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Mohammed al-Qahtani
Born November 19, 1979(1979-11-19) (age 43)
Place of birth Kharj, Saudi Arabia

Mohammed Mana Ahmed al-Qahtani (Arabic language: محمد مانع أحمد القحطاني‎) (sometimes transliterated as al-Kahtani) (born November 19, 1979) is a Saudi citizen who has been detained as an enemy combatant since June 2002 in the United States's Guantanamo Bay detention camps in Cuba. Qahtani allegedly tried to enter the United States to take part in the September 11 attacks as the 20th hijacker. He was refused entry due to suspicions that he was trying to immigrate. He was later captured in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001.

After military commissions were authorized by Congress, in February 2008, Qahtani was charged on numerous counts. In May the charges were dropped without prejudice. New charges were filed against him in November 2008. In a Washington Post interview in January 2009, Susan Crawford of the Department of Defense said that the US government had so abused Qahtani through isolation, sleep deprivation, forced nudity and exposure to cold that he was in a "life-threatening condition."[1][2][3] The charges against him were dropped in January 2009, as evidence had been obtained through torture and was inadmissible in court. This was the first time an official of the Bush administration had admitted any torture of detainees at Guantanamo.

Early life

Mohammed al-Qahtani was born in 1979 in Kharj, Saudi Arabia.[4] He is a Saudi national from a large Bedouin family. His father served as a police officer for 28 years. His mother remained at home to raise their twelve children. He has seven brothers and four sisters, who range in age from 14 to 42 years of age. According to family members, his favorite class in school was art. He has no criminal record and no record of any violence[citation needed].

Denied entry by US immigration

On August 3, 2001, Qahtani at the age of 21 flew into Orlando, Florida, from Dubai. He was questioned by immigration agent José Meléndez-Pérez, who was dubious that he could support himself with only $2,800 cash to his name, and suspicious that he intended to become an illegal immigrant, as he was using a one-way ticket.[5] He was sent back to Dubai, and subsequently returned to Saudi Arabia.

Second capture, transfer to Guantanamo

Captured in the Battle of Tora Bora, Qahtani was shipped by the Americans with other detainees to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp set up at the United States Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He continued giving a false name, and insisting he had been in the area solely to pursue an interest in falconry.[5]

After ten months, U.S. authorities took a fingerprint sample and discovered that he was the same person who had tried to enter the United States just before the September 11 attacks. Seizing the airport surveillance tapes, the FBI claimed they were able to identify the car of Mohamed Atta at the airport, believed there to pick up Qahtani.[5] Another military account stated that Qahtani was identified as someone who had previously been turned away due to visa problems – by fingerprints "taken in Southwest Asia".[6]

At that time, the military invited FBI interrogators to interview Qahtani. By the fall of 2002, they were frustrated by his resistance. DOD interrogators talked of using different techniques, based on a class they attended.[5]

Shortly after September 26, 2002, top administration political appointees: David Addington, the VP's chief of staff; Alberto Gonzales, then White House Counsel; John A. Rizzo of the CIA; William Haynes II, General Counsel of DOD; his legal assistant, Jack Goldsmith; and two Justice Department lawyers, Alice S. Fisher and Patrick F. Philbin, flew to Camp Delta to view Qahtani and talk with his interrogators. They were trying to develop ways to break down detainee resistance and had come up with a list of potential techniques to be used.[5] Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, the top legal adviser at Guantanamo, suggested to her command in Defense that acting with "pure intent" was important, and they might seek immunity from "command authorities" prior to using such harsh interrogation techniques.[5] (In August 2002, the Office of Legal Counsel, Department of Justice, had provided legal opinions (later called the Torture Memos) to the CIA that narrowly defined torture and authorized the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, since commonly defined as torture). The political appointees went on to Charleston, South Carolina to view Jose Padilla, and finally to Norfolk, Virginia to view Yaser Esam Hamdi. These men were United States citizens. Like the foreign detainees in Guantanamo, they were held in solitary confinement, where most human contact was with their interrogators, according to a theory about how to develop dependence among prisoners, for long-term gathering of intelligence by interrogators. At this time, none of the detainees, including the American citizens, had access to counsel or federal courts.[5]

