Exploring Gitmo. The Pearl of the Antilles.

(Part two of a two-part essay; read part one here)

I quickly learned that the Military Commissions were a lot of hurry up and wait. While I waited to give my testimony I was allowed to explore Guantanamo Bay for a couple of days. As I left my quarters to begin my exploration, the first thing I noticed were the bright yellow signs warning drivers of “iguana crossings.” And sure enough, I soon began to see massive iguanas roaming around parking lots, sunning themselves on the side of the road, and curiously approaching if you came to close to them. I recalled that the orders I had received for my trip to Guantanamo had come with a set of instructions. Among them I recalled a surreal warning to visitors against killing and eating iguanas. It proclaimed that those who were tempted to have an iguana burger would be fined $1,000.

Fortunately, the base offered more suitable substitutes to reptile meat and I found a McDonald’s, a local restaurant run by Caribbean workers that served delicious jerk chicken, and a mess hall that had an excellent lunch-room style buffet. And for those who missed the creature comforts of the mainland, there was even a small non-descript Starbucks and a basic outdoor bar of sorts known as the Tiki Bar. There were also a small mall, a grocery store, clothing stores, and believe it or not, a tourist shop. I purchased a couple of coffee mugs with watchtowers on them that read Task Force Guantanamo as Christmas gifts for those who would never believe that the notorious Gitmo actually had a souvenir shop.

I also discovered a residential neighborhood made up of non-descript Florida style houses with green yards that could have been on the US mainland were it not for the fact that Camp X-Ray was just down the street. Camp X-Ray became famous in the aftermath of the destruction of the Taliban as the barbed-wire encampment where the first “illegal combat detainees” were taken in orange jump suits. But by the time I got there, this camp, which looked to my eyes like a decrepit Stalag 13, had been abandoned. Its barbed wire fences and watch towers were overgrown with tropical undergrowth and weeds. There was little to indicate this site had been seen by millions across the world just a few years earlier.

Expert Witness Testimony

Which brings us to new camps. Camps Delta, Echo and Iguana which are located over the wind-mill covered ridge from the rest of the base on an off-limits coastal strip. The closest I got to these camps was Gitmo’s only functioning “beach,” Cable Beach. I put beach in quotes because this beach is nothing more than pebble-covered rocky alcove carved into Gitmo’s southern (outer) shore facing the Caribbean. But one dare not take a photograph in the direction of the camps since the guards on a nearby watch tower are tasked with destroying the cameras of those who do.

I was not given security clearance to visit the new camps that are far more permanent than the ad hoc camp at X-Ray, but it became obvious that they were a different world from the rest of Guantanamo. While a large portion of the personnel at this base are involved in Joint Task Force Guanatanamo, not all of them are involved with the prisoners. But those that who are tasked with guarding the likes of KSM, the 9/11 mastermind, take their jobs very seriously.

When the case of Bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamdan, was finally heard, I was very impressed by the security I witnessed. When Hamdan was moved from the camps to the old converted airport terminal on the hill that served as the Military Commission courtroom, that part of the base was essentially on lock down. As snipers patrolled the surrounding landscape with weapons drawn, we were waved through numerous checkpoints by armed guards who checked our clearance passes and thoroughly investigated us and our vehicle with explosive-sensing devices and metal detectors. Having made our way through the security parameter, it was finally time to give my testimony and meet Bin Laden’s Yemeni driver, Salim Hamdan.

Salim Hamdan’s case was interesting to say the least. He was a dirt poor Yemeni who volunteered to go to Afghanistan to wage jihad in the 1990s (nothing illegal in and of itself when you consider that the US actually sponsored such jihad activity until 1991). But when that effort failed, he was told about a relatively unknown Saudi dissident living in Afghanistan named Osama Bin Laden. Would Hamdan be willing to work for him as a guard and chauffer for $200 a month? Hamdan agreed and he did so right up until the arrival of the avenging Americans in November 2001. It was at this time that he was captured driving a Toyota with a shoulder fired SAM 7 (surface to air missile) in the back. When it was discovered that he was actually Bin Laden’s personal driver, he was whisked away to distant Cuba and had been confined in the “Pearl of the Antilles” ever since. While few felt that he was a major Al Qaeda terrorist mastermind or even participant in any Al Qaeda attacks, the fact that he was captured with a weapon and earlier filmed with a Kalashnikov next to Bin Laden was damning.

