Skip to main content

US interrogators made threats against detainee's family in Qatar and Saudi Arabia

Documents reveal interrogators' threat to have relatives of 'enemy combatant' Ali al-Marri rounded up by authorities in Doha and Riyadh
Describing his detention, al-Marri said it was like being "buried alive in a concrete and metal grave" (MEE)

US interrogators threatened to have family members of a Qatari man, who was held as an "enemy combatant" in a military prison in South Carolina, rounded up by authorities in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, newly released documents reveal.

The documents concern the case of Ali al-Marri, who says he was tortured and threatened by Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and FBI interrogators and held in harsh conditions during his detention at the Charleston Naval Brig between 2003 and 2009.

Al-Marri eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of helping al-Qaeda in 2009, and he was repatriated to Qatar in 2015.

He now says that accusations he confessed to in a plea bargain are false, and that he had agreed to plead guilty in the hope that it would enable him to return home to his family.

Al-Marri, referred to in the documents as "EC#2," was the only foreign national US president George W Bush declared an enemy combatant  who was then held on the US mainland.

Jose Padilla, a US citizen who was convicted in 2007 on charges of supporting al-Qaeda, and Yaser Hamdi, a US citizen captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and subsequently stripped of his citizenship and deported to Saudi Arabia, were also held at the prison on the military base.

The documents, which include DIA summaries of interrogations of al-Marri in 2003 and 2004, were published earlier this week by Cage, a British-based advocacy group that is supporting al-Marri’s call for those he accuses of abusing and threatening him to face justice.

In an interview, al-Marri told MEE that during an interrogation on 11 March 2004 interrogators stuffed a pair of socks into his mouth and then wrapped duct tape around his face, causing al-Marri to believe he would choke to death.

"After that, maybe five or 10 minutes, I start choking to the point that I cannot breathe. I was thinking I am going to die, this is it. I have never felt death, but that time I really thought it would be the end of the road," al-Marri told Middle East Eye.

A DIA summary of the 11 March interrogation said that a "lead interrogator" used duct tape on three occasions "in response to al-Marri's continuous chanting of Arabic".

"The taping proved ineffective in stopping the chanting and al-Marri remained taped, initially for about a minute, then for five minutes, and later 15 minutes. On the last occasion, cotton or cloth was used with four to five layers of duct tape, but not inserted in his mouth," the report said.

"Al-Marri had no difficulty breathing and did not appear to gag, except for a brief moment at the end when he was removing duct tape from covering his mouth."

The report also said: "During this session, other physical contact between the interrogators and al-Marri included patting al-Marri's face with both hands, turning al-Marri's face to look at pictures of his family on the wall, pressing two fingers up under al-Marri's chin, placing hands on his shoulders and sitting on his lap."

Wrists and ankles 'shackled'

"During this interrogation session, al-Marri was seated in a chair. His wrists and ankles were shackled," it added.

Detention records show that al-Marri was also deemed a suicide risk after the interrogation, which required guards to wake him up every 15 minutes to check he was alive.

A note for guards said: "When EC#2 is sleeping he must be woken every 15 min. Make sure he is alive. Movement is necessary, just skin is not acceptable. If necessary turn on lights in cell."

Details of the threats made against al-Marri’s family are described in an interrogation summary dated 19 January.

"Towards the end of the session, the Interrogator developed and drove a strategy to shake 052 [al-Marri]. The Interrogator told 052 that he had a job to do, and if [he] would not cooperate, he would have the Saudi and Qatari authorities round up his family," the summary said.

It said that the interrogator then mentioned all of al-Marri’s siblings and some of their spouses.

In a session on 18 January, the interrogator asked al-Marri whether he was ready to talk or "allow his family in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to suffer the consequences".

"052 stated that he could not cooperate. With that, the Interrogator replied 'you have made your decision', and added that 052 will still be treated with respect, but he could not assure the same for his family."

