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Letters from Gitmo By: David Frum
AEI.org | Tuesday, November 14, 2006


The 430 prisoners in the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay send and receive 44,000 pieces of mail per year. Lawyers fly in and out on the commercial flights from Miami to the U.S. base to meet with their clients. The International Red Cross inspects the camp and interviews prisoners.

And yet the idea persists that Guantanamo represents some kind of "American Gulag"--and that the detainees are victims of a monstrous miscarriage of justice: innocent goatherds and blameless wedding guests swept up by blind American injustice.

Ten days ago, I joined one of the regular tours of Guantanamo organized by the U.S. military. Hundreds of U.S. and international journalists, human rights experts, and parliamentarians had taken this trip before me. (You can read a four-part description of the visit in the next four issues of the Toronto Sun, in articles and photographs by Peter Worthington, who travelled with me.)

Here in this shorter space, I want to focus on something else: the words of the detainees themselves, as posted in 53 PDF volumes at
http://www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/detainees/csrt/index.html.

These statements are excerpted from the testimony of detainees before military tribunals. The evidence against the detainees in many cases remains classified, but you can read the protestations of innocence in full--and determine their credibility for yourself.

Some selections from my own still incomplete reading (citations will be posted Monday at
frum.nationalreview.com):

  • One detainee, a Kuwaiti national named as an al-Qaeda operative on a seized al-Qaeda hard drive, was captured as he tried to flee from Afghanistan into Iran. He insisted that he had no association with any terrorist organization. What then had brought him to Afghanistan? His answer: He had donated 750 Kuwaiti dinars ("not a lot of money" he added) to an Islamic charity to dig wells in Afghanistan--and had decided to travel from Kuwait to see that his money was properly spent.
  • Another detainee, a Yemeni, explained that he had come to Pakistan to study medicine at a university. Unfortunately, the particular university he had selected lacked any medical faculty. He ended up instead studying the Koran in a student guesthouse--and when one of his housemates suggested they take a sightseeing tour of Afghanistan, he agreed to go along. The housemate's name? He had forgotten it.
  • A detainee identified by eyewitnesses as a Taliban military judge, who inflicted hideous punishments on hundreds of accused, explained to the tribunal that he was in fact only a humble chicken farmer. The question, "What did you feed your chickens?" baffled this detainee. He answered: "A mixture of foods they sell in the bazaar" (perhaps at the Afghan equivalent of Petco).
  • One detainee was apprehended in possession of a military identity card that named him as a member of an especially vicious Taliban militia. He explained that it was not his own card. It belonged to a friend who had asked him to hold it for him.
  • A Saudi mechanic said that he had journeyed to Afghanistan because someone had persuaded him that it was the ideal place to complete his religious education. Who was this person? "I don't know."
  • An Afghan detainee intercepted at the Pakistan border carrying a satellite phone, thousands of dollars in cash, without identity papers and riding alongside a noted al-Qaeda explosives expert, explained that he had not realized he needed identity papers to cross the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • A former Egyptian army officer acknowledged that he had undergone training in Afghanistan at a camp run by the Kashmiri group, Lashkar-i-Taibi (LiT). However, he said, he had been listening to the BBC in February 2001 and heard an announcer describe LiT as a terrorist organization. After that, he said, he quit the group and had never had anything to do with them again. How had he supported himself in Afghanistan over the following year? He had, he said, relied on charity from his fellow Muslims.
  • A young Tajiki told the tribunal that he had attended a training camp at the suggestion of a man he met on a train. He did not know the man's name. But he had never had any weapons training: He had spent his time carrying firewood.
  • A Saudi detainee, confronted with evidence that he had traveled to Bosnia in the mid-1990s, then to Sudan, then to Afghanistan, explained that he had devoted himself exclusively to the construction of mosques. But had his travel not been paid by al Haramain, a well-known front group for al-Qaeda? He knew nothing about that. "If al Haramain is a terrorist organization, why is it my problem? Am I guilty if they are terrorists?"

Or, in the words of that Yemeni would-be medical student without a medical school: "What is the meaning of 'terrorist'? I don't even know what that word is."

That's his story, and he's sticking to it.

But what's the excuse of those in the West who succumb so easily to the deceptions of terrorists who cannot invent even half-way plausible lies?

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David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and writes a daily column for National Review Online.


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