Longform

Guantánamo’s Final Days: America Prepares to Shutter the Infamous Prison Camp, and Jihad Looms

The soldiers move through the wheat field, scanning the windswept plain for signs of trouble. There are six of them, dressed in fatigues and body armor, wearing the sunglasses and bushy beards popular among the Special Forces. The only thing they can hear is the rustling of wheat stalks.

They are a few miles outside Ab Khail, a small Afghan hill town near the Pakistani border, deep in Taliban territory. It's a primitive village, a place of crumbling brick hovels, mud-walled huts, and open sewers lining the streets. This is one of the first battlefields in America's War on Terror.

Today, the soldiers are looking for an Al-Qaeda explosives maker and Taliban sympathizers. Following GPS coordinates, they leave the field and cross a dirt road before arriving at a crude fort surrounded by mud walls. Inside, a group of bearded men is huddled in the shadows, clutching Kalashnikov rifles.

Those clearly aren't Afghan farmers, thinks Staff Sergeant Layne Morris, a 40-year-old veteran soldier from Salt Lake City and one of the unit's leaders.

Suddenly, shots come from a hole in the compound wall. The soldiers duck. Explosions rock the ground. Morris finds shelter behind a grain silo. After a few moments, he rises to launch a grenade from the M-4 strapped around his neck. The moment he pulls the trigger, something hot and hard slaps him in the eye. He hears a crunching sound in his head as white-hot pain spreads across his face. For a moment, he wonders if he is dead.

A piece of shrapnel has hit him in the nose, sliced into his skull, and severed an optic nerve. He crawls in the dirt, searching for his rifle, until medics pull him behind the silo to stanch the blood gushing from his face. The fighting rages for almost an hour.

When the gunfire finally stops, five soldiers charge into the compound. They find two Al-Qaeda fighters under the rubble, their bodies badly burned and cloaked in dust. One has two gunshot wounds in his chest; he wears a pistol in a holster, and an AK-47 lies by his side.

Then a moaning sound comes from the back of the compound. The dust stirs, obscuring a child-size body. One of the Americans fires two rounds into the figure.

When the soldiers approach, they can see this is no hardened Al-Qaeda foot soldier. His face is soft and free of stubble. His wrists are thin and his knees bony. No more than a boy, he is covered in soot and bleeding from shrapnel lodged in his chest. Two bullets have pierced his back.

After two American medics work to revive him, he moves his arms and legs and then looks up. "Kill me," he whispers in English. "Please kill me."

The soldiers refuse.

Today, more than six years later, the skinny 15-year-old who lay dying in the dust has become one of the most famous and controversial figures in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. His name is Omar Khadr, and he is the only Westerner held at the prison camp just across the Florida Straits from Miami.

Now age 22, he is also its youngest detainee, accused of throwing the grenades that wounded Morris and killed Army medic Christopher Speer in that 2002 firefight. Though his trial at the camp was recently suspended, he stands to become the first child soldier tried by the United States. After years of torture and isolation, he is both a symbol of America's many mistakes in the War on Terror and a breathing example of the reason for the camp's existence.

Village Voice Media was inside the Guantánamo Bay camps for both Khadr's January  20 hearing, likely the last one to be held in Cuba, and President Obama's order the next day to close the place. Cases like the child soldier's represent perhaps the new president's most difficult challenge: what to do with the men — now further radicalized by torture — who would almost certainly threaten Americans everywhere if released.

The danger is real. Just a few weeks ago, Saudi Arabian officials acknowledged that 11 men released from Guantánamo are now on the kingdom's most-wanted list because of alleged Al-Qaeda connections. And this past December, the Pentagon reported 61 former detainees have re-engaged in terrorist activities. Among the attacks they might have carried out are destruction of a natural gas pipeline in Chechnya and bombing of an Islamabad Marriott hotel.

"We can't just let them go, and if we do, there's going to blood on somebody's hands when they turn around and attack us again," says Morris, who lost his right eye in the firefight with Khadr. "Most of them down there are hardcore admitted terrorists. Their loyalty is to a cause, and for that simple fact alone, they are a threat to Western society."

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Tim Elfrink is an investigative reporter and the managing editor of Miami New Times. He's won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink
Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde