A jury today convicted on all counts Sulayman Abu Ghayth, a Kuwaiti preacher who made televised statements in support of al-Qaeda shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001. As expected, war-on-terror liberals are seizing upon the outcome as proof that civilian courts are a superior alternative to military tribunals at Guantánamo. On Friday I blogged about some of the legal issues raised by the case and how it fits into broader US detention policies. Civilian trials are undoubtedly preferable to kangaroo courts at Guantánamo in principle and one hopes that the administration uses this verdict to finally close the prison in Cuba. But uncritical celebration of civilian courts is also a problem — and especially unseemly when tied to a kind of liberal machismo about who is “toughest on terror.”
For example, the conspiracy charges for which Abu Ghayth was convicted today encompassed all al-Qaeda attacks in which Americans were killed from 1998 to 2013, even though the government did not allege any affiliation with the group prior to 2001 and it is undisputed that he was in detention in Iran from 2003 until shortly before his arrest. A life sentence at this point is almost certain.
Aside from the legal issues, the story of the man invariably described in media accounts as the “son-in-law of Osama bin Laden” sheds some light on the broader story of al-Qaeda, the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iran’s reaction to both.
Emphasizing Abu Ghayth’s marriage to bin Laden’s daughter Fatima implies an alliance between the two men through the gifting of a woman (the jury was, properly, not given this prejudicial information). Bin Laden and one of his late associates, the late Muhammad ‘Atif (Abu Hafs al-Misri), were related by marriage through their children; and the urban legend persists that bin Laden betrothed one of his daughters to the Taliban leader Muhammad ‘Umar. The circumstances of Abu Ghayth’s marriage to Fatima bin Laden, however, were very different: The two were married around 2008 while imprisoned in Iran and apparently cut off from the outside world. It’s not clear at all if bin Laden consented to or was even aware of the union.
This detail emerged earlier this month, when Abu Ghayth’s attorneys took the unusual step of releasing in open court the report from his FBI interrogation on a government-chartered flight from Jordan to the United States. The document is an FD-302, a form typically used to memorialize interviews. It’s not a verbatim statement, but rather one reconstructed from notes taken by agents (the FBI does not electronically record interrogations as a matter of policy) so it must be treated with due skepticism. Nevertheless, the report is fascinating, even if it raises as many questions as it answers, especially in the crucial matter of Arab families caught up in the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Thirteen years on, there is still no thorough accounting of the invasion of Afghanistan and its aftermath, including possible war crimes committed by the US and its allies and proxies. In the panic surrounding the fall of the Taliban, foreign Muslims (especially Arabs) were often indiscriminately targeted by the US and Northern Alliance as potential members of al-Qaeda. These men were a mix of fighters, aid workers, preachers, tourists and drifters. Bounty hunters on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border sold Arabs to the Americans, who subsequently sent them to Bagram, Guantánamo or elsewhere. Pakistan’s then-president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, boasted about the bounties in his memoirs, only to excise the reference in the subsequent Urdu translation.
According to the interrogation report, Abu Ghayth somehow managed to avoid the dragnet and sneak westward across the border into Iran. Although the details of his crossing and initial months underground are extremely vague, Abu Ghayth claims that he, along with several senior al-Qaeda members, was captured by Iranian authorities at the same time in 2003. Abu Ghayth claimed that “he did not know why he was arrested, never received any trial and was never formally sentenced.” Nor was he interrogated or tortured (as one of his fellow prisoners, former senior al-Qaeda member Abu Hafs al-Mauritani confirmed in an interview with Al Jazeera upon his return home). Instead, the men appear to have been kept as bargaining chips.
Abu Ghayth’s statement to the FBI reads in parts like a first draft of a prison memoir. There are stories of resistance to their captors, violent altercations and small victories preciously fought for, especially the right to receive outside news or communicate with relatives. Needless to say, journalists covering Abu Ghayth’s trial reported that the prosecution strenuously objected to mentions of his time in Iranian custody while on the stand, lest they evoke some sympathy from the jury.
For the better part of a decade — while their counterparts languished in Guantánamo or the dungeons of American client states — these “guests” of Iran came to form a kind of community behind walls, cut off from the outside world but kept together and even managing to raise families. After nearly two years, they were moved from to a specially segregated military compound within which they could circulate and where they had individual apartments. According to Abu Ghayth, the wives of the other men (who had until this point been imprisoned separately) organized protests and demanded to be with their husbands, forcing the Iranian authorities to relent. The families were eventually given simple flats in the same compound, at which point one of bin Laden’s wives and several of his children also arrived.
