Wednesday, May 24, 2023


An untold story in the history of American torture

24 May 2023
Hambali, who was arrested outside Bangkok in 2006, has been detained by the US without trial at Guantánamo since 2006.

Encep Nurjaman, a native of Indonesia known by the nom de guerre Hambali, was arrested fifty miles north of Bangkok in the summer of 2003 by a joint US-Thai counterterrorism team. He has been a prisoner of the US for the last twenty years, most of them under severe duress at Guantánamo Bay. He was on the Bush administration’s “high-value” target list for his alleged ties to Osama bin Laden and his work with Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian terrorist group that the US claimed he headed. JI was accused of carrying out a series of terror bombings, including blasts that killed two hundred victims in Bali in 2002. Hambali’s arrest was quickly made public, and he was flown within days in secret on a chartered plane operated by the Central Intelligence Agency to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. More than fifteen years ago, I reported and wrote a story on Hambali’s imprisonment and torture, but for various reasons, the story was never published.

President George W. Bush praised the arrest in a speech three days after it happened. He called Hambali “one of the world’s most lethal terrorists” and said: “He is no longer a problem to those of us who love freedom.” A few weeks later, it was reported that the US had given $10 million to the Thai security forces; the funds were to be shared among those responsible for Hambali’s capture. Three of Hambali’s alleged accomplices in one of the bombings were sentenced to death and a fourth, who apologized and expressed remorse—he also claimed that Hambali had no prior knowledge of the bombings—is still in prison.

In his speech Bush also asserted that Hambali was a “close associate” of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, known as KSM, an early American arrest in the war on terror. KSM, who is still detained at Guantánamo, was said to have revealed that Hambali met with Osama bin Laden and was Al Qaeda’s point man for research on biological weapons. The American press was told that during the summer of 2001 Hambali was teaching the essentials of biological warfare at an Al Qaeda training camp near Kandahar in Afghanistan. 

The leaks kept coming. Hambali was said to have confessed what he knew of Al Qaeda’s worldwide operations and to his involvement in terrorism attacks in Southeast Asia. On October 9, 2003, CBS news, citing summaries of American interrogations, reported that Hambali was “implementing plans” involving “biological weapons, most likely anthrax.” The network said he was likely trying to open a biological weapons plant with the support of Al Qaeda. 

In December, the Chicago Tribune, citing American intelligence officials, reported that Hambali “began cooperating almost immediately, enabling them to thwart planned attacks in the region and break up terrorist cells. Within a few weeks, Hambali allegedly began talking about Al Qaeda’s effort to develop chemical and biological weapons. . . . One reason US officials are taking the allegations so seriously is that Hambali’s cooperation has been so strong.”

Hambali arrived at Guantánamo on September 4, 2006, after three years and fifteen days of detention at CIA black sites. I learned that the interrogation tactics he was subjected to there had become an issue of bitter controversy among CIA officers. It took months of reporting before I learned the outline of a story being circulated at the highest levels of the agency about the extreme things an agent in the field might have done on his own to Hambali. His actions were the subject of an agency inquiry that went nowhere. 

The officer in question—let’s call him Bob—was a favorite of the agency’s management, who overlooked complaints that he was a “cowboy” who did things his own way—that is, off the books. Once cleared of wrongdoing, Bob was assigned as chief of station for one of the most sensitive post-9/11 outposts overseas. 

At some point after this crisis, the agency convened a weekend retreat for a group of hand-picked young officers who were seen as future leaders. It was held at the Farm, as the agency’s training center for covert officers in eastern Virginia is known. Senior officers, Bob included, were asked to leave their assignments in Washington and around the world for a few days to share their experiences with those who might become the agency’s future leadership.

One afternoon Bob joined a group of his colleagues at the bar for senior staff inside the Farm’s Student Recreational Building, or SRB. It’s known among intelligence officers as one of the few places in the world where they can discuss classified information freely. (Even the staff there have security clearances.) The informal motto of the SRB is: “It all stays here.” Over dollar pints of Guinness, Bob described how he had broken Hambali.

One of the veteran clandestine officers present that afternoon, who had served in the Middle East during a long career, sought me out after his retirement, and told as much as he could remember about Bob’s account. He recalled that Bob told his colleagues: “‘We’ve got to do it. He’s Al Qaeda’s biological warfare guy.’ This was the classic, ‘We’ve got the guy who was preparing “The Ultimate”—the man who keeps George Bush and Dick Cheney awake at night.’ They’re going to make this guy hurt like nobody has before. And if he starts passing out you’ve got doctors to bring him back. They had instructions from their superiors that if they killed him they were to burn his body and turn it into ashes—so nobody will ever know. In the case of Hambali’s death, Bob was told, ‘There will be no evidence.’ The orders were, ‘If you go too far and the docs can’t take him back, take him and burn him. Put him in a pyre, and poof—nothing left.’ Hambali is worked and worked. But he was tough and resistant to torture.” 

