IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A 'ticking time bomb' goes off

When Abdallah Al-Ajmi returned to Kuwait after nearly four years at Guantanamo, his family tried to get him to move on. But he didn't want to go.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

After arriving here from Guantanamo Bay in November 2005, Abdallah Saleh al-Ajmi was transported by Kuwaiti security agents to a military hospital, where he was allowed to meet with his family. He was soon moved to the city's central jail and placed in a high-security wing.

Every few days, he was taken to a small interrogation room, this time by officials of his own government who wanted to know what he had been doing in Afghanistan. Ajmi insisted that he never traveled to Afghanistan, that he never fought with the Taliban -- that he had simply gone to Pakistan to study the Koran and that he was apprehended when he traveled toward the Afghan border to help refugees. He kept trying to steer the sessions toward a discussion of his nearly four years at Guantanamo and what had happened to him there.

After four months, a judge ordered him freed on $1,720 bail. He was later tried in a criminal court and acquitted of all charges.

Senior U.S. government officials were deeply disappointed -- they had hoped that Kuwait, an American ally, would find a way to detain Ajmi for years -- but they refrained from any public criticism. At the very least, the officials figured, Kuwaiti authorities would keep a close watch on him. And they expected Ajmi to move on, to put his Guantanamo experience behind him, to get a job and settle down after his time in one of the toughest prisons on the planet.

Ajmi chose a different path. Last March, he drove a truck packed with explosives onto an Iraqi army base outside Mosul, killing 13 Iraqi soldiers and himself. It was the denouement of a nihilistic descent that his lawyers and family believe commenced at Guantanamo.

His case illuminates a key challenge facing the Obama administration as it considers how to close the U.S. military prison and resolve the futures of the approximately 245 incarcerated there. Once detainees are sent home, even to friendly nations, the United States has very little influence over what happens to them. Convictions are not guaranteed. Neither is surveillance by home countries. And for those allowed to go free, assistance in resuming a normal life is rare.

Revenge inevitable?
Although the United States may never say so publicly, it is likely to want more explicit promises from the countries where detainees are repatriated, and the administration will seek the establishment of rehabilitation programs, along the lines of one in Saudi Arabia, that provide former jihadists with jobs, homes and money to pay for dowries.

But there is also a view in some quarters of the U.S. government that cases such as Ajmi's are the inevitable result of locking up 779 foreigners in an austere military prison, without access to courts or consular representation, and subjecting them to interrogation techniques that detainees say amount to torture. Some of them are bound to seek revenge, these officials believe. The challenge is figuring out which ones.

Although U.S. intelligence agencies are monitoring some former Guantanamo detainees, the government lacks the resources to track everyone who has been through the prison. The Defense Intelligence Agency recently stated that as many as 60 other ex-inmates may have "returned to the fight," but it has not released a list of names or specific allegations.

In Ajmi's case, however, his behavior at Guantanamo -- his refusal to obey orders, his repeated throwing of his excrement, his hostility toward his attorneys -- struck his American lawyers as a sign of potential danger. But there is no indication in his court file here, which Kuwaiti legal officials deem a complete repository of the material provided by the United States, that U.S. authorities relayed any concern.

When Ajmi returned to Kuwait, "he was a ticking time bomb," said Mansur Saleh al-Ajmi, one of his younger brothers.

"Before he went to Afghanistan, he was a normal teenager. He spun the car around in circles. He smoked. People liked him," Mansur said. "After he came back from Guantanamo, he seemed like a completely different person. He stared all the time. You could not have a normal conversation with him. . . . It seemed as if his brain had been washed."

Although Ajmi's family tried to get him to move on, to forgive and forget, he did not want to let go. He filled his computer with gruesome images of killings in Iraq. He started listening to religious songs that glorified violence. He developed friendships with young men who espoused war in the name of Islam.

His new friends began calling him "The Lion of Guantanamo." To them, he was a hero, a survivor. They wanted to hear his stories of life behind the concertina wire in Cuba. He told them of beatings, of being interrogated by a woman who wore nothing but underwear.

"What's very worrisome is that what happened to Ajmi could happen to any number of former detainees," said a U.S. official involved in detention and terrorism issues. "Most of these guys aren't really being monitored by their home countries. A lot of them have had trouble getting married and settling down. And many of them are being drawn back into the radical fold because they're lionized for having been at Gitmo."

