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Context of 'February 17-18, 2009: Former Guantanamo Guard Haunted by Involvement in Physical Abuse of Detainees'

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Feroz Abbasi, a Uganda-born British resident who has recently embraced Islam, begins to frequent the Finsbury Park mosque, which is headed by radical imam Abu Hamza. He joins Abu Hamza’s organization, the Supporters of Sharia, but is told he is not yet ready to go and fight in Chechnya. He is gradually given small tasks at the mosque, and, after proving himself loyal by performing these tasks, Abu Hamza arranges for him to travel to Afghanistan for training there. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Abbasi will nearly succeed in blowing himself up with two Northern Alliance soldiers (see December 2000-December 2001). (O'Neill and McGrory 2006, pp. 203-208)

The ranch near Bly, Oregon.The ranch near Bly, Oregon. [Source: Seattle Times]Haroon Rashid Aswat and Oussama Kassir, assistants to leading London-based radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, arrive in the US to assess the suitability of a proposed terrorist training camp. Upon arrival, they meet up with James Ujaama, another associate of Abu Hamza who proposed the camp (see October 1999) and its owner Sami Osman. Aswat is considered a close aide to Abu Hamza, who himself is an informer for the British (see Early 1997), and will later be described as the mastermind of the 7/7 London bombings.
Unsuitable Facility - However, Aswat and Kassir are unhappy with what they find, especially as Ujaama does not have a key to unlock the gate to the ranch when they arrive. In addition, the ranch lacks food, running water, toilet facilities, and barracks, and only has a simple trailer on it. They stay at the ranch for about two months and conduct weapons training for around 15 militants present. According to a witness, Kassir brags that he is a “hit man” for Abu Hamza and Osama bin Laden and has had jihad training in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Lebanon. Jihadi videos are shown and a computer disc with details of how to improvise poisons is displayed. In addition, a scheme for poisoning a water supply is discussed, as are armed robberies, building an underground bunker to conceal weapons, and firebombing vehicles.
FBI Investigation - However, on December 13 Osman’s car is stopped due to a faulty brake light and the police officer notices that two men, who turn out to be Aswat and Kassir, are acting strangely in the car. For example, Aswat clutches a briefcase closely to his chest as the police officer questions him. The FBI previously had Osman under surveillance, but has lost him. A database check performed by the officer alerts the FBI and an agent is immediately dispatched to Bly. He shows a surveillance photo of Aswat and Kassir to the officer, who identifies them as the other two men in the car. More FBI agents arrive to investigate the ranch, but, before they can raid it, Aswat and Kassir leave for Seattle. There, Aswat allegedly boasts of being bin Laden’s “hit man,” just as Kassir has done.
Advised to Abandon Ranch - Aswat and Kassir eventually return to Britain and advise Abu Hamza against putting any further effort into the ranch. Kassir will be arrested in the Czech Republic and extradited in 2007 to stand trial. (Graham 7/24/2005; McDougall 7/31/2005; Carter and Bernton 8/9/2005; O'Neill and McGrory 2006, pp. 185-186, 194; Milton 9/26/2007)

