This article originally ran in CJR’s July/August 2007 issue.
On December 15, 2001, early in the morning on the last day of Ramadan, a reporter and a cameraman from Al Jazeera arrived at the Pakistani town of Charman on the Afghanistan border, on their way to cover the American military operation. The reporter, Abdelhaq Sadah, was replacing a colleague, but the cameraman, a Sudanese national named Sami al-Haj, had been on such an assignment before, and had crossed the border without incident. This time, however, an immigration official stopped him. He seemed angry. The official told Sadah that he could go, but “your friend is a wanted man and will stay here.”
In Sadah’s recollection, the official produced a letter from Pakistani intelligence—written, curiously, in English. It said that al-Haj had Al Qaeda ties and should be apprehended. Al-Haj noticed that the passport number in the letter didn’t correspond to the one in his current passport, but instead to an old passport he had lost several years ago in Sudan and had reported missing. Despite his protests, the official insisted on detaining him overnight. The next morning, Sadah returned to the border post just in time to see a Pakistani military officer lead al-Haj to a car and drive him away.
Al-Haj is a tall, slender man whose round face and glasses give him a boyish demeanor. In photographs, he looks much younger than his thirty-eight years. People who have met him invariably describe him as polite; in conversation he is said to smile almost constantly.
After Sadah informed Al Jazeera management what had happened, the network made contact with the Pakistani authorities and was told that al-Haj’s background was being investigated. On January 4, al-Haj called his wife, Asma, who was then living in Azerbaijan. He sounded confident, almost cheerful, saying that he expected to be back in Doha, Qatar, Al Jazeera’s headquarters, in two or three days.
Instead, al-Haj was taken to an underground prison in Kabul. There, he was transferred to American custody. On January 7, he was brought by helicopter to Bagram Air Base. Al-Haj later described his disorienting arrival to his lawyer. After a fifteen-minute flight, he said, he was pitched from the helicopter into the icy night, hitting the tarmac so hard that he briefly lost consciousness. He claimed that he was then kicked and beaten by military police, who removed the black bag from his head and cut off his clothes. After performing what al-Haj called an “intimate body search,” they dressed him in a blue uniform, and said, “You record videos of Osama bin Laden for Al Jazeera.”
For the next six months, al-Haj was held in Afghanistan. In early June 2002, he was put on a military plane. In another letter to his lawyer, he explains that his hands were gloved and cuffed and linked to his leg shackles; his mouth was gagged. Every so often, American soldiers removed the gag to feed him peanut butter crackers. The plane landed many hours later. On June 14, al-Haj was given an orange jumpsuit and the ID number 345. He was in Cuba. For the past five years, al-Haj has been the only journalist known to be held in Guantánamo Bay.
Many questions surround Sami al-Haj. After talking with his colleagues, friends, family members, and lawyer, I could piece together only a partial picture of his life. He grew up in the Sudan, where an uncle, who was better off than al-Haj’s family, helped him attend college in India, where he studied computers and English. In the late 1990s, he took a job as an administrative assistant for a company called Union Beverages, and later worked in a similar role for an import-export company in the United Arab Emirates. In 1997, a former university classmate introduced him to Asma, and they married the following year. Asma told me that her husband was “a very kind-hearted person, [but] we didn’t have deep conversations about our future or experiences.” She added that he liked to sleep a lot, to watch television (usually Al Jazeera and Egyptian movies), and to read “every newspaper he could find.” In 2000, the couple had a son, Mohammed. Soon after, al-Haj answered a newspaper advertisement for a trainee position at Al Jazeera, and the family moved to Qatar. He started work on a trial basis in April 2000.
At Al Jazeera al-Haj trained as a cameraman. His colleagues remember him as quiet and eager. As it happened, he didn’t have to wait long. After September 11, the network needed journalists willing to work in a war zone, and novices like al-Haj and Abdelhaq Sadah were eager to go. On October 7, al-Haj signed a contract, and three days later the network sent him to Afghanistan with a correspondent named Youssef al-Shouly. “We tried to dissuade him from going because we thought it was too dangerous,” his brother, Asim, later told The Associated Press. “But in the end he said this was an opportunity to join the Al Jazeera team and prove himself.”
