Colangelo-Bryan wondered if he would really be meeting one of the “most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth,” as Donald Rumsfeld had described the detainees. Instead, he found a slight man, shackled to the floor, who stood about five-foot-six and had a wispy beard.
Al Dossari’s story, pent-up since he’d been captured on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan three years earlier, poured out in a rush. He told Colangelo-Bryan that he’d gone to Afghanistan in 1989 but said it was a two-day Saudi government–sponsored trip. The Russians had just withdrawn, and everyone wanted to see it. He acknowledged that he had gone to Bosnia in 1995, but not to fight. The war was coming to an end, and he hoped to find a “blonde” wife. At the time, he weighed 260 pounds, a condition for which he’d since had his stomach stapled. “As best I understand, he had the Saudi Arabian version of the Al Roker surgery,” Colangelo-Bryan says, adding that it was hard to imagine Al Dossari as an obese man since at Guantánamo he’d withered to about 140 pounds.
Regarding his arrest in Saudi Arabia, Al Dossari said hundreds of suspects were questioned but that he was cleared and released. Al Dossari said he went to Afghanistan in 2001 to work for a Saudi humanitarian organization but had never been to Tora Bora. Al Dossari said that, indeed, he’d given a sermon in Lackawanna, but it had nothing to do with recruiting. He was living in Bloomington, Indiana, at the time, serving as an imam at the local mosque, and had been invited to New York. “Why would anyone go to an open community in the United States . . . and tell the people there to go fight against the United States?” he asked Colangelo-Bryan. “I am not that crazy—and I am not an enemy of the United States.” In fact, Al Dossari said he loved the U.S. He had recently divorced and had hoped to find a new wife and settle down there. He told Colangelo-Bryan that he was sickened by what happened on 9/11.
Al Dossari said that while he had been in U.S. custody, soldiers had urinated on him, put their cigarettes out on his skin, forced him to walk barefoot over barbed wire, shocked him with electrodes, wrapped him in an Israeli flag, and locked him in solitary confinement. While he was in Camp X-ray, he said, he was beaten unconscious by an Immediate Response Force, a five-man team of soldiers in riot gear who are summoned to subdue uncooperative prisoners. Al Dossari had finally been driven to such despair that he tried to commit suicide by slashing a vein in his arm, then scrawling I COMMITTED SUICIDE BECAUSE OF THE BRUTALITY OF MY OPPRESSORS on the wall with his blood before passing out.
I asked Colangelo-Bryan if he really believed that Al Dossari was as innocent as he made it sound. Was it coincidence that he was in Bosnia, where the mujaheddin committed terrible atrocities? Colangelo-Bryan thought for a moment. “No one can look into somebody’s eyes and know if he is good or bad,” he says. “That’s why you need evidence and a fair hearing before locking someone up forever. But if someone isn’t even accused of taking any action against the U.S., how can you call him an enemy combatant?”
As for Al Dossari’s story of abuse, Colangelo-Bryan says he initially had some questions. Al Dossari had a scar on his nose that he said was from the IRF beating, and he had other scars that looked like they could have been cigarette burns, but what did that really mean? “I’m fairly cynical by nature, so when Al Dossari said he was wrapped in an Israeli flag, I wondered for a moment if Middle Eastern politics had found their way into our discussion,” Colangelo-Bryan says.
He wondered too if it was possible for Al Dossari to cut himself, gush that much blood, and still manage to write a complete sentence on the wall with it before passing out. But while he questioned the details (the FBI later confirmed many of them), Josh says he was sure that Al Dossari was traumatized by whatever had happened to him at Gitmo. “Jumah was warm, made eye contact, and even cracked a few jokes, but when he spoke about the abuse, he pulled away from the table, covered his face with his hands, and talked for about an hour without looking up or stopping,” he says.
Al Dossari asked Josh if he was Jewish. He said no—Joshua was a popular name where he grew up, on the Upper West Side. Al Dossari was disappointed. “I heard that the best lawyers are Jewish,” he said. “But I’m sure you’re good, too.”
The murkiness and complexity of the war on terror have been re-created and amplified at Guantánamo. Even suicide is rife with ambiguity. At Guantánamo, it’s the weapon of last resort, both a response to overwhelming despair and the only available political tactic. As such, it’s available to both the guilty and the innocent. When three detainees simultaneously committed suicide earlier this month, one obvious interpretation was to see it as a bid to generate American headlines, a publicity coup. One State Department official called the acts a “good PR move to draw attention” to the prisoners’ cause, and the commander called them an “act of asymmetric warfare.” But what Colangelo-Bryan and his colleagues were seeing in many of their clients was a kind of terminal hopelessness that had little to do with politics.