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Volatile Mix Gets 14 Stirs

At Guantanamo Bay, the arrival of suspected terrorist leaders puts new pressure on the guards and could rouse restive inmates.

September 17, 2006

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — The flight path into the U.S. military's most isolated prison sweeps down over the teal waters of a placid bay graced by rare manatees and wild herons.

But the seascape's tranquil beauty was probably veiled from 14 suspected Islamic terrorist leaders who were secretly transferred to the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base nearly two weeks ago under orders from President Bush.

The arrival of militants with senior roles inside Al Qaeda and related terror groups could change the delicate dynamics of a 5-year-old facility already rife with tension.

Government and military officials have provided few details about the movement of the high-profile captives to the detention camp inside the U.S. naval base.

But inmates brought into Guantanamo over the last five years have almost always worn shackles and blindfolds when they emerged under guard from arriving planes. Until recently, they were hooded, Pentagon officials said, but under changes prompted by revisions to the military's field manual, incoming prisoners now arrive masked by blackout goggles.

Bush's Sept. 6 announcement that the terror suspects had been whisked from the government's secret foreign prison system to Guantanamo's stark expanse of concrete cellblocks and razor wire confronted military authorities with a welter of security and legal concerns. The top terror suspects have been brought into Guantanamo at a time when military officials are already struggling to reassert authority over a restive prison population of 443 detainees who erupted in recent months with hunger strikes that led to forced feedings, suicides, clashes with guards and everyday acts of defiance.

The rising tension has coincided with the government's push to transform Guantanamo into a long-term facility, replacing its original landscape of crude metal cages with a complex of high-tech cellblocks.

Captured one after another since 2002, the 14 captives had been sequestered and interrogated for long months inside a secret system of foreign prisons.

The Islamic extremists will probably remain under some form of segregation for months and perhaps years to come, still subject to questioning by U.S. interrogators while they wait to be tried for an assortment of terrorism-related charges under a military court system still taking shape.

Several of the suspected veteran terror operatives are expected to face charges related to the Sept. 11 attacks. Among them are Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind; his accomplice, Ramzi Binalshibh; and Abu Zubeida, a former close associate of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Others -- such as Indonesian terrorist leader Hambali, who is linked to the 2002 bombing of two nightclubs in Bali that killed 202 people -- could be accused in any number of other terror incidents and plots.

Bush and other government officials have acknowledged that the terror suspects endured severe treatment during their captivity. A steady stream of press accounts in recent years has described a variety of tough interrogation regimens, including sleep deprivation, extreme temperature changes and water-boarding, a stress technique in which prisoners' heads are submerged in shallow water to simulate drowning.

Mohammed and the other Al Qaeda figures have "been milked to the bone," according to one U.S. counterterrorism official familiar with their treatment. But the new detainees will remain available for questioning, Pentagon officials said.

"If someone new is captured in the field, you can wave photos in front of them and ask them about particular individuals," said the counterterrorism official, who requested anonymity because of his high-security role. "But their value in terms of knowing about current plots, they are not useful anymore."

Guantanamo's team of 2,100 Navy and Army guards and interrogators will be hard-pressed to prevent the new arrivals from sharing information with each other. Their presence is likely to reenergize Guantanamo's hard-core detainees, especially if they are able to stake out leadership roles.

Even in the most segregated lockups, isolated prisoners "are resourceful," said Fred G. Robinette, a retired FBI special agent who oversaw prison investigations and counterintelligence cases. "They are going to communicate with one another."

Added Pressure

The arrival of the accused terrorism leaders adds to the pressure on guards, who are constantly being replaced by new units and have tried to impose control through phases of detached indifference, concessions and, at times, overwhelming force.

In June, three detainees hanged themselves with knotted clothing and bedsheets in an apparently coordinated suicide pact.

A month earlier, dozens of detainees rioted in the most violent unrest since the camp opened in January 2002. The detainees ambushed guards with weapons fashioned from fan blades, broken light fixtures and pieces of metal.

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