Al-Haj and al-Shouly arrived in Kandahar at a moment when the city was becoming increasingly dangerous. CNN—the only remaining U.S. network there—was already preparing to leave. So CNN struck a deal with Al Jazeera: the Arabic network could occupy the brick house that served as CNN’s bureau and transmit images over its satellite dish, which CNN could then use in its own reports. For nearly two weeks, journalists from both Al Jazeera and CNN shared the house. They often covered similar stories, and the CNN crew trained the Al Jazeera team to use its equipment. Because it was too risky for journalists to operate in Kandahar independently, most of the time they could film only with Taliban permission. In fact, Taliban commanders frequently stopped by the house with story ideas; once they brought the landing gear of an American helicopter. They were such a regular presence that the CNN staff began to worry that an unmanned drone might target the house—although the crew had given its coordinates to the Pentagon—and stretched a large tarpaulin bearing the network’s name over the nearby ground.
Al-Shouly was clearly in charge of the Al Jazeera team. He had all the sources, and he told al-Haj what to shoot. They usually produced one or two stories a day with only a few hours of sleep, and al-Haj would regularly ask al-Shouly how to improve his work. The two had little time for personal conversations, but al-Haj would talk about “his kid, his family in Sudan, that his sister and brothers wanted to go to university but they were not wealthy and he wanted to send money,” al-Shouly told me. CNN’s fixer at the time, Kamal Hyder (now the Islamabad correspondent for Al Jazeera English), remembers that al-Haj “was very particular about his prayers; he was very particular about his work.”
At night, the journalists sometimes gathered in the courtyard and ate around a small fire. Occasionally, the CNN journalists borrowed a copy of al-Haj’s Koran to discuss Taliban interpretations of Islamic law. Al-Haj liked to greet Alfredo DeLara, the CNN cameraman at the time, with a high five, and was quick to adopt American jokes and phrases. “He was very excited to be there. You could see it on his face. He said he wanted to be like me,” DeLara said. DeLara and the CNN correspondent, Nic Robertson, were suspicious of everybody they met, but they saw no cause to be alarmed about al-Haj. “He just seemed like a young kid trying to get his big break,” said DeLara.
Al-Haj was detained at a moment when distrust of Al Jazeera was accumulating rapidly at the highest levels of the American government. Before 9/11, Al Jazeera was hailed as a rare independent voice in the Middle East. But after the attacks, while Middle East specialists in the government continued to advocate that the U.S. engage with the network, others in the administration developed an intense hostility toward it. According to numerous former senior administration officials, the major hubs of animosity were the Office of the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense, particularly the offices run by Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Stephen Cambone, the former undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
After the Iraq war began, that suspicion intensified. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, said: “There was just this visceral, ‘I-don’t-like-them, they’re-our-enemies’ response. And they would spread stories like Al Jazeera setting ambushes and IEDs”—in Iraq—“so they could film the insurgents’ attacks. These were the kinds of stories that were told inside the Oval Office . . . . I heard conversations of that nature almost every month during later 2003 and 2004.”
On close examination, however, claims of links between Al Jazeera and terrorist organizations prove murky. I spoke to a number of military officers and commanders who had served in Iraq. Several told me that they suspected Al Jazeera stringers of communicating with insurgents, but had no concrete evidence. “This was reported by every commander throughout Iraq—the Al Jazeera journalists always seemed to be at the right place at the right time,” said Col. William Darley, who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as the chief Public Affairs Officer for Combined Joint Task Force-7. “Most of the senior commanders loathed Al Jazeera. There was a very uneasy relationship of suspicion and distrust between Bremer and the cpa staff and Al Jazeera.” (L. Paul Bremer was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.) Darley added that the Army made “probably at least a dozen” efforts to catch Al Jazeera reporters in such activities, but never succeeded. A former senior U.S. intelligence official told me that if there were any serious evidence pointing to links between Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, he would have known about it. “It wasn’t a major theme of any consequence in the intelligence community,” he said.