At that point, the veteran clandestine officer told me, Bob told his colleagues that they had “put a sack over his head and filled it with fire ants and watched him turn into a vegetable.” Within minutes the “whimpering and simpering” prisoner began to talk, and the ants were removed. Fire ants do not bite and spray, like others in their genus, but instead bite and inject a toxic enzyme into their victims that causes a stinging pain similar to that from a burn. The stings can be lethal.

In his initial meetings with me, the veteran clandestine official did not cite Bob by name, but when I obtained his name from another CIA officer, he did not dispute it. The veteran officer told me that he considered Bob’s actions to be “in complete violation of the values upon which this country was founded.” He said: “There was not a shred of remorse when he told us about it. He said it so matter-of-fact. I know we were sitting around at the bar at the Farm, where all the Ops guys—the gorillas—come together and thump their chests, but he didn’t have to boast about it. At least give it a little regret.”

The veteran clandestine officer told me he didn’t confront Bob that day, but eventually he approached other officers in the Directorate of Operations and told them about the conversation at the Farm. One mid-level manager, he said, shrugged it off as “one of the necessary evils of war.” The officer told me that he “would never have expected this reaction from someone I considered highly humane and ethical.” Other CIA colleagues had heard the same story and expressed disgust that such actions could occur, even during the interrogation of a known terrorist.

My goal as a reporter was to protect the veteran officer by finding others inside the agency who would confirm the story and also acknowledge that no serious investigation had been conducted. Most of those I interviewed dismissed the fire ant story as a rumor not worth publishing. But I did learn the CIA’s inspector general had conducted an official inquiry and concluded that nothing happened.

The alleged plan to cremate suspects who died in interrogations remains, for me, one of the most troubling aspects of the Hambali story. Islam forbids the burning of bodies and requires the corpse to be buried by Muslims within three days of death. A government consultant I spoke to acknowledged that there was an understanding of what to do “if we go too far” in an interrogation—namely, that bodies should be burned to avoid a disinterment that might produce evidence of torture—but urged me not to publish a word about it. A retired CIA officer said that this message was reinforced years later after Manadel al-Jamadi, a prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, was beaten to death by CIA operatives and US military personnel. The prisoner’s battered body, packed in ice, became one of the iconic images of the Abu Ghraib scandal. During a subsequent inquiry into the death, a military intelligence officer who was at the scene stated that the CIA interrogator told the battered victim: “I’m going to barbeque you if you don’t tell me the information.”

Before his retirement, the clandestine officer who initially told me of the fire ant abuse decided to learn all he could of the Hanbali interrogations from official records. It had long been reported that Hambali was involved in Al Qaeda biological weapons development. The highly classified file summaries he read, the officer told me, showed nothing of the kind. They made it clear that while Hambali “had been all over the place”—perhaps as a carrier of funds for terrorist activity in Southeast Asia—there was “nothing indicative” of a significant Al Qaeda biological warfare program. “Do I believe the guy would have done it if he had the agents and a crop duster? Yes,’ he said. But “there were no laboratories and no advanced plans.”

My research into Hambali and my skepticism about his alleged ties to biological warfare was bolstered at the time by a comprehensive review of such activity by Milton Leitenberg, an expert on weapons of mass destruction at the University of Maryland, published by the Army War College. Leitenberg wrote that the Bush administration was consistently overstating the available evidence of Al Qaeda’s biological warfare capabilities and ambitions: “Al Qaeda did some research into the use of pathogens as weapons but was forced to move that program out of Afghanistan after 9/11 and failed to do so. Similarly, an attempt to get access to weaponized anthrax failed.” 

By the time I was ready to publish the story, the senior agency officer who initially talked to me had retired, or made clear his intentions to do so, not only because of his shock at the use of insects as torture, but the fact that none of the agency’s most senior officials—those working alongside him on the top floor where the CIA director and his staff have their offices—supported his complaint. My main source was no longer at risk but those former colleagues who, in subsequent talks with me, confirmed his distress over the use of fire ants, and shared his dismay at failing to get more than a token inquiry into the issue, might suffer. So I chose not to insist on publishing the story.

A few years later, the Obama administration released a legal memorandum prepared after 9/11 by the Bush Justice Department—one of many rulings that redefined the meaning of the word torture. Formulated in secret in the summer of 2002, the document gave the CIA the right to place suspected terrorists “in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You would like to place [a suspect] in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed [the Department of Justice] that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell [the suspect] that you intend to place a stinging insect in the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect in the box. You have orally informed us that you would in fact place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him.”

In a separate memorandum also declassified at the time, a Justice Department attorney attested that the CIA had declared it never used the technique.

James R. Hodes, Hambali's lead counsel, has complained to the press in the past about a lack of discovery and due process in the American military’s case against his client. He told me, after I shared the ant story with him in a telephone call, that “people should know just what in the hell is going on down here. The truth is there is no oversight, none, from an American executive, legislative, or judicial body at this time in Guantánamo.” The Department of Defense prosecutors in the case have asked for Hambali's trial to begin in March 2025, twenty-two years after his arrest.

Reprinted from Seymour Hersh on Substack

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