By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
KARACHI and ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Mohammed Omar probably is lying, and Saji Ur Rahman, too, but their stories are entertaining: A couple of friends go to the island of lost jihadis.
The two young men's tales are good examples of why, even now, it's hard to discern who was who among the detainees at camps in Afghanistan and Guantanamo.
For each innocent man who was sent to Guantanamo on the basis of cash bounties or tribal rivalries, many more have concocted stories about wedding parties in September 2001, kidnappings or evangelical trips to try to conceal the real reasons they were in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan in particular, several men gave a McClatchy reporter accounts that they seemed unsure of, labyrinthine plots and details that didn't add up, no matter how many times they tried to explain and re-explain them.
One possibility — one that some of them blanched at and denied when they were asked about it — is that they were making trips to fight in Afghanistan that were sanctioned, even arranged, by members of Pakistan's intelligence or security services. The country's military intelligence service, Inter-Services Intelligence, was a key backer of the Taliban.
Young men from madrassas — Islamic seminaries — and mosques operating with the full knowledge of Pakistani authorities flooded into Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban in late 2001.
Omar was a student at one such madrassa, but he denied that he was a militant. His story, like Rahman's, was difficult to believe.
He said that in October 2001 he was 17 and fed up with religious school. His father, he said, had forced him to attend a madrassa in the town of Shahdadkot for about two weeks when he decided to run away.
He said he'd told an older man at the madrassa of his plans, and the man offered to take Omar with him to an acting academy. For Omar, who was always watching Indian movies, it sounded like a dream.
The older man, Omar said, then handed him over to a group of men who pushed him into a car and took him to Herat, Afghanistan.
"They said you are in Afghanistan and the Taliban are in charge here. I told them I wanted to go home," Omar said. "They had lied to me. They made a fool of me."
Rahman, who was 15, said that he and a group of four friends had met at their local mosque and decided to go to Afghanistan "as tourists," religion-minded students who wanted to see what the Taliban regime was like and to visit the graves of Islamic scholars.
"We were very into the adventure of it," Rahman said. "We had handicams with us" — hand-held video cameras — "we had cameras. The richer friend had a Thuraya," a satellite phone.
That trip also ended in Herat, where, Rahman said, he suddenly found himself stuck in a war.
The two denied going to Afghanistan together or even being arrested together, but it seems highly unlikely that a boy from the Pakistani province of Sindh (Omar) and a boy from Punjab (Rahman) coincidentally ended up together in a western Afghan province in the middle of a war with equally flimsy stories.
In separate interviews, they each said they were held at Herat's central jail for three months, then transferred to American forces at Kandahar Airfield for five to six months before they were flown to Guantanamo.
It wasn't possible to confirm their stories. There's no record of a tribunal hearing for either of them at Guantanamo, which would have spelled out the U.S. military's cases against them, and repeated requests to Pakistan's Interior Ministry for information by phone, text message and e-mail went unanswered.
Interviews with several other Pakistanis of about the same age, though, suggest that many young men, particularly those who were attending madrassas, went to Afghanistan at the time to fight against the United States and its Afghan allies.
From Omar's version of what American interrogators at Kandahar asked him, it's obvious that no one there believed his story: "They kept asking me where Mullah Omar was, if I was on a jihad mission, where I got my training."
The same was true for Rahman: "The questions were always the same: Why did you come to Afghanistan? Who did you meet in Afghanistan? Where did you hide your weapons?"
Both men said they stuck to their stories. Rahman was at Guantanamo for about a year and nine months, he said; Omar for less than two years.
It isn't clear whether American interrogators gave up on trying to find out the real story or decided that Rahman and Omar were just a couple of kids with flimsy alibis who, despite the lies, didn't know much.