Guantánamo's Final Days: America prepares to shutter the infamous prison camp, and jihad looms

Feb 25, 2009 at 4:00 am

The soldiers move through the wheat field, scanning the windswept plain for signs of trouble. There are six of them, dressed in fatigues and body armor, wearing the sunglasses and bushy beards popular among the Special Forces. The only thing they can hear is the rustling of wheat stalks.

They are a few miles outside Ab Khail, a small Afghan hill town near the Pakistani border, deep in Taliban territory. It's a primitive village, a place of crumbling brick hovels, mud-walled huts and open sewers lining the streets. This is one of the first battlefields in America's War on Terror.

Today, the soldiers are looking for an Al-Qaeda explosives maker and Taliban sympathizers. Following GPS coordinates, they leave the field and cross a dirt road before arriving at a crude fort surrounded by mud walls. Inside, a group of bearded men is huddled in the shadows, clutching Kalashnikov rifles.

Those clearly aren't Afghan farmers, thinks Staff Sgt. Layne Morris, a 40-year-old veteran soldier from Salt Lake City and one of the unit's leaders.

Suddenly, shots come from a hole in the compound wall. The soldiers duck. Explosions rock the ground. Morris finds shelter behind a grain silo. After a few moments, he rises to launch a grenade from the M-4 strapped around his neck. The moment he pulls the trigger, something hot and hard slaps him in the eye. He hears a crunching sound in his head as white-hot pain spreads across his face. For a moment he wonders if he is dead.

A piece of shrapnel has hit him in the nose, sliced into his skull and severed an optic nerve. He crawls in the dirt, searching for his rifle, until medics pull him behind the silo to stanch the blood gushing from his face. The fighting rages for almost an hour.

When the gunfire finally stops, five soldiers charge into the compound. They find two Al-Qaeda fighters under the rubble, their bodies badly burned and cloaked in dust. One has two gunshot wounds in his chest; he wears a pistol in a holster, and an AK-47 lies by his side.

Then a moaning sound comes from the back of the compound. The dust stirs, obscuring a child-size body. One of the Americans fires two rounds into the figure.

When the soldiers approach, they can see this is no hardened Al-Qaeda foot soldier. His face is soft and free of stubble. His wrists are thin and his knees bony. No more than a boy, he is covered in soot and bleeding from shrapnel lodged in his chest. Two bullets have pierced his back.

After two American medics work to revive him, he moves his arms and legs and then looks up. "Kill me," he whispers in English. "Please kill me."

The soldiers refuse.

Today, more than six years later, the skinny fifteen-year-old who lay dying in the dust has become one of the most famous and controversial figures in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. His name is Omar Khadr, and he is the only Westerner held at the prison camp just across the Florida Straits from Miami.

Now 22, he is also its youngest detainee, accused of throwing the grenades that wounded Morris and killed Army medic Christopher Speer in that 2002 firefight. Though Khadr's trial at the camp was recently suspended, he stands to become the first child soldier tried by the United States. After years of torture and isolation, he is both a symbol of America's many mistakes in the War on Terror and a breathing example of the reason for the camp's existence.

Village Voice Media was inside the Guantánamo Bay camps for both Khadr's January 20 hearing, likely the last one to be held in Cuba, and President Obama's order the next day to close the place. Cases like the child soldier's represent perhaps the new president's most difficult challenge: what to do with the men — now further radicalized by torture — who would almost certainly threaten Americans everywhere if released.

The danger is real. Just a few weeks ago, Saudi Arabian officials acknowledged that eleven men released from Guantánamo are now on the kingdom's most wanted list because of alleged Al-Qaeda connections. And this past December, the Pentagon reported 61 former detainees have re-engaged in terrorist activities. Among the attacks they might have carried out are the destruction of a natural-gas pipeline in Chechnya and the bombing of an Islamabad Marriott hotel.

