December 30, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 249

The Manacles Of Sami Al-Hajj

December 30, 2020 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Sudan | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 249

One of the wilder assignments I had in my career as an American diplomat was speaking hundreds of times on pan-Arab satellite television from 2005 to 2007. The risk was not, of course, to life and limb but to one's career or reputation, whatever those fleeting things are worth. One of the issues that would come up, of course, was the question of foreign detainees held at Guantanamo.

There was official press guidance prepared on the subject of Guantanamo, but, like most talking points prepared by the Department of State, they really didn't hold up in any sort of lengthy media exposure. They were meant for the speaker to make the main points and get off the air. When having to address the issue, I tried to elaborate on them in ways that at least could be helpful without getting me in trouble with my superiors: The true author of Guantanamo was one Osama bin Laden. The prison had not existed before 9/11, and while one might find fault with the decision, it was something forced upon the U.S. in wartime, in a very unusual war. More than once I drew the analogy of actions taken by U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt under extraordinary wartime situations. These actions – Lincoln's suspension of civil rights such as the writ of habeas corpus and Roosevelt's sending Japanese Americans to detention camps – are rightly criticized today, but were criticized rather less so at the time.

My personal opinions on Guantanamo were ambivalent. Prisons, even when necessary (and they are necessary) and even if well run, are horrors. The type of rhetoric some Republicans, like candidate Mitt Romney, would later use to defend Gitmo was distasteful.[1] Even if a prison is run professionally and full of guilty people (two big "ifs"), they are soul-deadening places. At the same time, I didn't agree with much of the leftwing agitprop making America seem uniquely evil because it tried to defend itself after the greatest terrorist attack in history. It was also undeniable that Guantanamo (and the horrific 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq) served as powerful tools for terrorist recruitment, although if they hadn't existed the jihadis would have found other excuses. They always did. The September 11, 2001 attacks themselves predated Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, predated the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the planning for such spectacular terror even preceded the much-maligned Bush administration.  

My interest in the issue also had some personal dimensions. My own grandfather died as a political prisoner in the notorious La Cabaña prison in Castro's Cuba in 1968. Motivated by a desire to learn Arabic at an early age, I joined the U.S. Army to do so, and was trained as an interrogator/translator. It was a different age. My instructors at Fort Huachuca and supervisors at Fort Bragg had actually been real-world interrogators in Vietnam and, of course, the focus in those years was mostly on the Soviet threat. The closest I came to actually interrogating a POW was when I was placed on alert, along with part of the 82nd Airborne Division, to blunt an invasion by Cuban-supported Congolese rebels at Kolwezi in 1978. But we never left North Carolina. The French Foreign Legion went instead.[2]

My first real encounter with the reality of Guantanamo came in, of all places, in Afghanistan where I was serving in the US Embassy in Kabul. It was there where I got to see – not in person but on video – the release in October 2002 of some of the first detainees. I vividly remember one toothless old Afghan, supposedly in his 70s, released after 10 months imprisonment in Cuba. Had it taken that long for the all-knowing masters of the most exclusive prison in the world to figure out that this doddering ancient shouldn't have been there? It was in Afghanistan that I first heard the name of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Hajj.

Taking over the press and public diplomacy portfolio – a middle ranking position in the hierarchy – in 2005 at State's Near East Affairs (NEA) Bureau thrust me, if only as a bit player, into the Bush administration's struggle for Middle East hearts and minds, led at that time by Karen Hughes.[3] I was not chosen to accompany Under-Secretary Hughes on her first, notorious overseas trip (my seat was taken by a political officer serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary) but I got to go on her second trip, which took her in February 2006 to the pan-Arab satellite television hubs of Dubai (Al-Arabiyya) and Doha (Al-Jazeera).[4]

Preparing for the trip, I was able to read for the first time the file on Al-Hajj. Al-Hajj had been detained in Pakistan on his way from Afghanistan in December 2001 and handed over by the Pakistani military to the Americans. He was the only journalist to be held in Guantanamo. I remember one of my deputies telling me that the Al-Hajj file was "damning." After reading it, I thought, well, it is and it isn't.[5] There was no doubt that Al-Hajj was an Islamist and that he had been part of that twilight netherworld in the Middle East and elsewhere where connections between Islamist activism, commerce and terrorism seemed blurred. He had all sorts of suspicious, dubious connections, but his supposed Al-Qaeda ties seemed to me to be asserted rather than proven. Reading the file prepared by our own people made him sound more innocent than guilty.

Al-Hajj's ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Al-Jazeera were obvious and incontrovertible but, as much as I disliked both, neither of those connections were terrorism, as far as the U.S. was concerned. I was then and still am a critic of Al-Jazeera,[6] but I wondered how much that connection had influenced his captors' judgment. The very idea that Al-Hajj, a cameraman, would somehow provide damning evidence on Al-Jazeera was ludicrous. If the Americans wanted that, they could listen in on the conversations of the Qatari leadership and Doha-based senior staff that controlled the network.[7] In any case, now I was informed, but it didn't really matter, as it was very unlikely that I would have any say in the case of Sami Al-Hajj.

