JOE PALCA, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Joe Palca in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. A little more than seven years ago, Abdallah al-Ajmi was arrested in Pakistan, suspected of being a terrorist. He was eventually transferred to the U.S.-run detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There, he was imprisoned for nearly five years. Ajmi is from Kuwait. He was released to authorities in his home country at the end of 2005. Last year, Ajmi drove a truck full of explosives into an Iraqi army base, killing 13 Iraqi soldiers and himself.
His story, about what happened between the time he was arrested, imprisoned and released, is the subject of a two-part series in the Washington Post. The case raises troubling questions about what we know about these prisoners, what happens when they're released, and the consequences of their treatment while imprisoned. The Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran joins us in a moment. Later, whether America is a "nation of cowards" for failing to have frank conversations about race, but first, the story of Abdallah al-Ajmi. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is associate editor and former Baghdad bureau chief of the Washington Post. His series began yesterday, and he joins us from the Post's office here in Washington. Welcome.
Mr. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN (Associate Editor, Washington Post): Good day, Joe. Good to be on with you.
PALCA: Well, so - glad to have you. And I guess we have to start at the beginning: How did Ajmi end up at Guantanamo Bay?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, Abdallah al-Ajmi, you know, grew up in a rather middle-class existence in Kuwait. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade, loitered around his neighborhood, eventually joined the Kuwaiti military. And while he was in the military, he began attending a mosque in Kuwait that was known for its radical sermons and fiery preaching, and he eventually saw a fatwa, a religious decree, posted at the mosque that urged Muslims to go and fight holy war. This first fatwa he saw urged them to go to Chechnya, and so, in early 2001, Abdallah al-Ajmi flew off to Pakistan with the intention of going to Chechnya. Well, when he got to Pakistan, he discovered it was impossible to get to Chechnya from there, and he eventually came back to Kuwait.
But a couple of months later, after seeing another fatwa calling on Muslims to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance forces - back then, the Taliban were engaged in essentially a war for control of Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance, this in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks - Ajmi then, once again, went to Pakistan. And this time, when he landed at the airport, he was greeted by a man, who, like a - much like in many airports, you have touts asking you if you want a taxi or not; the way this was described in a U.S. investigative summary, he was asked, do you want to go off for prayer or for Jihad? And he said he wanted to go for Jihad, and so, he was taken on a bus to the border city of Peshawar and then taken across the border, eventually up to Kabul, where the Taliban burned his passport, issued him an AK47 and told him to protect a frontline position near the Bagram Air Base. Ajmi lamented to his interrogators, some years later, that he really saw no combat action where he was. There were a bunch of firefights that occurred on his flanks, but he estimates that in the months that he spent there, he probably fired his weapon only once or twice.
PALCA: I see. So, he - how did he come to the attention of the Pakistani authorities as part of the Taliban?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, as the Northern Alliance forces, backed by the U.S. military, advanced on Kabul in the wake of September 11th, Ajmi, like many other Arabs who would come up to fight with the Taliban, retreated back toward the Tora Bora area, and then he eventually crossed back into Pakistan, where Pakistani security forces picked him up and, shortly thereafter, handed him over to the Americans. I wasn't able to clearly prove that any bounty was paid, but many other Arabs who were picked up by Pakistani security forces and turned over to U.S. forces at that time were paid bounties by the United States, which has raised some troubling questions as to whether we were getting people who were really bona fide bad guys or whether these were just some low-level individuals who were picked up by the Pakistanis to get some compensation. Anyway, Ajmi was handed over to the Americans, who took him to a U.S. detention facility in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was held for a couple of weeks, and then he was eventually flown to Guantanamo in January 2002. He was among the first few plane loads of detainees brought to Guantanamo. So, he was the among the very original prisoner population there.
PALCA: And so, it was enough, as a presumptive terrorist or presumptive enemy combatant, if you were a member of the Taliban?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Indeed. Back then, if you had fought with the Taliban, you were deemed to be an enemy combatant and somebody who could be apprehended and could be taken to Guantanamo. You know, since then, however, it's worth noting that, you know, a number of, for instance, Afghans who have fought with the Taliban have been released, have been put through various amnesty programs; some Afghans who fought with the Taliban hold positions in the local government in Afghanistan today. And it also depends on where you were captured. If Ajmi had been captured, for instance, by Afghan anti-Taliban militias, there's a chance he might have been let go. There's also a chance he might have been executed on the spot. So, his journey, in many ways, was by dint of the specific circumstances that occurred in his case.