After being indoctrinated by radical imam Abu Hamza al-Masri in London (see 1999-2000), a recruit named Feroz Abbasi travels to Pakistan and then Afghanistan for military training. On his journey to Pakistan he is accompanied by James Ujaama, who had tried to help Abu Hamza establish a militant training camp in the US (see November 1999-Early 2000). Before departure, Abu Hamza told Abbasi he would train with the Taliban, and that they would then expect him to fight for them, to which he agreed. After staying at an Islamic Jihad guest house in Kabul, for which Abu Hamza reportedly has the number, Abbasi undergoes basic training at Al Farooq camp, including instruction in weapons handling, battlefield maneuvers, and explosives. The camp is also visited by Osama bin Laden, who lectures the new recruits on politics. Abbasi later returns to Al Farooq for a more advanced course, covering reconnaissance, guerrilla warfare, and ambushes. After this, Abbasi, “Australian Taliban” David Hicks, and another man are interviewed by al-Qaeda military commander Mohammed Atef, and Abbasi agrees to perform missions for Atef, which may include a suicide bombing. Abbasi then has even more advanced training, focusing on assassinations and running a sleeper cell, at a camp by Kandahar airport. At some time in September 2001, he explicitly volunteers for a suicide mission. However, he is captured by the Northern Alliance three months later. When caught, he has a grenade concealed on him and could detonate it, killing himself and the two Northern Alliance soldiers that captured him. He hesitates because he does not want to kill fellow Muslims, and the grenade is found. The Afghans then put him in prison in Kandahar for two days, before formally transferring him to the US military. He is held in a prison at Kandahar airport, and then flown to Guantanamo in Cuba, where he will be held for three years. (O'Neill and McGrory 2006, pp. 201-202, 208-213)

Camp X-Ray. The prisoners are housed in cages pictured.Camp X-Ray. The prisoners are housed in cages pictured. [Source: PBS]The first prisoners who arrived at Guantanamo Bay (see January 11, 2002) are accommodated in a location known as “Camp X-Ray.” This camp consists of small cages, measuring eight-by-eight feet, with open-air, chain-link walls, a concrete floor and a roof made of wood and metal. (Williams 1/14/2003) Inside, detainees are provided with a mattress, a blanket, a sheet, two towels, a toothbrush, shampoo, soap, flip-flops, two buckets, and plastic water bottles. (Meek 12/3/2003) One of the buckets is for water to wash with; the other to urinate in. (Rasul, Iqbal, and Ahmed 7/26/2004 pdf file) The cages have no plumbing and thus guards have to escort detainees to portable toilets. (Williams 1/14/2003) The cells at Camp X-Ray are described by released British prisoners as being without privacy and open to the elements as well as to “rats, snakes, and scorpions.” (Prince and Jones 3/12/2004) During the first weeks until about the middle of February, the prisoners, according to Asif Iqbal, are “not allowed any exercise at all.” (Rasul, Iqbal, and Ahmed 7/26/2004 pdf file) And later, Amnesty International confirms that prisoners are kept inside their cages “sometimes up to 24 hours a day with little exercise time out of their cells.” (Amnesty International 10/27/2004) Only after some months, according to the Tipton Three, are prisoners allowed, “once a week, to walk in a small recreation yard for about 5 minutes.” (Prince and Jones 3/12/2004) Jamal Udeen recalls: “Recreation meant your legs were untied and you walked up and down a strip of gravel. In Camp X-Ray you only got five minutes.” (Prince and Jones 3/12/2004) At first, prisoners are allegedly allowed a shower—a cold two-minute one—only once a week, and never in solitary confinement. Later the number of showers is increased to three a week. (Prince and Jones 3/12/2004) Eating has to be done in 10 minutes and the amount of food is very little. (Meek 12/3/2003) Speaking to each other is strictly prohibited. (Meek 12/3/2003) Five days later, however, he will be allowed to speak to neighboring detainees. (Rasul, Iqbal, and Ahmed 7/26/2004 pdf file) But apparently worse than the accommodations is the uncertainty the prisoners are facing. “When we first got there, the level [of fear] was sky-high,” Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed, and Shafiq Rasul, who were among the first to arrive, recall: “We were terrified we might be killed at any minute. The guards would say, ‘Nobody knows you’re here, all they know is that you’re missing and we could kill you and no one would know.’” (Branigan and Dodd 8/4/2004) The prison operations at Guantanamo are at first handled by two Joint Task Forces: JTF-160 and JTF-170. JTF-160, first under the command of Brig. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, is responsible both for guarding the prisoners, and for dealing with migrants seeking asylum. JTF-170, under command of Major-General Michael E. Dunlavey, is tasked with handling interrogation operations for the Department of Defense and ensuring coordination among government agencies involved in the interrogation of the suspected terrorists. (Williams 1/14/2003) It consists of personnel from the DIA, the CIA, and the FBI. (Borger 10/16/2002) Sccording to later statements by several officers who served at Guantanamo, aggressive methods of interrogation are introduced in early 2002. Prisoners are derived of sleep, forced into “stress positions,” and put into extra cold, air-conditioned rooms. (Golden and Schmitt 5/13/2004)

