there is also a view in some quarters of the U.S. government that cases such as Ajmi's are the inevitable result of locking up 779 foreigners in an austere military prison, without access to courts or consular representation, and subjecting them to interrogation techniques that detainees say amount to torture. Some of them are bound to seek revenge, these officials believe. The challenge is figuring out which ones.
Although U.S. intelligence agencies are monitoring some former Guantanamo detainees, the government lacks the resources to track everyone who has been through the prison. The Defense Intelligence Agency recently stated that as many as 60 other ex-inmates may have "returned to the fight," but it has not released a list of names or specific allegations.
In Ajmi's case, however, his behavior at Guantanamo -- his refusal to obey orders, his repeated throwing of his excrement, his hostility toward his attorneys -- struck his American lawyers as a sign of potential danger. But there is no indication in his court file here, which Kuwaiti legal officials deem a complete repository of the material provided by the United States, that U.S. authorities relayed any concern.
When Ajmi returned to Kuwait, "he was a ticking time bomb," said Mansur Saleh al-Ajmi, one of his younger brothers.
"Before he went to Afghanistan, he was a normal teenager. He spun the car around in circles. He smoked. People liked him," Mansur said. "After he came back from Guantanamo, he seemed like a completely different person. He stared all the time. You could not have a normal conversation with him. . . . It seemed as if his brain had been washed."