When I found out I was going to Sudan as the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires (chief of mission in the absence of an ambassador) in May 2007, Sami Al-Hajj was the last thing on my mind. Preserving the Comprehensive Peace Accords (CPA) that ended Africa's longest civil war and the ongoing crisis in Darfur were the main issues. The Embassy footprint was not small, but it was extremely precarious in terms of security, considering that Sudan was the only State Sponsor of Terrorism remaining in Africa.

In October 2007, we were tasked by Washington with securing Sudanese government approval for a new detainee transfer framework between our two countries. No one said it outright, but it seemed to me that this presaged a possible release of more prisoners from Guantanamo, including Al-Hajj. Four detainees had already been released between 2004 to 2006, but this time our government wanted more assurances.

My initial approach, to acting Foreign Minister Ali Karti, a Bashir regime hardliner, was not great. Karti not only was a hardliner but seemed disposed to want to negotiate the details of such an agreement – an absolute non-starter for the U.S. government. Relief came in the form of a cabinet reshuffle that brought Deng Alor Koul in as Sudanese Foreign Minister, as part of the fragile power-sharing agreement between Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM). Alor was a good man in a bad regime, and thanks to him the framework agreement was approved. By December 2007, the first two Guantanamo detainees under the new agreement had been released.

There was still one more hurdle, and in March 2008 we hosted a senior U.S. Department of Defense/State Department team responsible for detainee affairs. It was clear to me now that this was the last round of reassurances needed, and the focus shifted to the lead agency in Sudan responsible for terrorism issues – the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and its head, the fearsome but capable Salah Ghosh. Ghosh probably would have had more reason to be in Guantanamo than the Al-Jazeera cameraman ever did, but after nurturing Al-Qaeda in the 1990s, the Khartoum regime had distanced itself from Bin Laden and been of help to the Americans in the Global War on Terror.[8]

Well prepped by the Embassy, Ghosh gave our visitors the assurances they needed to hear. The fact was that while the Bashir regime was absolutely not to be trusted in most things, promises on issues relating to security and terrorism were less likely to be broken than those given on anything else. Privately, I had my doubts not so much about Sudanese security as about the almost irresistible temptation for the regime to preen on pan-Arab television. My concerns were well founded, and I suspect that if I had voiced them the transfer might have been delayed.

In late April 2008, we got word that three more detainees, including Al-Hajj, would be transferred soon. Past midnight on May 2, our Defense Attaché and myself were on the military side of Khartoum International Airport to witness the transfer.  The Sudanese side awaiting the arrival was overwhelmingly NISS and military personnel, including NISS cameramen more used to photographing coerced interrogations in NISS ghost houses.[9] Amir Yakoub Mohammed Al-Amir, Walid Muhammad Haj, and Sami Al-Hajj were all taken off of the USAF transport, and their white zip-tied handcuffs were cut and handed to me. Sami Al-Hajj, who had been acting normally moments before, began to visibly wince in pain for the NISS cameras as he was placed on a hospital gurney and whisked away into the darkness.[10] The inevitable media circus had begun.[11]

While Al-Hajj was taken to a hospital where Wadah Khanfar, the Director of Al-Jazeera and his camera crew waited,[12] the two other detainees were interviewed within minutes of their arrival, President Bashir's press secretary went on Al-Jazeera right away, to be followed by a press conference by the State Minister of Information – all this occurring while the U.S. military transport plane was still on the ground. Not surprisingly, within a month Al-Hajj would be flown in style to Doha and receive another hero's welcome.[13] The timing of the release would be fortuitous. About a week after the transfer, Darfur rebels would launch a daring raid on the Sudanese capital reaching the Al-Ingaz Bridge on the White Nile before being forced back by NISS troops. For a moment at least, the Sudanese National Security State looked a bit shaky.

I never actually met the man and didn't need to. I saw him in person for about two to three minutes. My minor role in this drama, which dated back to Afghanistan in 2002, had come to an end. I kept Sami Al-Hajj's plastic manacles in a drawer in my office for about a year, until my departure from Khartoum. Packing up my personal items, I saw them and I put them in the garbage.


* Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], May 16, 2007.

[2], uploaded July 26, 2018.

[3], March 16, 2005.


[5], Monday April 25, 2011.

[6] MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1527, Al-Jazeera Unmasked: Political Islam As A Media Arm Of The Qatari State , August 12, 2020.

[7], accessed December 30, 2020.

[8], August 30, 2010.

[9], 2010.

[10], uploaded September 7, 2008.

[11], May 3, 2008.

[12], uploaded May 1, 2008.


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