In 2002, federal prosecutors are building a case against a group of Islamist militants for attempting to start a militant training camp in Oregon in 1999 (see November 1999-Early 2000). They prepare charges against radical London imam Abu Hamza al-Masri, his “highly public aide” Haroon Rashid Aswat, Oussama Kassir (who visited the prospective camp with Aswat), and James Ujaama. Ujaama is living in Seattle, but the others are believed to be overseas. Seattle prosecutors want to seek a grand jury indictment against all of them, which would result in arrest warrants and possible detention for extradition. However, this plan is blocked by higher-level officials at Justice Department headquarters, who want most of the case to be handled by the US Attorney’s Office in New York City. Seattle prosecutors are only allowed to bring charges against Ujaama. (Bernton and Heath 7/24/2005) They go ahead and arrest Ujaama in August 2002, finding weapons and training materials, and charge him with conspiring with Abu Hamza “to provide material support and resources” to the Taliban. One of his associates, Feroz Abbasi, is already in Guantanamo Bay, and is talking to interrogators about trips Ujaama has made to Afghanistan (see December 2000-December 2001). Ujaama quickly agrees to co-operate with the authorities, giving them details about Abu Hamza’s activities, and is given a two-year sentence for a lesser offence. (O'Neill and McGrory 2006, pp. 189-190, 198-200) The others are merely listed in Ujaama’s indictment as unindicted co-conspirators. Abu Hamza has actually been working as an informant for British intelligence (see Early 1997), but by early 2004 his relationship with the British has soured (see April 2003 and April 26, 2004), and the US Justice Department will finally indict him for charges relating to the training camp in May 2004. However, Aswat still will not be indicted. When asked why Aswat is not indicted as well, a federal official in Seattle will reply with frustration, “That’s a great question.” (Bernton and Heath 7/24/2005) Shortly after the 7/7 London bombings (see July 7, 2005), it will be widely reported that Aswat was the attack’s mastermind (see Late June-July 7, 2005). Then a counterterrorism expert will claim that Aswat was also an informant for British intelligence, and this explains why the US never indicted him and other mysteries surrounding him (see July 29, 2005).

A Supreme Court Justice, during the oral arguments in the cases of Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, asks how the Court can be certain that government interrogators are not abusing detainees. Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement answers that the court will have to “trust the executive to make the kind of quintessential military judgments that are involved in things like that.” (First 6/2004 pdf file) The government’s legal strategy is so inflexible in part because of Vice President Cheney, who through his lawyer David Addington refuses to allow the Justice Department to budge from its intransigent position. For months, Solicitor General Theodore Olson and his deputy, Clement, have pled for modest shifts in policy that would bolster their arguments in court. Hamdi has languished in a Navy brig for two and a half years without a hearing or a lawyer. British citizen Shafiq Rasul has been held under similar conditions at Guantanamo for even longer (see November 28, 2001 and January 11, 2002-April 30, 2002). Olson says that Cheney’s position—the president has unlimited authority to order the indefinite detention of anyone suspected of terrorist activity without benefit of counsel or any judiciary intervention—would be easier to argue in court if he could “show them that you at least have some system of due process in place” to ensure against wrongful detention, according to a senior Justice Department official familiar with the issue. But Addington wins the argument, overriding Olson and the Justice Department by his arguments that any such retreat would restrict the freedom of future presidents and open the door to further lawsuits. The Supreme Court will find against Cheney in both the Hamdi (see June 28, 2004) and Rasul (see June 28, 2004) cases. Olson will resign as solicitor general 11 days later. (Gellman and Becker 6/25/2007)

