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."