'Guantanamo added problems'
About a month after his return, Ajmi was allowed to meet with Khaled al-Mahan, who was hired by his brothers. Mahan is one of Kuwait's most prominent defense lawyers. He drives a Porsche Cayenne and works out of an office near the waterfront decorated with modern art. Like Thomas Wilner, the Washington lawyer who represented Ajmi while he was at Guantanamo, he is not afraid to swim against the prevailing political orthodoxy.

Although Kuwait's government has paid more than $1 million to hire lawyers and a public relations firm to advocate for the release of Kuwaiti detainees, largely out of a sense of national pride and duty, there is little sympathy for their fate among ordinary Kuwaitis, who worry that radical Islamists will disrupt their largely peaceful sheikdom. Mahan saw it differently: If Kuwait was to put them on trial, they needed attorneys.

At their first meeting, Ajmi said little. Mahan sought to elicit details, but Ajmi did not want to share. To Mahan, it seemed as though Ajmi had psychological problems. He asked the jailers to have him examined.

Mahan met Ajmi more than a dozen times over the next six months. It became clear to the lawyer that Ajmi was obsessed with radical Islam, and that his obsession probably began when he was in Kuwait but intensified while he was at Guantanamo. "Guantanamo added problems to the original problems," he said. "It didn't treat the problem. You cannot correct a wrong by a wrong."

When the jail's psychological assessment found no concerns, Mahan wrote a letter to Kuwait's attorney general suggesting that Ajmi was incompetent to stand trial. The lawyer's implicit suggestion was that his client remained a danger and required long-term care, perhaps in a mental institution. He never received a response.

Prosecutors filed charges against Ajmi and four other returned detainees in early 2006, fulfilling a promise the Kuwaitis made to the U.S. government. Ajmi was charged with fighting for a foreign army and with damaging Kuwait's relationship with other nations. If convicted, he could have faced up to 20 years in prison.

In some Middle Eastern nations, the five could have been brought before secret courts and detained for years without an open trial. Kuwait, however, abolished its special security court in 1995, to wide praise from the West. Since then, terrorism suspects have been prosecuted in ordinary criminal courts. "We don't have emergency laws anymore that allow the government to simply lock people up," said Ghanim al-Najjar, a professor of political science at Kuwait University.

But prosecutors soon ran into a problem. The U.S. government was not willing to share evidence that conclusively linked Ajmi or any of the four others to terrorist activities. The only U.S. document in Ajmi's court file here is a two-page investigative summary outlining the principal allegations against him: that he went AWOL from the Kuwaiti military and traveled to Afghanistan in 2001, that he received an AK-47 rifle and hand grenades from the Taliban, and that he fought for the Taliban.

The court file does not contain interrogation transcripts, or any data that corroborate U.S. claims that he was a Taliban fighter. It also does not include any records of his misbehavior during his final months at Guantanamo, even though the State Department wanted the Kuwaiti government to try the detainees as a condition of their transfer.

The file does note, however, that the U.S. military returned the contents of Ajmi's pockets when he was apprehended: 60 Pakistani rupees -- about 75 cents -- two wristwatches and one hands-free earpiece for a cellphone.

After considering a first round of evidence presented by prosecutors, a three-judge panel released the five on bail in March 2006. In subsequent court sessions, which stretched over two months, prosecutors insisted that Ajmi and the others posed a risk to Kuwaiti society and should be locked up. The judges were given the U.S. investigative summaries for the men. An officer with the State Security Department presented a report detailing the interrogations that had been conducted upon their return.

Mahan and other defense attorneys argued that Kuwaiti courts lacked jurisdiction over alleged crimes that occurred in another country. They also maintained that none of the evidence presented proved that their clients had fought with the Taliban. "Everything the prosecutors alleged, it came from the Americans, and the Americans got that material from their interrogations," said Ayedh al-Azmi, one of the lawyers. "How can we trust what came from the interrogations? How do we know they were not tortured to say those things?"

At the last session of the trial, Azmi gave the court a copy of a report issued by United Nations human rights inspectors that February. It argued that many of the detention and interrogation practices used at Guantanamo amounted to torture, and it called for the prison to be closed "without further delay."

