It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This

Inside the Dark Heart of Guantánamo Bay

By Molly Crabapple


n Gitmo, nothing is certain. All participants are biased, and facts about detainees are hidden behind classifications, razor wire, and improvised legalese. 

As I researched Nabil before my trip, there was little information available other than what was relayed by his lawyer, Cori Crider, and a cachet of tribunal transcripts leaked by Bradley Manning. The DoD refuses to comment on individual detainees, and any communication with the prisoners themselves is forbidden. Details of Nabil’s life, unless otherwise specified, come from Crider.

Crider told me that Nabil’s father fought on the French side in the Algerian War, and on occasion served as a guard for Charles de Gaulle. Born in Algeria, Nabil arrived in France as an infant. His first language is French and his half-siblings from his father’s first marriage are all French citizens—one even earned a National Medal of Honor for his service in the French army. But because Nabil was born in Algeria, earning his French citizenship was a process. At 21, he hired an immigration lawyer to file his residency papers. The lawyer told him to leave the country while the papers were processed. Not wanting to return to Algeria, Nabil bought a fake passport, and then took off to England.

London can be a rough place for immigrants without the proper paperwork. Going broke while working off the books at a pizzeria, Nabil took the advice of a friend from his mosque: in Afghanistan, living was cheap, papers were superfluous, and you could study the Qur’an while the bureaucratic wheels churned in France. So, in the spring of 2001, Nabil decided to have an adventure.

Nabil’s first stop was a Kabul guesthouse, where his host gave him a gun for self-defense. Then, in September, everything changed when two planes smashed into the World Trade Center.

As American bombs fell on Afghanistan, Nabil started hearing reports that locals were rounding up Arabs. With his housemates, he fled into what the Department of Defense described as the Tora Bora mountains. Wounded by US bombs while trying to cross the border, a few “friendly” townspeople brought Nabil to a local hospital.

According to a report by the Seton Hall School of Law in 2006, only 5 percent of the 517 detainees then in Gitmo were captured by US forces. Eighty-six percent were turned over to US Armed Forces by Pakistan, the Northern Alliance, or random Afghans. The US was offering bounties of thousands of dollars a head. In an impoverished land known for kidnapping and extortion, this was a fortune of almost unimaginable proportions. One flyer dropped in Afghanistan read: “You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch al Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.” 

“There are awkward parallels between the failed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the failed purpose of Guantánamo,” Peter Van Buren, a former State Department official, and the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, told me. “In both instances the US believed that money, lots of money, could solve any problem. The US believed that despite its own ignorance of the politics of bounty hunting and a third-country national presence, as well as the true reconstruction needs of Afghans, that was no reason not to act. Lastly, the US believed that even when failure was clear, it was crucial to pretend the opposite. So reconstruction projects are all labeled a success, and anyone in Guantánamo is obviously a terrorist.”

In the US, you’re innocent until proven guilty. At Gitmo, the opposite is true. According to his Combat Status Review Tribunal Summary, Nabil was a member of al Qaeda. By way of proof, they have only that he was in Afghanistan, owned a gun, and had attended a London mosque known for its extremism. To flesh out his “terrorist” profile, the official summary adds tales of a terrorist training camp and a grenade-filled mountain trench. No member of US forces has ever reported laying eyes on either, but this doesn’t matter because the secretive tribunals at Guantánamo allow hearsay as evidence against detainees.  

Add in circumstantial evidence, confessions extracted under torture, and “the presumption of regularity,” which means the presumption is that US officials are nothing but honest. Following this logic, the truth itself is impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt—buried somewhere in the Tora Bora mountains. 

Afghans sold Nabil to Afghan forces from his hospital bed. Injured and terrified, he huddled together with five other men in the underground cell of a prison in Kabul. Interrogators whipped him. The screams of the tortured kept him awake at night. According to a statement filed by Clive Stafford Smith, Nabil’s lawyer at the time, “Someone—either an interpreter or another prisoner—whispered to him, ‘Just say you are al Qaeda and they will stop beating you.’”

At Bagram, Americans held Nabil naked in an aircraft hanger that was so cold he thought he’d die of exposure, while military personal in warm coats sipped hot chocolate. When Nabil tried to recant confessions he’d made under torture, the soldiers just beat him more, according to a statement filed by Clive Stafford Smith. Finally, the military transferred Nabil to Kandahar, and then to Guantánamo Bay. 

Nabil arrived at Gitmo’s Camp X-Ray in February 2002. With its watchtowers, clapboard interrogation huts, and rings of barbed wire, X-Ray looks nothing but surreal—a concentration camp on the Caribbean. For the four months it took the JTF to build permanent prisons, Nabil lived in a metal cage under the burning Cuban sun. For hygiene, he had one bucket for water and another for shit. During the seven hours it took me to complete a drawing of X-Ray, I nearly passed out from the mosquitos and heat. 

Camp X-Ray has been abandoned for over a decade. Birds nest on the razor wire. Vines have overtaken the cages. With the breeze and butterflies, one could think it is just a still-standing reminder of a shameful past. For the current prisoners who passed through X-Ray, it is still part of their reality. They may have left, but they are not free.

In X-Ray’s interrogation huts, and later in the permanent prisons of Camp Delta, Americans practiced short-shackling, stress positions, dry-boarding (stuffing rags down a man’s throat and taping his nose and mouth shut), and sexual humiliation. Female interrogators molested detainees and smeared them with fake menstrual blood, according to Inside the Wire, a book written by a former sergeant who witnessed the incident at Gitmo. Former detainee Ruhal Ahmed described being chained in a squatting position and left for days to defecate on himself while dogs growled in his face. A memo by JAG (Judge Advocate General Corps) lawyer Diane Beaver, “Legal Review of Aggressive Interrogation Techniques,” describes water-boarding, using extreme heat and cold, beatings—termed “non-injurious physical contact”—and convincing the detainee that his family was in danger of torture or death as totally A-OK once approved.  

Nabil does not like to speak about his time at Camp X-Ray.