PALCA: So, he gets to Guantanamo in 2005 - no, have I got that date wrong?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: In 2002...
PALCA: 2002, and at least initially, he - from what you describe, he was not a particularly hostile individual, but he undergoes something of a change while he was there.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes. I spent a lot of time talking to his lawyer in the United States, a guy by the name of Thomas Wilner, who's a partner at a big law firm in Washington, D.C., who was hired to represent him. And the way Tom described his many meetings with Abdallah al-Ajmi, when he first went to see him, Abdallah was a reticent guy. He didn't strike Tom as being any great terrorist mastermind or any sort of senior operative. He seemed like a young, confused kid, in the words of Mr. Wilner. And he - but he was also of a fairly approachable demeanor. He was relatively, sort of, polite to his lawyers, and he sent his lawyers some letters, and I excerpted a few of them in this article I did in the - in the articles I did in the Post, and let me just read you a couple of lines from an initial letter, because I think it helps to set his mindset. He writes to his lawyer, you know:
(Reading) Mr. Tom, I would like to tell you that I'm fine and so are all my brothers. I thank you, Mr. Tom, and I send you my closing greetings.
And he refers to himself as the Happy Detainee. And then some months before his release, he writes his lawyer another letter that says:
(Reading) Thomas, I shall meet you tomorrow and hit you with a sharp, two-edged sword that will tear you to pieces, and you will be thrown to the hyena to feed on, maul and bite you.
And he signs his letter, in case it was unclear what he was trying to say, he signs it: "fiercely and harshly." And to me, looking at his correspondence, it was clear that there was something of a real, sort of, descent into anger and hostility and madness in his time at Guantanamo, and it raised this question of, did Guantanamo do this to him? And I don't have a conclusive answer. My - I was not trying to draw a specific conclusion, but certainly his lawyers feel that it was his incarceration over there that, sort of, turned him into a really, sort of, angry, hardened and hostile individual.
PALCA: And yet, he was released.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: And yet, he was released, and there really isn't a lot of good explanation about this, Joe. He had been put through a couple of the adjudication processes they have at Guantanamo. He had a combatant status-review tribunal in 2004 that determined that he was an enemy combatant and should be detained at Guantanamo. He had an administrative review-board hearing in 2005, where they allowed him to speak at panel of three military officers, and he claimed his innocence and said that he should be let go. But the officers of that review board concluded that he was being rightly detained and should - represented a continued threat to the United States.
Now, at this time, the government of Kuwait was trying to get its citizens who were held in Guantanamo back. Originally, there were a dozen Kuwaitis who were taken to Guantanamo, and so, there were high-level discussions going on between the government of Kuwait and the United States State Department, and eventually the Kuwaitis and the State Department agreed to some sort of terms for a release of some of the Kuwaitis. But it was never very clear how the U.S. military would go about choosing which Kuwaitis to release. And one fine day, the military decided that it was going to release five of them - this is in the fall of 2005 - and Abdallah al-Ajmi was among them.
To his lawyers, the people who were hired to represent him, they were flummoxed by this. They couldn't understand why Ajmi was being let go, while other Kuwaitis who had had, perhaps, more exemplary behavior records at Guantanamo, were still being kept there. It's worth nothing that Abdullah al-Ajmi was constantly in trouble at Guantanamo. His growing hostility led him to engage in acts that were then - that then resulted in punishment from the guards. And it's sort of a chicken-or-the-egg thing. It's hard to know what started first. The way Ajmi described it to his lawyers, you know, he was beaten and his arm was broken one day while he was praying when he refused to heed a guard's command because he didn't want to interrupt his prayers. That led to time at a detention blocks, which then led to him getting angrier, and it became this sort of vicious cycle, where he was constantly in trouble, constantly acting out. And so, to his lawyers, they just didn't understand why he was among the few who were chosen to be let go.
PALCA: Well, anyway, he was, and then last March, he goes on a suicide mission. He packs a truck full of explosives, drives it onto an army base outside of Mosul, and 13 Iraqis are killed and he himself apparently was killed. We only have about 30 seconds before the break, but what do we know about what happened his release from Kuwait control to the day of the suicide attack?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: The most important thing we know is that when the United States let him go, transferred him to Kuwaitis, we really didn't give the Kuwaitis much evidence to use to put him on trial. The Kuwaitis wanted to prosecute him; they wanted to take him into a criminal court and charge him with crimes. The United States military gave the Kuwaitis a two-page investigative summary. That was it, no interrogation transcripts, no other evidence that the Kuwaitis could then use to take to jail. So, the Kuwaitis tried to prosecute him, but eventually, he was acquitted, and then he fell back into the fold with radical Islamists in Kuwait that eventually led to the suicide bombing.