Qahtani had initially been interrogated by FBI agents, who used standard techniques based in police work. On December 2, 2002, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld authorized in writing the use of 17 enhanced interrogation techniques to be used against Qahtani (see next section).[7] After details of Qahtani's status were leaked in 2004, the US Department of Defense issued a press release stating that Qahtani had admitted:

  • He had been sent to the US by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the lead architect of the 9/11 attack;
  • He had met Osama bin Laden on several occasions;
  • He had terrorist training at two al-Qaeda camps;
  • He had been in contact with many senior al-Qaeda leaders.[7]

Al-Qahtani is also said to have informed interrogators that he had received operational training in covert communications from Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whom he identified as a courier for Osama bin Laden. This was an early lead, but, as the national security expert Peter Bergen has noted, it had to be combined with another eight years of work, relying on a wide variety of techniques of intelligence-gathering, to culminate in the US government's 2011 raid on the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killing of the al-Qaeda leader.[8][9]

Documented abuses while in Guantanamo

At Guantánamo, Mohammed al-Qahtani was subjected to a regime of 17 aggressive interrogation techniques, known as the “First Special Interrogation Plan,” authorized in writing by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on December 2, 2002 and implemented under the supervision and guidance of Secretary Rumsfeld and the commander of Guantánamo, Major General Geoffrey Miller.[7][10] After complaints from military investigators, the list of approved techniques was reduced.[7] The special interrogation plan and techniques were not revealed until 2008 in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee during its investigation of detainee treatment, and were reported by the FBI Inspector General, Glenn Fine.[11] The authorized techniques were related to those described in the three August 2002 legal opinions, later known as the Torture Memos, drafted by John Yoo and signed by Jay S. Bybee of the Office of Legal Counsel, Department of Justice, issued to the CIA.

Under these coercive techniques, Qahtani gave additional information, including naming 30 other prisoners as working directly for bin Laden. The military used this information as justification to hold the men as enemy combatants. But, because the material was extracted under torture, it was later considered inadmissible in court. Qahtani later recanted this testimony, saying he had given the names of other detainees only to stop the abuse.

It was not until February 2008 that Qahtani was first charged before a military commission, and the prosecution dropped the charges in May of that year. He was charged again in November 2008, but on January 14, 2009 Susan J. Crawford, a senior Pentagon official of the Bush administration, stated that she would not proceed with his prosecution. She said that Qahtani's "treatment met the legal definition of torture.... The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive".[12] As convening authority of the military commissions, Crawford was responsible for overseeing the Guantanamo military commissions.[12] Her statement was the first time any top official of the Bush administration had said there was torture of detainees at Guantanamo.

Gitanjali Gutierrez, a defense lawyer for al-Qahtani who works for the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, has said she thought Qahtani's torture constituted a war crime.[13][14]

Interrogation log

On March 3, 2006, Time magazine published the secret log of 49 days of the 20-hour-per-day interrogation of Qahtani at Guantanamo Bay detention camp from late November 2002 to early January 2003.[15] This had been leaked to the press.[16] The log described Qahtani being forcibly administered intravenous fluids, drugs, and enemas, in order to keep his body functioning well enough for the interrogations to continue.[16] The log, titled SECRET ORCON INTERROGATION LOG DETAINEE 063, offers a daily, detailed account of the enhanced interrogation techniques used from November 23, 2002, to January 11, 2003. These included the following:

  • Restraint on a swivel chair for long periods
  • Deprivation of sleep for long periods
  • Loud music and white noise played to prevent the detainee from sleeping
  • Various humiliations, such as training the detainee to act as a dog and forcing him to watch puppet shows depicting sexual acts between him and Osama bin Laden at his mock birthday party
  • Lowering the temperature in the room, then throwing water on the detainee's face
  • Forcing the detainee to pray to bin Laden
  • Various interrogation techniques described as "pride & ego down", "circumstantial evidence", "fear-up", or "Al Qaeda falling apart"
  • Threats of extraordinary rendition to countries that torture
  • Threats made against his family, including female members
  • Strip searches
  • Body searches
  • Forced nudity, including in the presence of female personnel
  • Forced to submit to an enema
  • Prohibiting detainee from praying for prolonged times and during Ramadan
  • Threatening to desecrate the Koran in front of him
  • Forced to pick up trash with his hands cuffed, while being called "a pig"
  • Placed in prolonged stress positions
  • Placed in tight restraints for many months or days and nights
  • Beatings
  • Exposure to low temperatures for prolonged times
  • Forcible administration of IVs by medical staff during interrogation, which were described by Qahtani as "repetitive stabs" each day

