17 years ago, on June 10, 2006, the world awoke to the shocking news that three men had died at Guantánamo, allegedly through a coordinated suicide pact. The three men were Yasser al-Zahrani, a Saudi who was just 17 years old when he was seized in Afghanistan, Mani al-Utaybi, another Saudi, who was around 30 years of age, and Ali al-Salami (also known as Ali Abdullah Ahmed), a Yemeni, who was around 23 years old.
I mark the anniversary of the deaths of these men every year, and many of us who remember that day also remember being shocked when Rear Adm. Harry Harris, the prison’s commander, told the world, “This was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us.”
However, while Harris was rightly condemned for suggesting that committing suicide — taking your own life, with no harm to others — could be considered “an act of asymmetric warfare,” not enough scrutiny has been given to the fact that there was a “war” taking place in Guantánamo, but it was not the “war” that Harris envisaged.
As Harris saw it, Al-Qaeda members, held at Guantánamo, were waging war on the brave forces of the US military, most persistently by engaging in hunger strikes, and, on the night of June 9-10, 2006, apparently though taking their own lives.
However, a much more accurate way of viewing the situation at Guantánamo is as a war by the US military on hundreds of men — most of whom had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda — who were held indefinitely without charge or trial, in an experimental prison sealed shut from the outside world, in which torture and other forms of abuse were, or had been routinely practiced, and in which the prisoners ’only means of resistance was through putting their bodies on the line to disrupt the prison’s operations.
For this perspective, hunger strikes are, and always have been the most powerful way in which prisoners held in particularly brutal and isolated conditions — as was the case at Guantánamo — can exercise any control.
The three men who died at Guantánamo on the night of June 9-10, 2006 were all long-term hunger strikers, and while that course of action can pose significant health risks in the long-term, engaging in hunger strikes is, more often than not, a triumph of the will against intolerable circumstances, in which death is not the purpose; it is, instead, a cry for life and for justice.
The suicide story therefore makes no sense, especially as the men who died had a history of persistent non-compliance at odds with the notion that they would take their own lives, and two of them had actually been approved for release at the time of their deaths, although it was unclear whether one of them had been informed of this development.
The three men who died on June 9-10, 2006
Yasser al-Zahrani, the only one of the three who could definitively be placed in Afghanistan, as a soldier with Arab forces supporting the Taliban, was the son of a former Brigadier General in the Saudi police force, and had survived a massacre in northern Afghanistan in December 2001, after he and other men had been persuaded to surrender, but then staged an uprising, fearing that they were going to be executed instead.
As I described it in my article in 2019 marking the deaths, in Guantánamo “the authorities noted a history of him being ‘non-compliant and hostile to the guard force and staff.’ However, he was regarded as having little or no intelligence value, and his classified military file, dated March 2006 and released by WikiLeaks in 2011, recommended his return to Saudi Arabia, to be held in “continued detention [that] allows access to detainee and/or to exploited intelligence,” which, in reality, as I explained, “would have meant him being repatriated and put through Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program for [alleged] jihadists, like numerous other Saudi prisoners.”
Mani al-Utaybi, as I explained, “had been in Pakistan undertaking missionary work with Talbighi Jamaat, a vast proselytizing organization, and there is no evidence that he was anywhere near the battlefields of Afghanistan. He was seized in January 2002, near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, with four other men, all dressed in burkas, who seem to have taken it up on themselves to try to get into Afghanistan in an absurd and thwarted bid to assist the resistance to the US occupation.”
Described by the US authorities as having been “belligerent, argumentative, harassing, and very aggressive,” he was, as I also explained, regarded as “worthless from an intelligence perspective, and, in June 2005, had been cleared to be “transferred to the control of another country for continued detention” (which, as with al-Qahtani, would have meant the Saudi rehabilitation program).
Ali al-Salami, as I also explained, “had also been regarded as ‘aggressive’ at Guantánamo, but was also, according to the US authorities, thoroughly insignificant in terms of his intelligence value, ‘a street vendor who sold clothing,’ and ‘was prompted to travel to Pakistan to receive [a religious] education upon hearing God’s calling.’ As with al-Utaybi, there is no allegation that he was anywhere near the battlefields of Afghanistan. He had been studying in Faisalabad at Jamea Salafia University, a madrassa (religious school), but had been living in a dormitory that was allegedly connected to Abu Zubaydah.”
