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Thu October 25, 2012
A Journalist Chronicles Lives After Guantanamo Bay
Originally published on Mon March 25, 2013 2:45 pm
The presidential candidates may not be talking much about Guantanamo Bay, but the U.S. detention center there has been at the forefront of Michelle Shephard's mind for the last decade. The national security correspondent for the Toronto Star has traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, more than two dozen times; she even got enough stamps on her Guantanamo Starbucks card for a free latte.
Shephard has followed the stories of several prisoners after they were released, including Salim Hamdan, who was Osama bin Laden's personal driver, and Canadian Omar Khadr, the youngest Guantanamo prisoner. Recently, she traveled to Albania to meet with Abu Bakr Qassim, one of several Muslims belonging to China's Uighur minority who were captured in Pakistan and mistakenly detained at Guantanamo.
"As soon as [Qassim] was handed to the Americans, he thought, 'Great, we're safe now,' " Shephard tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Early on, Americans realized they weren't part of al-Qaida and should be released, but it was problematic, and it took years to have them resettled."
Albania agreed to take Qassim upon his release. But he had trouble finding a place there, until he told his story on television and received a supportive response.
"Part of the support he got was this offer to learn how to make pizza at a halal restaurant, and he really takes it quite seriously — he has worked for years at this," Shephard says. "And he's a good pizza maker — it's excellent pizza, I have to say — so he's probably done better than most."
In addition to her Guantanamo reporting, Shephard has also covered Somalia, where she met Ismail Khalif Abdulle, a teenager who had been mutilated by the radical group al-Shabab for refusing to join their ranks.
"I remember as I was tearing up trying to take pictures of him as he was posing for me, my escorts were saying, 'We have to go! We have to go!' " Shephard says. "And Ismail looked down at my bag and saw this Canadian pin and he said through the translator, 'Please take me to Canada.' "
Shephard wasn't able to take Abdulle to Canada, but an article she wrote about his story helped lead to his eventual rescue and an odyssey that took him to Norway where he now lives.
On the Uighur detainees of Guantanamo
"There are some that still remain in Guantanamo, but many of them have been settled elsewhere in countries that are willing to accept them. And that's difficult to find because many countries don't want to anger China by accepting them. But the Uighurs were swept up with others sold by Pakistani forces to the U.S. I find their cases some of the saddest because many of them — they've told me when they were handed over from Pakistan to the Americans, they were overjoyed. They thought, 'Oh great, now we're with the Americans. Everything will be fine. We love Americans! We oppose China and the U.S. stands up to China so isn't this great.'
"And it took a lot of them a long time to realize that they were in custody for a while. And their case was complicated by other events that happened. They were told when they got to Guantanamo that essentially their arrests had been a mistake — that they had been swept up with others — but they would be sent, released at some point. But then we had the Iraq War, and the U.S. needed China's help in this so that complicated their case. And for many of them, it took years until they were released and they were only released when another country agreed to take them because they couldn't be sent to China for fear of torture."
On how her article helped lead to Ismail Khalif Abdulle's rescue
"Through the reporting, you meet a lot of very sad victims, but there was something about Ismail that really stuck with me. And I was really depressed coming back home thinking, 'I'll never see this kid again. What a remarkable kid.' And luckily, what ended up happening was the story ended up getting a lot of attention. It moved others in Canada. We have a large Somali-Canadian diaspora — they decided to try and help Ismail.
"They started Project Ismail and one Canadian in particular, Sahal Abdulle — who lived in Nairobi and he's a former Reuters photojournalist — he told me, 'Listen I can't save Somalia, but I think I can save Ismail.' So he set out to save him and 10 months after I wrote that story, he called me and said, 'We're gonna get him to Nairobi. Come back.' So I was in Nairobi where they had managed this great escape for him and Ismail came across the border and I did a story about that.
"He applied for refugee status and refugee protection and I thought it would take a long time, but just a month later, I got a call from Sahal [who] said, 'You're never gonna guess what, but he's got a country that'll take him on an emergency basis.' And I said, 'Canada!' — I was hoping it would be Canada. 'No,' said Sahal. 'It's Norway.' And I thought, 'OK, Norway, that's fine.' And then he said, 'No, it's Harstad, Norway.' So we were both Googling where Harstad, Norway, was and that's how I found myself a year after I met Ismail on a plane with Ismail and Sahal flying 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle to this beautiful little town of 23,000 called Harstad. And that is where Ismail lives now." [Click here to read Shephard's coverage of Ismail Khalif Abdulle's story.]