"We can't just let them go, and if we do, there's going to be blood on somebody's hands when they turn around and attack us again," says Morris, who lost his right eye in the firefight with Khadr. "Most of them down there are hardcore, admitted terrorists. Their loyalty is to a cause, and for that simple fact alone, they are a threat to Western society."

Omar Khadr's life and lineage epitomize that of a radical Muslim terrorist. He was born in Toronto in 1986, the fourth of seven children. In his first few years, the family lived with his mother's parents in Scarborough, a dreary working-class suburb of Toronto defined by strip malls crammed with halal butcher shops and Pakistani travel agencies. His father, Ahmed — a broad-faced man with a heavy brow, thick neck and long, scraggly beard — told his children he didn't want to die an old man in bed. "If you love me," he said, "pray that I get martyred."

When Omar was just a toddler, his father quit a job as an engineer and moved the family to Peshawar, Pakistan, to join thousands of other radical Muslims, including Osama bin Laden, in the battle against the Soviets. Once there, Ahmed took charge of a Canadian charity that allegedly funneled money to Al-Qaeda. He also ran schools for children who were reportedly taught a radical version of Islam.

In 1992, Ahmed stepped on a land mine and was injured so badly he was evacuated to Toronto. For a time the family lived off donations from area mosques, eventually squeezing into a humble flat in a rundown rooming house on the city's west end.

Omar was still in many ways a regular kid. He loved Nintendo, the Bruce Willis movie Die Hard and junk food. He played basketball and cricket in an alley with his brothers and friends from the local mosque. He could also be a cutup: His sister Zaynab told the National Post he often impersonated Captain Haddock, the stuttering character from the Belgian comic book series Tintin. "Buh-buh-billions of bl-bl-blistering bl-bl-blue barnacles!" he would say. "Ten thousand thuh-thuh-thundering typhoons."

Around his father Omar was different, always bowing his head as a show of respect.

By 1993, Ahmed had healed sufficiently to return with his family to Pakistan. Not long after arriving, the elder Khadr allegedly began plotting with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, to blow up the Egyptian embassy. The November 19, 1995, bombing killed 16 and wounded 60. Ahmed was arrested and sent to prison. He went on a hunger strike, protesting his innocence, and was transferred to a hospital in Islamabad. Omar, who was nine years old at the time, didn't leave his father's side, often sleeping under the man's bed on the concrete floor.

But the Canadian government lobbied for Ahmed's release, and soon the family was living in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden. Not yet twelve years old, Omar joined two of his older brothers at an Al-Qaeda training camp, where they were taught to fire Kalashnikovs and build bombs. "[We learned] why we are fighting America... why being a suicide bomber is an honor, why it's a right religiously," Omar's brother Abdurahman told CNN.

The Pentagon claims to have surveillance video that shows Omar planting a bomb on a road frequently traveled by U.S. troops. "That kid became radicalized," says Khadr's former imam. "It's impossible to go through the experiences he went through and not be affected by them."

When Khadr was captured in the July 2002 firefight that wounded Layne Morris, he was near death. Medics rushed him to the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and a few months later, he was dressed in an orange jumpsuit, hogtied and placed on a C-130 transport headed for Guantánamo. He arrived shackled and hooded, unsure of where he was. "Welcome to Israel," a guard told him.

From the air Guantánamo Bay is a shimmering body of water knifing toward a jagged ridge of bluish hills on the rugged southern coast of Cuba. The U.S. naval base is 45 square miles of unsettling paradoxes. For more than a century, since Teddy Roosevelt's days, the United States has held this fortress under an indefinite lease in the dominion of its sworn enemy. The place served as a refueling station during World War II and a primary target during the Cuban missile crisis. In 1995, when Fidel Castro encouraged discontented Cubans to leave, thousands were warehoused here before entering the United States.

