Are they bomb timers, or just timepieces? Common Casio watches, some worth less than $30, have become part of the often ambiguous web of evidence against prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
The U.S. military cites the digital watches worn by prisoners when they were captured as possible evidence of terrorist ties. Casios have been used repeatedly in bombs, after all, including one used by the architect of the 1993 World Trade Center attack; the explosive device was set off on a Philippine Airlines flight, killing a passenger.
Wearing a Casio is cited among the unclassified evidence against at least eight of the detainees whose transcripts were released by the Pentagon after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by The Associated Press.
The prisoners, who stand accused of links to al-Qaida or to the Taliban in Afghanistan, say they have been shocked that wearing a cheap watch sold worldwide could be used against them.
“Millions and millions of people have these types of Casio watches,” Mazin Salih Musaid, a Saudi detainee, told his military tribunal.
Even Guantanamo’s guards
Even guards at Guantanamo wear Casios, noted Usama Hassan Ahmend Abu Kabir, a Jordanian accused of belonging to a group linked to al-Qaida, the terror organization that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
“I have a Casio watch due to the fact that they are inexpensive and they last a long time,” the 34-year-old detainee told a tribunal. “I like my watch because it is durable. It had a calculator and was waterproof, and before prayers we have to wash up all the way to my elbows.”
Like owning an automatic weapon or wearing olive drab clothing — both common in Afghanistan — the Casios have become further pieces of evidence that the U.S. tribunals are weighing in these “enemy combatant” hearings. The sessions are held partly to determine whether those held at the U.S. military prison on Cuba pose a threat to the United States.
“The problem for military intelligence in a war like this is determining who is the enemy,” said Mark Ensalaco, an international terrorism expert at the University of Dayton, in Ohio.
But for prisoners, citing ownership of a Casio watch as evidence amounts to profiling, a mistake that sweeps up the innocent.
“This watch is not from al-Qaida, it’s not used for a bomb,” protested Abdul Matin, a prisoner from Afghanistan. “This is just a regular watch. All older, younger men and women use this watch everywhere.”
An unsettling history
Authorities have, however, documented the use of the watches in several terrorist acts.
- In the 1996 trial of Ramzi Yousef, the alleged mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center, a prosecutor described how a Casio attached to a timing device using 9-volt batteries became the “calling card” of Yousef’s Philippines-based terror cell.
Yousef, a nephew of imprisoned terrorist mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, tested the method with a bomb under a seat on Philippine Airlines Flight 434, killing one passenger. The attack was allegedly a dry run for a plot to blow up 11 jumbo jets. Authorities foiled the plot after the bomb-makers inadvertently set their apartment on fire.
- Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian convicted in 2001 of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport around the millennium, bought two model 1663 Casio watches at a Canadian electronics store to use as timers, according to court records.
- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security advised airport screeners and law enforcement in January 2005 to be aware that some altimeter-equipped Casios, whose model numbers were not disclosed, could be used in explosives, as could another unspecified brand of watch that doubled as a butane lighter.
The advisory singled out Casio because it’s inexpensive, widely used and easy to find, Homeland Security spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich said.
Simplicity is the problem
But that’s precisely the problem with citing particular models of Casios as evidence, some bomb experts say — there’s nothing unique about their use in time bombs. In fact, many household items with timing functions, including such devices as microwave oven timers, can be modified to set off bombs, said David Williams, a retired FBI agent who worked on the first World Trade Center bombing investigation.
Yousef’s terrorist cell used Casios that were easy to buy and reconfigure into bomb parts, Williams said. The terrorists found it easy to remove the plastic buttons and frame, and relatively simple to reconfigure the circuitry into a timer. The cell also prized the watches for their accuracy and long-lasting batteries, he said.
“You can have a time delay for up to three years that’s accurate to the second, as long as the battery lasts in the watch,” said Williams, who now runs a counterterrorism consulting business.
F91W is Model No. 1
The most widely cited model of Casio in the Guantanamo transcripts is the F91W, which was introduced in 1996 and “has no exclusive technology,” Casio says. It’s a model popular throughout the world simply because it has a stopwatch and alarm, is water resistant and inexpensive, the company added in a statement.
At least one Internet site offers the watch for $28, and less advanced models are sold for less than half that price.
The watch maker, a division of Casio Computer Co. Ltd. of Japan, declined interview requests, but said in the statement that it is aware of the concerns. “Casio continues to work closely with all government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, to help limit any potential threats and deal with security concerns,” the statement said.
Even if Casios were pulled off the market worldwide, terrorists could easily switch to other commonly available products to make timers for bombs, Williams said. “You give me a half-hour in a supermarket and I can blow up your garage.”