Images provide intimate look at Guantánamo captives

A collection of Red Cross photos gives a rare glimpse inside the prison camps that President Barack Obama wants to close.

01/10/2010 1:00 AM

01/22/2014 3:30 PM

For years, the Pentagon has shielded them from public scrutiny: few people have seen alleged teen terrorist Omar Khadr's shrapnel-clouded blind eye, confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed on his knees in prayer, or the shy grin of Yemeni Suleiman al Nadhi.

The Miami Herald has collected portraits that offer a rare glimpse at war-on-terror captives inside Guantánamo -- a snapshot in time before some are moved to the United States for trial, and others are released.

''They just look like, you know, pious Muslims,'' marvels former CIA analyst Jarret Brachman, an expert on Islamic extremism who studied the collection. ''You can't really distinguish between the mass-murder killers and the wrong-place, wrong-time guys. It's a microcosm for the complexity of the fight.''

Taken in 2009 and scattered around the world, the photographs are among the most extensive public collection of detainee portraits anywhere. Only the closed files of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which took the photos, and U.S. Defense agencies have more.

While the White House will miss President Barack Obama's Jan. 22 closure deadline, the prison camps enter their eighth year Monday at a sensitive time and with no new closure date set.

Obama, who still vows to close the camps, stopped all transfers of cleared captives to Yemen, the nation of nearly half the 198 prisoners today, after U.S. intelligence tied two former Saudi captives in the troubled Arabian Peninsula nation to the Christmas Day terror attempt on a Northwest airliner headed to Detroit.

Meantime, the collection of 15 portraits gives the most intimate look ever of the detainees -- an unintended outcome of an agreement between the Red Cross and Defense Department to let the men send photos home.

Brachman discovered two of the most controversial images in the collection on an Arabic language electronic message board: The widely circulated image of a spiritual-looking Mohammed kneeling in prayer and gazing serenely at the camera at Guantánamo, where he once boasted he was responsible for 9/11 ``from A to Z'' and now awaits transfer to New York to a trial that could cost $200 million to secure.

The doe-eyed image is a startling contrast to the CIA's leaked 2003 gotcha photo of the disheveled kingpin at his capture in Pakistan -- before U.S. agents waterboarded him 183 times to get him to spill the terror group's secrets.

Brachman also found the photo of Mohammed's nephew, and accused accomplice, who sat for a portrait inside Guantánamo's secret Camp 7 lockup at the same time. The self-described Microsoft-certified software engineer is holding up a page of the Holy Koran.

"Most of the guys, our adversaries, are not these three-headed monsters. They are average human beings,'' says Brachman, who paraphrases the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tsu, to explain the photos' value:

"Know one's enemy as they are, not as we imagine they would be.''

But the images also include men whom the Bush and Obama administrations decided to set free -- an up-close look at those the world first saw as anonymous captives in orange jumpsuits, kneeling in submission when the prison camps opened, Jan. 11, 2002,

SUCCESS STORY

Oybek Jabbarov, an Uzbek, clowned for the camera with his foot on a soccer ball, a black and white checked headdress on his head in the orange uniform of a detainee who defies the guards. He's also a Guantánamo success story at a time the Pentagon says it suspects that up to one in five men freed from the prison camps by the Bush administration have re-emerged as militants.

In September, Ireland gave asylum to Jabbarov, who was captured as a foreigner in Afghanistan but never accused of a crime, to start a new life there because, as a devout Muslim, he feared return to his homeland. His wife and two sons have joined him there.

There's also close-up of Khadr, acne and all, who is on track to go to trial this summer for allegedly throwing a grenade in a July 2002 U.S. assault on a suspected al Qaeda safehouse in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, 28, of Albuquerque, N.M., and cost the Toronto-born man the sight in his left eye. He was 15 at the time.

"The smiling faces really feel incongruous with where they are,'' says British documentary filmmaker Alex Cooke, who studied the images for The Miami Herald.

Cooke produced a one-hour program on Guantánamo that aired on BBC -- and saw in the faces of the men a far different place than the one she visited four times.

"You don't have any sense of where they are or the conditions they're held under or the day to day life they have at all in those pictures,'' she said.

Journalists are forbidden to photograph the captives' faces, a Pentagon policy that cites the Geneva Conventions.

The captives smile in many of the photographs, said ICRC delegate Jens-Martin Mehler, to reassure family back home, ``I am fine, safe and well.''

That's also why they donned traditional head coverings, brought to the photo shoots by the Red Cross.

Sketch artist Janet Hamlin, a New Yorker who has drawn Guantánamo captives at the war court for years, was struck by how ordinary the men looked.

"I could easily see these guys walking on Fifth Avenue, not seen in the crowd.''

Sept. 11 victim Debra Burlingame sees the photos as "just propaganda'' made public by their lawyers and families to portraying Guantánamo detainees favorably.

''No one still at Gitmo is innocent. No one,'' says Burlingame, an attorney and former flight attendant whose brother was pilot of the hijacked American jetliner that slammed into the Pentagon in 9/11.

The International Committee of the Red Cross began taking the photos, by agreement with the Defense Department in February 2009.

PHOTOS FOR RELATIVES

Families of the nearly 800 captives held there across the years had sent the men photos from home and ``from a humanitarian point of view, those families hadn't seen their relatives for quite a long time,'' Mehler said in a rare interview with The Miami Herald.

The Pentagon let the ICRC arrange telephone calls home in April 2008,. With the introduction of the photos, ``the voice became a face,'' he said.

In 2009, 119 sat for the photos, eight of whom were since transferred from the prison.

Red Cross delegates brought a selection of head coverings, by permission of the military, to make them look more like family photos. And some of the men gave real thought to the image they wanted to send home.

"You take an hour out of the cell and you have the opportunity to dress up a bit, arrange your hair, and look into the mirror,'' he explained. "The majority of them did not want their children to see them in a prison uniform.''

Prisoner number 511 smiles as he stares into the Red Cross' lens. He's Yemeni Suleiman al Nadhi, 35, and a U.S. military panel approved his repatriation in February 2008, even though, like many at Guantánamo, he admitted to traveling to Afghanistan in 2001 for jihad-style training.

"I need to get married, I need to find a job,'' he told a military panel in November 2005, adding that he was "shocked'' to learn of the attack on The World Trade Center.

He described himself as a cooperative captive with one exception: He threw a glass of juice at a soldier after learning that his mother had died. "Our religion teaches us to use good manners,'' he said.

The images also emerge as the White House heads into the second year of its initiative to find many of the men new homes in new lands, because they fear persecution as devout Muslims or stigmatized by their stays at Guantánamo.

Of the 44 released in 2009, 19 went to Europe, the Bahamas and the Pacific nation of Palau for resettlement in deals struck by the State Department's Guantánamo closure czar, Ambassador at large Daniel Fried. The U.S. sent three to trials elsewhere, a Tanzanian to New York and two Tunisians to Italy after their cases were examined by Justice Department lawyers working for Attorney General Eric Holder.

Gazan Walid Hijazi, 28, cleared for transfer, according to federal records, looks fit as he squats in flip-flaps and tan uniform in a prison camp recreation yard, a traditional headdress draped around his neck.

"They are nice photos of him,'' says his Chicago attorney, Matthew O'Hara. "They made his family very happy.''

Join the Discussion

Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service