PALCA: All right. Well, today, some 250 detainees are still held at Guantanamo Bay, with troubling questions about what happens to them next. We'll talk more about that in a moment. A co-founder of the 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America will join us. I'm Joe Palca. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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PALCA: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Joe Palca in Washington. We're talking about the story of Abdallah al-Ajmi. He was detained at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp - detention facility for three years. Then released and then wound up driving in a suicide attack last year, where several Iraqi soldiers and he himself were killed. It raises important questions about what to do with the hundreds of detainees still held at Guantanamo. What do you think should happen to prisoners at Guantanamo? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation at our Web site; go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is with us. He wrote the two-part series, "After Guantanamo," for the Washington Post. We have a link to the story at npr.org/talk. So, Rajiv, what - I mean, what lessons are there here? Are there any lessons to draw from this whole experience?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think the chief lesson in all of this is that the process of releasing detainees is a very complicated one and one that, I think, up 'til now, there have been some flaws with. The United States, you know, hasn't, in some cases, taken all sort of appropriate steps to try to help transition some of the people, who are then - who are ruled fit to be released, to transition them into more normal lives, working with their home countries. There are countries like Saudi Arabia that have rehabilitation programs that aim to help give people jobs and find them homes and pay marriage dowries. But in other countries, there aren't, and that, I think, poses a real challenge for the United States going forward. How are they going to do that?
But it also raises this bigger question of, for people who have been brought into Guantanamo, perhaps, you know, people who are not accused of high crimes, who were not the 9/11 plotters or not people with documented terrorist records, and those people then are sort of seen fit to be released at some point, what is the consequence of time at Guantanamo, and has incarceration at Guantanamo potentially turned individuals who are there into radicals? And certainly, I'm not making a case to, sort of, continue incarcerating people, nor am I making a case to sort of shut the place down, but as the Obama administration moves forward in trying to figuring out how to deal with the approximately 245 individuals who are still there - because the administration has stated its goal is to close Guantanamo - trying to understand the impact of Guantanamo on these individuals, I think, is going to pose - is a real challenge for this administration in adjudicating the fate of these individuals.
PALCA: Well, it helps explain why people are saying this is a tricky problem. Joining us now on the line from Westchester County in New York is Debra Burlingame. She's a former attorney and co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America. Her brother Charles Burlingame was the pilot of American Airlines flight 77 that was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon. Thanks for talking with us today.
Ms. DEBRA BURLINGAME (Co-founder, 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America): Nice to be with you, Joe.
PALCA: So, I don't know if you heard all of the previous discussion. but I'm sure you - I know you know about the case. What's your reaction to this story of Ajmi conducting a suicide bombing after his release from Guantanamo Bay and the allegations, or the possibility, that it was his time in prison that actually, you know, led him to the suicide attack and radicalized him?
Ms. BURLINGAME: Well, I think that suggestion is a fairly outrageous one, particularly coming from the attorney that Rajiv mentioned in his interview with you, Tom Wilner, as well as Wilner's claim to be flummoxed as to why this particular detainee was released. What Mr. - what Rajiv did not report in his piece or, I think, partially reported is that Shearman & Sterling, the firm representing the 12 detainees who were originally picked up and taken to Guantanamo, they were hired originally by the families of these detainees and then the - some very well-to-do families, I might add, who pooled their resources and come up with the $500,000 retainer for Shearman & Sterling. The government ended up taking - the Kuwaiti government ended up taking over the fees. And between Shearman & Sterling and the PR firm that was working to remake their profiles in the media, some $4 million that I've traced through records has been paid out, $2 million of that to the PR firm and over a million and a half to Shearman & Sterling.
The issue here is, he's - Rajiv's right, there have been detainees - it's been a sloppy process - that shouldn't have been released, and even some of the ones now that are cleared - quote, "cleared for release" - cleared does not mean exonerated; it's means there's been a balancing test done. And part of it is the politics of it. Here you had Kuwait, who is a critical partner in the war in Iraq; we have some 24,000 troops permanently based in Kuwait. We needed the - Kuwait as a staging area for Iraq. And so, when a government is coming in with high-priced lawyers - Shearman & Sterling wasn't just filing legal briefs; they were lobbying in the halls of Congress, as well as at the State Department, not to get rule of law at Guantanamo, but to let these guys go.
