By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
CHARIKAR, Afghanistan — During exercise time at Guantanamo's Camp Four, a place reserved for well-behaved detainees, Abdul Zuhoor used to argue with a Taliban member.
Zuhoor had a reputation as a contrarian militia leader who'd fought with multiple factions in Afghanistan. A throwback to the country's tradition of warlords switching sides with the changing fortunes, Zuhoor considered himself more a man who owned his turf than anything else. To him, politics came and went.
So the Taliban member, Mullah Ghafoor, would walk alongside Zuhoor and needle him about his lack of loyalty to any given militia. Zuhoor, in turn, would accuse Ghafoor of hypocrisy.
"Mullah Ghafoor, he was preaching the benefit of jihad, the rewards that would come in the afterlife," Zuhoor said, laughing. "I told Mullah Ghafoor, 'Why don't you go to jihad first? Then I will follow you.' "
Beyond the banter, Ghafoor also would tell Zuhoor what had been decided in the most recent meeting of senior Taliban and al Qaida leadership in Camp Four. The group, which met in whispers on either side of the fence during exercise and via messages passed among cellblocks, would decide on the most pressing issues at Guantanamo and issue fatwas — religious edicts — that it expected other detainees to follow.
Its decisions ranged from calling for hunger strikes to banning chess and card playing.
Zuhoor's story illuminates the workings of these leadership meetings, though it must be taken with some skepticism. He admitted lying to the tribunal at Guantanamo about a host of things.
While many former detainees didn't talk explicitly about a formal shura council — a religious consultative group — of al Qaida and Taliban members at Guantanamo, many of them referred to the "elders" of the camp, who frequently decided what was acceptable inmate behavior and when and where protests should be.
For example, Akhtar Mohammed, an Afghan former detainee, said the riots that shut down much of Camp Four temporarily in 2006 largely were triggered because "some of the elders of the camp were demanding trials because they had been there for months or years without being interrogated."
An American attorney for an Arab detainee said that his client at one point said he couldn't meet with his legal team anymore.
"He said there were five or six detainees who had assumed positions of leadership in the camp, and that he had to deal with them," said the attorney, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities involved with a defense attorney describing radicalization of detainees. "And they said that he would need a fatwa to continue speaking with us, to continue speaking with Americans."
The fatwa, the shura council told the detainee, couldn't come from just any imam: It had to be from a senior cleric in Saudi Arabia.
One afternoon in June 2006, while Zuhoor and Mullah Ghafoor were chatting during exercise, Ghafoor said that the shura council had "sat together and issued a verdict. Three of the men volunteered to kill themselves to get more freedom for the other detainees," Zuhoor recalled.
Ghafoor told him that "the sacrifice will begin tonight."
The next day, Zuhoor said, he heard that three men — two Saudis and a Yemeni — had hanged themselves.
Several other Afghans said in interviews that Taliban and al Qaida members tried to run the cellblocks in Guantanamo like a hard-line Islamic state.
Zuhoor said that inmates associated with the shura council often said they had seen U.S. soldiers stepping on the Quran. Such stories would enrage the detainees who heard them.
But, Zuhoor said, "it was not true that the American soldiers had stepped on the Quran. It was a plot by the Taliban and the Arabs to cause trouble so they could get concessions from the Americans."
Zuhoor was well-suited to appreciate the intrigue.
His life story illustrates the rough-and-tumble complexity of Afghanistan at a time of war: As the leader of a militia group in the northern town of Charikar, Zuhoor was aligned with and then imprisoned by U.S.-backed warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud — who fought the Taliban — then expelled from the country by the Taliban. He then tangled in a blood feud with fighters loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a lifetime rival of Massoud's who fought with him against a common Russian enemy but later made common cause with the Taliban and al Qaida.
One of his Zuhoor's brothers was loyal to Massoud. Three of his brothers were killed by a member of Hekmatyar's group and, in return, Zuhoor assassinated three of that man's brothers.
Abdul Odood, a senior community leader in the governor's provincial office where Zuhoor lives, said that Zuhoor joined his militia with Taliban forces but it had nothing to do with religious or philosophical commitment.
"He did not join the Taliban because of any ideology," Odood said. "He joined them because he was having a feud with the northern alliance people," aligned with Massoud.
In short, Zuhoor was a man with several bullet wounds, a bullet fragment still in his left thigh and few friends.
He is also a man who admits to lying.
For one, he told the military judges there that he didn't lead any groups of armed men. The truth, he said in an interview with McClatchy, is that he led some 350 men. He also told the judges that he was a farmer. He wasn't.
"I denied everything they said," Zuhoor said.
He was charged with being loyal to Hekmatyar, the insurgent leader.
"I said, 'Look, I still have a bullet in my thigh from fighting Hezb-e Islami,' " Hekmatyar's group, Zuhoor said. "My brothers were killed fighting them."
The Americans also alleged that Zuhoor had conspired to bomb the American Embassy in Kabul. But during his tribunal hearings, the U.S. officers present acknowledged that Zuhoor had told American forces in his area where they could find the bomb, which was being readied for delivery. He was told to come back the next day, and when he did, the Americans whom he'd come to warn the day before arrested him.
He was accused of being involved in the plot.
During a military review board, Zuhoor, apparently fed up with the process, told the judges that because of his experience of being arrested after informing the Americans about a bomb: "I don't care if they need me to report a bomb that will kill 500 people or 5,000 people, I will not" tell anybody.
In a country full of feuds — with friends who become enemies, then the other way around — Zuhoor figured out at the end that it would be better to say nothing to the Americans, who understood none of it.