Born in Louisiana, captured in Afghanistan, jailed in Hanahan
Yaser Hamdi travels long, strange road
By TONY BARTELME
Sunday, March 7, 2004
Edition: FINAL, Section: SECTION A, Page A1
Late November 2001. The war in Afghanistan is at full throttle, and 100 or so Taliban fighters huddle in freezing, pitch-dark catacombs under an old fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif.
Outside, troops from the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance are doing their best to kill the Taliban holdouts. They drop grenades down air ducts and fire rockets into a passageway. The Taliban stay below, some scared they'll be shot if they surrender, others vowing to fight to the death.
Over the next six days, Northern Alliance troops fire rockets and pour burning fuel into the cellars. Finally, they divert an ice-cold stream into the complex, flooding it waist-high and creating a foul stew of fuel, corpses and human waste.
Dazed and starving, roughly 80 survivors eventually stagger out, their faces black with soot. One turns out to be John Walker Lindh, a young Californian who left America a year before to study Arabic and ended up in an al-Qaida training camp.
To the surprise of reporters on the scene, another young prisoner also speaks English. As he's led out, they ask where he's from. He stops briefly and seems to smile: "I am American. I was born in Baton Rouge."
Unlike Lindh, who would become a household name, this other man's story was largely forgotten until April 2002. That's when the Pentagon revealed it had a second American citizen among its captives from Afghanistan: Yaser Esam Hamdi, born Feb. 26, 1980, at Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge, La.
Hamdi, now 24, is confined to a cell in a maximum security wing of the Naval Consolidated Brig in Hanahan.
He has not been charged with a crime, and until last month he had not been allowed to see a lawyer. The Bush administration maintains that since Hamdi was captured on a battlefield, he is an "enemy combatant" and deserves none of the protectionsafforded by the American criminal justice system. Civil rights groups and others have said this is unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Hamdi's case next month. At stake are fundamental questions about the extent of presidential power in the struggle against global terrorism and the constitutional rights of American citizens to defend themselves when they're locked up.
How Hamdi ended up in military custody has been mostly lost in the coverage of his legal case, as have the questions of his innocence or guilt.
Is Hamdi a danger to the United States, as the government insists? Or is he, as his parents claim, just a naive college kid caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Hamdi's treatment also calls into question the consistency of the government's anti-terrorism policies. Both Hamdi and Lindh are American citizens. They were captured in the same place under the same circumstances. Why then did the Justice Department try Lindh's case in the courts, with the usual constitutional safeguards, but not Hamdi's?
The government is not the place to turn to for the answers.
While criminal prosecutions of Lindh and other terrorism targets have generated volumes of information, the government's public case against Hamdi is limited to a few short paragraphs. Officials at the Justice Department and Pentagon declined to comment for this article.
But from interviews with Hamdi's family in Saudi Arabia, journalists who witnessed his capture in Afghanistan and documents from the criminal prosecution of Lindh, a picture emerges of a young man caught in a whirlwind of history.
From his home in Saudi Arabia, to one of the bloodiest moments in the Afghanistan conflict, to a Supreme Court case that could set a precedent for decades to come, this is the story of Hamdi's long, strange trip.
BORN IN THE USA
Yaser Hamdi's father, Esam, has fond memories of the five years he spent in the United States. He worked as a petroleum engineer with Exxon Chemicals in the late 1970s and early 1980s, living in Louisiana, Texas and California. "I had excellent neighbors, and we would go out together. America felt like home," he recalled recently in a telephone interview from Saudi Arabia. His first child, Yaser, was born two years into his stay, and the Hamdis returned to Saudi Arabia three years later. Because Yaser was born in the United States, he would have dual citizenship, Saudi and American. Living in America "was a really good period for us," the elder Hamdi said.
Yaser, one of five sons, was a regular child who liked soccer and swimming, his father said. "He's a very cheerful person," Esam Hamdi said. "When Yaser is in the house, you know it because he's always joking and talking and playing with his brothers. He breaks the ice with people very easily. He is not someone who is serious, who keeps his eyebrows close together."