They probably picked al-Ajmi, and I'm speculating just like anyone else would be speculating, because his profile before he arrived in Guantanamo wasn't as bad as the profile of some of the other Kuwaitis, and some of those are pretty bad. But I take issue with the idea that if someone isn't a terrorist mastermind or a senior operator that they're not dangerous. Some of the 9/11 people who boarded those planes, none of them, with the exception of, say, Mohamed Atta, would be considered a mastermind. Some of them, called the muscle hijackers, the ones who probably killed my brother and the other pilots, they were not high up at all. They would have been called the lowly foot soldiers that were found at (unintelligible) training camps.
PALCA: Right. But do you think there's anything to the possibility, at least, that being held in this circumstances could have exacerbated any hostility that the - that Ajmi had to being with, or whether these guys are all dangerous and none of them should be let out?
Ms. BURLINGAME: Well, let's start with the premise that someone who is leading a normal life in a very wealthy country like Kuwait decides to drop everything - and by the way, al-Ajmi was - went AWOL. He was an army conscript - or not conscript, he was a member of the Kuwaiti army, and he went AWOL to go to Afghanistan. He risked imprisonment in his own country by doing that. So, he was already radicalized to go and fight Jihad, to fight holy war. So, it wasn't that there was a major conversion experience that happened at Guantanamo. What may have happened at Guantanamo is a couple of things. First, he was associated - if he had initial good behavior; I mean, remember, he signed a letter the happy detainee. That letter would have been written in 2004, around 2004, because he had no attorney contact prior to that.
So, for two years, he was the happy detainee. Once the lawyers got involved, then communication between the detainees started happening, and that's when they started engaging in coordinated attacks on the guards, 4,000 attacks a year - physical attacks, verbal attacks, all coordinated - and so, he might have become affected by interacting with some of these more - some of the ringleaders in that. The other thing is - look, he comes from a different culture. And middle class in Kuwait, I don't know what that means to Mr. Rajiv, but I know that some of these guys lived a pretty swell life in Kuwait. And the idea that he would be incarcerated, that he would have been kept in a single cell alone, the indignities of the mere incarceration, the kind of incarceration that any American citizen who's in a state penitentiary might experience, that might've - that might make anyone angry and mad. So - but I'm not prepared to say that Guantanamo in itself turned him into a murderous radical. I think he was already radical; after all, he went there and got weapons training to kill people.
PALCA: Right. But just to follow that through a little bit, I mean, the Kuwaitis apparently were not sufficiently upset with him for going AWOL that they put him - they didn't seem to be prosecuting him for that when he was returned to Kuwait. They were trying to prosecute him for crimes that he might have committed that led him to be imprisoned in Guantanamo. But let me ask Rajiv Chandrasekaran, what do you make of this? Do you - I mean, are you convinced by what Debra Burlingame is saying?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, look, I think that there are a lot of questions that we'll never have good answers to. What exactly happened while he was there? His lawyer, you know, was able to meet with him somewhere between the half a dozen and a dozen times; he wasn't there for observing Ajmi every day, who all he was talking to. I think it was clear that he was associating with some of the other detainees, particularly some of the other Kuwaiti detainees, and might that have been a factor in how he evolved and his hardening, perhaps, beliefs or his hardening anger? Perhaps, you know, that may well be very likely. So, you know, again, it's hard to really know all the specifics until all the documents surrounding his case are declassified. But you know, this certainly was very troubling to people involved in this case evolution of him while he was there.
PALCA: OK. Well, let's invite our listeners to join the conversation. Our number is 800-989-8255, and let's go first to Bill in Philadelphia. Bill, welcome to Talk of the Nation.
BILL (Caller): Yeah, hi, thanks. I just want to say there's a pretty safe bet that Guantanamo, just like any prison for criminals in United States, when criminals are together and if they're in there for a long time, they're going to become more radicalized, or in the case of Guantanamo, more extreme. I think the damage was setting up Guantanamo in the first place. People who were caught in the battlefield, just like criminals in the United States, should have a speedy trial and determine if they're guilty of anything, whether it's conspiracy or being a ringleader or just being a foot soldier in the War on Terror. And if they are convicted of that and if there's good grounds that they will do it in the future, or if they haven't done in the past, that they will do in the future, then we need to hold them here in the United States in federal prison. And if they're not convicted of that, then we set them free. And so, I think that the same standards - if we really believe in justice, it shouldn't just apply to U.S. citizens; it should apply universally. And if we don't apply our standards universally, that makes us hypocrites, and why should the world respect us?
