Mohammed al-Zayla, who was 24 years old at the time of his capture, admitted, in Guantánamo, that he had received military training at the al-Farouq training camp (the basic training camp for Arab recruits), but said that he didn’t fight the Northern Alliance because he wouldn’t fight other Muslims.
Mohammed al-Zayla, who was 24 years old at the time of his capture, admitted, in Guantánamo, that he had received military training at the al-Farouq training camp (the basic training camp for Arab recruits), but said that he didn’t fight the Northern Alliance because he wouldn’t fight other Muslims. He said that he went to Afghanistan because he wanted to fight in Chechnya, and an ex-Chechen fighter told him he should first receive some training in Afghanistan, and added that he was in Kabul, on the back lines, when the US-led invasion started, and that everyone in the house that he was staying in decided to leave for Pakistan via Khost.
In the documents released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, the file relating to al-Zayla was a “Recommendation for Continued Detention Under DoD Control (CD),” dated March 3, 2006, in which he was identified as Muhammad Yahya Muhsin Al-Zaylai, born in July 1977, and it was noted that he was “in good health,” although “Behavioral Health ha[d] seen him for personality disorder and outbursts,” and it was also noted that he had “a history of gastroenteritis,” and “a history of episodes of orthostatic hypotension due to dehydration from the hunger strike, which was resolved after hydration with IVF.” It was also noted that he “was on a hunger strike in March 2002 and August 2005,” and that he had scars “on his right bicep, mid abdomen, lower back and right knee.”
In assessing al-Zayla, the Task Force provided a detailed version of his story, noting that he said that, in February or March 2001, he bought and watched a video about the “atrocities being committed by the Russians against Muslims in Chechnya,” and “then made the decision to travel to Chechnya to join the jihad.” This was a reason given by many of the prisoners, and there was, to be honest, no reason to doubt it necessarily, especially as numerous sources confirm that, to have a chance of getting to Chechnya, volunteers needed first to undertake training in Afghanistan. This, al-Zayla said, is what friends told him, and he was then put onto a facilitator, who arranged his visit to Afghanistan.
After arriving in Kandahar via Pakistan, and the Taliban’s office in Quetta, al-Zayla said that he was taken to a guest house (Al-Nebras), where “he was asked his name, asked if he was anxious to begin his training, and offered a safe to store his personal belongings.” He said that he “stayed in the guest house for two days, accepting the offer of safe storage, before going to Al-Farouq in mid-April 2001,” where he “trained under Abu Saliman, a Filipino.” However, when he “became sick and another trainer took over, [he] decided to leave Al-Farouq.”
He and another recruit then stayed in the “Arab House” in the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul “for two or three days before heading to the front lines,” where he was part of a group commanded by Abu Obeida. He said, however, that he “was never involved in any direct fighting, but did drill for an attack and was trained on the AK-47.” he also said that he “learned of the events of 11 September 2001 while on the front line.”
Al-Zayla also said that, in November 2001, he “and twenty others retreated from the front lines to Kabul,” where he “spoke with his family and decided to return home.” His personal belongings were in Kandahar, however, and when he tried to get them back, he was told that they had been sent to Khost for safekeeping. He then traveled to Khost, but was told that they had been sent on to a small village in Pakistan. He then traveled to Pakistan with approximately 28 others, split into two groups, each led by a guide. However, on arrival in Pakistan, the Pakistani authorities were waiting, and he was taken into custody, and was transferred to US custody in Peshawar on December 27, 2001.
He was sent to Guantánamo on January 11, 2002 (the day after the prison opened), on the spurious basis that it was to “provide information on the following: Al-Farouq training camp [and] Guesthouse in Kandahar, AF.”
Of interest in his file are the statements made by his fellow prisoners, as they reveal the extent to which the authorities relied on the prisoners to incriminate each other, or to provide exculpatory information. In most cases, however, the reliability of these witnesses can, and should be called into question. In al-Zayla’s file, for example, after stating that he had been “photo-identified by known and assessed Al-Qaida members,” the Task Force revealed that those “known and assessed Al-Qaida members” included the Australian David Hicks (ISN 2), who was not an al-Qaida member, and who is credited with having “photo-identified [al-Zayla] as someone he last saw in the Madafa in Kandahar” (which an analyst assessed as being a reference to the Al-Nebras guest house), and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul (ISN 39), identified as Ali Hamza A Ismail, who was an al-Qaeda member, and who “stated that [al-Zayla] was in his group upon capture.”
Other dubious claims were made by Abd Al-Malik Abd Al-Wahab (ISN 37, still held), a probable Taliban fighter identified as an “[a]ssessed Al-Qaida operative and UBL bodyguard,” who “identified [al-Zayla] as Mahmoud from Saudi Arabia,” and said that he “knew [him] from the road fleeing Afghanistan,” but “did not know why [he] was in Afghanistan” (which does not sound very convincing), the British prisoner Richard Belmar(ISN 817), described as an “[a]ssessed Al-Qaida member,” who “stated [al-Zayla] and many others looked familiar when asked to review the photos of suspected UBL bodyguards,” but who “provided no further information on where he may have seen [him] before” (which is a particularly weak claim), and Sami El-Leithi (ISN 287), identified as Al-Muntasir Billah Ahmad Al-Bibr, and described as an “[a]ssessed jihadist” (which is ridiculous, as he was a teacher), who “photo-identified [al-Zayla] as a Saudi named Mohammed Omar aka Grandfather, who [he] knew from JTF GTMO” (which is also a very weak claim, as he did not claim knowledge of al-Zayla from anywhere except at Guantánamo).
Further information, which played in al-Zayla’s favour, as it involved repeated claims that he wasnot a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, also came from numerous other sources, revealing the extent to which prisoners were plugged for information about each other. Those who did not name al-Zayla as a bodyguard were: Mohammed al-Qahtani (ISN 63, still held), who was tortured in Guantánamo, Abu Zubaydah (ISN 10016, still held) and Walid bin Attash (ISN 10014, still held), who were tortured in secret CIA prisons, Abdu Ali Al-Haji Sharqawi (ISN 1457, still held) and Sanad Yislam Al-Kazimi (ISN 1453, still held), who were also tortured, Salim Hamdan (ISN 149, released in November 2008), a driver for Osama bin Laden, and Mohammad Hashim (ISN 850, released in December 2009), an Afghan fantasist who claimed to have escorted bin Laden out of Afghanistan (and was believed by the US authorities).
In analyzing his case, the Task Force assessed that he was “a high threat from a detention perspective,” because his “overall behavior ha[d] occasionally been both non-compliant and hostile to the guard force and staff.” In terms of the threat he reportedly posed to the US, he was assessed as “a jihadist who traveled to Afghanistan for training,” and as “a medium risk, as he may pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.” He was also assessed as being “of medium intelligence value,” and, as a result, Maj. Gen. Hood recommended him for continued detention. However, it was also noted that, “If a satisfactory agreement can be reached that ensures continued detention and allows access to detainee and/or to exploited intelligence, he can be Transferred Out of DoD Control (TRO).” Nine months later, he was indeed transferred out of Guantánamo, to take part in the Saudi government’s rehabilitation program.