Abu Zubaydah, still held at Guantánamo, is one of the most brutalized prisoners in the whole the “war on terror,” for whom the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was first developed, in the mistaken belief that the was the number three in Al-Qaeda. When he was seized in a house raid in Faisalabad, on March 28, 2002, many dozens of other men were also seized — both in the house where Abu Zubaydah was staying, and in other houses raised on the same night — but all have eventually been released from Guantánamo without charge or trial, as would, presumably, have been the case with al-Salami, had he not died 17 years ago.
Noticeably, many of the three men’s fellow prisoners have expressed incredulity about the official narrative about their deaths, and in 2010 Joseph Hickman, a former Staff Sergeant who was in charge of the watch towers on the night of the deaths, reported seeing vehicles traveling to and from the block where the men supposedly died, leading him to conclude that they had been taken to a secret facility on the base where they had been either deliberately or accidentally killed.
Nothing came of Hickman’s revelations (via a Harper’s Magazine article, “The Guantánamo Suicides,” by Scott Horton, published in 2010, and his book Murder at Camp Delta, published in 2015), but it remained inexplicable — and still is today — that, for the official story to be true, the three men had, as I described it in 2019, “managed to stuff rags down their own throats, tie their feet together, tie their hands together, create a noose, climb up onto the cell’s sinks, put the noose around their neck, and then jump with sufficient force to die by self-inflicted strangulation, all while shielding their activities from the guards, who were supposed to persistently keep a watch on the cells.”
In addition, in 2015 a Newsweek reporter, Alexander Nazaryan, noted that a “highly placed source in the Department of Defense who deals with detainees’ affairs, and who asked to remain anonymous because he is not permitted to speak to the media without receiving prior clearance,” had written to to him in an email, “After reviewing the information concerning the three deaths at Camp Delta on June 9, 2006, it is painfully apparent the personnel involved in fact created an illusion of an investigation. When you consider the missing documents, the lack of key interviews, and the questionable evidence found on the bodies, it is blatantly obvious there was something that occurred that night that is not documented.”
Other deaths at Guantánamo
Noticeably, the three deaths on the night of June 9-10, 2006 were not the only deaths at Guantánamo. On May 30, 2007, a Saudi prisoner, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, also died, reportedly by committing suicide, on June 1, 2009 another alleged suicide took place when Mohammed al-Hanashi (Muhammed Salih), a Yemeni, also died, followed, in September 2012, by Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, another Yemeni.
In 2021, when former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi’s compelling memoir, Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantánamo, was published, I was shocked to discover that five of these men — all except Abdul Rahman al-Amri — had been part of a group of around a dozen prisoners (mostly young Yemenis, and including Adayfi himself), who had persistently resisted the injustice of Guantánamo, through hunger strikes and incessant non-compliance. Adayfi called them the “Redeyes,” repeatedly dealt with violently, and who spent much of their time in isolation cells.
Perhaps the truth will never be known, but it still strikes me as unbelievably coincidental that five of the dozen men who had so persistently fought against Guantánamo’s injustices, and had been such a thorn in the side of the authorities, conveniently took their own lives rather than continuing to make their captors lives as difficult as possible.
I hope you will join with me today in remembering these men, and for further information about the deaths of Mohammed al-Hanashi and Abdul Rahman al-Amri, I recommend Jeffrey Kaye’s book, Cover-up at Guantanamo: The NCIS Investigation into the “Suicides” of Mohammed al Hanashi and Abdul Rahman Al Amri, with additional documents that can be found here.
Jeffrey also investigated one of the three other deaths that took place at Guantánamo — that of Inayatullah (aka Haji Naseem), a mentally troubled Afghan who died in May 2011 — and as we’re remembering those killed at or by Guantánamo, I’d also like to remember Awal Gul, an Afghan who died after taking exercise in February 2011, and to recommend the front-page New York Times story that I wrote with Carlotta Gall in February 2008 about Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, who died of cancer in December 2007, presumably though medical neglect on the part of the authorities. Our story revealed, crucially, how the authorities had failed to take any interest in his mistaken imprisonment. Accused of being a Taliban supporter, he had actually been involved in organizing a jailbreak to free three prominent anti-Taliban individuals from prison.