Guantanamo's Final Days

The infamous Prison Camp ain't dead yet

In 1992, Ahmed stepped on a land mine and was injured so badly he was evacuated to Toronto. For a time, the family lived off donations from area mosques, eventually squeezing into a humble flat in a rundown rooming house on the city's west end.

Omar was still in many ways a regular kid. He loved Nintendo, the Bruce Willis movie Die Hard, and junk food. He played basketball and cricket in an alley with his brothers and friends from the local mosque.

By 1993, Ahmed had healed sufficiently to return with his family to Pakistan. Not long after arriving, he allegedly began plotting with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, to blow up the Egyptian embassy. The November 19, 1995, bombing killed 16 and wounded 60. Ahmed was arrested and sent to prison. He went on a hunger strike, protesting his innocence, and was transferred to a hospital in Islamabad. Omar, who was nine years old at the time, didn't leave his father's side, often sleeping under the man's bed on the concrete floor.

Soldier Morris
Courtesy Layne Morris
Soldier Morris
The hastily built rooms at Camp X-Ray
Barry Blend
The hastily built rooms at Camp X-Ray

But the Canadian government lobbied for Ahmed's release, and soon the family was living in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden. Not yet 12 years old, Omar joined two of his older brothers at an Al-Qaeda training camp, where they were taught to fire Kalashnikovs and build bombs. "[We learned] why we are fighting America . . . why being a suicide bomber is an honor, why it's a right religiously," Omar's brother, Abdurahman, told CNN.

The Pentagon claims to have surveillance video that shows Omar planting a bomb on a road frequently traveled by U.S. troops. "That kid became radicalized," says Khadr's former imam. "It's impossible to go through the experiences he went through and not be affected by them."

When Khadr was captured in the July 2002 firefight that wounded Layne Morris, he was near death. Medics rushed him to the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and a few months later, he was dressed in an orange jumpsuit, hogtied, and placed on a C-130 transport headed for Guantánamo.


The Bush administration began using the base at Guantánamo Bay as a modern-day gulag in January 2002, just four months after the Twin Towers fell in New York. The first camp, called X-Ray for its coordinates on a military map, is now in decay, surrounded by razor wire. It sits in a remote, low-lying valley, a rusting ring of cages covered with weeds and vines.

"I would bet my boots that when the American public thinks of Guantánamo, they think of these pumped-up Taliban warriors," says Khadr's lawyer, Canadian Dennis Edney. "In reality, in the first few years Omar was there, it was a house of horrors. It was a place where Omar was taken from death and back."

Omar Khadr's arrival at Guantánamo in October 2002 coincided with a fundamental shift in the War on Terror. In the 10 months the camp had been open to "unlawful enemy combatants," the military had learned little about Al-Qaeda's inner workings. So officers began employing techniques that included sensory deprivation, waterboarding, and degrading humiliation.

Shortly after his arrival, Khadr was taken to an interrogation room, where his arms were pulled behind his back and cuffed to his legs, straining his sockets until he was near delirium, according to the boy's sworn affidavit. He claims he was then forced onto his knees with his wrists cuffed to his ankles. This lasted so long that the 16-year-old urinated on himself. When the military police returned, he contends, they doused him with Pine-Sol and used him as a human mop to clean up the mess. He was then carried back to his cell, where he was left for two days.

Despite these tactics, little intelligence came from the prison camp, CIA sources told author Jane Mayer for her 2008 book, The Dark Side. So the CIA sent an intelligence analyst to Guantánamo. He interviewed about two dozen detainees and concluded about a third of the camp's population had no connection to terrorism.

Mahvish Khan, then a University of Miami law student, found something similar when she began visiting the camp as a translator. The child of Afghan immigrant parents who had gone on to become doctors, she had grown up in a conservative Muslim home in Michigan.

Khan says she expected to find members of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Instead, the first detainee she met was a pediatrician who had worked to establish democracy in Afghanistan and then fled to Syria when the Taliban took over. The second man was an 80-year-old paraplegic who had been bedridden for 15 years. Bounty hunters had delivered both of them. "Most of the people were there because they were turned in for money or because there was some sort of tribal feud," she says.

In summer 2004, two years after Khadr's arrival, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Bush administration could not hold prisoners indefinitely without charges. Detainees had the right to try their cases in federal court. In response, camp authorities quietly released 114 detainees by the end of the year. Virtually none had seen the evidence against them. In June 2006, the Supreme Court suspended the tribunals for three months until Congress officially authorized them.

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