My role in the hearing was rather straight forward, to share my findings on the existence of hundreds if not thousands of armed Arabs like Hamdan who served on the front line or in an auxiliary support role as fighters in Afghanistan. As members of an established jihadi fighting unit that was perhaps the most organized in all Afghanistan, the Defense felt that these jihadi foreign legionnaires should be covered by the Geneva Conventions article four (which states that those who fight under a command structure with uniforms and insignia should be given prisoner of war status if they are captured). My own field research in Afghanistan from 2003-2007 pointed to a relatively organized Arab command structure (for Afghanistan!), which sharply delineated this group from the Al Qaeda sleeper cells whose members were terrorists (i.e. these Al Qaeda terrorists did not openly wear camouflage uniforms and carry weapons like Hamdan did).

The most interesting moment of the hearing for me was when Salim Hamdan was led in handcuffs into the court room by several armed soldiers. I remember him watching me intently as I both gave my testimony and underwent a cross-examination by the Prosecution. I noticed he was a small, wiry man wearing an over-sized checkered sports coat, Yemeni baggy pants, sandals, and huge headphones to hear my testimony in Arabic. When I contested a few points with the Prosecution, I noticed him nodding his head emphatically, but other than that he seemed to be relatively calm.

Regardless of what he thought about me, I felt little for him, neither the sympathy that many human rights activists automatically feel for everyone in Gitmo (including KSM who be-headed Daniel Pearl and killed 3,000 people on 9/11) nor the reflexive blind hatred of those ultra-patriots who unquestioningly support the imprisonment or even execution of anyone, American or foreign, even suspected of links to terrorism. For me he was an abstract and my job was to share the intelligence I had gathered during my time on the ground in Afghanistan working with captured Taliban prisoners of war and their Northern Alliance captors.
When the surreal Military Commission Hearing was over, I was not sure what my overall impression of my week in Guantanamo Bay was. I was certainly impressed by the energy of the Defense team. They worked long hours on this case that they sincerely felt was a bell-weather on whether the US would accept internationally recognized conventions dealing with foreign prisoners of war. For them it was about America being recognized abroad as a country that followed the international standards it had helped draw up in the 20th century.

I was impressed by the time, money and effort that the US government put into the hearing to give Hamdan his day in court. I also understood the Prosecution, which wanted to make sure that no terrorists who were in Gauntanamo Bay were released to carry out further slaughters of US citizens (as had been the case when one Taliban leader named Abdullah Mehsud was released and was then found to have returned to wage a terror war against the US in Afghanistan).

And surprisingly, I even felt I understood Salim Hamdan, the low ranking hired help who had left his impoverished homeland in search of glory and had been drawn into Bin Laden’s constellation for money (and perhaps conviction) as an armed driver. For better or worse, he had been languishing in his prison cell for six years and had not seen his wife or family once during this confinement. While I did not like someone who had lived in such close proximity to the man who called the murder of 3,000 un-armed civilians a “glorious war,” nor could I hate him the same way I did Bin Laden, KSM, Zarqawi and other bona fide terrorists.

As we boarded our plane and prepared to fly back to Washington DC, I left with more questions than I had come with. And perhaps that is the effect of being in a place like Guantanamo Bay that is hard to define or pigeon hole. Absolutes seem to collapse in Gitmo and for me at least, nothing seemed to be black or white when I left. Hardly a fitting conclusion for a story about a place that is defined by extremists on both sides of the Gitmo divide in Manichean terms.
But perhaps that is the result of being in a place that is as I defined not as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” but as the ultimate American limbo.

Brian Glyn Williams, Assistant Professor of Islamic History, UMass Dartmouth

Author: Brian Glyn Williams

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