In their written decision, the judges said they believed that the U.S. military elicited information from the defendants by using physical and psychological torture. They deemed the U.S. investigative summaries unreliable, and they concluded that the Kuwaiti government had based its reports on unsubstantiated U.S. allegations. "These reports are not serious and are not worth consideration," the judges wrote. "We do not feel comfortable trusting them."

As a consequence, the judges wrote, we "consider the defendants innocent."

Returning to jihadism
After Ajmi's acquittal, his family decided he needed to get married, and to get a job. His brothers approached families among Kuwait's vast Ajmi tribe. But no fathers wanted their daughters to marry a former Guantanamo detainee, and nobody wanted to hire him.

"He felt rejection," Mahan said. "It was obvious the Kuwaitis did not welcome him anymore."

Ajmi began to spend more time with his old radical Islamist friends, who introduced him to others who shared their ideology. His new friends found him a bride, a conservative Egyptian woman, and they organized a wedding party. The only people who attended, save for his family, "were a bunch of mullahs," his brother Mansur said. "These were not normal Kuwaitis."

Ajmi and his wife moved into a second-floor apartment in a gritty, working-class section of the city. He grew his hair down to his shoulders. Ten months after his wedding, his wife gave birth to a son. Ajmi named him Saleh, after his father.

Although his family members chipped in to fund his living expenses, he spent less and less time with them. He would sometimes disappear for weeks at a time, Mansur said. When he resurfaced, he spent most of his time at a nearby mosque.

Among the people he befriended during that time was Badr Mushal al-Harbi, a car salesman and father of 10 who sported a Taliban-length beard, according to Kuwaiti officials and material posted by an associate of both men on an Internet forum frequented by radical Islamists.

Harbi was a committed jihadist who went to Afghanistan in 2005 for three months to train and fight with reconstituted Taliban forces. While there, he met Abu Laith al-Libi, a now-deceased senior al-Qaeda commander who oversaw a number of terrorist operations, including a suicide attack that killed 23 people outside an air base during a visit by Vice President Richard B. Cheney. Libi told Harbi to return to Kuwait and gather money for jihadists in Afghanistan.

Upon his return, Harbi appears to have divided his time between fundraising for al-Qaeda and more recreational pursuits. He turned one of his cars, a white Nissan, into a street racer, complete with a rear spoiler. A video that includes images of him posing next to the car was posted on YouTube a month after his death.

Ajmi and Harbi, along with a third Kuwaiti, eventually promised one another that they would go to Iraq and die there. They called their commitment "The Pledge of the Houris" -- the virgins promised to those who enter paradise.

It is not clear how Ajmi and Harbi made their travel arrangements. Suspicion in Kuwait has fallen upon a hard-line cleric named Mubarak al-Bathali, who boasted in an interview with a Kuwaiti journalist a few days after Ajmi's death was announced that he helped send jihadists to Iraq.

"Any person who wants jihad, who is an adult and who is responsible and honest, I send him and prepare him by guaranteeing his arrival and reception in Syria, until he finds himself inside Iraq, carrying a weapon and fighting," he told the al-Qabas newspaper. Bathali told Yusuf al-Mutari, the paper's local news editor, that he had discussed with Ajmi his reasons for returning to jihadism. "Ajmi told him that society did not accept him," Mutari said.

No surveillance
Kuwaiti officials have not addressed why they didn't have Ajmi under surveillance -- the government had pledged to the State Department that he would be monitored if he was released from custody -- and they also have not explained why they did not notice his association with Harbi, who had been detained upon his return from Afghanistan and presumably was known to local authorities as a suspected jihadist.

Before Ajmi could leave for Iraq, there was the small matter of his passport, which Kuwaiti authorities had seized upon his return. In January 2008, Ajmi visited Mahan and asked for help in getting a new one. He seemed to be in a hurry, so the lawyer quickly drafted a letter to the Interior Ministry, but he told Ajmi that he needed a few more documents before he could send it. Ajmi said he would return in a few days. He never did.

Mahan said that records he obtained after Ajmi's death show that he made two trips to Saudi Arabia in early 2008 using a government-issued passport. Kuwaiti officials have not explained how he received the travel documents. One of the trips involved a pilgrimage to Mecca -- he had his photo taken inside a mosque there -- but his relatives said they did not know the purpose of the second trip.

The third trip would be Ajmi's last. He told his wife, who by then was pregnant with their second child, a girl, that he was going back to Mecca. He told her to name their daughter Aisha, after the prophet Muhammad's third wife.