On how brave it was for Ismail to refuse to join al-Shabab
"So often here, when we're talking about al-Qaida proxy groups in various countries, we think about this entire population who has radicalized and believes in the holy global jihad movement that al-Qaida and bin Laden espouses. And really a lot of the time, that's not it at all and especially in Somalia, it was a matter of survival.
"For a long time the Shabab was the group that provided security. Somalia's government was notoriously corrupt and so to survive — especially as a teenager who probably doesn't have a whole lot going on, has been raised with nothing but violence because Somalia has been without a functioning government for two decades — when the Shabab comes and knocks on your door and offers you a phone and offers to look after your family, you say yes. Whether you believe in what they're fighting for or not, it's the smart thing to do. So the fact that he actually stood up to them and said no to them knowing the risk that that would pose really was remarkable. It was remarkably brave, and he was severely punished for that."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Ever since covering 9/11, my guest Michelle Shephard has reported on the roots of terrorism and on people who've been detained as terrorists. On Saturday, she returned from her 25th reporting trip to Gitmo, where she was covering the pretrial hearing of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men charged with orchestrating the 9/11 attacks.
She's also followed the stories of several men who have been released from Gitmo, stories which have taken her to such places as Yemen and Albania. Her reporting on terrorism has also taken her to Somalia, where she wrote about a teenager who refused to join the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab. They punished him by performing a public amputation of one arm and foot. As we'll hear, her article about him led him to get refuge in Norway, north of the Arctic Circle.
Michelle Shephard is the national security correspondent for the Toronto Star and has won Canada's top journalism awards. She's also the author of the books "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone" and "Guantanamo's Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr."
Michelle Shephard, welcome to FRESH AIR. You started covering Guantanamo because of Omar Khadr, who was a Canadian citizen who was detained in Afghanistan in 2002, after America started bombing and trying to get al-Qaida there. And he was, what, 15 when he was first taken to Guantanamo?
MICHELLE SHEPHARD: He was 15 when he was first shot and captured in Afghanistan, and he was held in Bagram for three months and interrogated there, and then he was brought to Guantanamo shortly after his 16th birthday.
GROSS: And why were you so interested in following his story?
SHEPHARD: Omar Khadr's story was huge in Canada, both because of his case, but also because of his family. It's safe to say that the Khadr family is widely despised in Canada. His father, Ahmed Said Khadr, was an Egyptian Canadian who had gone to Afghanistan at the time of the Soviet invasion to run a charity, and then stayed on and became quite close to bin Laden and al-Qaida's inner circle.
He was actually killed by Pakistani forces in 2003, and Omar Khadr's mother, sister and other siblings eventually returned to Canada, and they created a lot of controversy when they were on a documentary where they criticized Canada, and they were immediately dubbed Canada's - Canadians of convenience and Canada's first family of terrorism.
So that issue of the family hung over Omar Khadr's trial and really influenced the way Canadians and, to some extent, our government dealt with the case. But his case was fascinating in Guantanamo, as well, just because of his age. There were those that said, you know, he was a child soldier and that this would be the first prosecution of a child soldier in history, and that it set a dangerous precedent.
And then there was also the issue of his nationality. He was the last Western detainee, and Canada really the only country that didn't advocate for his release among the Western nations.
GROSS: So how well did you get to know him when you were following him in Gitmo?
SHEPHARD: Well, I mean, I've actually written about his story for 10 years, and as you said, written a book on his story, but I've never spoken with him. The Pentagon has a rule for journalists who go down to Guantanamo - actually, they have many rules, but one of the rules that they have that we have to sign to get access to the base is that we won't converse with detainees.
And this has been really awkward over the years, as we've had instances when we tour the camps, and if a detainee were to say hi to you, you actually can get kicked off the base for saying hi back. And they're quite stringent with these rules. So although I've done, you know, hundreds of interviews with people who know him, family members, the soldiers that were involved in the firefight with him, guards, interrogators, others, I've actually never spoken with him.
