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Guantanamo Inmate Database: Taj Mohammed

McClatchy Newspapers
by Tom Lasseter
June 15, 2008

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Taj Mohammed could barely stand the humiliation.

The American woman in civilian clothes who was interrogating him had asked Mohammed, about 23 years old at the time, how many times he'd had sex. Then she asked whether he'd ever had sex with a donkey, Mohammed said during an interview in Jalalabad.

Mohammed said he sat in his chair, shackled and furious.

Another interrogator, a black man in uniform, earlier had called Mohammed "a stupid bitch," he said.

By the time he got to Guantanamo, after those two months at the U.S. detention camp at Bagram Air Base, Mohammed was ready to fight.

A self-described sheepherder from Konar province, Mohammed had been accused of taking part in an attack on a U.S. Army base and working with an al Qaida cell leader.

He denied that those things were true. A summary of evidence for his military review board said he'd admitted to firing rocket-propelled grenades at the base. But it also noted that Mohammed later said that two cousins had set him up and that he'd also said he'd made the confession only because interpreters working with U.S. forces guaranteed he'd be released if he did so.

Mohammed Roze, an official with the Afghan government's peace and reconciliation commission in Mohammed's area, said that Mohammed was detained on false information.

Mohammed's cousin was working with the American troops in the area, Roze said, and settled a score against him by saying that he was a militant.

"Because of the feud they had, his cousins led the Americans to him," Roze said. "We are in the provinces; there are problems between cousins here."

Regardless of the validity of the allegations against Mohammed, it's clear from his story that once he got to Guantanamo, he became more radical.

The trip to the plane that took Mohammed to Guantanamo settled the matter, he said.

"They took us like animals to the plane. Our hands and feet were bound; we were blindfolded," he said.

The Americans, he thought, weren't people who could be reasoned with. Guantanamo would be a place of resistance.

Once there, he began meeting Arabs who took him under their wing. They were impressed with the young man who'd taught himself Arabic and who spoke with enthusiasm of the cause of spreading Islam.

At first, Mohammed said, he was more of a prison tough than anything else.

"I got into fights (with guards) because of bad meals, because of them abusing the Quran, because they didn't give us enough time in the shower," Mohammed said. "When they searched our cells the soldiers would flip through our Qurans. The detainees did not like this. We would throw water and shit on the soldiers; we would spit at them. If we could reach the soldiers we would punch them."

But as his relationships with the Arabs grew, he said, he began to see that there were more important things than scrapping with U.S. soldiers.

A man from Yemen, Ali Abdullah Ahmed, became his teacher, lecturing him about the Quran from one cell to the other, and sometimes across the cellblock, depending on where they'd been moved, Mohammed said. Ahmed urged Mohammed to memorize the holy book so that he always could review its words in his mind, so that he could recall chapters at a time when he was feeling weak or alone.

Mohammed set a daily schedule to keep himself disciplined, written on a piece of paper that he looked at every morning: morning prayers, nap, Quranic studies, lunch, exercise, studying Arabic and English by chatting with Arab prisoners and American guards, resting and read the Quran, then to sleep by 9 p.m.

The more that Mohammed learned, the more he saw it as his responsibility to enforce Islamic morals.

When other detainees failed to pray or chatted with female soldiers, Mohammed said, he warned them that they should live in accord with the Quran.

When they did not comply, Mohammed said, "we stopped speaking with these men. Sometimes we beat them."

For instance, Mohammed said, an Afghan repeatedly spoke with female soldiers: "We beat him because he made jokes with the female soldiers. He was always laughing with them. . . . But he wasn't beaten too badly, because the soldiers arrived. We just punched and kicked him."

Mohammed's attorney, Paul Rashkind, was taken aback when told of his remarks. Rashkind said that in his meetings with Mohammed at Guantanamo, he'd never mentioned undergoing any sort of religious transformation or participating in attacks on guards or other detainees.

Rashkind went as far as to suggest that the man interviewed in Jalalabad was an imposter; but the level of the man's knowledge of Mohammed's case, operational procedures at Guantanamo and Bagram, U.S. military terminology and even slang that military police used made it clear that he was, in fact, Taj Mohammed. A comparison of a photograph supplied by Rashkind, compared with a photo taken by a McClatchy reporter in Jalalabad, shows that Mohammed had gained weight, cut his hair and gotten a deep tan under the Afghan sun, but the two pictures were almost certainly of the same man.

Mohammed said the violence that he and others carried out against fellow detainees at Guantanamo was more than justified. For instance, he said, fellow Muslims shouldn't have spoken to or shaken hands with female soldiers.

"It is clear in the holy Quran that you should not speak with women you do not know," he said. "It is very clear."

In 2005, Mohammed said, he was moved to Camp Four, an area set aside for detainees with good behavior.

He lasted nine months before getting sent back to the regular cells.

"A friend of mine was sick. There was a female doctor there, but she wouldn't give him medicine," Mohammed said. "So I slapped her."

About four months before his release, in June 2006, a guard woke up Mohammed in the middle of the night. Three detainees had hanged themselves. One of them was Ali Abdullah Ahmed.

"They hanged themselves because they wanted to protest being detained innocently; they were hoping to help the other detainees," said Mohammed, who then got quiet and checked his watch, saying nothing for several moments.

A Pakistani who was at Guantanamo at the same time, Zia Khalid Najib, said that Mohammed took the death harder than he liked to admit.

"Taj was very upset," Najib said. "At one point he tried to kill himself."

Mohammed, though, didn't talk too much about his thoughts when it came to Ahmed's death or his own religious experiences at Guantanamo.

As the interview was coming to an end, Mohammed stood up and said it was time for evening prayers. He waited for a reporter to join him. When told that the reporter was Christian, Mohammed frowned, explaining that he thought the reporter's beard suggested he was Muslim.

He asked the reporter how many times a day he prayed. Unhappy with the answer, Mohammed left the room without another word.

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