More murky U.S. deals with the Saudis

A Briton freed from dubious imprisonment in Saudi Arabia as part of a deal that released suspected terrorists from Guantanamo blasts the trade as hypocritical and immoral.

Topics: Al-Qaida, British Election, Middle East,

On May 14, 2003, the Pentagon quietly announced the release of five Saudi men from the camp for U.S. prisoners of war at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It was two days after suicide bombers had attacked a housing compound for foreigners in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, killing 35 people, including eight Americans. In a brief e-mailed press release, the Pentagon stated that the “senior leadership of the Department of Defense” (that is, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld), “in consultation with other senior U.S. government officials” (that is, the White House), had decided the five Saudi men “no longer posed a threat to U.S. security.”

The men were not identified, and the story was soon forgotten amid the many larger issues involved in handling the approximately 600 enemy combatants at the U.S. prison camp.

But behind that bland bureaucratic boilerplate is a disturbing story of how Saudis suspected of terrorism were set free in return for the release of a group of European men (all but one were Brits) accused of spying and held hostage in a Saudi jail after a trial in which no evidence was produced. This Saudis-for-hostages deal illuminates the Bush administration’s willingness to bend its rhetorically tough counterterrorism policy to mollify its Saudi allies.

According to a report in the Saudi press, one of the men released by the Bush White House in May 2003 is an apparent al-Qaida supporter who refused to cooperate with U.S. interrogators. He may even be a free man today.

The story of the deal surfaced when the New York Times reported on July 4 that the release of the Saudi suspects had been secured by a secret arrangement blessed by U.S. diplomats and the Bush White House. Don Van Natta and Tim Golden reported that in return for the release of the Saudis, the kingdom agreed to release seven European men that human rights groups said had been tortured into confessing to spying for Britain. The deal was consummated three months later, in August 2003, when the Saudi government released the seven men.

One of the men, William Sampson, says he and his friends were not British spies but Western hostages effectively ransomed for the five suspected terrorists held at Guantánamo. “It is my information that the Saudis themselves broached the idea of an exchange, effectively using us as hostages,” says Sampson, a Canadian-born British citizen who had lived in Riyadh since 1998.

Sampson wrote movingly of his ordeal in Canada’s National Post last September. In a detailed account of the savage treatment he endured in a Saudi prison, he says that he and his mates were guilty of nothing more than living an alcohol-fueled expatriate life in an Islamic kingdom where drinking alcohol is officially forbidden.

The Times story said that the Saudis had presented the White House with a list of 15 Saudis whom it wanted released. How the five men to be returned to Saudi Arabia were selected is unknown.

Sampson believes that the negotiations for the release of the Saudis began sometime in 2002. In February 2003, Sampson’s sentence was changed from 18 years’ imprisonment to death by al-Haad, “the blade.” “This cannot be just a coincidence,” Sampson says.

In any case, the effect of the death sentence was to increase pressure on the government of Tony Blair in the spring of 2003. The decapitation of a British citizen in Saudi Arabia would have been a political nightmare for the embattled prime minister.

Then, on May 12, 2003, came the biggest attack ever in the heart of the Saudi capital, shocking the Saudi royal family, which had believed it was immune from attacks by al-Qaida, the group believed to be responsible. Two days later, the United States announced that four Saudis were being turned over to Saudi authorities and one was being released. There was no public announcement of the trade for the British and Belgian men.

According to a BBC report, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi interior minister, said the men turned over to the kingdom would be tried in Saudi courts “as part of the country’s rejection of all kinds of terrorism.” And the Pentagon stated that the released men “no longer posed a threat” to the United States. But at least one of the men had reportedly trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Last week, the Saudi Institute, a Washington think tank, identified the five Saudis — citing a May 16, 2003, article in al-Riyadh, a leading Saudi newspaper — as Fahd Abdallah Shabaani, Ibrahim bin Omer al-Omer, Mishale Ashadouki, Fawaz Zahrani and Khalid Zahrani. The paper quoted a brother of Shabaani’s as saying his brother had been arrested in Afghanistan during the month of Ramadan in 2001 for being an active member of al-Qaida.

Ali Ahmed, director of the Saudi Institute and a frequent critic of the royal family, says Shabaani “is the kind of guy who could have been picked as one of the Sept. 11 hijackers.”

The Pentagon’s press release of May 14, 2003, announced “the release of one detainee” and “the transfer of four Saudi detainees for continued detention by the Government of Saudi Arabia.”

Who was the man sprung in the White House deal with Riyadh? A Pentagon spokesman declined to answer that question, citing a policy of not naming detainees “until or unless they are formally charged with violations of the law of war and are going to be tried by military commission.”

There’s a final twist to this story: The Saudis apparently attempted to renege on the arrangement. Once the five Saudis were home, the Saudi government did not immediately deliver on its end of the deal — the British men and their Belgian friend remained imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.

A memo published last week in De Morgen, a Brussels daily — written by a Belgian Foreign Ministry official who was seeking information on the matter — makes it clear that the Belgian government believed there had been an agreement. In the July 12, 2003, memo, the Foreign Ministry official wrote: “In a few days, the American ambassador is coming back from vacation. I’ll ask him what is the US reaction about the non-compliance by the Saudis of their part of the agreement (liberation of the British prisoners, in exchange for the liberation of the 5 Saudi prisoners who were detained in the base of Guantanamo in Cuba).”

After some behind-the-scenes pressure, the Saudis finally released the seven men in August 2003. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, asked if any deals had been made with Saudi Arabia, replied: “I worked very hard for the release of the British detainees and we were all greatly relieved once they were released. As to the precise circumstances I am not going to comment further.”

Rachel Bronson, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says the secret deal says as much about U.S.-British relations as it does about U.S.-Saudi relations. “First, we wouldn’t have released these guys if we weren’t sure the Saudis would deal with them seriously,” she said. “Second, it shows that President Bush is always looking for ways to help Tony Blair.

Sampson says the deal that led to his freedom “demonstrates the lengths the West went to indulge the needs of the house of Saud. The precedent is now established that hostage taking is an accepted form of diplomatic exchange between sovereign states. This constitutes immoral and criminal behavior — something that our governments in their hypocrisy claim they stand against.”

Jefferson Morley

Jefferson Morley is a staff writer for Salon in Washington and author of the forthcoming book, Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 (Nan Talese/Doubleday).

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>