GROSS: So he was repatriated to Canada just at the end of September.
SHEPHARD: Well, that's right. He was repatriated. It was a lot later than most people expected. He signed a plea deal in October 2010 that gave him - he pleaded guilty to the five charges that he was facing before the military commissions, and in return, he got an eight-year sentence, with no credit for time served. But the important provision was that after one more year in Guantanamo, he would be returned to Canada.
And it became quite a political story, because the way that he was promised that was with a diplomatic note. Well, once the year had passed and he wasn't returned, you know, his lawyer started asking why. And there was quite a movement to not have him returned, and it became a very political issue. And the conservative government in Canada, you know, said that they were only reluctantly taking him back. So it took two years, but eventually, they honored the agreement.
And he is - he's back. He's in a detention facility, and he's to serve the rest of his sentence here, which is another six years, although there's a good chance that he'll apply for parole before that.
GROSS: So you can't see him in Canada, either?
SHEPHARD: In Canada, the rules are different. I will be applying to see him, yes. But I haven't yet.
GROSS: So what's the earliest you might see him?
SHEPHARD: I don't know. I'm not sure. I mean, he's in a facility now where they're assessing him, and then he'll be sent to a different facility, where presumably he'll get some sort of rehabilitation programs. And at that point, when he reaches there, I can go through the process and apply to visit him.
GROSS: You know, a question that's raised is, like, how - if he was 15, how much responsibility does he have for his political views, or for being - you know, if he was affiliated with the Taliban, you know, like if you're 15, are your actions your own? Or can you say that, you know, adults told you do it? Child soldiers, as you say, usually aren't prosecuted for crimes that they've committed.
His parents - well, his father was closely associated with al-Qaida. His father is dead now. And as you mentioned, in a documentary, his mother said something to the effect about Canada - this was after taking her children to Pakistan. She said that she'd rather raise them there than in Canada, where they could become drug addicts or homosexuals.
But then, after that, she moved back to Canada because one of her sons was paralyzed in Pakistan in, I guess, a firefight?
SHEPHARD: That's right. It was the firefight that her husband, that Omar Khadr's father was killed in. Omar Khadr's younger brother was paralyzed, yes.
GROSS: And she wanted the free health care that she could get in Canada.
SHEPHARD: Well, that's right. I mean, this is really what enraged Canadians, as you can imagine, and where they got the name, that the Khadr were Canadians of convenience, that they would come back and enjoy all our generous, you know, social services, but at the same time criticize Canada. And, you know, this was an issue, and that very quote that was mentioned many times during any story, any debate about the Omar Khadr's case, this is what was mentioned. And I think this is what really turned many Canadians against Omar Khadr and many within the government, as well.
And I think that did influence the case, because you raise the issue of his age, and that was also an important factor, but perhaps the disdain for the family overshadowed that. There have been a lot of - quite a few prominent figures that have come out and spoken against the trial.
The U.N. actually has condemned both Canada and the U.S. for the trial for what they consider a child soldier. Retired General Romeo Dallaire, who has done a lot of work on child soldiers, has taken on Omar Khadr's case. And there's others. A former prosecutor for Sierra Leone courts said that he would never prosecute a 15-year-old.
And I think what they all have said is that they worry this has set a dangerous precedent for other cases, and that Omar Khadr might not be seen in the sense of a traditional child soldier when you think of children in - typically in Africa who have been kidnapped and drugged into service, but that the circumstances of his upbringing left him no choice to be where he was at the time when he was shot and captured.
GROSS: He was - Omar Khadr was captured in Afghanistan. What was he doing there, and why was he fighting?
SHEPHARD: U.S. Special Forces had had information that there was an al-Qaida group in the area where Omar Khadr was, and what ensued was a lengthy battle that - from the ground and the air. Various U.S. soldiers were injured, and one was fatally so. At the end of the firefight, they believed everybody inside the compound that they'd been bombing was dead.
And as they moved in to clear the compound, a grenade was thrown, and that's the grenade that the Pentagon says Omar Khadr threw, and that was a grenade they say that had fatally wounded Delta Force Officer Chris Speer. He was - Omar Khadr was shot and almost died himself, and one of the U.S. medics actually saved him.