The Bush administration began using it as a modern-day gulag in January 2002, just four months after the Twin Towers fell in New York. The first camp, called X-Ray for its coordinates on a military map, is now in decay, surrounded by razor wire. It sits in a remote, low-lying valley, a rusting ring of cages covered with weeds and vines. A half-dozen hastily built plywood interrogation rooms stand nearby, the site of some of Guantánamo's earliest atrocities.

The heart of the naval base provides a stark contrast. Officers live in brand-new townhouses on winding streets that wouldn't be out of place in suburban Las Vegas. They eat lunch at McDonald's and Taco Bell and drink Red Stripe beer at a bar tended by cheerful Jamaicans in floral-print shirts. Suntanned lawyers spend afternoons playing on the base's Frisbee golf course and puffing away on cigars.

"I would bet my boots that when the American public thinks of Guantánamo, they think of these pumped-up Taliban warriors," says Khadr's lawyer, Dennis Edney. "In reality, in the first few years Omar was there, it was a house of horrors. It was a place where Omar was taken from death and back."

Omar Khadr's arrival at Guantánamo in October 2002 coincided with a fundamental shift in the War on Terror. In the ten months the camp had been open to "unlawful enemy combatants," the military had learned little about Al-Qaeda's inner workings. So officers began employing techniques that included sensory deprivation, waterboarding and degrading humiliation.

Shortly after his arrival, Khadr was taken to an interrogation room, where his arms were pulled behind his back and cuffed to his legs, straining his sockets until he was near delirium, according to the boy's sworn affidavit. He claims he was then forced onto his knees with his wrists cuffed to his ankles. This lasted so long that the sixteen-year-old urinated on himself. When the military police returned, he contends, they doused him with Pine-Sol and used him as a human mop to clean up the mess. He was then carried back to his cell, where he was left for two days.

Despite these tactics little intelligence came from the prison camp, CIA sources told author Jane Mayer for her 2008 book, The Dark Side. So the CIA sent an intelligence analyst to Guantánamo. He interviewed about two dozen detainees and concluded about a third of the camp's population had no connection to terrorism.

Mahvish Khan, then a University of Miami law student, found something similar when she began visiting the camp as a translator. The child of Afghan immigrant parents who had gone on to become doctors, she had grown up in a conservative Muslim home in Michigan.

Khan says she expected to find members of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Instead, the first detainee she met was a pediatrician who had worked to establish democracy in Afghanistan and then fled to Syria when the Taliban took over. The second man was an 80-year-old paraplegic who had been bedridden for fifteen years. Bounty hunters had delivered both of them. "Most of the people were there because they were turned in for money, or because there was some sort of tribal feud," she says. "I saw UN workers, people who had built girls' schools, who had been prosecuted by the well as businessmen who debtors [turned in]."

In summer 2004, two years after Khadr's arrival, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Bush administration could not hold prisoners indefinitely without charges. Detainees had the right to try their cases in federal court. In response, camp authorities quietly released 114 detainees by the end of the year. Virtually none had seen the evidence against them. In June 2006, the Supreme Court suspended the tribunals for three months until Congress officially authorized them.

For Khadr nothing changed. He continually wrote letters home, promising his mother that Allah would protect them. In an interview with the CBC, his mother, dressed in a black burqa that covered everything but her eyes, said she would be happy to see her son die a martyr. She also admitted that when the planes hit the World Trade Center, her first thought was, "Let them have it." As for the American medic Khadr reportedly killed with a grenade in 2002, his sister Zaynab was unapologetic. "Big deal," she said with a shrug.

It's an early January morning at Guantánamo. Young soldiers with cropped hair jog along the streets in the gray light of dawn, their T-shirts drenched in sweat from the thick tropical air. As they run single file, a car passes on the winding street, headed to the mess hall up the road. Classic rock broadcast from one of two military-controlled radio stations drifts from the window.

A few miles away, down on the waterfront, prisoners rise for morning prayer. They kneel and recite Koranic verses. Later, they wash their white uniforms and hang them on chainlink fences to dry.