The interrogation log does not record Qahtani admitting to being a member of al-Qaeda. The entry for January 1, 2003 relates that Qahtani blames Osama bin Laden for deceiving the 19 9/11 hijackers ("his friends"):

2A0780 asked how one man, Bin Laden, convince [sic] 19 young men to kill themselves, (detainee was starting to fade he was going in and out of sleep.) The question was repeated, detainee stated that they were tricked, that he distorted the picture if [sic] front of them, 2A0780 asked detainee if this made him mad, detainee stated yes, (detainee did not realize that 2A780 [sic] had not started putting detainee into the picture) 2A0780 asked detainee if he was mad that his friends had been tricked, detainee said yes. 2A0780 asked detainee if his friends knew about the plan, detainee said no, 2A0780 asked if detainee knew about the plan, detainee stated that he didn't know. 2A0780 asked detainee if it made him mad that he killed his friends, detainee stated yes. 2A0780 asked detainee if he was glad that he didn’t die on the plane, detainee stated yes. 2A0780 asked detainee if his parents were happy that he didn’t die detainee stated yes. 2A0780 stated "he killed your friends" detainee stated yes.[15]

When asked about his greatest sins in his life, Qahtani responded that he had not taken care of his parents properly, had not finished college, and had not been able to repay $20,000 he had borrowed from his aunt.[15]


On March 3, 2006, Qahtani's lawyer Gitanjali Gutierrez said that her client had recanted the accusations he had made against fellow detainees during earlier periods of interrogation under torture.[17] He had told his lawyer that he was forced to falsely confess and name names, in order to get his "enhanced interrogation" to end.[17] He had accused 30 other detainees of being former bodyguards of Osama bin Laden.

Given the circumstances of how Qahtani's confessions were obtained, lawyers for the other detainees argued that his testimony should not be used by the military as justification to detain their clients. They used this argument in their petitions for habeas corpus challenges for their clients. The government argued that, under the Detainee Treatment Act (2005), detainees could not use the federal courts for habeas corpus except on appeal.[17] In its decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), the Supreme Court ruled that the Detainee Treatment Act and the military commissions as established by the Department of Defense were unconstitutional for depriving detainees of 'habeas corpus' and rights of due process, and that the military commissions had not been authorized by Congress.

Military Commissions Act of 2006

In the fall of 2006, Congress quickly passed and the President signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006. It responded to the Court's concerns but mandated the restriction of detainees to the military commission system. On February 9, 2008 the New York Times reported that the Office of Military Commissions was close to laying charges against six of the high-value detainees at Guantanamo, including Qahtani. He was believed to have been the planned 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks.[18]

Qahtani and the other five were charged on February 11, 2008 with war crimes and murder, and faced the death penalty if convicted.[18] Gitanjali Gutierrez, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), was representing Qahtani. Attorneys at CCR denounced the systematic use of torture against detainees and challenged the validity of the military commission. They said that evidence in Qahtani's death penalty case was obtained by torture.[19] In their February 2008 press release, CCR said that “the military commissions at Guantanamo allow secret evidence, hearsay evidence, and evidence obtained through torture. They are unlawful, unconstitutional, and a perversion of justice.” [19]

Suicide attempt

According to his lawyer, in early April 2008, al-Qahtani tried to kill himself after learning that he faced charges that could carry the death penalty. He cut himself at least three times, causing "profuse bleeding" that needed hospital treatment.[20]

Charges dropped

On May 11, 2008, the government charges against al-Qahtani were dropped.[21][22] Commander Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that it was possible for the charges to be re-instated, at a later date, because they had been dropped "without prejudice".

New charges announced

On November 18, 2008, Chief Prosecutor Lawrence Morris announced that he was filing new charges against Qahtani.[23] When announcing the new charges, Morris stated that the new charges were based on “independent and reliable evidence”. He stated:

“His conduct is significant enough that he falls into the category of people who ought to be held accountable by being brought to trial.”

