Little more than two years after his release from the Guantanamo Bay military prison, Abdallah Saleh al-Ajmi knelt in front of a white wall, clutched the upturned barrel of an AK-47 rifle and delivered a message before a video camera. The scraggly beard that his young son once loved to play with had been shaved off, leaving only an exiguous moustache. His curly, shoulder-length locks had been clipped down to a crew cut. Gone, too, were the crisp, white headdress he often wore and any semblance of the good humor once familiar to his family. He was sullen and angry - still bitter about being locked up for almost four years at the high-security US detention center on the southeastern coast of Cuba. "Praise be unto God, who evacuated me from Guantanamo prison and joined me with the Islamic State of Iraq," he intoned. As the camera's light cast an outsize shadow behind his head, he wagged his finger and issued a vow: "We are going, with permission from God, to God - glory be unto him. We will enter the nests of apostasy."
The beginning of the end
At 6:15 a.m. on March 23, 2008, not long after making the video, Ajmi drove a pickup truck filled with 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of explosives, hidden in what appeared to be white flour sacks, onto an Iraqi army base outside Mosul. The Easter Sunday blast killed 13 Iraqi soldiers, wounded 42 others and left a 30-foot-wide crater in the ground. It remains the single most heinous act of violence committed by a former Guantanamo detainee.
What makes Ajmi's journey from inmate to bomber so disturbing to top government officials is the fact that he never was deemed to be among the worst of the worst. He was not one of the former top al Qaeda operatives considered "high value" detainees; nor was he regarded as someone who posed a significant, long-term threat to the United States. Since his death, US intelligence agencies have sought to determine when Ajmi became a hard-core jihadist. Was it in the late 1990s, when he came under the sway of a radical preacher while serving in the Kuwaiti army? Was it in 2001, when he allegedly joined the Taliban?
Who's to blame?
Or is the answer potentially more alarming: Was his descent into unrepentant radicalism an unintended consequence of his incarceration? Washington lawyer Thomas Wilner, who represented Ajmi while he was in US custody and visited him more than half a dozen times during his detention, is convinced he knows the answer to his former client's fate. "What happened to him?" Wilner asked rhetorically. "It was Guantanamo." Arrested in Pakistan in December 2001, Ajmi was among the first wave of terrorism suspects to be transported to Guantanamo. He was "inprocessed" on Jan. 17, 2002, clad in an orange jumpsuit, shackled at the wrists and ankles, and placed in an open-air chain-link cell. He was 23 years old. In early 2002, Ajmi's family and 11 other Kuwaiti families sought to hire a prominent U.S. law firm to look into the fate of their relatives who had gone missing in Afghanistan. Although it took four more years for habeas hearings to commence and lawyers such as Wilner to visit their clients.
As Wilner learned more about Ajmi's story, he was convinced that he never should have been sent to Guantanamo. "This was a kid who could be nothing more than a lowly foot soldier. He was clearly not a leader or a planner or anything else like that," the lawyer said.
In Wilner's view, Ajmi's initial misbehaviour may have accelerated his downward spiral because of the punishment it elicited. He said, "Guantanamo took a kid - a kid who wasn't all that bad - and it turned him into a hostile, hardened individual."
(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post)