And from there he was brought to Bagram. Everybody else in the compound at that point was killed.
GROSS: Does anybody know whether his father forced him to be there, or if he was there on his own, what his beliefs were?
SHEPHARD: Well, that was the argument of his lawyers, that - and why he should be considered a child soldier, that, you know, from the age of 10, he had been brought to the area by his father. He knew no other life. And after 9/11, when the family fled, at first Omar Khadr was with the women. He was with his mother and his sister.
And what happened right before he was captured was that his father had loaned him out to one of the al-Qaida members to act as a translator. That's sort of the official narrative of what's happened. You know, there's many facts we don't know, but that's what was presented in court, that he was loaned out to be a translator and was in the area with that group at the time when the compound was attacked.
GROSS: What does it mean to loan out your son?
SHEPHARD: That's a good question. That was the language that was used, and I'm not sure exactly what it means by that, except that you were - he was offered to be a translator. And from what I understand from talking to his family members was, you know, at the time, he wasn't - he didn't go under gunpoint. I mean, he went willingly with that group.
What his lawyers have argued was that was the only life he knew. I mean, he wasn't going to say - he wasn't going to say no to his father.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Shephard. She's the national security correspondent for the Toronto Star and has been covering Guantanamo since 2006. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Shephard. She's an award-winning national security correspondent for the Toronto Star and the author of "Guantanamo's Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr" and the book "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone."
So this month, in addition to being in Gitmo covering the latest there, you were in Albania telling the story of a former Gitmo prisoner who is now living in Albania, and he is a Uyghur. He's one of the 22 Uyghurs who were held in Gitmo. And the Uyghurs are a persecuted ethnic minority group, a Muslim minority group in China. Can you explain how these Uyghurs ended up in Gitmo?
SHEPHARD: Sure. I'm working on this documentary that's tracing where the Uyghur detainees have gone, and there are some that still are - remain in Guantanamo, but many of them have been settled elsewhere, in countries that are willing to accept them. And that's difficult to find, because many countries don't want to anger China by accepting them.
But the Uyghurs were swept up with others, sold by Pakistani forces to the U.S. I find their cases some of the saddest, because many of them, they've told me when they were handed over from Pakistan to the Americans, they were overjoyed. They thought, oh, great. Now we're with the Americans, everything will be fine. We love the Americans. We oppose China. And the U.S. stands up to China, so isn't this great?
And, you know, it took a lot of them a long time to realize that they were in custody for a while, and their case was complicated by other events that happened. They were told when they got to Guantanamo that their, essentially, their arrests had been a mistake, that they had been swept up with the others, but they would be released at some point.
But then we had the Iraq war and the U.S. needed China's help in this, so that complicated their case. And for many of them, it took years until they were released. And only - they were only released when another country agreed to take them, because they couldn't be sent back to China for fear of torture.
GROSS: So Abu Bakker Qassim, the Uyghur who you visited in Albania, is he the only one of those Uyghurs in Albania now? Or are there more?
SHEPHARD: There's actually four that are in Albania, and they were four that were sent there, actually, under the Bush administration. The others have been sent elsewhere under the Obama administration. But they were sent there in 2006, and so I visited with all four of them. But Abu Bakker is the focus of part of the documentary.
We're off to visit the others in Bermuda next month, and Palau. We've seen them in Switzerland. So we're trying to tell the story of the detainees and what they went through and where they are now.
GROSS: So Abu Bakker Qassim is now making Halal pizza...
SHEPHARD: That's right.
GROSS: ...in Albania.
SHEPHARD: It's really good pizza, too.
GROSS: Talk about multicultural. That's just fantastic, Halal pizza in Albania. So how did he end up being a pizza maker?
SHEPHARD: Well, he's got - he has a very interesting story. Abu Bakker had a lot of difficulty, like the others, when he first arrived in Albania. He felt he was branded a Guantanamo detainee. Many people avoided him. It was difficult getting work. And he actually, with the help of some friends that he did eventually meet there, decide to be proactive. And he went on TV and described his story on a very popular station in Albania.
And it actually turned the population. It was really interesting that, after that episode, he got a lot of support. And part of the support he got was this offer to learn how to make pizza at a Halal restaurant. And he really takes it quite seriously. He has worked for years at this.