Esam Hamdi finds it difficult to imagine his son carrying an assault rifle, as the U.S. government said he did in Afghanistan.
The Hamdi family is respected in Saudi Arabia, Yaser's father said. Yaser's grandfather was the head of a chamber of commerce in the Mecca area, and two uncles are doctors. "We are an educated family," he said, "and I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but we are not one of those families that doesn't care where their kids go and what they do. None of us has ever been in jail before."
Yaser was a sophomore at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, where he studied marketing. The university is about 90 miles away from the Hamdi home in Jubail, a city on the Persian Gulf once famed for pearling and now the site of a massive petrochemical complex.
On weekends, Yaser usually drove home to stay with his family, his father said. "He was focusing on school," Esam Hamdi said. "He wanted to graduate, find work, get married and be like any other person."
Yaser also was growing up in a period of intense social ferment in Saudi Arabia. In a matter of generations, oil pumped billions of dollars into one of the world's poorest economies. The government hired millions of foreign workers to do most middle- and lower-class jobs. This left few opportunities for young Saudis, and unemployment among young Saudi men is estimated to be 30 percent.
The result: A generation of alienated youth with lots of spare time.
Many young people turned to branches of Islam that advocate a return to a more "pure" form of the faith. The puritanical Taliban regime in Afghanistan and al-Qaida were modern incarnations of this extreme Islamic viewpoint. An estimated 70,000 people, including thousands of young Saudis, have trained in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden helped bankroll. Recruits were indoctrinated in al-Qaida's extreme, anti-Western tenets and taught how to fight, training that included instruction in making up cover stories to use if they were captured. Some of the newly trained fighters were dispatched to the front lines in the Taliban's civil war with the Northern Alliance.
"For a lot of these kids, they don't see any other way. They are frustrated young guys, and if you want to be a man, you go do this," said Dr. Najeeb Al-Nauimi, a lawyer from Qatar who eventually would take Hamdi's case.
Hamdi's father said he didn't notice any sign that his son was heading down a path of extremism. Yaser was "an ordinary Muslim," he said. "He didn't go around trying to convince people about Islam, like some people."
'HIS LINE WAS OFF'
On the afternoon of July 15, 2001, Hamdi's mother, Nadiah, received a disturbing phone call. A friend was trying to find Yaser but couldn't reach him on his mobile phone. The friend said he thought Yaser had left the country.
"My wife called me at the office, and we tried to call, and his line was off," Hamdi's father said. He went to the airport and learned that his son had traveled through Bahrain to Pakistan.
The next day, Yaser called his uncle and said that he was in Pakistan and planned to do relief work there with some of his friends. The uncle asked why he didn't get his parents' permission. Yaser replied that he didn't think his parents would let him go. He told his uncle that it was the university's summer break, and that other young people were doing relief work to prove they were good Muslims. He said he was an adult now and could do what he wanted.
While it might be normal for American college students to travel without telling their parents, Yaser's journey was a major breach of social mores in Saudi Arabia. "We believe in our religion that because parents are the main cause of our existence on earth, our duties toward them are very big," Esam said.
As far as Yaser's father and mother were concerned, their son had run away from home. "It was the first time he had traveled outside of Saudi Arabia by himself," Esam said.
Yaser called home one more time. His father said that he thought it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., but he can't remember the date. He said his wife took the call and said that Yaser told her, "Mom, I'm coming home. I know you wouldn't have let me go.'"
Yaser said he was in Afghanistan, but didn't say where or what he was doing. "He is telling her," Esam said, "that, 'yes, people here are Muslims, but they do some things different than what we do in Saudi Arabia.' He told his mother that he made a mistake and to forgive him, and that he was coming home. So we were waiting."
Esam Hamdi said he planned to punish his son, perhaps by taking the car keys away.
THE BATTLE OF QALA-I-JANGI
A month or so later, in October 2001, the United States launched its military offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaida. Within a month, thousands of Taliban soldiers surrendered near the city of Kunduz in Northern Afghanistan.