Asma al-haj didn’t know what had happened to her husband until late 2002, when she received a letter from him explaining that he was in Guantánamo. Around the same time, Al Jazeera issued a press release announcing that an employee was being held at the camp. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld requesting information, but received no reply. For the next three years, little was known about the circumstances of al-Haj’s detention, until early 2005 when he obtained the services of Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer based in Britain.
The unorthodox legal processes governing detainees at Guantánamo are ill-suited to the familiar legal terminology of a trial. For the first two years that Guantánamo operated, the administration was able to prevent inmates from having access to any kind of legal forum at all, including Article 5 hearings under the Geneva Conventions (historically used by the military to determine whether a detainee is a legitimate prisoner of war) or habeas corpus review in a U.S. court. When the Supreme Court pronounced this state of affairs unconstitutional in June 2004, the administration devised special panels for detainees: a Combat Status Review Tribunal, or CSRT, to review whether a detainee’s “enemy combatant” status was justified; followed by an Administrative Review Board, or ARB, an annual assessment of whether the detainee still belonged at Guantánamo. But those forums bear little resemblance to trials. They begin with the assumption that the detainee’s enemy combatant label is correct. Instead of charging a detainee with violations of international or national law, military officers present an “Unclassified Summary of Evidence,” which is assumed to be accurate. The detainee and his lawyer (if he has one) are rarely permitted to see the evidence itself, if at all. Nor can the lawyer attend the hearing (the detainee is instead provided with a military representative, who is obliged to tell the panel of any useful information he learns about the detainee in the process of helping him prepare). So far the written summaries in al-Haj’s CSRTs and ARBs are the only formal information Stafford Smith has about why his client is being detained in Guantánamo.
The accusation that al-Haj had filmed Osama bin Laden did not resurface in the unclassified evidence described to al-Haj in the three hearings he has had. Instead, the allegations against him have evolved over time. In his status review, held in late 2004, military officials said al-Haj had gone to Afghanistan to buy Stinger missiles to fight in Chechnya, a charge that has since been dropped. Then, he was alleged to have sought the missiles in 1996, although Stafford Smith says he can prove that al-Haj was in the United Arab Emirates every day of that year.
An administrative review the following year offered a rather confusing string of contentions. There’s a claim that between 1997 and 1999, al-Haj delivered several hundred thousand dollars from the United Beverage Company to the Azerbaijan branch of Al Haramayn, an Islamic charity sometimes described as the “United Way of Saudi Arabia.” Several branches of Al Haramayn (although not the one in Azerbaijan) were designated by the U.S. Treasury after 9/11 as providing financial support to Al Qaeda. Stafford Smith said al-Haj simply delivered the money on his employer’s instructions and declared it to customs, unaware that part of the sum later made its way to an organization that supported the Chechens in 1999. Al-Haj is also said to have “met” a senior Al Qaeda lieutenant, Mamdouh Mahmoud Salim, while working at the Union Beverage Company, according to an Associated Press report. (The AP reported that al-Haj once picked Salim and his family up from the airport on behalf of his boss.) There’s also a reference to documents from al-Haj’s personal business, called Samico Services, being found “during a raid of locations occupied by suspected extremists affiliated with . . . an Egyptian extremist” in an unspecified country. “Neither I nor Sami have any idea what this is about,” Stafford Smith told me. He said that one of the allegations—that al-Haj lied on a business form establishing Samico Services, saying he was also the co-owner of another business—is “true but totally irrelevant.”
It’s impossible to assess the veracity—or the relevance—of the government’s claims. The Department of Defense did not answer a list of detailed questions about al-Haj’s case, and instead provided me with a written response which read, in part: “There is a significant amount of evidence, both unclassified and classified, which supports continued detention of Sami Al-Hajj by U.S. forces.” But current and former intelligence and military sources I spoke with doubted that al-Haj was of any significance to U.S. interests, even if he did commit the alleged offenses. The former senior intelligence official told me that if al-Haj was truly a significant detainee, he would have been briefed on his case.