The details about families in the report, while few and far between, are especially striking. While we know something about the targeting of Arab men during the US invasion of Afghanistan, their wives and children have largely disappeared from view; many of the dossiers of Guantánamo detainees released by Wikileaks make only passing mention of families separated in that time. Rumors spread online about Arab women and children being ransomed by tribes in the border areas. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad’s children, who were captured along with him in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, were reportedly tortured and remain accounted for.
Unlike the other men, Abu Ghayth was not detained with his family, as he had sent his wife home for medical treatment shortly before the invasion of Afghanistan. Instead, he had to go on a three-week hunger strike to win a phone call home in 2004 or 2005, only to learn that his wife had divorced him in his absence (Kuwaiti media reported that she had been suffering severe psychological and economic distress in the years of separation). The FBI noted that “he was devastated by the news that his wife had been granted a divorce from him and that it remains a painful subject to this day.”
Cut off from his family for the foreseeable future, Abu Ghayth decided to start a new one. He married an Egyptian woman (presumably a daughter of one of the other detainees) and around 2008 also married Fatima bin Laden. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t tell us anything about how these marriages came about. It only notes that he had two children with each of these women.
Eventually each of the families had its own house within the compound. The FBI report mentions that Abu Ghayth “focused on his family/children” for the three and a half years he lived in that home. “Amongst some of his fellow detainees and their families there was a lot of chaos,” however, and some of them clashed with their Iranian captors over allowing the children to leave the compound to attend school.
The only other clue about Abu Ghayth’s family life concerns not his wife Fatima, but Fatima’s sister, Iman. While detained, Abu Ghayth penned a text, Twenty Precepts Concerning the Path of Jihad, widely seen as an implicit attack on al-Qaeda’s tactics as well as of sectarian killings pursued by the group’s affiliates such as Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi in Iraq (for those concerned about searching for suspicious texts on the Internet, you can download a copy from a “terrorology” website here). Vahid Brown, a former US government analyst and one of the few with substantive knowledge on the topic, went as far as to call Abu Ghayth part of “al-Qaeda’s dissident faction in Iran.”
According to the FBI report, Abu Ghayth gave a copy of the book to Iman bin Laden and believes that she was the one who got it published after her own escape from Iran. Whether or not this was actually the case (and for reasons we don’t have time for here, I am skeptical), Abu Ghayth’s belief that Iman ensured the publication of a book criticizing al-Qaeda reminds us that the bin Laden daughters are more than property to be used in shoring up political alliances.
The details of Abu Ghayth’s release remain unclear. At some point, Iranian officials encouraged him to contact his family in Kuwait and explore the possibility of his going home (Kuwait had stripped him of citizenship and refused earlier opportunities for extradition from Iran). Abu Ghayth managed to get the word out in Kuwait of his desire to return, sparking a lively debate in which some parliamentarians called upon the government to allow it, even if only to convene a trial.
According to the FBI report, Iranian officials handed Abu Ghayth and his family over to smugglers who took them to Turkey, apparently in January 2013 (the Egyptian wife drops out of the narrative by this point without explanation). Abu Ghayth took Fatima to the Saudi embassy to arrange for her return home, only to be arrested a few hours later, once again separated from his family. Apparently his plan had been to seek asylum in Turkey or somehow get to Saudi Arabia and perhaps one day to Kuwait — completing a roughly circular, 13-year journey from the Gulf to south and central Asia and back. It wasn’t to be.
While Fatima returned to Saudi Arabia, Turkish authorities reportedly deemed Abu Ghayth’s presence in the country illegal but also rejected the idea of handing him over to the US, at least directly. Abu Ghayth spent the next month in Turkey, likely while some kind of deal over his fate was worked out. On February 28, Abu Ghayth got on a plane to Kuwait via Jordan. This sequence of events has all the markings of a setup, since Kuwait had never signaled its willingness to accept him and there are plenty of direct flights between Turkey and Kuwait. Jordan — whose intelligence service is the CIA’s most eager ally in the region — was intended as a stopover not to Kuwait, but to New York. Jordanian and American agents were waiting for him at the airport.