SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — An Afghan man who is being held with the most significant terrorism suspects in U.S. custody has apparently gained extensive knowledge of western pop culture in an unlikely place: the top secret prison-within-a-prison in Guantanamo Bay.
Nearly five years ago, Mohammed Rahim al-Afghani became the last prisoner sent to Guantanamo. He was accused of helping Osama bin Laden elude capture, and the CIA had interrogated him for months at an undisclosed location before he was locked away in Guantanamo’s Camp 7, a prison unit shrouded in secrecy that holds about 15 men who have been designated “high value” detainees by the U.S. government.
With no court appearances, or even charges filed, nothing was heard from Rahim and he has remained largely a mystery. So, it was a surprise when his lawyer, Carlos Warner, released letters from the detainee described by the head of the CIA as a “tough, seasoned jihadist.” More surprising still was the content: quirky notes peppered with references to Howard Stern, Fox News and the global video hit of South Korean singer PSY.
“Dear Mr. Warner,” he wrote. “I like this new song Gangnam Style. I want to do the dance for you but cannot because of my shackles.”
In another letter, the multilingual Rahim shows some familiarity with American slang. He tells his lawyer, most likely in jest, that he has adopted a banana rat, a rodent commonly spotted around the U.S. base in Cuba. “Tell the guards to leave my friend alone. They need to chillax.”
It’s hardly what one would expect from a middle-age Afghan who has never been to the U.S. While there is still little public information about Rahim, the letters provide some insight into the man — and suggest that the prisoners in Camp 7, a group that includes five charged with aiding and orchestrating the Sept. 11 terror attack, are not completely isolated from the outside world.
To Warner, a federal public defender for the Northern District of Ohio, the letters humanize a man who he contends has been demonized by U.S. authorities, who allege he worked as a translator and assistant to bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders. The lawyer says the letters demonstrate a surprising amount of resilience.
“It shows he’s different and he’s intelligent,” Warner said. “Just think that he’s doing this under all the restrictions that’s he’s under down there. He has an incredibly good sense of humor.”
There have been letters released to the media in the past from other detainees at Guantanamo, often providing valuable information about a prison that will have been open for 11 years on Jan. 11. Sami al-Haj, an Al-Jazeera journalist when he was captured and sent to Guantanamo, provided detailed accounts of a hunger strike before he was eventually released. Shaker Aamer, the last resident of Britain still held at the prison, has given an insider’s view on confinement conditions.
Rahim’s are different because he is in Camp 7, and the content departs so sharply from what one might expect from a jihadist. “I want you to contact Amanda Palmer,” he wrote Nov. 6, referring to the American singer. “... Ask her to write a song about me and my family.”
Warner and U.S. officials are prohibited from publicly discussing Rahim’s life and the allegations against him, but the broad outlines are in a public document filed in federal court by the government in response to Warner’s filing of a civil writ of habeas corpus seeking the prisoner’s release.
The document says Rahim is about 47 and was born in eastern Afghanistan. He fled with his family over the border to Pakistan when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. Rahim has told authorities that he returned temporarily to fight the invaders, a war that killed two of his brothers, and moved back permanently once they retreated from the country.
A younger brother, Abdul Basit, told The Associated Press in London, where he is seeking asylum, that Rahim eventually got a job working for an Afghan government committee responsible for eradicating opium poppies, but that he was forced from the job by members of the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist movement that emerged in the 1990s.
Basit, who was detained by the U.S. military for five years in Afghanistan, says his brother is a well-educated man who was not particularly interested in global politics. He suggests his brother is being held more for who he might know rather than what he has done. “There is no reason to put him in Guantanamo for this long time,” Basit said in broken English.
The Justice Department document says Rahim began helping the Taliban in the 1990s and that job morphed into working for al-Qaida. It cites two other prisoners and an undisclosed source identifying Rahim as a close associate of bin Laden. Rahim was captured in Pakistan in 2007 and turned over to the CIA, in whose custody he was subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation. He was transferred to Guantanamo in March 2008.
In photos taken by the Red Cross at Camp 7, and obtained by the AP from the prisoner’s family in Afghanistan, Rahim has a long flowing beard. In one, he smiles broadly at the camera.
The first letters from Rahim released by Warner were in June, including one in which he disclosed that Majid Khan, a former Maryland resident who pleaded guilty to aiding al-Qaida, had acquired a cat at Camp 7, which AP reported at the time. The Pentagon and prison officials declined comment and said they could not discuss conditions of confinement for high-value detainees, although they added that prisoners are not permitted to have pets.
The rest of the letters came during or after subsequent visits by Warner, who had them cleared by the military before releasing them to the AP. None are more than a few sentences, and contain many typographical errors, which have been corrected for this story for the sake of clarity.
In one, Rahim returns to the theme of his fellow prisoner’s alleged cat. “I want a dog,” he writes. “I will train my dog to chase Majid Khan’s cat.”
In separate notes, he asks Warner to appeal for help from radio personality Howard Stern. “If he is the ‘King of All Media’ he can help me.”
In another, he criticizes Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” slogan, writing that if that were true the channel “would not have to say it every five minutes.”
How he came by this information is not clear. A prison spokesman, Navy Capt. Robert Durand, won’t discuss life in Camp 7 but he says that “where satellite television and radio is available for detainees,” they have access to a wide variety of channels in Arabic, Farsi, English, Russian, Spanish and other languages. The line-up, however, apparently does not include Howard Stern or Fox.
With no Internet access, he could have picked up such information from other shows or through Warner, who has spent hours with him and delivered magazines such as Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and The Economist.
The U.S. military will not say when or if Rahim will be charged. His name does not appear on the list of detainees who have been cleared for release from Guantanamo and his name was not among those mentioned as possible candidates for an exchange with the Taliban as part of a peace deal.