Adel al Zamel
By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
KUWAIT CITY — On his first day at Guantanamo, Adel al Zamel said, he was taken to a clinic and checked for injuries.
He said he was still sore from being punched in the face and kicked in the gut for two and a half months while in U.S. military custody in Afghanistan. He'd heard that Guantanamo was just as bad and, though he tried not to show it, he was terrified.
As the doctor examined him and took hair and saliva samples, an interpreter stood nearby. According to Zamel, the interpreter looked at him, grinned and whispered over and over: "Do you want to kill yourself? Do you want to kill yourself?"
Zamel said he tried not to pay attention, not to let the words seep through, but they rattled around his mind as he was marched into an interrogation room.
He said that a soldier there, wearing a brown T-shirt with a tattoo of a dragon stretching down his forearm, shoved a piece of paper in Zamel's face. There was a diagram on it, beginning with the initials "UBL," for Osama bin Laden, which sometimes is spelled Usama. From there, an arrow pointed to another name, "Abu Ghaith," bin Laden's Kuwaiti-born spokesman, Suleiman Abu Ghaith. From Abu Ghaith there was one more arrow, which ended at "You."
Zamel said he looked around the room for a moment, not sure whether it was a joke. The diagram suggested that he was a high-ranking member of al Qaida. Zamel claimed that he was a charity worker.
A former employee of the Kuwaiti national housing authority, Zamel moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2000 to head a branch of the Wafa Humanitarian Works Organization. He left Afghanistan in January 2002, and he was arrested in Pakistan the next month.
The United States has linked the Saudi-backed charity to al Qaida and considers it a terrorist organization, but Zamel maintains that his work was solely charitable, distributing food and overseeing small infrastructure projects.
Zamel said he was merely an employee of the Wafa group, but the U.S. military alleged during his tribunal at Guantanamo that he was a key organizer and co-founder of its offices in three Afghan cities.
Even more damning, the tribunal and a later military review board said that Zamel had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks and knew at least two members of bin Laden's inner circle.
The American attorney for the Kuwaiti detainees at Guantanamo, David Cynamon, said that neither his legal team nor its predecessor had flown to Afghanistan to check Zamel's version of events.
The tribunal classified Zamel as an enemy combatant and found that he was a close associate of Abu Ghaith who'd moved his own and Abu Ghaith's families out of Afghanistan just before Sept. 11, 2001.
Zamel confirmed both those facts to the tribunal, according to a transcript of the hearing, but he didn't mention either of them to a reporter during an interview in Kuwait City.
Nor did he mention, until he was asked, that he'd been sentenced to a year in jail in Kuwait for being with a group of men who beat a Kuwaiti girl they accused of being publicly affectionate with her boyfriend.
Zamel spoke to a reporter in the long greeting room that belongs to the organizer of an advocacy group for former Guantanamo detainees in Kuwait. He's a small, thin man with dark rings under his eyes. When speaking with friends, he jokes often, flashing his teeth in wide grins, and he talks in energetic bursts. When he's silent, when his face is still, he looks tired and old.
When he sat down with a reporter in Kuwait City, Zamel said that one thing had to be borne in mind about Guantanamo: "You must understand, the psychological torture was much worse than physical torture."
On the fifth day at Guantanamo, the guards came for him. He was expecting another interrogation. They took him, instead, to what looked like a small metal box.
This was his first taste of solitary confinement at Guantanamo.
It was May in Cuba, and the days were warm.
"The cell was hot. I couldn't sleep at night. The pillow was soaked with my sweat. There was a small opening in the cell wall; I used to push my nose to it," Zamel said. "I used the bathroom on the floor; there was nothing else to do."
Those words — "Do you want to kill yourself?" — came back to him in the long hours. His thoughts darkened.
"I thought they were going to kill me, and then I thought they were going to leave me in there until I died," Zamel said. "I was losing my mind. I started to think that one day they were going to open the door and let a lion in to eat me. The world was getting smaller and smaller."
After about a month, a guard came and, without a word, opened the door and took him back to a regular cell.
He was interrogated every day after that for at least a month, pushed to confess his ties to al Qaida and to describe what he knew about bin Laden.
"They asked me what I thought about the events of Sept. 11, and I did not reply," Zamel said. "If I said I denounced those events, they would call me a liar. If I said I supported it, they would call me a terrorist."
When the interrogators thought he wasn't telling the truth, he was sent back to solitary.
During his last year at Guantanamo, 2005, the interrogators began to threaten to send him to Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan or Morocco, where security agents would torture him in ways that he couldn't imagine. The threats, he said, sometimes kept him awake at night, worrying that the next morning he'd be put in a plane and then killed in some Egyptian prison cell.
At some point toward the end of his time at Guantanamo — he couldn't say when, exactly, because the days were impossible to count — he cracked, he said.
"I told them, 'I am Osama bin Laden. Please kill me,' " Zamel said. "I just wanted it to end."