Who’s Who at Guantanamo Bay

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 18

America’s slippery road into international legal limbo began on November 13, 2001 – the day Northern Alliance troops captured Kabul from Taliban forces. That same day, George W. Bush issued a presidential directive, “Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism.” Directing the Secretary of Defense to “take all necessary measures to ensure that any individual subject to this order is detained in accordance with section 3,” the order allows for individuals to be “detained at an appropriate location designated by the Secretary of Defense outside or within the United States.”

On January 11, 2002, the first 20 blindfolded, manacled men in orange jumpsuits were offloaded from a C-141 transport plane in Cuba after a 15-hour flight from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Other flights soon followed, eventually filling the hastily-prepared facility, Camp X-Ray, at Guantanamo Bay, with nearly 700 men. The American contractors Brown and Root Services, a subsidiary of Haliburton, built Camp Delta in Cuba under a $9.7 million contract to replace Camp X-Ray shortly thereafter.

For the last two-and-a-half years, these suspected terrorists have sat in a legal limbo, as the Bush administration argued that they were not subject to the provisions of the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners of war. The holding facilities at Guantanamo have been a magnet for fierce criticism both in the U.S. and around the world as an abrogation of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution; even the U.S.’s closest European ally, Britain, complained about the treatment of its nationals incarcerated in Cuba. Only belatedly has the Bush administration realized that its treatment of captive “detainees” is a potential liability.

Who’s Who in Guantanamo

The U.S. dragnet captured a number of big fish, like Haji Naim Kuchai Mulla (Pushtun leader of Ahmadzai tribe), Mulla Abdus Salam Zaeef (Taliban ambassador to Pakistan), Fazel Mazloom (Taliban army’s former chief of staff), Nurullah Nuri (former governor of northern Afghanistan) Mullah Mohammad Fazel (Taliban deputy defense minister) and Mulla Khairullah Khairkhwa (Taliban governor in Herat). It also picked up the less fortunate, like Wazir Mohammad, a taxicab driver, whose case is supported by Amnesty International.

As the prisoners began filling Camp X-Ray, their numbers and movements were considered classified information by the Department of Defense. Individual names and countries of origin were similarly classified. When the story broke, however, the statistical breakdown was intriguing. Research revealed that at least 160 of the 650 detainees (nearly a quarter) held at the time at Guantanamo were from Saudi Arabia. The magnitude of the Saudi presence in Camp Delta raises troubling questions about Saudis in Afghanistan and whether U.S. forces succeeded in capturing more than a fraction of those who might have been there.

Yemen was the second highest nationality with 85 detainees, followed by Pakistan with 82. Afghans were the fourth largest nationality with 80 detainees, followed by Jordan and Egypt, with 30 citizens apiece incarcerated in Guantanamo. Nor were the prisoners solely from the middle or lower classes; according to Najeeb al-Nauimi, former Qatari Minister of Justice with the power of attorney over 100 prisoners, a member of the Bahraini royal family is among those detained.

In a more startling development, military authorities determined that one of the prisoners, Yaser Esam Hamdi, was in fact an American citizen of Saudi descent born in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After discovering his nationality, the Defense Department flew Hamdi to Washington in April 2002 – in the hopes of transferring to custody of the Department of Justice. While on the runway in Washington, Justice Department officials asked for Hamdi’s file, only to be informed there was none. Justice Department officials stated they could not take custody of Hamdi without documentation and would have to release him, so Hamdi was subsequently transferred to the Navy brig in Norfolk, Virginia.

The Pentagon’s own list of nationalities detained in Cuba were regarded as potentially flawed by those involved. Yemeni Embassy deputy chief of communication Yahya al-Shawkani said earlier this year that his government cited domestic reports that more than twice as many Yemenis were held as the Department of Defense has told the Yemeni government. Meanwhile, a number of detainees have remained steadfastly uncooperative; according to a government source speaking on condition of anonymity, one prisoner for over two years when asked about his name has repeatedly replied “Mickey Mouse.”

Camp Delta and Beyond

Though the detention facility at Guantanamo is the most well known, suspected terrorists are detained by U.S. forces at a number of points worldwide, including the British territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Bagram air force base outside Kabul. Other terrorist suspects are handed to “friendly” governments such as Egypt and Jordan for questioning by more forceful means. But Camp Delta has attracted the most media attention and international protest.

The “detainee” population in Camp Delta is truly diverse; Morocco, site of an al-Qaeda attack on a synagogue in April 2002 that killed 21 people, has 18 of its citizens incarcerated there. Algeria, currently in the throes of a violent conflict between Muslim fundamentalists and the government, had nearly 20 citizens in Cuba. Emphasizing the cosmopolitan nature of the camp, six Algerians were arrested in Sarajevo in January 2002, far from Afghanistan.

Kuwait, liberated from Saddam Hussein by Operation Desert Storm in 1991, has 12 detainees in Camp Delta; the Kuwaiti government insists that all of its citizen were involved in charity and relief work. China also has at least 12 of its citizens there, although they are all identified as ethnic Uighurs rather than Han Chinese. Tajikistan and Turkey have 11 citizens each. Nine British citizens of Muslim background were originally at Camp Delta; five were released earlier this year. They have proven to be a political liability for Prime Minister Tony Blair, as calls have been made in Parliament for the remaining four’s repatriation.

