The Story of Mohammed Al-Qahtani

I’ve mentioned high-value terrorists. I wrote about Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Mohammed Al-Qahtani (most of this story comes from Jane Mayer’s book, The Dark Side). In August 2001, prior to September 11, Al-Qahtani arrived at the Orlando airport in Florida.  He had $2800 in cash and no luggage.  He came here on a one-way ticket from Saudi Arabia and was refused entry into the country.  Further detective work, after 9/11, showed that Mohammed Atta was waiting for him in the parking lot.  Al Qahtani was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan in December of 2001.  He was in United States custody for almost 7 months before he was fingerprinted and identified as an Al Qaeda operative.  He was the 20th hijacker.  He was at the famed Malaysia meeting in 2000. (Why we didn’t get better intelligence at the Malaysia meeting is still a mystery to me.  Why we allow the Malaysian intelligence agency to take the lead is mind-boggling.)

FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, who interrogated Abu Zubaydah before he was taken away by the CIA, was called into question Al-Qahtani.  He got a lot of information in a short period time.  He even identified a sleeper cell located in Chicago.  This wasn’t enough information for US officials, who “knew” that Al Qahtani was holding out.  Tougher measures were needed.  My question is why would officials assume that a low-level screw-up who’d been captured twice in less than six months would have a treasure trove of information?  I’m just asking.  It is clear that there was a lot of outside pressure being placed on US officials.  In April of 2002 there was a terrorist attack on a synagogue in Tunisia.  The US Consulate in Karachi was attacked in June.

It is clear that towards the end of 2002, the FBI backed out of the picture.  There’s a steady stream of information from Washington to Guantánamo and back to Washington.  Donald Rumsfeld and the commander of Guantánamo Major General Dunlevy had what was described as “close and constant contact.”  By November of 2002, the gloves indeed came off.  For 48 of the next 54 days, Al-Qahtani was only allowed to sleep for four hours a day.  Besides being stripped naked, he was strip-searched and forced to undergo enemas in front of females.  He was intentionally touched by females, making it impossible for him to pray (you can’t pray if you’re unclean and you’re unclean if you’re touched by female).  He was forced to stand so long his feet and hands swelled.  He needed to have his hands and feet bandaged and elevated to treat the painful swelling.  At one point, he was treated like a dog, which included being placed in a leash and forced to jump around.  There was more degrading treatment.  He became so dehydrated at one point the physician had to start a special IV.

What did we learn from these harsh interrogations of Al-Qahtani?  Nothing.  The process was slow and time-consuming. I’m forced to scratch my head and ask the question, “Why?”  We learned nothing.  We should’ve known he knew nothing.  Now my question is, how do we try this guy? How do we put him in jail, where he belongs, for the rest of his life?

  • margaret

    I am wondering if this treatment is okay by TCB’s standard. since the dude is still alive and physically in one peace. I think we get some whacked out people who just love to torment and get their kicks out of it. Like the bullies and the people who join Blackwater. The only reason I think the FBI left is they got all their was to get. Leave it alone. But the adminstration was under the gun and all their careers were at stake if they didn’t have someone to find the link of Saddam and 9-11. So do as you will it is only humiliating right?

  • TCB

    I’m not an absolutist against anything listed. Whether or not these activities are OK depends on the circumstances. I don’t see that any of these activities meets the Thompson definition of torture, severe physical or mental pain.

    On the other hand Margaret seems very concerned about the humiliation. I admit that the humiliation was not big on my list. I would not condone humiliation simply for the sake of humiliation. But how accommodating do you want to be, For example, consider this shocker:

    “He was intentionally touched by females, making it impossible for him to pray (you can’t pray if you’re unclean and you’re unclean if you’re touched by female). “

    I don’t know what this means. Can female guard never set hands on a Muslim? Is touch a euphemism? Or was he touched in that special place? Maybe female prison guard should wear burkas. Anyway, I don’t consider women brushing up against me humiliating although I can sympathize with the need to pray afterwards.

    I would imagine that prison is humiliating enough for this terrorist since he didn’t die fighting for Allah. Imagine being the 20th 911 highjacker. That must be real impressive to fellow jihadists at home, being the guy who missed his flight.

    ECT: You spend a lot of time on the utility of these tactics which detracts from your argument that these tactics are so horrible that they should never be used. Your argument seems to be, since we learned nothing then we should have not wasted our time with this interrogation. Of course, how do you know that nothing is to be learned until the interrogation. Even then, you still may not know.

    I would agree that being boiled in oil should never be done even if we got OBL’s address. I can’t say the same for sleep deprivation or women touching jihadist.

  • TCB —

    As usual you make some good points. Torture, as I found out, can be extremely difficult to define which may be why the United States has stayed so far away from the line — historically. No one tactic was probably torture in and of itself but the combination, in my mind, was clearly torture. It is my opinion that we should stay away from degrading treatment which would include stripping a detainee naked. I guess, for me, the bottom line is why are we doing this?

    My problem with torture is twofold — it says a lot about us and it is not helpful. With regards to that last phrase, “it is not helpful,” I think this is key. If we’re not getting meaningful information from torture (enhanced interrogation) then why do it?

    Again, I appreciate your comments.