He told his brother Ahmed that he had an important mission ahead. "He said, 'I'm doing something I have to do. It's not my choice.' "

On March 6, he left Kuwait International Airport on a flight to Damascus, Syria. Harbi, who had trimmed his beard for the trip, sat next to him.

Before they got off the plane, Harbi put his arm around Ajmi and used his cellphone to snap a photo. He sent the picture to friends in Kuwait.

Both men are smiling.

Post-apocalyptic destruction
Combat Outpost Inman, which houses about 250 Iraqi soldiers, is just west of Mosul, along the four-lane highway to Tall Afar. From there, it is only 75 miles to the Syrian border.

U.S. forces do not generally spend the night there, but they visit during the day to train Iraqis and hook up with them for joint missions. The base comprises a trio of three-story apartment buildings, which serve as dormitories, surrounded by dirt-filled barricades the size of refrigerators. It was named for Army Capt. Rowdy J. Inman, who was fatally shot in December 2007 by an Iraqi soldier he was training.

The outpost lacked the fortification of a U.S. base in Iraq. There were no concrete blast walls, guard towers or vehicle barricades. An Iraqi ambulance -- little more than a lightweight van -- served as the only barrier along the dirt road leading into the outpost. The two sentries had but one machine gun among them. It was, said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Meeker, the leader of an Army military transition team that worked with the Iraqi troops there, "a soft target."

On March 23, 2008, Meeker was five miles away, sleeping at his base, when Ajmi detonated explosives in the truck he was driving. The force of the blast awoke him.

When he arrived at Inman 45 minutes later, he found a tableau of post-apocalyptic destruction. Every window had been blown out. There was a crater 30 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Iraqi soldiers, some of them wailing, were pulling the dead from buildings. Bloodied victims staggered about.

Ajmi drove the truck to the center of the outpost before setting off the blast, giving him, in Meeker's view, "the perfect shot." The Iraqi general at the scene said he suspected that the bomber had received information from someone on the inside.

Exactly two months after the bombing, the Islamic State of Iraq, the principal al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in the country, posted Ajmi's martyrdom video on the Internet. It was part of a 38-minute montage that included images of his attack and one carried out by Harbi last April. Although Harbi drove a fuel truck rigged with explosives into an Iraqi army checkpoint, the blast killed only him.

Ajmi was overshadowed in the video by his friend, who proved far more adept at spinning sound bites than detonating his bomb. "I have a house, and I have a car, and I have two wives," Harbi said while patting his truck. But now, he said, "I find a happiness in my heart, one that I never found anywhere."

Ajmi spoke for less than two minutes. He praised Allah for freeing him from Guantanamo and urged Iraqis to pledge their allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq.

'This poor, dumb kid . . . went mad'
Perhaps he was reticent on the video because he had spoken far more expansively in an audio interview conducted around the same time. It was posted on jihadist Internet forums after his death.

There is little bravado. He sounds tired and resigned. He hesitates at moments. But Guantanamo appears to have been on his mind throughout.

He begins by calling the prison "a rest house" on the path of jihad. A fellow inmate, he said, asked him to "deliver the message to brothers outside to pray for us to be firm and steady in this place. We do not want anything from them -- only their prayers."

Some detainees "are in deplorable condition," Ajmi said. "We are like guinea pigs for experiments." But the Americans, he asserted, have "failed even in psychiatry."

His final words were an exhortation to aspiring jihadists, urging them to follow his example, to continue the fight in the name of his comrades at Guantanamo.

"Your captive brothers wish they could fight for the cause of God," he said. "You are free. You have to go support this religion. It is your duty to free your Muslim brothers from the hands of the polytheists and infidels."

When Thomas Wilner learned that his client had become a suicide bomber, he said he felt physically ill. He thought of the victims, and he thought of Ajmi. "Here was this poor, dumb kid -- I really don't think he was a bad kid -- who was thrown into a hellhole of a prison and who went mad," he said. "Should we really be surprised that somebody we treated this way would become radicalized, would become crazy?"

The bodies of 13 Iraqi soldiers -- all of them Muslims -- were recovered from the rubble at Combat Outpost Inman. Ajmi's body was never found.

A few days after the attack, Mansur Ajmi received a telephone call. "I have good news for you," the caller said. "Your brother is a martyr."

Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.