He works in the pizzeria every night. And I've been to Albania a couple times and seen him there, and he's got a really faithful following. And he's a good pizza maker. It's excellent pizza, I have to say. So he's probably done better than most. Many of those who have been settled elsewhere are having a really hard time, but Abu Bakker, he's doing OK. He's married. He's got a baby daughter now, and he's making pizza every night.
GROSS: So the Uyghurs were captured in Pakistan. In Pakistan, they were handed over to the Americans. How did that happen?
SHEPHARD: Well, after 9/11, the Americans offered substantial bounties to Pakistan forces for those who were captured. So they received, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars. And I believe for each Uyghur detainee, they - I think the figure was $5,000 that they received. So they were essentially sold to the U.S.
The Uyghurs had been in Afghanistan at the time of the bombing and were fleeing into Pakistan when they were picked up.
GROSS: So do a lot of people think that the Pakistanis who sold the Uyghurs to the Americans just saw that as a good payday, as opposed to actually believing that the Uyghurs were implicated in terrorism?
SHEPHARD: You know, I think that's been the presumption for many of the detainees, if we consider there are nearly 800 that went through Guantanamo, and the majority had been sold. You know, I think that's a fairly fair assumption, that, you know, sometimes these guys just had dollar signs on their faces.
There are others that they did aid in the capture of who indeed were al-Qaida members or senior Taliban members, but I think there were quite a few that it was just a way to make money.
GROSS: So Abu Bakker, the Uyghur who you wrote about who's now a pizza maker in Albania, how did he get sold?
SHEPHARD: Well, he was fleeing persecution in China when he went to Afghanistan, and he was - when the bombing started, he fled to Pakistan with a group of others, and they were collectively scooped up by Pakistani forces. They were in custody for a few days, and they were then handed over to the Americans.
At first, they didn't tell the Pakistani forces that they were Uyghur. They worried that Pakistan would return them to China. And so they said they were from other ethnic backgrounds. I think, if I remember correctly, Abu Bakker said he was from Uzbekistan. And then as soon as he was handed over to the Americans, he thought, great. We're safe now. The Americans won't send us back to China, and so they revealed their identity.
And quite early on, the Americans recognized that they were not part of al-Qaida and they should be released, but their release became so problematic that it took years for them to be resettled elsewhere. And indeed, there are still some detainees who are left in Guantanamo.
GROSS: What kind of obstacles has China put in front of countries that otherwise would have taken Uyghurs in as refugees?
SHEPHARD: Well, I think it's substantial. I think the pressure from China is huge, which is why you have, you know, sort of bizarre countries where they've been settled: Bermuda. Bermuda was a country where the governor just wanted to do the Obama administration a favor. So they actually did that without the U.K.'s blessing.
Palau, Palau needed substantial U.S. support, and they received quite a bit of money for taking some of the Uyghurs. You know, Albania could withstand the pressure from China, and then Switzerland's another country. There were just a couple that were settled in El Salvador. But, you know, these were countries that are willing to withstand pressure, and I think the U.S. makes it worth their while to withstand that pressure.
I mean, there are incentives that - and I'm sure there are backroom deals that make it more of an attractive issue. But, for instance, Canada was looking at settling some of the Uyghurs, and that never went anywhere. And I'm sure that has a lot to do with the pressure from China.
GROSS: And none of the Uyghurs have been resettled in the U.S.?
SHEPHARD: No. And, in fact, that has made it a really difficult to resettle them, because there were some that were going to be settled in the U.S. And when word leaked out, it became a huge political issue that there was great outcry, saying, you know, we're not going to have these men who have been declared the worst of the worst on our soil. And so what...
GROSS: You mean the outcry was in the U.S., not in China.
SHEPHARD: The outcry was in the U.S. That's right. It was really sort of whipped up into a political debate, you know, despite the fact that they'd been cleared for release by the Pentagon. It became such an issue, that that did not happen. And it certainly made it more difficult for the U.S. then to resettle these men elsewhere, because, you know, the first reaction from any country is: Well, why don't you take some? I mean, this is why are we helping you close Guantanamo, which you've, you know, admitted is a place you want to close, but you won't settle any of the detainees that you've cleared?
