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Defending Hamdan: Digging Deeper for the Defense

Part Four: Brian Williams put the Ansars in context and tries to convince the court of his convictions at Salim Hamdan’s pre-trial hearing

I had concluded that Salim Hamdan, Bin Laden’s driver, was providing Brian Glyn Williams with Commander Charlie Swift, the J.A.G. (Judge Advocate General) who was defending Salim Hamdan. Image courtesy of Brian for an
Al Qaeda field army known as the Ansars (Supporters).  They had generally been overlooked by most outsiders focusing on Al Qaeda’s terrorist cells.  During my interviews with Taliban prisoners held in a medieval castle-prison in the deserts of northern Afghanistan by a Uzbek warlord named Dostum, I had collected many stories of Arab jihadi volunteer fighters.  These fighters formed an elite Al Qaeda support army for the Taliban known as the 055 Brigade, or more colloquially as the Ansars.  This unit had thousands of Egyptians, Yemenis, Uzbeks, Uighurs, Saudis, Algerians, Sudanese, and even one American named Johnny Walker Lindh (the so-called “American Taliban”) in its ranks.

The 055 Brigade was deployed primarily against Northern Alliance opposition in north-eastern Afghanistan.  There its soldiers fought under a black banner known as the rayah.  They were armed with light artillery, outdated Soviet T-62 tanks, multiple rocket launcher systems, and light infantry weapons (AK-47s and -74s, PK machine guns, RPG-7s etc).  The Taliban prisoners told me that the foreign fighters had better weapons, better training and discipline (many had served in the armies of the home countries), and even uniforms (of a sort, this was Afghanistan after all).  Their uniforms consisted of black turbans or Arab keffiyeh headscarves, camouflage jackets and pants, and Western style boots or sneakers (a rarity in Afghanistan where men wore robe-like shalwar kameez and sandals).  They also had a well organized command structure.

The 055 fighters were in a class of their own in Afghanistan and were known as the cutting edge of the Taliban sword.  My Uzbek Northern Alliance hosts told me of numerous occasions when the Ansars stormed their positions as shock troops for the Taliban.  When the US invaded, these foreign foot-soldiers were deployed against Coalition forces.  As the Taliban melted away into the countryside by late November 2001, the Arabs fought on in places like Kandahar, southern Afghanistan.

And it was in Kandahar that Hamdan was captured transporting out-dated SA-7s, which were probably for use in trying to shoot down US helicopters.  In other words, Hamdan’s possession of these heat seeking missiles did not constitute terrorism.  He was simply transporting weapons for an Al Qaeda field force that was the most organized enemy fighting unit in Afghanistan.  As a fighting force with a command structure, recognized insignia and uniform, involved in frontal combat, the Ansars were not terrorists or ‘unlawful combatants’, they were legal combatants.  As such they were covered by the Geneva Conventions on handling prisoners of war, even though they were the enemy.

Clearly, low-level paid employees like Hamdan and the Ansar rank-and-file soldiers were not involved in the 9/11 attacks (which actually caught many of the Al Qaeda elite by surprise, not to mention the cannon-fodder in the trenches).  Had all of these armed soldiers been involved in the 9/11 plot carried out by Khaled Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), Ramzi Binalshibh, Bin Laden, and the 19 hijackers, it wouldn’t have remained secret for long!  In fact my research showed me that many Al Qaeda members subsequently came out against the so-called ‘Holy Tuesday’ attack.  Some low level employees, including Bin Laden’s former pilot, Esam al Riddi, had even offered their services to the FBI due to their distaste for terrorism.

Goldern arches, christmas lights, and roadway aesthetics at Gitmo. Image courtesy of Brian WIlliams.In other words, I argued that there were many people engaged in military activities or support services for combat operations in Afghanistan (such as Hamdan) who were not necessarily terrorists linked to 9/11.  To support my contention that there was an Al Qaeda frontal fighting force operating in the Afghan theater of operations, I referenced a Department of Defense statement from October 2001 which declared, “The Afghan Arabs are more motivated.  They've had recent training.  They consider themselves professional, not just part-time. So that’s a big difference.”

In preparing my testimony I also found articles in the mainstream media which spoke of Arabs in uniforms with field weapons.  Among others I referenced one eye-witness account in the Christian Science Monitor which spoke of seeing “Arab fighters in fresh, new uniforms scramble through the doors of civilian homes and small shops of Kabul as US jets scream overhead.”  BBC also had some wonderful pictures of Arab fighters in camouflage uniforms and I shared many of my own stories of Arab frontal fighting forces in Afghanistan.  Clearly men in Afghanistan in uniforms, with guns in their hands were not members of sleeper-infiltration cells in the USA, they were legal combatants.  While they may have been as fanatical as the Japanese at Iwo Jima (who were similarly dehumanized by their American enemies at the time), they were enemy soldiers not terrorists.

Swift and his team decided to use my testimony to help shed light on Hamdan not as a terrorist, but as someone providing logistic support for a Geneva-Convention-worthy fighting force.  As for the charges of driving Bin Laden around and protecting him, the Defense chose not to contest these charges.  Clearly he was guilty on that count and had freely admitted to having done so all along.

In December 2007 I flew from Andrews Air Base down to Guantanamo Bay with Swift and the team to testify before Judge Keith Allred in the pre-trial hearing.  The whole case had been rather abstract thus far, but when Hamdan, a small man wearing an Arab headscarf, robe and Western style jacket, came into the court in shackles our eyes met and it became real.  At that moment I understood that my testimony could play a key role in deciding whether or not this man spent his life in Guantanamo Bay or returned to his homeland and his wife and daughters.  I was not the only one to reach this conclusion: the Prosecution was clearly not happy with my efforts to provide an in-depth analysis of the Al Qaeda battle order and fighting formations.  This was not the terrorist side of the organization they were exclusively focusing on.

After the initial Hamdan hearing, standing in front of the building used for the Military Commissions at Gitmo. Image courtesy of Brian Williams.

While the Prosecution tried to undermine my nuanced argument, the slides I presented of Al Qaeda foot soldiers, destroyed enemy tanks, flags, and stories of this fighting unit’s actions in combat, were admitted into the final trial which was scheduled to be held in the summer.  During my time on the stand, I noticed that Hamdan (who was listening to my testimony via Arabic translation ear phones) would occasionally nod in agreement.  I must say I felt only a small sense of identification with him, but was proud that I was helping him get a fair trial.

And to be honest, the more I heard about him from Brian Mizer and Andrea Prasow, the more convinced I was of the correctness of my decision to support his defense.  This diminutive father-of-two, whose greatest dream was returning to his wife, definitely deserved jail time for aiding Bin Laden.  But I did not think he deserved life in prison.  This was the sentence we gave to those who were convicted of murder on the U.S. mainland and not even the Prosecution was trying to convict him for murder.

Tomorrow, Part Five: Salim Hamdan gets his day in court, in the first US military tribunal since World War II.

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