Both Tunisia and Russia had eight of their nationals incarcerated in Camp Delta. A Russian embassy spokesman was careful to point out, however, that the eight Russian citizens are not ethnic Russians. Rustam Akmerov, Ravil Gumarov, Timur Ishmuradov, Shamil Khadzhiev (originally identified as Almaz Sharipov), Rasul Kudaev, Ravil Mingazov, Ruslan Odigov and Airat Vakhitov are members of Russia’s Muslim community. The Russian embassy pursued negotiations with Washington to extradite its citizens, eventually securing their transfer. After a brief period of detention back in Russia, the eight were quietly released.

Among the seven detained Bahrainis is Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, a member of the royal family. Khalifa is the son of Sheikh Ibrahim bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, chairman of the Bahrain German Entertainment Projects Co. and a distant cousin of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Sheik Ibrahim said that an unspecified party had received $20,000 for handing over his son, who had gone to Pakistan to do charity work.

France also has seven citizens detained in Guantanamo, though it was only earlier this year that its seventh national was discovered at Camp Delta. Kazakhstan has been quietly lobbying Washington for the return of its four citizens, as have Australia and Canada. Australian David Hicks is one of the most high profile prisoners in Camp Delta; a convert to Islam, Hicks allegedly fought as a jihadi in the Balkans before shipping out to Afghanistan.

There are reportedly at least two Chechens, two Uzbeks and two Syrians in Camp Delta. The Syrian detainees especially interest U.S. intelligence, as Air Force translator Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi has been charged with trying to pass messages from the prisoners to Syria.

There are also two Georgian and two Sudanese nationals (one later freed) in detention at Camp Delta, while Bangladesh, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, Germany, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Qatar, Spain and Sweden each have a single citizen in the facility. While many assume that Camp Delta holds exclusively those picked up either on the battlefield or in Pakistan, such is not the case. Camp Delta also holds seven Arab men handed over to U.S. authorities in Bosnia, as well as five individuals arrested in Malawi last summer.

In its quest for information from the captives, the U.S. administration has even recruited spies. Canadian Abdurahman Khadr, who was released from the Guantanamo detention center late last year said that he was recruited to work for the U.S. military in Afghanistan and later the CIA, who used him as a mole in Camp Delta. Khadr said, “I took the people from the CIA, the FBI, the military. We’d go around in a car in Kabul and show them the houses of al-Qaida people, the guesthouses, the safe houses…I just told them what I knew.” Khadr said he worked for the CIA in Kabul for about nine months until he was told he’d be sent undercover to Camp Delta. Khadr remained there for three months, commenting: “Their hope was when they take me to Cuba they could put me next to anyone that was stubborn and that wouldn’t talk and, you know, I would talk him into it. Well, it’s not that easy, first thing, because lots of people won’t talk to anyone because everybody in Cuba is scared of the person next to him. I couldn’t do a lot for them.”

Capture and Release

On January 28, 2002, a week after the first batch of detainees arrived from Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated, “They are bad guys. They are the worst of the worst, and if let out on the street, they will go back to the proclivity of trying to kill Americans and others.” In 2004, perhaps feeling the pressure of the upcoming presidential election, the Bush administration has discreetly been trying to downsize the prisoner population in Cuba by releasing foreign nationals to their home countries on the proviso that their home government continue their detention.

Washington has also come under increasing pressure from its allies to release prisoners. On September 18, Washington transferred 35 Pakistani prisoners from Camp Delta to Pakistan. Islamabad asserted that after an earlier release of 29 inmates, Camp Delta held only 38 Pakistanis, purportedly leaving only three at Camp Delta. Under its arrangement with the U.S., six of those liberated were arrested upon their return to Pakistan for further investigation. According to a Pakistani journalist speaking on condition of anonymity, Pakistani President Pervez Musharaf, currently in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, will quietly transfer to U.S. custody a number of terrorist suspects picked up during recent Pakistani army operations in south Waziristan.

Releases have been haphazard and furtive; in February 2004 three teenagers were released, while another 87 detainees were transferred pending release. Four detainees were also give into Saudi custody, to continue their imprisonment in Saudi Arabia.

But not all the releases have gone smoothly. Mulla Shehzada, captured in late 2001 was sent to Guantanamo. Despite having been a former deputy to Taliban army chief Mullah Fazal Mazloom, Shehzada convinced his U.S. interrogators of his innocence, and he was released along with 15 other Afghans last summer. Returned to Afghanistan, Shehzada quickly resumed his attacks against coalition forces. Last October Shehzada masterminded a jailbreak in Kandahar where 41 Taliban prisoners burrowed under prison walls with help from bribed guards. Taliban spokesman Hamid Agha said of Shehzada’s activities, “Once a Taliban, always a Taliban. Now he wants revenge.” Shezada was subsequently killed in U.S. raid in late May 2004.


At the end of the day, Camp Delta has proven to be a self-inflicted public relations wound for the Bush administration. The intelligence value of most of the prisoners has greatly diminished, as in many cases they have been held for nearly three years. Even close allies such as Britain, Russia and Pakistan have been alienated by the highhandedness of the U.S. Policy, and face growing domestic political pressure to rescue their nationals from Guantanamo. These legal machinations have taken yet another turn as military tribunals for some of the detainees have begun.

The question of Guantanamo’s future is unclear; while the military tribunals are certain to infuriate allies, the release program cannot simply let the nearly 700 men go, as it would be too much of an admission of the whole exercise being a mistake. The only certainty about Guantanamo is that the majority of the men held there will remain “detainees” for the foreseeable future.