Across the camp Omar Khadr sits slumped over a defense table in a convincing replica of a U.S. courtroom. He is no longer the frail, clean-shaven teenager who begged Army soldiers to kill him. He scratches a thick beard and rubs his left eye, blinded all of those years ago by American shrapnel. His lanky, six-foot-one-inch frame stretches a white prison uniform, and his face is slack with boredom.

For six and a half years, through torture and isolation, he has awaited his day in court. Next door to the multimillion-dollar courthouse hosting Khadr's hearing, inside a double-wide trailer tucked into the corner of a cavernous, dusty hangar, a reporter watches the proceedings on a flat-screen mounted on the wall. It's as close as the Pentagon allows the media.

A Navy lawyer finishes questioning an FBI agent just after 11 a.m., and the camera shifts to Army Col. Patrick Parrish, who is presiding in a judge's flowing black robes. "Because of the inauguration, then, we're going to recess for the rest of the day. We're going to reconvene tomorrow at 0900," he says. Parrish pauses and clears his throat. "Unless we're told otherwise by the commission."

In that instant the TV set broadcasting Khadr's hearing flips to live coverage of President Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony. Khadr's slumped figure is replaced by the black-robed figures of the U.S. Supreme Court, tromping down the icy stairs of the U.S. Capitol.

With George Bush sitting nearby, Obama repudiates what Guantánamo Bay has come to represent. "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," he says, setting in motion plans to close the camp within a year and throwing Khadr's case into limbo.

The next day, the brass at Guantánamo try to wrap their minds around what has happened. Army Col. Bruce Vargo — the detention camp's top commander — keeps an office inside a fluorescent-lit trailer in the heart of Camp Delta, where the best-behaved prisoners are held. An Ohio native with meaty, pinched features and a booming voice, he seems the perfect officer — in control and unflappable. "Look, we are responsible for the safe, humane, and transparent legal care and custody of these detainees," he says matter-of-factly. "That has not changed, all right?"

Vargo won't talk about conditions prior to his 2007 arrival, but it is obvious much has changed since the early days at Camp X-Ray. Today, detainees live in sterile, modern prison cells that look like maximum-security units in places such as Leavenworth, Kansas, and Florence, Colorado. Inside Camp 6 — the highest-security location other than Camp 7, which is in a secret on-base location that is off-limits to journalists — guards proudly display spartan cells with shatter-proof mirrors and collapsible "suicide-proof" clothing hooks.

Most guards are active-duty soldiers and sailors on two-year assignments. Some of them guide journalists and censor pictures if a snapshot is taken of an empty guard tower or the fence line. Every photo is reviewed and deleted if deemed improper.

Senior Chief Jodi Myers, a perky, well-spoken 41-year-old from Pennsylvania, says prisoners quickly learned of Obama's order to close the camp from their lawyers and word-of-mouth. "They know what's going on; they know the dates and stuff like that," she says, surrounded by empty cells in the common area of an unused block. "The guards maintain a very professional attitude, so we never give [detainees] any information. But they get to read the newspaper."

Jeff MacRay, a heavyset 32-year-old guard from Michigan, says the prisoners are tough to deal with, but uncertainty over the camp's future and the widespread hatred of Guantánamo back home are worse. "It's a difficult occupation," he says softly. "Sometimes, things get misconstrued, and it's frustrating."

Cultural advisers now teach guards about Ramadan, fasting and the importance of daily prayers to Mecca. For inmates there are art classes, a couple of hours of daily rec time, specially prepared halal meals and a library with more than 14,000 books in 22 languages. "We take great pains to respect the religion of these men. Five times a day they get prayer calls, we have respect for their Korans, we have respect for their communal rules," Vargo says. "We've...been continuously working to mature our camps."

The way Vargo sees it, what has been lost in all the handwringing over the treatment of the detainees is why these men are here. He insists no one has been tortured on his watch and disputes the idea that holding them without charges is against international standards — because they're "prisoners of war."