It's unclear exactly where Hamdi and Lindh first crossed paths, but they both gave up during this mass surrender., and by Nov. 24, 2001, they were in the hands of Northern Alliance troops commanded by Northern Alliance Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Surrendering to Dostum couldn't have been easy. He had a reputation for cruelty toward enemies and sometimes toward his own troops. He reportedly made examples of rule-breakers by tying them to tank treads and running over them.
Dostum's men loaded Lindh and the other Taliban prisoners into trucks and took them to a massive 19th-century fortress and prison called Qala-i-Jangi, near Mazar-i-Sharif, where Dostum kept munitions and horses for his cavalry.
The situation quickly unraveled. A Talibancaptive detonated a grenade, killing himself and a Northern Alliance commander. Dostum's guards crowded the new arrivals into the prison's cellars for the night.
The next morning, Dostum's forces led Lindh and the other captives from the basement complex one-by-one.
Two CIA officers, Johnny "Mike" Spann and another known as "Dave," began interrogating the prisoners, as a German television crew stood nearby. "Why are you here?" Spann said, according to the German reporters. "To kill you," reportedly was the answer from one of the Taliban soldiers. The prisoners then turned on Spann, who became the first American to die in combat in Afghanistan.
The Taliban prisoners took over an armory, grabbing rockets and mortars. A deadly firefight ensued. "Dave" escaped and used the German TV crew's satellite phone to call for help. A Special Forces unit soon arrived and called in airstrikes. Northern Alliance troops mowed down dozens of Taliban fighters.
During the melee, Lindh was shot in the thigh. He was helped back into the basement, where he and Hamdi hid during the fighting.
The battle of Qala-i-Jangi lasted for three days. When the gunfire ended, the grounds around the fortress were littered with shells and mangled bodies.
"You wouldn't believe the amount of ordnance lying around," said James Hill, a freelance photographer based in France. "As we were treading on the bullets, it sounded like you were walking on gravel. It was a moment of the Afghanistan campaign that really smelled like war."
Terry Richards, a photographer for The Sun, a London newspaper, remembers putting his head into the entrance to the catacombs and smelling decomposing bodies. He decided not to go in, a providential move. Moments later, shots were fired from the cellars, and several Afghans dispatched to pick up the dead were killed.
Northern Alliance troops responded by tossing grenades into the passageway. Richards recalled that they later used children to remove explosives from unexploded bombs in the area and fashion new concussion devices, hoping that noise from the blasts would paralyze the men below.
When that didn't work, Dostum's men poured the fuel into the underground cells. Lindh was drenched and crawled away from the ducts just before the Northern Alliance fighters set the fuel on fire.
Some in the basement would later tell reporters that they survived by sneaking out at night and digging flesh from dead horses for food. Some people were burned alive or blown apart by the grenades that tumbled down the ducts. At night, temperatures dropped below freezing. There was no light.
"Some of them said the only thing left to do was pray," said Damien Degueldre, a French cameraman who spoke to some of the prisoners.
A day after Dostum's troops diverted the river into the basement, the holdouts stumbled out one-by-one. Degueldre and other reporters were shocked at their appearances.
"They looked like trapped animals," he said. "They were very skinny, and I remember a strong image: Their faces were covered with dirt, which made the white of their eyes pop out."
Degueldre also was surprised at their ages. "All the guys looked pretty young, about 18 to 20 years old," he said. "Some didn't even have beards, and you felt, gosh, they're just kids. They had made their own path; but as bizarre as it may sound, you felt sorry for them."
As guards led them from the pit, a group of reporters called out, "Where are you from?"
Carlotta Gall, a reporter for The New York Times, recalled that one of them "stopped and said in halting, but clear, English, 'I was born in Baton Rouge.' We were so gobsmacked I don't think we asked any more questions. He was led away, and I did not see him again."
Richards, the British photographer, said that this particular prisoner seemed "amongst all the others reasonably happy. The others seemed disillusioned, and a few were on the edge of being alive." But Hamdi smiled when he said he was born in Baton Rouge. Richards thinks Hamdi then said, "Do you know it?"
HAMDI GOES TO AMERICA
Hamdi, Lindh and the others from the basement were loaded into metal shipping containers and flatbed trucks and taken to the Sherberghan prison in Northern Afghanistan, where they were interrogated by a U.S. Special Forces team.
