Here is a cautionary tale for anyone out there working in intelligence, whether as a mere asset or a field operative. When your government is trying to get rid of you, what better cover but to accuse you of having links with al-Qaeda?
One certainly can assert that Abdul Al Salam al Hilal had "ties" with al-Qaeda. It was in 2002, and he had been working for Yemen’s internal intelligence services for a while. In his early thirties, he was a “field” contact person for former Yemeni detainees who had returned from Afghanistan. His job was to monitor them and make sure that they would remain politically quiet after their return. The dictatorship of President Ali Abdullah Saleh was very close to the US government at the time, and an active ally in the “war on terror”.
As he was in Egypt for a business trip, his day job was with a construction company; Abdul Al Salam was arrested and transferred to a prison where he remained for one and a half year. He did not know why he had been arrested and kept being asked about his involvement with al-Qaeda. He claims to have been tortured by Oman Suleiman in person, then head of the Egyptian Intelligence Services. In 2004, he was transferred to Bagram airbase and soon after shipped to Guantanamo. He has been there ever since, claiming his innocence among another ninety detainees from Yemen.
While his family managed to make sporadic contact with him through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), they have no idea what his current situation is. They say he has been punished for a while, they don’t know why. Before the loss of contact, Abdul Al Salam wrote that there had been two assassination attempts made against him in Guantanamo. He also communicated to his family that they should never believe news of his possible suicide. In a Skype conversation organized by the ICRC, he said: “I will not commit suicide, don’t believe any of it. I know I am innocent. This is all game that is much bigger than me.”
Was Abdul Al Salam sold to the US government, as his family seems to think? Was the information that he had so valuable that he deserved to be removed from the land of the living? In 2008, his two boys Omar, 11, and Yussef, 8, opened the safe where he was storing all the documentation related to his intelligence work. Due to the sensitive nature of his files, it was was booby-trapped. Both children died instantly. It was then up to his older brother Abdu Rahman to break the news to him, via the ICRC. Since the call was on humanitarian grounds, it lasted for two hours, and was overseen by a religious Imam. Abdul Al Salam was devastated. After costing him years of his life, his intelligence work had now killed his only children.
Abdul Al Salam’s younger brother, Nabil, asks if detainees are human beings in the eyes of the US Government? He says that he had hope when President Obama was elected: he lost it very fast when he saw that Guantanamo’s announced closing was quickly forgotten about. Scores of journalists have interviewed him and his family for the past few years. Nabil still believes that those interviews can make a difference. Conversely, many Guantanamo families now refuse to meet journalists, since they believe that none of their testimonies amount to anything but boosting the profiles of the Westerners who “make it” to Yemen.
High profile US lawyer David Remes took Abdul Al Salam’s case in 2005. He visited Sana’a on six occasions, and so far, there has been no progress. Abdul Al Salam is frustrated by what he calls Remes’ poor performance. He is even wondering if Remes is not a US spy. He wants to be represented by a new lawyer.
As our meeting comes to an end, I ask both brothers if they believe that the new Yemeni government will stand up to the US regarding Guantanamo and other issues. I explain that many in the West believe that Yemen is now on the democratic path as a result of the so-called Arab Spring. Nabil replies: “it is like we are in a bigger prison than that of my brother, only ours is a little nicer.” According to him, only one entity can save his brother: God.