The case of Sami al-Hajj

I've been traveling for the last few days and have not been able to blog much. Here's a contribution to the blog by Arabist reader Paul Mutter, on the case of Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj. Normal activities will resume next week. 

Sami al-Hajj, Al Jazeera Cameraman Held at Guantanamo Bay for Six Years, Detained over His “Intelligence Value” as an Al Jazeera Employee

By Paul Mutter

(Photo © Al Jazeera English, 2008)

Sami al-Hajj (pictured), a 42year old Sudanese man, was an Al Jazeera journalist detained by Pakistani authorities on December 15, 2001 when he and a colleague attempted to leave Afghanistan. The Pakistanis then turned him over to U.S. forces as a suspected “enemy combatant.”

He was eventually sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he arrived on June 14, 2002. He then spent the next six years there, until he was cleared of all charges in 2008.

Al-Hajj was considered an “enemy combatant” whose “access to senior terrorist leaders demonstrates his probable connections to the al-Qaida network and other militant jihadist organizations . . . . Detainee is a member of al-Qaida who is an expert in logistics with direct ties to al-Qaida leadership.”

However, new evidence has come to light that shows the U.S. government hoped to use al-Hajj as a source of intelligence, perhaps even an informant, on Al Jazeera’s work, either to spy on the network’s operations, or to track down Taliban and al Qaeda leaders.  

al-Hajj was, in actuality, also viewed as a valued asset in the U.S. government’s efforts to keep tabs on the news outlet and, according to some, send a message to the agency over its allegedly anti-American coverage of the “War on Terror.”

His dentition was symbolic of the way many in the U.S. policy establishment viewed Al Jazeera. al-Hajj’s imprisonment was only one aspect of the wider contention between the U.S. government and the news network.

Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense, told reporters in 2004 that “I can definitively say that what Al Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.” “Al Jazeera’s real transgression during the “war on terror” was a simple one: being there,” wrote The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill in 2005. al-Hajj’s, according to the AL Jazeera interviewer who spoke to him recently, was someone “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Although al-Hajj won his freedom in 2008, no documentation surfaced regarding his arrest and imprisonment. But, in April 2011, Wikileaks released “The Guantanamo Files” to several news outlets. The 779 internal memos in the documentary collection are profiles of detainees produced for Department of Defense and Joint Task Force Guantanamo officials. They chronicle multiple instances of mismanagement, abuse and other questionable actions taken towards the detainees.

The document “Recommendation for Continued Detention Under DoD Control (CD) for Guantanamo Detainee, ISN US9SU-000345DP (S)” is Sami al-Hajj’s prisoner profile. The first reason given for his detention is as follows:

The relationship between UBC [United Beverages Company, a suspected front company for mujahedeen organizations] and al-Haramayn [a Saudi charity that is as of 2004 a “specially designated global terrorist organization”], to include specifically the role played by UBC Director Abdul al-Latif al-Imran. 

His overall guilt and association with al Qaeda’s logistics arm is demonstrated, in the eyes of the analyst writing the memo, partly by being “knowledgeable about certain illegal activities such as weapons and drug smuggling . . . he is careful not to implicate himself as a member of an extremist organization, or to have had any dealings with extremists beyond performing interviews as a journalist.” Most of the evidence for his supposed terrorist ties was circumstantial and based on testimony from other Guantanamo prisoners or unnamed foreign intelligence sources in the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.

A second reason was also given:

The al-Jazeera News Network’s training program, telecommunications equipment, and newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, including the network’s acquisition of a video of UBL [Usama bin Laden] and a subsequent interview with UBL.

The second reason is significant because the anonymous analyst writing the document, signed off on by then-Guantanamo commander Rear Admiral Mark H. Buzby, rated al-Hajj’s “intelligence value” as “high” because “during his employment with UBC and al-Jazeera, he made numerous contacts with high-level extremists to include leaders of al-Qaida and the Taliban” and “He can probably provide information about al-Jazeera Media’s possible support to al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other Islamic militant groups.”

The conclusion was symbolic of the Bush administration’s mistrust and dislike of Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera, founded in 1996 in Qatar, has had a troubled relationship with the U.S. government since its inception, particularly over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. However, the relationship took a turn for the worse after 9/11, when the U.S. government accused it of airing “terrorist propaganda” and lies, and in actively collaborating with al Qaeda. Their coverage of civilian causalities from U.S. military operations (the Battle of Fallujah was a particularly contentious example) and showing of footage from videos by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups drew sustained criticism from the Bush White House, the State Department and the Pentagon

Relations have improved, with the U.S. eager to demonstrate support for the movements that have toppled the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes, writes Politico, “the Arab Spring has brought Al-Jazeera in from the cold,” for now, anyway. Relations are still frosty (and stirred up by anti-Muslim sentiment: Al Jazeera’s entry into the U.S. media market has been torturous).

 And, perhaps more significantly, Guantanamo Bay, as well as the legal system and logic behind it, are still operating.