In the prison, Hamdi "identified himself as a Saudi citizen who had been born in the United States and who entered Afghanistan the previous summer to train with and, if necessary, fight for the Taliban," Michael Mobbs, a Defense Department official, said in a 10-paragraph document.
So far, Mobbs' account is the government's only public description of the evidence it has against Hamdi. Mobbs said Hamdi also told investigators that he was carrying an AK-47 when he surrendered in Kunduz.
In January 2002, the military moved Hamdi to its detention and interrogation facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, along with more than 600 others captured in the Afghanistan conflict.
In April 2002, the Pentagon acknowledged for the first time that Hamdi was in their custody. Officials said he was an American citizen and would be moved to the Navy's brig in Norfolk, Va.
During a press briefing, a Defense Department spokeswoman was asked why it had taken so long to confirm Hamdi's U.S. citizenship. "It's been very hard with a lot of these detainees to determine their actual identification," the spokeswoman answered. "Many of these people who were with the Taliban and the al-Qaida were trained to resist interrogation."
The Pentagon announcement was the first concrete information Hamdi's parents had received about their son since he called them seven months before from Afghanistan.
"We didn't know whether he was dead or alive," Yaser's father said, adding that he doesn't understand why it took so long for the Pentagon to reveal that his son was alive and in American custody.
After learning about his son, he contacted Al-Nauimi, the Qatari lawyer and former minister of justice. Al-Nauimi said that he began working with Frank Dunham, a federal public defender in Virginia, who launched a spirited legal challenge soon after Hamdi arrived in Norfolk.
"Your honor," he told U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar in a hearing two years ago, "he could have been selling lemonade and hot dogs on the side of the road in Afghanistan for all we know."
Doumar asked Justice Department lawyers to show him their evidence in private, but they refused. The judge wasn't pleased. "The case," he said in an order, "appears to be the first in American jurisprudence where an American citizen has been held incommunicado and subjected to indefinite detention...without charges, without any finding by a military tribunal, and without access to a lawyer."
Last summer, the Pentagon quietly moved Hamdi to its much larger brig in Hanahan. Another American citizen, Jose Padilla, the alleged dirty bomber, also is being held there as an enemy combatant. Next month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in both cases.
In its court filings, the government has alleged that "Hamdi's background and experience, particularly in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, suggest considerable knowledge of Taliban and al-Qaida training and operations."
That argument makes little sense to Hamdi's father. Yaser left home in mid-July 2001 and was captured four months later. Even if he attended a Taliban or al-Qaida training camp, he couldn't have learned much. "He was only there for a few weeks" before the 9-11 attacks, his father said.
He has other questions, chief among them: Why is the government treating his son different from Lindh?
After Lindh's capture, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the young Californian had conspired to "kill nationals of the United States."
Lindh faced 10 charges and the possibility of three life sentences. But he maintained that he was fighting against the Northern Alliance, not the United States. His lawyers dispatched private investigators to Afghanistan who confirmed details of Lindh's story.
The government's case faltered, and Lindh eventually pleaded guilty to violating a 1999 order forbidding Americans from helping the Taliban. A judge sentenced him to 20 years.
"Mr. John Walker had the chance to see his family," Yaser's father said. "He was immediately transferred to the States. How can you have an American citizen staying in jail alone without people around him? How is this acceptable?"
He said he wants his son to receive a fair trial. "If he's guilty, OK, then he's like anyone else. He needs to be punished. If he's not guilty, release him."
Since the Pentagon announced Hamdi's status as an American citizen, Yaser and his parents have exchanged several letters.
"He tried to say that his morale is high, and he is always reminding his brothers how he played with them, just to show that he remembers them," his father said. Some of the letters have been censored with a black marker."He also wrote that he knew he had broken my heart, and he had broken his mother's heart by leaving without saying goodbye to us. He said something to the effect, 'My father, I was crying like a kid when I read your letters ... My father, I think Allah is punishing me because I left without informing you and getting your permission.' "