For his part, Stafford Smith believes that al-Haj “is clearly in Guantánamo for one reason only, and that’s because he’s an employee of Al Jazeera.” According to Stafford Smith, al-Haj has been interrogated approximately 130 times. Roughly 125 of those sessions, he said, dealt not with the allegations but with Al Jazeera’s operations. Stafford Smith told me that military interrogators have repeatedly asked al-Haj to confirm that prominent Al Jazeera journalists are members of terrorist organizations or that Al Jazeera is funded by Al Qaeda. In addition, said Stafford Smith, interrogators offered to release al-Haj if he would spy on the network. Several military and intelligence sources with knowledge of Guantánamo told me that those contentions seem plausible, but they are impossible to confirm.
There is one public record of an interrogation of al-Haj. In 2005, Eric Saar, a former Army linguist at Guantánamo, published Inside the Wire, a critical account of his experiences. Saar describes an interrogation of an Al Jazeera cameraman, to whom, like all the prisoners in the book, Saar grants a pseudonym—in this case “Adib.” (Saar is prohibited by the Pentagon from commenting on the book.) The interrogation is conducted by an employee of an unnamed government agency. She asks for “Adib’s” restraints to be removed, offers him a Coke, and questions him about the financing of particular Islamic charities. Saar does not mention any questions about Al Jazeera, although at the end of a cordial conversation, the interrogator asks “Adib” whether he would do a story on Guantánamo. He replies: “I can’t wait to do the story . . . . I’m going to tell exactly what I’ve seen here—that the American authorities have no respect for Islam, and they are holding innocent men without charging them with anything.”
It’s worth noting that in the public allegations, at least, al-Haj has not been accused of committing any aggressive acts against the U.S. According to a review of the first 517 combatant status reviews by the Seton Hall University School of Law in 2006, this places him in the same category as 55 percent of Guantánamo’s inmates. (Only 8 percent were accused of fighting for Al Qaeda.) The thousands of pages of status and administrative review transcripts often make for curious reading. Sometimes, a detainee is presented with a serious accusation, such as attending an Al Qaeda training camp. But in other cases, the assertions are based on circumstantial connections with suspected terrorists or organizations that support them. What is especially striking about the reviews is that rather than being a process to assess the fairness of the allegations, they instead appear to provide an additional forum to gather information about the detainee.
On August 12, 2005, at his first administrative review, al-Haj appeared in front of the three-man panel in the white uniform worn by detainees deemed to be well-behaved, with his right foot swathed in a blue bandage or cast. A person identified as the Designated Military Officer summarized the evidence against him. In addition to the claims mentioned above, there were some related to his journalistic work, such as a statement that al-Haj had interviewed several Taliban officials in Kandahar, as well as a member of Al Qaeda. The officer noted that al-Haj had told interrogators that “he would exercise caution in future assignments with Al Jazeera.” “Before, I worked for Al Jazeera as a cameraman but I am not sure I can ever go back to journalism,” al-Haj responded. “It is too dangerous, and I want to be with my family.”
By now, about 395 detainees have been released or transferred from Guantánamo, and a number have described their experiences in interviews and books. Many of them offer an eerily similar picture of a place where the strangeness of the surroundings produces a distinct culture and vocabulary. For instance, many detainees can casually reel off the jargon associated with the ARBs or CSRTs, or talk in matter-of-fact tones of being “IRF-ed”—forcibly removed from their cells by a five- or six-man Immediate Reaction Force.
One of al-Haj’s closest friends in Guantánamo was Jamal Abdullah Kiyemba, a Ugandan citizen who had lived in Britain since he was a teenager. Kiyemba, a soft-spoken pharmaceutical and cosmetic science student, was seized in Pakistan, where he said he had gone to study Arabic and the Koran, by local military forces. (His status review “summary of evidence” said he had traveled to Pakistan to fight in the jihad in Afghanistan.) He was released in February 2006 and deported to Uganda, where he spoke to me by phone.
