Twenty years ago today, twenty men were unloaded off a C-141 military transport plane at the US Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. They stumbled off the plane in shackles, having been chained and hooded for the duration of the 20-hour trip from Kandahar, Afghanistan. These were the first of the roughly 800 individuals who have been held in the various prison camps of Guantánamo. Established by the criminal Bush administration, “Gitmo” is one of the most visible edifices of the War on Terror that still is being perpetrated around the globe. Existing outside of the law, and hiding behind the manufactured category of “enemy combatant,” it has allowed the US to indefinitely imprison without trial, and to torture with impunity, anyone that it deems associated with the amorphous category of “terrorist.”
According to the ACLU, 86 percent of all individuals were turned over to the US individuals in Afghanistan on the promise of bounty for “turning in terrorists.” Hundreds of Afghans, Pakistanis, Arabs, and Muslims were rounded up and endured years of torture that has rendered many physically, mentally, emotionally scarred, and severely traumatized. Most of them had no, or only very tenuous connections with the organizations categorized as terrorist by the US government. Of course, a verified connection to such an organization still doesn’t justify extrajudicial internment and torture. But the innocence of most of those who have been brutalized in Guantanmo Bay only underscores the monstrousness of the War on Terror. Even by the US government’s own metrics, it is a brutal failure: of the 800 individuals imprisoned, only eight have been “convicted” by its illegitimate military courts.
Countless books have been written about the crimes of the US government committed at Guantánamo Bay. U.S. And Guantánamo is just one facility in a web of dozens of other military prisons (Bagram, Abu Ghraib, etc.) and CIA black sites where the same unspeakable violence was inflicted on countless others. But there is one story that has always haunted me that depicts the barbarity of the United States. In June of 2006, it was reported that three men imprisoned at Gitmo had committed suicide by hanging themselves in a “suicide pact.” In an abominable display of callousness, the the initial press statement by Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris states that not only was it a suicide but “an act of asymmetrical warfare committed on us” by individuals who “have no regard for human life.” The military twisted three individuals taking their own lives in a six by eight foot cell, half a world away from home into an act of warfare committed against those who were responsible for these conditions. Harris, then commander at Guantánamo, was promoted by Obama to command the Navy’s Pacific Fleet and then made ambassador to South Korea by Trump. He currently sits on the board of L3Harris, a defense contractor.
However, in 2010, a joint Harpers Magazine / NBC news investigative report uncovered that the three men actually had not committed suicide: they had been murdered—probably through torture—and their murder covered up. It appears they were likely asphyxiated through a technique called “dry boarding” by the US military of stuffing rags in their throat while strapped in a chair. When their bodies were repatriated it was found that the U.S. military had removed the parts of their throats that were needed to determine the cause of death. The US took all correspondence from the three deceased men. It would later come to light that two of them were scheduled to be released.
Their names were Ali Abdullah Ahmed (also known as Salah Ahmed al-Salami), Talal al-Zahrani, and Mani Shaman al-Utaybi. Ahmed was Yemeni and al-Zahrani and al-Utaybi were Saudi. Talal al-Zahrani was captured by the US when he was sixteen years old and killed when he was twenty-one, meaning that the period of life that his peers would spend in college he spent being tortured in extrajudicial indefinite imprisonment before he was killed and his throat torn out of his body. Al-Utaybi was 26 when he arrived in Afghanistan—not a child like al-Zahrani, but still a young man. According to his family, he went to Afghanistan for missionary work when he was turned over to the US for a bounty. Like most of Gitmo inmates, he was denied legal representation partially because he was not included on lists of “detainees” because the US kept misspelling his name. Ali Abdullah Ahmed was 22 when he was brought to Gitmo and participated in many hunger strikes. According to the Washington Post acquisition of declassified government documents, the US military’s Criminal Investigation Task Force decided years before Ahmed’s death that he could never be prosecuted for any crime because “there was no credible information” linking Ahmed to a “terrorist” organization. One can only speculate that he remained imprisoned because of his role in hunger strikes and his advocacy for the rights of his fellow inmates.
This story is but one grotesque episode in the litany of horrors of Guantánamo and sites like it around the globe. While Bush initiated the war, Obama professionalized and legalized it. Obama made a campaign promise to close the camp and in 8 years did no such thing. Obama also refused to re-investigate the killing of Ahmed, Al-Utaybi, and Al-Zahrani after the Harpers/NBC report came out. In fact, Obama released fewer individuals from Guantánamo than Bush did. Trump, of course, was Trump. Like Obama, Biden has promised to close the camp, which still holds 40 individuals, and to do so by the end of his term; but so far he has made no movement in that direction.
Of course, shuttering Guantánamo Bay does not even begin to address the crimes that have been committed there by the U.S. government. It would be a beginning to acknowledge those crimes, to offer an official apology, and, most importantly, to pay reparations to the victims and their families. But a full reckoning would require much more, like an end to the War on Terror and US imperialism.
Today, as this dark anniversary today passes, the shadow of US imperialism and the crimes of the War on Terror are still being committed and wrongs remain unacknowledged, reparations unpaid.