GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- As guards shuffle them in chains to showers and interrogation, most look no older than the Marines with M-16s who stand watch in the towers above. Some ran away from home to study Islam and were swept up in Osama bin Laden's shadowy war. Others claim their capture is accidental.
One is Ugandan-born Ferroz Abassi, 22, who declared while growing up in South London that he wanted to become Britain's first black astronaut. But in 1999, the British press reports, he quit computer college, embraced radical Islam and ran off to Pakistan. He was captured this year as an alleged al Qaeda member in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
Today, two months after the Pentagon first brought prisoners here, the 300 men interned at Camp X-Ray are a mostly mysterious collection of nameless, faceless terrorism suspects. In a bid to spare their home countries embarrassment, or perhaps to avoid stirring up unrest, U.S. commanders flatly refuse to name what they say are the 33 nationalities among the prisoners. News people cannot get close enough to talk to them.
But the overall picture that emerges from reports from abroad, information from diplomatic sources and two months of observation is that "the worst of the worst" of Afghanistan's now-defunct Taliban militia or the masterminds of bin Laden's al Qaeda movement are not here.
There are at least a couple of exceptions:
Reports have said the most important captive is Mullah Faisal Mazloom, the former Taliban chief of staff. In his orange jumpsuit, he is indistinguishable from the other 300 prisoners, similarly attired, who can be seen from afar shuffling twice a week to take showers.
NBC has identified Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, one of the 25 top al Qaeda military commanders, as one of the inmates here. But Marine officials won't comment on the report.
By and large, however, the captives of Camp X-Ray are at best foot soldiers -- people like Albassi.
Many of those whose names and faces have emerged are citizens of countries that are U.S. allies, not U.S. enemies.
An example: Six or seven of the inmates are Kuwaitis, such as Fawzi al-Odeh, 24, whose father said he went to Pakistan to take part in a Muslim humanitarian aid effort -- and disappeared from sight -- only to turn up in Guantanamo after his capture in Afghanistan.
In fact, a third of the prisoners are Gulf Arabs, including at least 50 citizens of Saudi Arabia, the country from which the United States staged the 1990-91 Gulf War liberating Kuwait from Iraq. At least 25 are citizens of NATO countries, including Denmark, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Turkey.
MOST ARE MUSLIMS
By far, they are mostly Muslim. But commanders confirm there are also a few Christians. Some have received higher education in the United States; others are so illiterate that U.S. soldiers take dictation from them when they want to write home.
Snippets of information are scarce, however, as the military refuses to say much about the inmates. What emerges is a group of young men who got carried away with a cause fueled by Islamic fervor.
One Washington-based diplomat from a U.S.-friendly Muslim nation, who did not want to be named, said he was no fan of bin Laden's, but he sympathized with the more youthful residents of Camp X-Ray.
"I can understand when the hormones are surging and you need some sort of cause celbre in your life," he said, choosing his words carefully. "People do it all the time. Some ran away to the Spanish civil war, some ran to the Sandinistas. Some were misguided. But in no way do we support terrorism."
Commanders here say the population ranges from men in their late teens to 50-somethings. But the few that reporters can see the closest, in a huge Navy hospital tent, appear to be no older than their 20s.
Pakistani officials will not confirm reports that 25 to 30 Pakistani citizens are here -- among them Essa Khan, 23, a homeopathic doctor, whose family says he wrote recently that he was picked up by mistake while running a clinic in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Afghanistan so far will not say how many of its citizens are held here, and neither will Egypt. A diplomat at the Chinese Embassy said officials are still checking. Russia says the United States has informed Moscow that it has citizens in Camp X-Ray and will send investigators to question them.
Meantime, European countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Belgium acknowledge that some of their citizens are imprisoned here, while Iran, which the United States accuses of sponsoring terrorism, says there is no one from
the Islamic republic in the camp, contrary to a finding by Amnesty International.
Other so-called terror list countries such as Syria, Iraq and Somalia won't comment.
The International Committee of the Red Cross may know. It has observers in the camp every day, interviewing the inmates and meeting with commanders. But to preserve the organization's independence, Red Cross officials won't comment on the names, ages or home countries of the captives either.
Perhaps the best-known al Qaeda captive is Australian David Hicks, 26, a high school dropout from Adelaide who ran away from home to join the Kosovo Liberation Army and ended up a continent away, where he was turned over to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
He made an early impression on Camp X-Ray guards by vowing to kill at least one American before departing from Guantanamo Bay. Australian press reports say he wrote his parents recently, via the Red Cross, saying how sorry he was for the trouble he caused. But whether he will face a military tribunal or be sent home to Australia is still to be determined.
Australian Attorney General Daryl Williams is reported to be studying the case, and Australian law, to see whether there is a crime for which Hicks can be charged -- a precondition, the sources say, set by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on whether to release him.
Less is known about the 37 Yemenis held here, aside from the fact that they carry passports issued by bin Laden's ancestral homeland, whose government is today a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. The charge d'affaires at Yemen's embassy in Washington, Yahwa el-Shawkani, said he did not know the identities of his fellow citizens held here but characterized them as "usually young, around 17," who probably ran off to study in Afghan schools and perhaps came from the Hadhramawt region, the rugged ancestral home of bin Laden.
There are up to 11 Turkish citizens here, brought on the last flight on Feb. 15.
SON CHANGED, LEFT
One is reportedly Murat Kurnaz, 19. In Bremen, Germany, his mother told reporters that her son as a youth loved weight lifting and wanted to learn shipbuilding, but then he started shunning discos, growing a beard and going to a mosque at age 17. On Oct. 3, he left for Pakistan, she said, to study the Koran. Next thing she knew, he was captured in Kunduz, Afghanistan, she said.
She has written President Bush seeking her son's release, noting that he was at home on Sept. 11.
Spain, too, has an inmate at Camp X-Ray. Diplomats from Washington visited him recently and identified him as Hamed Abdelrahmam Ahmed, 27, of Ceuta. He is one of at least three Europeans of Moroccan ancestry in the camp. Ceuta is Spanish enclave on the north coast of Morocco.
Algeria says it is unable to acknowledge officially that there are at least six of its citizens present, captured in Bosnia for plotting attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, because the U.S. government has not formally told Algerian officials.
Positive identification of the prisoners has been slow. Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, overall commander of the prison project, announced last week that the number of nations represented by inmates in the camp stood at 33.
And after nearly 10 weeks of Caribbean confinement, some prisoners are protesting that they were improperly captured.
Army Pvt. Cortney Gletten, 21, of Waconia, Minn., who is a guard with a Texas-based military police unit and has worked here since the first prisoner arrived Jan. 11, gave examples of some of their protests:
"I was visiting my girlfriend," one said to Gletten. Another said, "I was just trying to get some drugs."
And more than a few have said plaintively: "I shouldn't be here."