Khaled al Asmr
By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
IRBID, Jordan — The Americans, Khaled al Asmr said, pressed him to talk about the Saudi man with the long beard.
They beat him, he said. They threatened to kill him. They humiliated him, he said, trying to find out about Osama bin Laden.
But from January 2002, when he was arrested in Islamabad, Pakistan, to July 2005, when he was released from Guantanamo, Asmr wouldn't budge. He told American interrogators that he hadn't known bin Laden in the 1980s, when both of them were in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet army.
During his hearing before a U.S. military tribunal at Guantanamo, according to an undated transcript released by the Defense Department, Asmr said: "The interrogators, every time they ask me, 'Have you met Osama bin Laden?' my response is that I've never met Osama bin Laden. What I told them is that I have seen Osama bin Laden from a distance for a period of maybe a few minutes."
After his tribunal, the U.S. military concluded that Asmr was no longer an enemy combatant. He's one of only 38 men at Guantanamo who've received that designation, which is as close as the U.S. military gets to ruling that a detainee was innocent.
In an interview with McClatchy at his home in Jordan, however, Asmr told a different story.
He wasn't a key associate of bin Laden, he said, but he spent many hours chatting with the tall, gaunt man from Saudi Arabia, although he said he didn't remain in contact with bin Laden after the 1980s.
Asmr told military officers at his tribunal that he'd worked with the Services Office, a forerunner of al Qaida that recruited fighters to Afghanistan, which bin Laden largely funded and the U.S. government has since designated a terrorist organization. But he said that he stopped working with the organization in 1992.
Asmr admitted knowing the office's chief, militant leader Abdullah Azzam, who was one of bin Laden's mentors. However, he said his relationship with Azzam had been indirect, that he'd worked with Azzam's wife in an offshoot group.
The military also accused him of working for the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, a group that the U.S. government charges used charity fronts to funnel money to al Qaida. Asmr denied that he was a member of Al Haramain, but said that he dealt with the group occasionally through his food-trading business.
In an interview with McClatchy, however, Asmr admitted to a long-standing relationship with al Hamarain and Azzam.
While he denied knowing about al Qaida's operations, Asmr told McClatchy that he could have provided a thorough sketch of bin Laden and those around him, possibly crucial information that might have helped the Americans better understand the terrorist mastermind in the early days of 2002.
Sitting in his home in Irbid, sipping a cup of tea, Asmr described his trip from Pakistan to the U.S. prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
He said that he and a group of detainees, who'd been arrested by Pakistani police in Islamabad, sat on the ground of an airstrip, shackled, with hoods over their heads, and listened as someone walked passed them and counted out loud the number of prisoners.
When the counting stopped, a man speaking English with an American accent said to the Pakistanis, "You've got seven of them here. We'll give you $5,000 for each one," according to Asmr, who understands basic English.
"Then they (U.S. soldiers) started hitting and kicking me," Asmr said. "They lifted me up to take me to the plane, still hitting me in the back and hitting me on my face, saying, 'Taliban, huh?' "
Asmr said that he decided to tell the Americans as little as possible. It's hard to know whether he'd have spoken more freely had he been treated better.
After some three weeks at Bagram, Asmr was shipped to the holding center at Kandahar Airfield, where he stayed for about three and a half months.
He faced harassment there, he said, including alleged fondling of his sex organs, which he said unsettled him more than rough treatment did.
"Once they said, 'We will conduct a medical checkup.' They took me to a clinic, but instead of doing a checkup, a female soldier played with my sexual organs," Asmr said, looking embarrassed. "When she was doing this, I prayed to God to help me, and my penis did not move."
Asmr said the soldier had brown hair and looked to be in her 40s. She didn't do anything else during the exam but stroke his penis, wearing latex gloves, he said.
"There were male soldiers watching it happen. They were laughing and making jokes," he said.
He said he was taken back to an interrogation room. The interrogator didn't mention the episode in the clinic, Asmr said, but grinned, asked how his day was going and wondered aloud whether he might be ready to talk.
Asmr said he answered in English: No.
Several other former detainees interviewed claimed that female soldiers fondled them, and taunted or straddled them. An FBI report released May 20 said that more than 20 of the bureau's agents saw or heard of "female interrogators touching or acting toward a detainee in a sexual manner" at Guantanamo.
Toward the end of the interview at his home, the sun having set hours earlier, Asmr was asked about bin Laden. What would he have told the Americans about him?
First of all, Asmr said, the Americans would have had to understand one thing.
"He is beloved by his followers," Asmr said, smiling.