The US indicts leading radical imam Abu Hamza al-Masri, shortly after his arrest in Britian (see May 27, 2004). Abu Hamza is indicted on eleven counts, covering his part in a kidnapping scheme in Yemen (see December 28-29, 1998), the recruitment of a radical named Feroz Abbasi to attend a training camp in Afghanistan (see December 2000-December 2001), and a conspiracy to open a jihad training camp in Oregon (see November 1999-Early 2000).
Alleged Contact with High-Ranking al-Qaeda Terrorists - At the extradition hearing, the lawyer acting for the US describes Abu Hamza as having “engaged in a systematic pattern of terrorist activity since at least 1998….” The lawyer also points out: “He is no less than a supporter and facilitator of terrorism. He has been in contact with and provided support for terrorist groups and people associated with terrorist groups… He has had contact with high-ranking terrorists in the Taliban and al-Qaeda.” Abu Hamza declines to go to the US voluntarily and decides to fight the extradition request.
Indictment Is Media Event - The arrest and indictment is major news in the US and television programming is interrupted for a live press conference by Attorney General John Ashcroft. Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will later comment: “The Americans were jubilant, so much so that they insisted that daytime soap operas were interrupted to carry live television coverage of a press conference hosted by John Ashcroft, then Attorney General in the Bush administration. Ashcroft was joined on the platform by a crowd of smiling deputies, federal prosecutors, FBI officials and police chiefs. Just in case the public did not grasp the message, there was a huge portrait of Abu Hamza alongside them, caught in mid-rant, his one eye glaring, the steel hook raised.” Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray calls Abu Hamza “a terrorist facilitator with a global reach,” and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says, “Think of him as a freelance consultant to terrorist groups worldwide.” (O'Neill and McGrory 2006, pp. 282-5)

Five prisoners are released from Guantanamo, following a Pentagon announcement the release would take place two weeks earlier. They are Mamdouh Habib, an Australian, and the four remaining Britons: Feroz Abbasi, Moazzam Begg, Jamaal Belmar, and Martin Mubanga. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says the Britons’ release is the result of his “intensive and complex” discussions with the US. (Cowell 1/12/2005; Alvarez 1/26/2005) Australian Attorney General Philip Ruddock says the Australian government requested Habib’s repatriation to Australia after the US said it did not intend to bring Habib to trial. (ABC News 1/11/2005)
Two Men's Passports Confiscated - However, upon their return to England, the passports of Mubanga and Abbasi are confiscated by the British authorities using a little-known Royal Prerogative. Home Secretary Charles Clarke writes to the men saying that they are too dangerous to Britain and its allies to be allowed to travel, and that granting them passports “would be contrary to the public interest,” as there are “strong grounds for believing that, on leaving [Britain], you would take part in activities against [Britain] or allied targets. We therefore decided to withdraw your passport facilities for the time being.” (Murphy 2/15/2005)
Abbasi's Radical Connections - Abbasi is an associate of radical London imam Abu Hamza al-Masri (see 1999-2000) who had traveled to Afghanistan and been involved in fighting against the US-led invasion (see December 2000-December 2001), and had been slated for a military tribunal (see July 3, 2003).
Deal with Blair - The New York Times will suggest that the release of the four men is politically motivated and designed to bolster British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose campaign to gather support for the Iraq war was damaged by the news of the military prosecution of Britons at Guantanamo. According to the Times, “Mr. Blair’s critics saw his inability to regain custody of a total of nine British detainees at Guantánamo as proof of his subjugation to Washington,” and the announcement of the men’s release apparently shows that Blair can stand up to the US. (Golden 10/25/2004)

