WikiLeaks: Gitmo Guards’ Rewards System for Detainees Backfires

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fifty-second in the series.

The story of Yasser Talal Al Zahrani offers one of the most mysterious, and ultimately tragic, narratives in the “Gitmo Files” published by WikiLeaks this past week. The son of “a senior official in the Saudi Interior Ministry, reportedly holding the rank of abid, or brigadier,” the seventeen-year-old al Zahrani reportedly left home, having just completed the eleventh grade, “after hearing that sheiks from neighboring [sic throughout] towns were saying jihad in Afghanistan (AF) was a religious duty.”

He first travelled to Karachi, Pakistan, financing “the trip himself with saving he had earned selling perfumes to hajj pilgrims.” In Karachi, al Zahrani hooked up with a man named Saria al Makki, who travelled with him to Konduz, Afghanistan.

In Konduz, detainee was taken to a place called the Taliban Center. He spent one month training under an individual named Khair Allah on the use of the Kalishnikov rifle, the Makarov pistol, hand grenades, and in field training. The detainee was then assigned a guard position at a second line post between Konduz and Taloqan.

The American Taliban fighter, John Walker Lindh, remembered Abu Ammar distinctly, in part because he was little more than a kid when they fought together in Afghanistan.

Lindh identified detainee as Abu Ammar from Saudi Arabia. He further stated that detainee was one of the youngest, which is why he stood out. Lindh stated detainee was approximately seventeen years old and was always joking and talking. Detainee…was involved in foo services. Detainee was always at front line base camps…

When the front line crumbled under the pressure of American fire power, “the group retreated to Konduz where coalition forces surrounded them.” Lindh reported that while there, al Zahrani “helped in a kitchen of an Arab guesthouse (as a cook) in Konduz after fleeing from the front lines.” Just over a week later, Konduz fell, and al Zahrani’s group cut a deal with the Northern Alliance, “Allowing fighters to leave with their weapons and travel to Mazar-E-Sharif, AF, where they would surrender.” What happened then is a bit confused, but the report notes that

On the eleventh day of Ramadan, the fighters traveled to Mazar-E-Sharid where they turned in their weapons and were taken to the Qala-I-Jangi prison. The day after they arrived at the prison, detainee and others were taken to a square in the prison yard. Detainee heard gunfire and explosions coming from the prison and then a firefight ensued injuring detainee in the leg and foot. He fell to the ground and remained in the same position until nightfall, when other prisoners retrieved him and carried him back to the underground prison. They remained there for seven days before they were forced to surrender.

A month later, he was turned over to the American forces, and processed to Guantanamo Boy shortly thereafter.

From what can be gathered in al Zahrani’s assessment, he was quite a handful. In the five years he spent in Guantanamo, Abu Ammar racked up over one hundred disciplinary infraction reports detailing all manner of disruptive incidents, including

assault, failure to follow instructions/camp rules, using provoking words and gestures with the guards, threatening the life of a guard, damage to property, inciting a disturbance, exposing himself to guards, possession of both weapon and non-weapon type contraband, and cross block talking. The detainee had twelve reports of disciplinary infraction for assault in 2005. The detainee’s most recent assault was committed on 13 November 2005 when he punched a guard in the jaw upon being returned to his cell. The detainee has numerous cases of verbal harassment and threats towards guards…The detainee was a major participant in the voluntary total fast of 2005-2006. The detainee has notes of conducting PT, to include combative type training, and at least twice has taunted guards claiming to want to fight. On 11 July 2005, detainee told a guard that he would use a knife to cut his stomach open, cut his face off, and then drink his blood, smiling and laughing as he said it.

Major General Jay Hood, who authored the report, determined that al Zahrani’s antics were enough to keep him held indefinitely in Gitmo detention, despite the fact that the Saudi was basically of no use to al Qaeda or the Taliban, much less the United States Government.

No reporting indicates detainee served in a leadership or operational planning capacity….detainee’s exposure to the jihadist element in Afghanistan is unremarkable and less than many other detainees. The information detainee is assessed to know about the Taliban and events in Qala-I-Jangi is limited beyond what he has already provided. It is assessed the intelligence to be exploited from detainee is limited, and it would probably be dated and not tactically or strategically critical…most reporting indicates detainee was probably the average mujahid…

As it turns out, while al Zahrani may have been the average mujahid, he made a name for himself at Guantanamo for being one of four inmates to successfully commit suicide. Three months after the assessment was conducted by Hood, al Zahrani and two other detainees simultaneously killed themselves in their cells. According to the Washington Post,

Zahrani, in Cell A-8, was the first detainee to raise concern among guards. One guard passed his cell and thought the silhouette under his sheets looked too small. When guards inspected further, they found the sheet concealing random items and Zahrani hanging from a noose in the darkness… Some of the guards were “very emotional,” according to the report [on the suicides]. “I feel that the guards and myself on Alpha block did an inadequate job monitoring the detainees that night to make sure that they were following the rules as to show some kind of skin while sleeping,” said one guard, who name was redacted from the documents.

Inadequacy was only the tip of the iceberg. An investigation later demonstrated that

guards had become lax on certain rules because commanders wanted to reward the more compliant detainees, giving them extra T-shirts, blankets and towels. Detainees were allowed to hang such items to dry, or to provide privacy while using the toilet, but were not supposed to be able to obscure their cells while sleeping.

Guards told officials that it was not unusual to see blankets hanging in the cells and that they did not think twice when they passed several cells on the night of June 9, 2006, with blankets strung through the wire mesh. Authorities believe the men probably hanged themselves around 10 p.m., but they were not discovered until shortly after midnight on June 10.

How al Zahrani was able to get his hands on all this good-behavior swag given his extensive list of misdemeanors was never explained. What is clear, however, is that al Zahrani was slated for release at the very moment he decided to take his own life. “Zahrani, according to Guantanamo records, was next on the ‘Saudi DMO’ list, which meant he was imminently going to be part of a “Detainee Movement Operation” that would have transferred him to Saudi Arabia’s reintegration program and ultimately to freedom.” He was twenty-one years old.