Longform

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

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Toward the end of the day, Village Voice Media visits Camp 5, where Omar Khadr was moved in 2006. Dusty treadmills and half-inflated soccer balls litter the rec yard.

Noticing a reporter, a dark-skinned man rushes to his cell window. He frantically swings a white bath towel. Though a guard in a polo shirt instructs photographers to ignore the man, they walk close enough to see he has pushed two snapshots against the glass. In the first photo, four children surround a man and woman. In another, a couple hugs and looks at the camera.

The inmate bears no resemblance to the man in the photos. He appears desperate or insane — with a wild beard and a shock of black hair. He gazes out with a crazed stare, and the message is obvious: Look at these pictures. This is my family. Tell them I'm alive.

The pantomime continues for five minutes, and when the reporters turn to leave, he waves his towel once more, looks them directly in the eye, and gives a thumbs-up.


Last June, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered the release of 71/2 hours of previously classified video documenting Omar Khadr's interrogations at Guantánamo in 2003. They are blurry and of poor quality; at times, it is difficult to make out any of the prisoners' features. At one point, becoming agitated with his interrogator, Khadr lifts his shirt to show the wounds U.S. troops inflicted during the firefight.

Sobs and the quaking of pale, bony shoulders bear witness to his agony. "I can't move my arms," he says, choking. "I requested medical attention a long time ago, and they didn't do anything about it."

"They look like they're healing well to me," his interrogator is heard saying.

Khadr covers his eyes with his hands and weeps.

No one can say with certainty how the years have affected him, but it is fair to wonder if isolation and torture have made him even more radical.

It was, after all, inside a brutal Egyptian prison where Ayman al-Zawahiri went from devout Muslim to radical jihadist. And it was the torture Khadr's father endured at a prison in Pakistan during the late '90s that first radicalized the young Omar. "It's clear some [inmates] have engaged in violence since their release," says Ken Gude of American Progress, a liberal think tank. "You can't help but worry that some of these detainees will look back on their experience and think ill of the United States."

This past January, two former Guantánamo prisoners, numbers 372 and 333, appeared in a jihadist video produced by Al-Qaeda in Iraq. One of them, Said Ali al-Shahri, is reported to now be a high-ranking Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen. "By Allah, imprisonment only increased our persistence in our principles for which we went out, did jihad, and were imprisoned for," al-Shahri says in the video. He had passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before returning to Yemen.

Says Gude: "We may have lost a generation in the Middle East and in the Muslim world who view the United States as a place where torture and indefinite detention occur. It's a real challenge, and it will be a lasting challenge for the U.S. to overcome. We're going to carry this burden for a long time."

Many supporters argue the methods used at Guantánamo and other military prisons holding terrorists were justified. In recent interviews, former Vice President Dick Cheney has said waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed directly led the government to capture "a very impressive" list of top Al-Qaeda leaders in 2003.

The future of detainees still at the camp is unclear. Of more than 750 "unlawful enemy combatants" who have been detained at the facility since 2002, about 245 are left. That group includes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief architect of 9/11; Mohammed al-Qahtani, a would-be 9/11 hijacker; and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, Osama bin Laden's personal propagandist.

About 100 of the remaining prisoners are Yemeni, and President Obama would like to send them to their homeland. Another 60 are cleared to leave Guantánamo but have nowhere to go because, at least so far, no country has agreed to accept them. It's likely some will end up in the United States. Another 17 inmates are ethnic Muslims from China, called Uighurs, and Obama will send them anywhere but China.

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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