Crawford orders charges dropped

Susan Crawford, the senior official in charge of the Office of Military Commissions, has the final authority over whether charges were laid. On January 14, 2009, after a change in administrations, Crawford ruled that the prosecution would not proceed against Qahtani because he had been subjected to interrogation techniques in Guantanamo that rose to the level of torture.[24]Bryan Whitman, a DOD spokesman, said that the techniques were legal at the time they were applied, according to Department of Justice legal opinions.

Qahtani's habeas case reinstated

Mohammed al-Qahtani's habeas corpus case was reinstated in July 2008 after the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush, stating that Guantanamo detainees have a constitutional right to habeas corpus and the right to petition federal courts.[25]

Representation in popular culture

  • In a review of the drama film Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Peter Bergen, a national security analyst, compared the character of Ammar and the issue of torture to the treatment of Qahtani in detention. Ammar is interrogated under torture in the film and gives up the name of a bin Laden courier. Bergen notes that although Qahtani gave a name, it took another eight years, with analysts using every form of intelligence-gathering from high technology to 'people on the ground,' for the government to locate and kill Osama bin Laden.[9]
    • Other sources suggest the character of Ammar was based on Ammar al-Baluchi.[26]

See also


  1. Woodward, Bob (January 14, 2009). "Detainee Tortured, Says U.S. Official". The Washington Post. 
  2. "Court Documents Reveal Existence of New Torture Tapes", TruthOut, 6 October 2009, accessed 12 February 2013
  3. Era Ends with Guantanamo Trial Chief's Torture Confession", Andy Worthington, 20 January 2009, accessed 12 February 2013
  4. Prisoner 63", Wikileaks
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Mayer, Jane, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, 2008. p. 140 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "mayer" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "mayer" defined multiple times with different content
  6. Donna Miles (2004-11-12). "Biometrics help to identify potential foes". The Morning Calm. Retrieved 2009-02-26. [dead link] mirror
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 "U.S. Said to Overstate Value of Guantánamo Detainees", New York Times, June 21, 2004
  8. Bergen, Peter. Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, 2012. pp. 98–99.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Peter Bergen, "'Zero Dark Thirty': Did torture really net bin Laden?", CNN, December 11, 2012
  10. "Interrogation Log Detainee 063" (PDF). Center for Constitutional Rights. 2002-11-23. Retrieved 2008-02-29. 
  11. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named <ref name=
  12. 12.0 12.1 Woodward, Bob (January 14, 2009). "Detainee Tortured, Says U.S. Official". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-01-14. 
  13. MacAskill, Ewen; Dodd, Vikram (January 15, 2009). "Bush administration: 'We tortured Qahtani'". The Guardian. London. 
  14. "It is called torture, Mr. President". CBC News. January 16, 2009. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Interrogation log, US Department of Defense, November 23, 2002 through January 11, 2003
  16. 16.0 16.1 Steven Miles (2007). "Medical Ethics and the Interrogation of Guantanamo 063". The American Journal of Bioethics. Retrieved 2009-03-25. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Exclusive: "20th Hijacker" Claims That Torture Made Him Lie", Time, March 3, 2006
  18. 18.0 18.1 "A Guantanamo Trial". New York Times. February 9, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-10. "Mohammed al-Qahtani, (captured) December 2001, believed by US officials to have been the planned 20th hijacker. A month before the attacks, he flew to Orlando but was denied entry." 
  19. 19.0 19.1 "CCR challenges validity of military commissions and use of torture evidence in new death penalty cases". Center for Constitutional Rights. 2008-02-11. Retrieved 2008-02-28. 
  20. "Alleged 9/11 "20th hijacker" tried suicide: lawyer". Reuters. May 20, 2008. 
  21. "Key 9/11 suspect charges dropped". BBC News. May 13, 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  22. "Charges against 9/11 man dropped". The Australian. May 14, 2008.,25197,23696355-2703,00.html. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  23. William Glaberson (2008-11-18). "Detainee Will Face New War-Crimes Charges". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-11-20.  mirror
  24. Donna Miles (2009-01-14). "Detainee Treatment Remains Key as Officials Weigh Guantanamo’s Future". American Forces Press Service. Retrieved 2009-07-24. 
  25. "Qahtani v. Bush, Qahtani v. Gates". Center for Constitutional Rights. 2009-11-04. Retrieved 2009-11-04. 

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