PALCA: Debra Burlingame, what do you think when you hear that?
Ms. BURLINGAME: Well, the Supreme Court has said very, very clearly that we - the United States is entitled to hold prisoners in preventative detention in warfare. You can't expect - I can't think of any war in the history of this country or any other where you had guys getting speedy trials who were picked up in a war situation. That would be untenable. And I think that is one of the problems that we've tried to, do is to - I mean, there's one thing to get some kind of administrative process to make sure that you haven't picked up someone who doesn't belong in detention. But beyond that, to do more and to treat the battlefield like a crime scene is simply impossible. And the Supreme Court has affirmed that we have a right to do that, and the Obama administration has now said, look, we're going to have to hold some of these people in preventative detention.
PALCA: Bill, thanks so much for your call. We're talking with Debra Burlingame; she's co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America; and Rajiv Chandrasekaran; he's a associate editor at the Washington Post, about a story Rajiv just wrote in the Post about the release of Abdallah al-Ajmi, who was at Guantanamo and subsequently went to Iraq and blew up a suicide bomb. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. So, I mean, it does present the problem, it seems to me, Rajiv, that, you know, if somebody is but hasn't done anything yet, along the lines of Bill's question, what do you do?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, that's the real vexing challenge that faces the Obama administration as it seeks to shutdown Guantanamo: How do you deal with people for whom you don't have a whole lot of evidence? You know, as Debra points out, evidence collection on the battlefield is very, very difficult, and for many of the people who are held there, there are just isn't enough evidence to obtain a conviction in a court of law, in the United States criminal court. Yet, there are some individuals among the remaining population at Guantanamo whom the military and the U.S. intelligence community believes will go out and potentially do very bad things if they're released again. And so, what do you do about it? And that's why, you know, you now have the Obama administration sort of wrestling with this issue and trying to come to grips with to what to degree they will be willing to accept the notion of some sort of preventative detention for those people who you cannot, you know, take into a court and obtain a conviction and for those people who you don't want to, even with a potential rehabilitation program or so, release back to their home country or to another third country.
PALCA: All right. All right, let's take another call now and go to Tom in Wilmington, Delaware. Tom, welcome to Talk of the Nation.
TOM (Caller): Thank you. I've just been listening to what Debra was saying, and I think it's little crazy that we're treating this is a - you know, a predicament of how to - what do we do with these people and - rather than dealing with the implications of their illegal detention. And I think that once you take people outside the Constitution and hold them without trial, without any of the rights that the Constitution guarantees us, you're just setting yourself up for ever-broadening government power. And I would also like to point out that the recent legislation, the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism bill, opens up American citizens to this sort of treatment, and I would just like to know what Debra and your other guest would think about American citizens being treated in this fashion.
PALCA: Mm, tricky. Debra Burlingame, what about that?
Ms. BURLINGAME: Well, first of all, the caller - I understand his question, but he is not informed. The Constitution does not extend to these detainees. The Supreme Court recently, in its latest - last decision, the Boumediene decision, made - took the unprecedented step - never in the 770 years of Anglo-American jurisprudence have foreign people in a foreign land of a battlefield been give of habeas corpus rights - but nevertheless, the Supreme Court has spoken, but that doesn't mean they have constitutional rights. It merely means that there's federal jurisdiction to review their cases in a proceeding, a procedural process called habeas, to determine if they're properly detained. That doesn't mean they get the full-blown - the full Monty on the Constitution at all...
PALCA: All right.
Ms. BURLINGAME: No one has said that. The Supreme Court has not said that, and that certainly would be unprecedented. The problems with giving them full constitutional rights, as some want to do, is that it opens us up to a kind of extortion, really, on the part of the attorneys.
PALCA: Debra Burlingame, I'm sorry, I know it's a longer question than we have time for an answer...
Ms. BURLINGAME: Sure.
PALCA: To and I'm going to have to cut you off there and simply say thank you very much for joining us today.
Ms. BURLINGAME: Thank you, too, Joe.
PALCA: Debra Burlingame is co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, and we were also joined this hour by Rajiv Chandrasekaran from the Washington Post. He wrote a provocative article in today's Post about a detainee at Guantanamo who subsequently set off a suicide bomb. Thanks to you both. Coming up, the Opinion Page: Is America a "nation of cowards" for failing to have a frank conversation about race? Stay with us. I'm Joe Palca. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.