Yassar Talal Al-Zahrani killed himself June 10, hanging himself in his cell in the “professionally run, humane facility” in Guantanamo.
Yassar was a 17-year-old boy when US forces in Afghanistan captured him in 2001. He was a Saudi who had gone to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban, which at that time ruled most of Afghanistan, against the Northern Alliance forces who had ruled Afghanistan from 1993 to 1996. He followed in the footsteps of thousands of Saudis who would never have found themselves in Central Asia had the United States not made it a policy to send them there to fight “communism” in the 1980s.
In 1978, a leftist party had toppled the Afghan president and tried to institute a secular program that met with widespread Islamist opposition. The following year, the Soviets invaded to protect their allies and prevent the rise of an Islamist regime on their border. First the Carter, then the Reagan administration encouraged “holy warriors” from around the Muslim world to march to Afghanistan to confront the atheist infidel. This was the inception of the present-day Islamist jihadi movement. Washington was totally comfortable with it, at least initially.
The US-backed anti-Soviet Islamists, known today as the Northern Alliance, came to power in 1993. They apprehended the last quasi-Marxist president, Najibullah, who had taken refuge in the UN compound. Demonstrating their moral worth, they castrated him and hung him from a lamppost in central Kabul. Then those participating in the new regime (recognized by the U.S.) fell to quarreling among themselves, ripping apart Kabul, which had spared the earlier fighting. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who’d received the lion’s share of CIA money in the 1980s, figured prominently in the carnage. Northern Alliance misrule was so egregious it allowed the fairly easy seizure of power by the Pakistan-backed Taliban in 1996.
The Taliban was no less Islamist and fundamentalist than its predecessor regime, and most Americans wouldn’t much distinguish the two, in the simple “good” versus “evil” terms promoted since 9-11. The present US ambassador to Iraq and former special envoy to Afghanistan, Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post in 1996 advocating cordial ties with the Taliban which he regarded as not “anti-American.” Khalilzad was later, as a Unocal employee, to host Taliban envoys at his Texas ranch. (They reportedly discussed the construction of an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean.) The Taliban was criticized in the US press for its brutal treatment of women, its grotesque destruction of the buddhas of Bamiyan, etc., but only systematically vilified after 9-11. That’s when Bush announced he wouldn’t distinguish between terrorists and the regimes that harbor them. Never mind that the US had actually brokered the departure of Osama bin Laden from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996, thinking that the terrorist couldn’t do much harm in the backward Central Asian country.
This Saudi boy Yassar Talal Al-Zahrani arrived in Afghanistan as the Taliban forces continued to battle the Northern Alliance. The US wasn’t recognizing the Taliban at the time, although it was providing aid for the successful opium eradication policy of their regime. Washington, which calls lots of people and groups “terrorists” as it sees fit, wasn’t trashing the Taliban as a terrorist operation at the time. (It had “committed numerous human rights violations,” according to the State Department’s 2000 “country report on human rights practices.” But it wasn’t terrorist.) So when this 17-year-old kid Yassar pops up in Afghanistan, heeding the age-old, however stupid, call to fight for God against evil, he wasn’t crossing the Rubicon into terrorism, nor in any way attacking Americans. He was fighting for some vision of religious purity, as do many stupid people, in lots of places.
Anyway, he was there, fighting for one Islamic fundamentalist faction against another, in a place of little strategic interest to US imperialism, and remote from the minds of the American masses, in 2001. He was in no way threatening my lifestyle here in Boston. But the US president decided to attack Afghanistan preparatory to an invasion of Iraq, and so young Yassar wound up in Mazar-e-Sharif, apparently acquitting himself with some dignity. Then he was whisked away to a wire cage in Cuba, denied any rights on that piece of turf conquered in 1898 and on which the US Constitution need not apply. He was subjected to the conditions in Guantanamo well known now to the whole world.
British citizen Ruhal Ahmad was captured on the Pakistan-Afghan border in 2001 by the notorious Northern Alliance warlord Rashid Dostum and turned over to U.S. forces. He was taken to Guantanamo and released in March 2004. Guilty of nothing but the desire to attend a friend’s wedding in Pakistan, and some petty crimes with no relation to Islamist activity, he had been tortured, interrogated with dogs, and sexually abused. He was freed only after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Gitmo detainees’ legal challenge to their indefinite imprisonment without charges. Back home in West Midlands, England, he can tell his story, not that the US corporate media will broadcast it.
Yassar Talal Al-Zharani will never tell his story. After four years in hell, the “terrorist” ended his life, at his own hand, in Guantanamo. Camp Commander Rear Admiral Harry Harris denounced his deed as “an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” Maybe Yassar could aspire for no better epitaph. He died at war, anyway.
What did this boy do to incur this destruction of his youth? What moral error? He did what Zbigniew Brzezinski was recommending Muslim youth do in the 1980s. He was responding to religious incentives wholly analogous to those offered by the butthead “Good vs. Evil,” no-nuance American Christian right. He made his choice, got busted by the world’s most vicious, and seeing no way out ended his life in his cell. His father and brother insist he didn’t commit suicide. I feel for them.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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