American Limbo. Reflections on a Recent Journey to Guantanamo Bay
For most who have never been to Guantanamo Bay it is something of an abstract, a place defined by a disparate images of Al Qaeda prisoners in orange jump suits, barbed wire, guard towers and US Marines. It is more of a symbol, a 21st century Devil’s Island or an emblem of shame for many critics of the Bush administration, than a real place.
Others see it as an off shore Caribbean Alcatraz that confines some of this century’s most dangerous men. Among others, it holds Khaled Sheikh Mohammad (KSM), the mastermind behind the slaughter of almost three thousand people on "Holy Tuesday" (as 9/11 is known in jihadist circles). KSM is also the man who proudly boasted of beheading Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl with his own "blessed hand." For those who lionize KSM, Guantanamo is for this very reason as potent a focus or symbol of the hated Americans as the obscene photos of Iraqi prisoners being abused by US troops at Abu Ghraib.
But "Gitmo" has also entered our culture in more benign levels. Most recently in the form of Harold and Kumar, two pot smoking teenagers who Hollywood promises will try to, for the first time, "to escape a joint" instead of smoking one in the upcoming movie, Harold and Kumar. Escape from Guantanamo.
I must confess that as I looked out the window of our military jet airliner at the green Sierra Masestra mountains and turquoise Caribbean Sea below, the image that came to my mind was of Jack Nicholson as a Gitmo-based Cold Warrior in A Few Good Men. That movie had been about an earlier Manichean struggle between good and the “Evil Empire”; now we were involved in a more complex war against the “Evil Doers.” And it was that global conflict that had brought me here to one of the world’s most recognizable symbols of the global war on Al Qaeda.
When our plane banked hard in order to avoid flying over Cuban airspace, I strained to see the famous War on Terror sights I associated with Guantanamo Bay. As our plane dove like a fighter bomber towards a small air strip located on the leeward (western) side of the crescent shaped bay I finally made out a line of towers on the green hills marching off into the distance. And on the windward (eastern) tip of the harbor I could make out several square shaped complexes that I knew were the camps Delta, Echo and Iguana which had been built to replace Camp X-Ray.
Somewhere in those camps was a Yemeni citizen named Salim Hamdan who had been captured following a fire-fight in Afghanistan in November of 2001. While the US Special Forces who apprehended him had not known who he was initially, he turned out to be one of the first big catches of the war on terror. For Salim Hamdan was no ordinary Taliban, he was Osama Bin Laden’s driver.
And it was Hamdan that had drawn me here to serve as an expert witness in one what was shaping up to be one of the first Military Tribunals since World War II. I had been asked by the Defense–which was led by the fiery former J.A.G. (Judge Advocate General) named Charlie Swift–to serve as an expert witness on Hamdan’s behalf.
When I had received the call to join the defense from a retired CIA colleague, I was initially of a mixed mind. While I had read the media reports of the landmark Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld case (which went to the Supreme Court in 2006 and led to the overturning of the White House’s Military Commissions), I needed to know more about Hamdan himself. If I felt that he was a member of one of Al Qaeda’s notorious akhunds (terrorist cells, like the infamous Hamburg Cell which attacked the US on 9/11) I could hardly serve as a witness. On the contrary, my work for the government on jihadists and trans-national terrorists thus far had been more about putting terrorists away than closing down Guantanamo.
But having met with Charlie Swift and the defense team in Washington, DC and learned more about the case, I became convinced that he was not a member of the elite isitihad (martyrdom) cells. Having benefited from the profiling work on bona fide Al Qaeda terrorist operatives carried out by my ex-CIA colleague, Marc Sagemen, I realized Hamdan did not fit the profile. Al Qaeda terrorist operatives were highly educated, often wealthy, came from good families, and had skills that made them valuable. They were men like Muhammad Atta, the 9/11 team commander who spoke Western languages, learned how to fly, and had a Masters Degree from a German University.
Salim Hamdan by contrast was an orphan who had a fourth grade education and had worked as a taxi driver before becoming a paid chauffer for Bin Laden. While he obviously admired Bin Laden, whom he worked for (and continued to drive and protect after 9/11), his greatest crime appeared to have been being a member of the Al Qaeda armed forces that fought for Bin Laden and protected him. This did not make him innocent, he was clearly guilty of being a member of Al Qaeda’s armed forces, but neither did it make him a terrorist.
And so I agreed to testify to the existence of an Al Qaeda jund or army that I found had fought in pitched, frontal battles in Afghanistan against the Northern Alliance opposition. My Afghan field work in this regard ranged from interviewing captured Taliban prisoners of war to living with Northern Alliance warlords who captured Arab fighters for transfer to Guantanamo (most notably General Dostum, the horse-mounted Uzbek warlord).
Having prepared my testimony, it was now time to fly on the plane which was filled with members of Defense, Prosecution, UN observers, random lawyers, and human rights monitors from Andrews Airbase to Guantanamo Bay. It was time to leave the US and go to a place that was deemed to be beyond the reach of America’s legal system, but paradoxically within reach of her law.
Arrival in Guantanamo Bay
The first sensation that greets you when you arrive in Guantanamo from a freezing, snow covered place like Washington DC’s Andrews Air Base (I went in December) is the tropical heat. As the aircraft’s door opened up the humidity came pouring in and a sweating sergeant came on board and announced "Welcome to Gitmo, the Pearl of the Antilles! You can put your coats away ladies and gentlemen, you won’t be needing ’em for a while."
With that we de-planned, went through a customs (well technically it was still American soil, but it felt like customs) and were herded out to a small bay to take a World War II era military transport craft across the harbor to the eastern tip of the bay.
As we rode in the warm air and took in the sight of the sun setting on the tropical mountains, the sergeant explained to us that the US only owned the two tips the harbor. While the airstrip was on the western-most tip, the main base was on the eastern tip. As we made our way towards the eastern side of the bay, I began to make outlines of the main base. An old airport terminal on a hill, some World War II era cannons facing towards the Cuban heart of the bay, and the barbed wire surrounding a new holding facility. Behind them I could see several lush green hills with radar facilities and wind-energy mills on them. That and series of non-descript buildings that stretched along the bay for about a couple of miles before I could make out the watch towers that separated the eastern tip of the bay from Cuba proper.
As our transport craft reached its dock, I joined the rest of the passengers and prepared to be billeted in the B.O.Q. which I learned stood for the Bachelor’s Officers Quarters. Between the militarese and the lawyerese I would soon be overwhelmed by many such acronyms. But for now the thing I was most looking forward to was the A.C. of my room as the evening heat hovered in the high 80s.
Having made my way from the US mainland to this strange place that was neither US nor Cuba, I spent the evening preparing for my testimony and looking forward to seeing what Guantanamo Bay had to offer. On the following morning, I woke to the sound of reverie and the chants of shoulders doing their morning jog and prepared myself to see the place that tens of millions of people from across the world had come to define as the ultimate limbo.
(To Be Continued; to see more of Brian’s photographs of Guantanamo Bay, visit the Cuba section of his website.)
—Brian Glyn Williams, Assistant Professor of Islamic History, UMass Dartmouth