Kiyemba remembers his first meeting with al-Haj quite clearly. One day, he told me, a tall detainee wearing the standard orange uniform was brought into the next cell. His beard and hair had recently been shaved; he had a black eye and a swollen face. Kiyemba greeted him according to the detainees’ informal social code. “You give the Islamic greeting of peace, and then you start asking, Who are you? How did you get here? What happened to you? Then I asked him why his face was so swollen, and he told me he was IRF-ed.”
At that time, the two were living in Camp Two (they would later share a room in Camp Four, the medium-security block, where multiple detainees occupy each room). Camp Two, Kiyemba said, comprises cell blocks “like cargo containers from a ship,” each housing two rows of twenty-four, six-by-eight-foot steel cells, some painted a soothing shade of green. Every cell contained a bed, a mattress, a blanket, a prayer mat, a pair of slippers, a Koran, a sink, and a squat toilet. Guards pushed food through an aperture in the door known as the “din hole”; fluorescent lights flooded the cells twenty-four hours a day through the tightly woven mesh walls. Curiously, many Guantánamo detainees talk more about the humiliation of being constantly exposed than of being physically abused. Perhaps because of the lack of privacy, most inmates made an effort to get to know those around them; Kiyemba and al-Haj became good friends while they lived in adjoining cells.
In Guantánamo, many detainees seem to find solace in Islamic rituals. Al-Haj and Kiyemba prayed five times a day. Kiyemba told me that al-Haj didn’t exercise much, because back when he was taken to Bagram Air Base, he had been left outside for long periods in the cold, causing his feet to swell and his knees to ache. Instead, he liked to read, especially the Koran and other religious texts. (In a letter to Clive Stafford Smith, al-Haj mentioned that he wouldn’t mind some secular reading material, but the only books available were “silly ones about TinTin or Mickey Mouse.”) Occasionally, the inmates on the block would hold concerts and sing Islamic songs, and al-Haj would act as the emcee. Kiyemba also often saw al-Haj writing in his cell when he was permitted a pen and paper.
At first, his wife Asma told me, al-Haj’s letters contained a lot of poetry. He wrote one poem called “On the meaning of the Statue of Liberty” that reads, in part: “Sadly, the flame in her hand is sputtering in the storm. Will, first, the light go out on the world, and then the statue crumble?” At other times, he seems determined to act as a reporter inside Guantánamo. Once, he detailed twelve incidents of abuse or mistreatment he had heard about from other detainees. A number of these incidents are confirmed by official investigations and press accounts, such as a female interrogator’s wiping what she said was menstrual blood on a detainee, prolonged use of stress positions, the use of dogs, careless or offensive handling of the Koran by prison guards, and the wrapping of a detainee in an Israeli flag during an interrogation. On another occasion, al-Haj gathered information on a hunger strike that Stafford Smith used to encourage media coverage. “It took me a visit to work out what a gold mine Sami is,” Stafford Smith said. Kiyemba remarked to me that al-Haj “had that journalist attitude.”
Despite the novelty of al-Haj’s status as the only journalist inside Guantánamo, it was a long time before he attracted much media attention. At first, even Al Jazeera was reluctant to cover his story. “Up until around 2003, the air was very tense. You didn’t really want to investigate it too much,” said Ahmad Ibrahim, an Al Jazeera producer who has researched al-Haj’s case. “At least to a lot of people around the world, holding people was probably justifiable due to the enormity of 9/11. And in the Arab world, the situation at Guantánamo was difficult to comprehend or believe, even—that any kind of torture would be perpetrated by the U.S. A lot of people didn’t comprehend what Guantánamo stood for, and the legal arguments that were used to justify it.” In 2005, Ibrahim invited Stafford Smith to Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha. “That’s when the big interest in Sami and his plight started.”