"These guys are bomb-makers, forgers, leaders. You know the list of who is in here, you know the type of acts they've done, so you know what that says about them," Vargo says. "What they will be like in the future, I suppose is up to them. I'd say bomb-makers are pretty dangerous people."

Later that day, in a double-wide trailer across camp, a translator named Zak offers a different perspective. A Jordanian in his 50s, he has a prominent nose, light skin and salt-and-pepper hair. Before moving to Guantánamo in September 2005, he lived in Baghdad, where he risked his life to work as a translator for the U.S. officials who decided which Iraqis to imprison and which to release.

For the past three years, he has been a "cultural adviser," which means he deals with prisoners as well as Guantánamo's commanders. He says the detainees want to know the crimes they're charged with. Are they defendants or war criminals? "You know, it's not important to the detainees whether this place stays open or not," he says. "They're not saying, 'I'm innocent' or 'I'm guilty.' They're saying, 'Define me. Define me. What are they going to do — keep me in jail another ten years? Another five years? Go on, go on,'" he says, his voice rising, "'go on and do something!'"

Toward the end of the day, Village Voice Media visits Camp 5, where Omar Khadr was moved in 2006. Dusty treadmills and half-inflated soccer balls litter the rec yard.

Noticing a reporter, a dark-skinned man rushes to his cell window. He frantically swings a white bath towel. Though a guard in a polo shirt instructs photographers to ignore the man, they walk close enough to see he has pushed two snapshots against the glass. In the first photo, four children surround a man and woman. In another, a couple hugs and looks at the camera.

The inmate bears no resemblance to the man in the photos. He appears desperate or insane — with a wild beard and a shock of black hair. He gazes out with a crazed stare, and the message is obvious: Look at these pictures. This is my family. Tell them I'm alive.

The pantomime continues for five minutes, and when the reporters turn to leave, he waves his towel once more, looks them directly in the eye and gives a thumbs up.

Last June, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered the release of seven and a half hours of previously classified video documenting Omar Khadr's interrogations at Guantánamo in 2003. They are blurry and of poor quality; at times it is difficult to make out any of the prisoner's features. At one point, becoming agitated with his interrogator, Khadr lifts his shirt to show the wounds U.S. troops inflicted during the firefight.

Sobs and the quaking of pale, bony shoulders bear witness to his agony. "I can't move my arms," he says, choking. "I requested medical attention a long time ago, and they didn't do anything about it."

"They look like they're healing well to me," his interrogator is heard saying.

Khadr covers his eyes with his hands and weeps.

No one can say with certainty how the years have affected him, but it is fair to wonder if isolation and torture have made him even more radical.

It was, after all, inside a brutal Egyptian prison where Ayman al-Zawahiri went from devout Muslim to radical jihadist. And it was the torture Khadr's father endured at a prison in Pakistan during the late '90s that first radicalized the young Omar. "It's clear some [inmates] have engaged in violence since their release," says Ken Gude of American Progress, a liberal think tank. "You can't help but worry that some of these detainees will look back on their experience and think ill of the United States."

This past January, two former Guantánamo prisoners, numbers 372 and 333, appeared in a jihadist video produced by Al-Qaeda in Iraq. One of them, Said Ali al-Shahri, is reported to now be a high-ranking Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen. "By Allah, imprisonment only increased our persistence in our principles for which we went out, did jihad and were imprisoned for," al-Shahri says in the video. He had passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before returning to Yemen.

Says Gude: "We may have lost a generation in the Middle East and in the Muslim world who view the United States as a place where torture and indefinite detention occur. It's a real challenge, and it will be a lasting challenge for the U.S. to overcome. We're going to carry this burden for a long time."

Many supporters argue the methods used at Guantánamo and other military prisons holding terrorists were justified. In recent interviews former Vice President Dick Cheney has said waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed directly led the government to capture "a very impressive" list of top Al-Qaeda leaders in 2003.