Al-Marri flew into the US with his wife and children on 10 September 2001, one day before the al-Qaeda attacks in New York and Washington.

He said he had tried to get out of the country when the attacks happened but was unable to leave because all flights were cancelled.

He enrolled in a masters programme at Bradley University in Illinois but was arrested in December 2001. He was originally charged with credit card fraud but the charge was dropped when he was declared an enemy combatant.

He was returned to the civilian prison system in 2009 and subsequently pleaded guilty to a charge of "conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaeda and provision of material support to al-Qaeda," remaining in prison until his release and repatriation to Qatar in 2015.

Sentencing al-Marri to a further eight years in prison in 2009, US District Judge Michael Mimh said he had handed down a lighter sentence because of the "unacceptable" treatment he had received and the "very severe" conditions in which he had been held in the brig.

Al-Marri's case featured prominently in a 2014 report by the US Senate intelligence committee into the use of enhanced interrogation techniques after the CIA said that information provided under interrogation by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, had led to al-Marri's arrest.

The report noted that this was "inaccurate" because al-Marri was arrested in 2001 and Mohammed was captured in 2003.

A video still of Ali al-Marri taken during his detention at the Charleston Naval Brig
But it also said the CIA had "significant information" on al-Marri. It said CIA records indicated he was arrested after "making attempts to contact a telephone number associated with al-Qaeda member and suspected 9/11 facilitator, Mustafa al-Hawsawi," who was based in the UAE, and was "directly associated with KSM".

The FBI also had "extensive records" on al-Marri, the report noted.

'No messing with food!!'

The documents reveal how al-Marri was held in deliberately harsh conditions in which he was forced to sleep on a metal rack and frequently asked for the air conditioning to be turned down because the cell was so cold.

"I felt like I had been buried alive in a concrete and metal grave," said al-Marri. "There's no blankets, no mattress, no pillow, nothing. Just metal and concrete. That's how tight it felt."

Prison logs also reveal how al-Marri's religious and cultural rights were abused, with guards ordered to withhold his Quran. A log entry dated 25 October 2003 noted that Ramadan started on Sunday but that al-Marri should not be told.

A log dated 5 September 2003 said: "EC#2 can have games played with him as long as they are legal, no messing with food!!"

Interrogation notes from October 2003 note that al-Marri had accused brig staff of trying to sneak pork into his diet and purposefully providing him with incorrect prayer times.

Charleston Navy Brig needs to follow whatever GTMO does, so just need to know if they do it or not

- Email from brig officer

Another DIA interrogation summary dated 6 february 2004 noted that al-Marri's "privilege items" such as his mattress and his copy of the Quran were removed as part of a process to "extinguish his expectations of due process and entitlements in order to induce compliance"

"The agent has been with al-Marri through fifteen prolonged sessions, many lasting 10 hours or more," it said. 

The documents also reveal how brig staff sought to emulate conditions at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, where hundreds of suspected "enemy combatants" captured following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 were held.

In emails between brig officers discussing whether it was necessary to post copies of the Geneva Convention on walls for detainees to see, an officer wrote: "Charleston Navy Brig needs to follow whatever GTMO does, so just need to know if they do it or not. Thanks!"

Al-Marri alleges that other threats were made during interrogations, including that he would be raped and that his wife would be brought to the prison and raped. But those threats are not referenced in the published DIA interrogation summaries.  

Andy Savage, a lawyer who represented al-Marri during his detention in the US, said: "All the uproar about the use of torture methods was over what happened in Guantanamo Bay. Most Americans don't realise that it also happened in their own country in Charleston, South Carolina."

In a statement, the FBI told MEE it would not comment on its investigation into al-Marri: "We wish to remind you the FBI does not engage in torture and we maintain that rapport-building techniques are the most effective means of obtaining accurate information in an interrogation."

A spokesperson for the DIA said: "The Defense Intelligence Agency declines to comment on this matter."

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.