Since then, al-Haj has become a cause célèbre in the Arab world. Ibrahim made a forty-five-minute documentary about him, Prisoner 345, and Al Jazeera regularly reports on his case. Al-Haj has also been featured in several stories in the British press. But despite repeated efforts by Ibrahim and Stafford Smith, there was until very recently almost no coverage of al-Haj in the U.S., apart from a New York Times column last October by Nicholas Kristof. Al Jazeera “is still perceived in a very negative way” in the U.S., said Joel Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I think that has made people pause when looking at this case.”
But while some journalists may distrust Al Jazeera, or may have believed Donald Rumsfeld’s discredited claim that the inmates represented the “worst of the worst,” others may have avoided writing about detainees like al-Haj because of a more mundane bias: the simple difficulty of reporting about Guantánamo. It’s often been noted that the lopsided legal process fashioned by the Bush administration makes it virtually impossible for detainees to defend themselves. A lesser noticed consequence is that the withholding of evidence makes it impossible for journalists to write a conventionally “balanced” story about individual detainees—and hence, they are less likely to write about them at all. While researching this piece, for instance, I’ve had plenty of access to al-Haj’s lawyer and to Al Jazeera, but none to the Department of Defense or al-Haj himself. This imbalance is uncomfortable, but to be deterred by it would be to miss the point. The central question underlying the case of al-Haj and the other detainees is not their guilt or innocence, but why they have been held at Guantánamo for six years without a mechanism to fairly determine whether they belong there.
On september 11, 2006, al-Haj had another administrative review, this one conducted in his absence. Later he was informed that he would be remaining in Guantánamo for at least another year. In November, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which, for now, has largely removed the Guantánamo detainees from the scrutiny of federal courts. The act also established a new form of military tribunal following successful court challenges to the previous system. The act requires detainees to be charged with specific offenses, and allows lawyers some access to evidence. But the Bush administration has said that it plans to prosecute only seventy or eighty detainees in the new forums; al-Haj is not one of them. More recently, the government has moved to stanch the flow of information from Guantánamo to the outside world. In April, the Pentagon sought to restrict lawyers to three visits per client. In May, it withdrew that proposal under criticism, but is still pursuing measures to monitor mail between lawyers and their clients, and to bar access by lawyers to the classified information that supports a detainee’s designation as an “enemy combatant.” Those proposals have reverberated among Guantánamo’s inhabitants. As the detainees have become increasingly despairing about the indefinite nature of their confinement, some have turned against their lawyers, while others have responded in a more drastic fashion.
At 9.30 a.m. on January 7, 2007, al-Haj began a hunger strike. (In official government Guantánamo parlance, this is known as “voluntary fasting.”) He sent a letter to his interrogator and the admiral in charge of the base, demanding respect for the prisoners’ religious rights, the proper application of the Geneva Conventions to the camp, an end to the practice of total isolation, an investigation of three prisoners who died in June 2006, and a fair trial in a U.S. court. After he stopped eating, his correspondence became noticeably less lucid. A letter dated January 10 reads: “After I miss three meal they started to punished they put me on level 4 not allowed to go for RAC and they taken everything even the bottle of water and glasses and knee band and my letters and pen even my lovely son photo. They left for me only green mat.”
Al-Haj’s weight has fluctuated wildly since he arrived at Guantánamo. In September 2006, it had climbed to 284.5 pounds, according to Defense Department records, only to drop by almost one hundred pounds in ten weeks. In a diary of his hunger strike that he wrote for his lawyers, al-Haj noted that he now weighed 167 pounds after twenty-one days of fasting. Once the weight of a detainee drops to 80 percent of his normal weight, he is required to be “enterally fed,” that is, fed liquids through a tube. In his characteristically precise manner, al-Haj described being strapped to a custom-built chair while a doctor pushed a yellow tube down his left nostril until it reached his stomach, then filled it with 250 milliliters of a liquid called Ensure.
By early June, eighteen detainees were refusing food. Al-Haj had not yet received a reply to his letter to the admiral, but he has no intention of stopping. “I will continue the struggle until we get our rights. The strike is the only way that I can protest,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, to my wife and son I say, ‘Don’t worry. What will happen will happen. One day the sun will shine again, and we will be free. Facts are facts and at last we will prevail.’”