The future of detainees still at the camp is unclear. Of more than 750 "unlawful enemy combatants" who have been detained at the facility since 2002, about 245 are left. That group includes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief architect of 9/11; Mohammed al-Qahtani, a would-be 9/11 hijacker; and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, Osama bin Laden's personal propagandist.

About 100 of the remaining prisoners are Yemeni, and President Obama would like to send them to their homeland. Another 60 are cleared to leave Guantánamo but have nowhere to go because, at least so far, no country has agreed to accept them. It's likely some will end up in the United States. Another seventeen inmates are ethnic Muslims from China, called Uighurs, and Obama will send them anywhere but China.

That leaves about 60 detainees to be tried, either by federal judges or in a new national security court system modeled after the existing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews FBI requests for wiretaps. It would give the government a place to try detainees outside the public eye, behind closed doors, at the government's leisure.

Many legal experts are opposed to the idea of creating a new court system. "It's always been a farce, this idea that you can't for some reason try these guys in federal court," says Tom Fleener, a former military lawyer who quit in protest last year over Guantánamo's military tribunal system.

But Benjamin Wittes, an adviser to the Justice Department's transition team, argues that while civilian trials for terrorists are the most legitimate, they can also endanger juries and judges. "I'm all for trying terrorists in federal court. Let's figure out who we can try in federal court, and when we get to the end of that list, we'll have a group left over," Wittes says. "Human-rights activists are kidding themselves if they think this is going to be a small group."

Prosecution won't be easy. For instance, top officials have admitted al-Qahtani was tortured. That could call evidence into question. And it'll be difficult to prove that Khadr threw the grenades that blinded Morris and killed Speer. The military's own account of the event leaves some doubt. Another enemy fighter might have lived long enough to have tossed them. But Morris and others maintain Khadr is the only survivor — and thus the only one who can be held responsible.

In any case Khadr's attorney, Canadian Dennis Edney, says Omar can be rehabilitated. Edney describes him as an open-minded young man who likes to read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings books. According to a welfare report conducted by Canadian officials in March 2008, Khadr is a "likeable, funny and intelligent young man" who, despite limited education, six years of detention and no rehabilitation opportunities, demonstrates "remarkable insight and self-awareness." The report concludes Khadr is "salvageable" and "non-radicalized."

"I don't think anyone really has a handle on who he is today," says Michelle Shephard, author of a book about Khadr called Guantánamo's Child. "Before he was captured, he had a close relationship with his family, but we've heard various reports that at one point he had no interest in talking to his family...At one point I heard he was very devout, that he was leading prayers on the prison block; and then there's references [in the welfare report] where he's rather blasé about it.

"The only thing that's certain is that if he's released, he will need a lot of help integrating into society."

Khadr's attorney has a rehabilitation plan already in place. He wants Khadr to move in with him and enroll at nearby King's University College. Edney will also assemble a team of Muslim clerics to help re-educate the young man.

Khadr's family has other plans. His mother recently said the family dreams of starting a farm upon his return. They will raise animals, she says, "far away from the pressure of the media and the pressure of the community who are so confused about our life."

Back in Salt Lake City, Layne Morris isn't buying any of it. He points out that one of Khadr's sisters has publicly advocated jihad and a brother has admitted to smuggling weapons to Al-Qaeda and plotting to kill the Pakistani prime minister. Most recently, Khadr's family showed up at a Toronto courtroom to show solidarity for a terrorist cell accused of planning to use truck bombs to blow up buildings in the city's downtown.

"People have a short attention span, I guess," Morris says. "9/11 was what, seven years ago? And already we forget about what we lost. I'm not complaining. There's so many other guys who made greater sacrifices than I have. Christopher Speer had a wife and two very young children, and that speaks for itself.

"Omar Khadr? People say he's a confused kid, but he knew exactly what he was doing. The way I see it, he should stay in jail for as long as he remains a threat to America."