Brandon Neely.Brandon Neely. [Source: Associated Press]A former Guantanamo guard, Specialist Brandon Neely, discusses his experiences with MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow. He also gives a lengthier interview to the Guantanamo Testimonials Project, run by the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas at the University of California at Davis. Neely was at Guantanamo when the first prisoners arrived in January 2002, and stayed for some six months before being transferred. Later, he served in Iraq. Neely says he is still haunted by the memories of what he saw during his time at Guantanamo. Neely, who was honorably discharged from the Army in 2008, is the president of the Houston chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).
'I Was Ready for Revenge' - When he learned that he was being assigned to Guantanamo, as he recalls, “We were told… these people would not fall under the Geneva Convention.” Neely says that from the outset, he and the other guards were trained to be very adversarial towards the detainees: “We were just told from the get-go that these were the guys who planned 9/11, that these are the worst people in the world.… I was ready for revenge. I was angry. I was ready to go to war.” He recalls the day that the first detainees arrived (see January 11, 2002-April 30, 2002). When they arrived, Neely was startled: “Most of them were small, underweight, very scared, and injured. I was expecting these people to come off that bus looking like vicious monsters.”
Fear of Execution Provoked Resistance - Neely recalls one physical incident between himself and an older prisoner that happened the first day. When the prisoner resisted being forced to his knees, Neely slammed him to the cement floor; other guards “went ahead and hog-tied him.” The next day, as Neely recalls: “I could see on the side of his—side of his face, he was all scraped up and bruised.… And I later learned from other detainees the reason that he moved and he jerked away from us was when we placed him on his knees, he thought we were going to execute him.” However, his fellow guards were pleased, saying, “Man, that was a good job; you got you some.” Neely witnessed other physical abuses, including one instance when a prisoner was beaten by a medic for refusing to drink a can of Ensure. Neely later learned that the prisoner believed the Ensure to have been poisoned. He also witnessed a detainee beaten unconscious for calling a female guard a “b_tch.” Guards sometimes called prisoners “sand n_ggers.” Guards sometimes told detainees that their villages or countries had been bombed and their families were all dead. Sometimes the guards told prisoners that they could be executed at any time.
Lack of Respect for Religious Beliefs - Neely knows of at least one incident where a guard, searching a prisoner’s cage, threw the prisoner’s Koran to the floor, provoking outrage among the detainees. Neely says the guard swore that he threw the Koran aside without thinking. Other incidents were more deliberately provocative: loud rock music or the national anthem would be played during the morning call to prayer; soldiers would mock and ridicule prisoners during their worship services, soldiers would blast praying detainees with water and call the incidents accidents; prisoners were fed pork, a proscribed food, without being informed of what they were eating.
David Hicks: Humanizing the 'Monsters' - Neely spent a good amount of time talking with Australian detainee David Hicks (see December 2000-December 2001). Hicks repeatedly insisted that he had been in Afghanistan fighting well before the Americans arrived, and that he would never fight Americans. He told Neely that he had been captured by Northern Alliance forces while trying to leave the country, and his captors sold him to the Americans for $1,500. Neely recalls: “Hicks did not come across as the cold-blooded killer that we were told all these guys were. He was a normal guy like me.… During these times is when I really started to look at the detainees as real people and not just monsters, as I had been told they were.”
'Trial and Error' - Neely says: “There was no standard operating procedures as far as how a detainee camp was supposed to be run. There was kind of like a trial-and-error period, if this didn’t work, we’ll try this way one day—you know, just everyday was something different until they thought it was right.” He tells The Independent: “As far as the Geneva Conventions, we touched very shortly on that in training. Most of what people knew about them was from their own readings.” (MSNBC 2/17/2009; Ojeda 2/18/2009)
Conclusion - Neely says: “I think everyone can agree that, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, there are some really bad people. And there are a lot of good people there as well. But—innocent, guilty, black, white, Muslim, or Jew, no matter what you are—there is no excuse to treat people in the manner that I and other people did. It’s wrong and just downright criminal, and it goes against everything the United States of America stands for.” (Ojeda 2/18/2009)


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