So it's made it really difficult. It's actually quite amazing that so many of the detainees have been settled elsewhere.
GROSS: Michelle Shephard will be back in the second half of the show. She's the national security correspondent for the Toronto Star. Her latest book is "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Michelle Shephard, the national security correspondent for the Toronto Star, and author of the books "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone" and "Guantanamo's Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr."
On Saturday, she returned from her 25th reporting trip to Gitmo. She's followed the stories of several men after they were released from Gitmo. She's also written the stories of victims of terrorism, including the story we're about to hear - which I should warn you - is gruesome.
I want to ask you about somebody else's life you've been following. And this is somebody who you've had a tremendous impact on through your reporting. And this is Ismail Khalif Abdulle, who is a young Somali man, who, when he was a teenager in 2009, was basically thrown into a makeshift prison by members of the militant Islamic group al-Shabab. This is a very radical group. They accused him of stealing. He was put in this makeshift prison and then he and three other men were taken to a stadium. And I want you to describe what happened to them there.
SHEPHARD: All four of them had been accused of certain petty crimes. But what really I think the issue here was was that the Shabab, which is al-Qaida's proxy group, had asked them to join the group and all four had said no. Ismail had told them that he wanted to continue studying. And so to use them as an example, they took these four into a stadium and before a crowd that many of whom have been forced to be there, which is what the Shabab used to do, they amputated their hands. And when they passed out from the pain, they amputated their foot. So it's incredibly barbaric ritual and unfortunately, they weren't the only ones that they did this to, but this was one event that got a lot of attention.
And about six months after that, I met Ismail and some of the other boys when I was in Mogadishu. They had been held for a period after the double amputations, and they managed to actually escape. Before they managed to escape, Ismail had been further mutilated by the Shabab. He was in custody recovering from these, you know, horrific wounds when one of the Shabab leaders named Fuad Shangole came to the house where he was being held and told his captors that they had not cut off enough of his leg. So he put three fingers down on what was a stump and said cut further. And I mean it's just so barbaric it's hard to even imagine. But they did. They took out a saw and they cut his leg further.
So when I met these boys in 2010, I was so incredibly moved by their story. And Ismail in particular was someone I spent, you know, as much time as I could with him, which wasn't very much time. At that point Mogadishu was not stable. I was traveling with African Union forces, sort of the only way to safely travel around the capital. And I remember as I was, you know, kind of tearing up trying to take pictures of him, as he was posing for me, you know, my escorts were saying, we have to go, we have to go, and Ismail looked down at my bag and he saw this Canadian pin. And, you know, he said through the translator, please take me to Canada. Please take me to Canada. And as I was leaving I, you know, I took the pin off my bag and I gave it to him just not knowing what to do, and he dropped it. And I remember running out of the place where I was at and I looked back and he's, you know, on his knees trying to find this pin. And as you can imagine, it just broke my heart.
And through the reporting, you meet a lot of very sad victims, but there was something about Ismail that really stuck with me. And I was really depressed coming back home thinking, you know, I'll never see this kid again. What a remarkable kid. And luckily, what happened was the story ended up getting a lot of attention. It moved others. In Canada, we have a large Somali-Canadian Diaspora. They decided to try and help Ismail.
They started Project Ismail and one Canadian in particular, Sahal Abdulle - who lived in Nairobi and he's a former Reuters photojournalist - he told me, listen I can't save Somalia, but I think I can save Ismail. And Sahal has an interesting story in his self. He survived a bombing there. So he set out to save him and 10 months after I wrote that story, he called me and said, you know, we're going to get him to Nairobi. Come back. So I was in Nairobi where they had managed this great escape from and Ismail came across the border and I did a story about that.
And then he applied for refugee status and refugee protection and I thought it would take long time, but just a few months later, got a call from Sahal and said, you're never going to guess what, but he's got a country that'll take him on an emergency basis. And I said, Canada - I was hoping it would be Canada. No, said Sahal. It's Norway. And I thought, OK, Norway, that's fine. And then he said, no, it's Harstad, Norway. And that's how I found myself a year after I met Ismail on a plane with Ismail and Sahal flying 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle to this beautiful little town of 23,000 called Harstad. And that is where is Ismail lives now.
GROSS: It's just remarkable. The whole story is remarkable, but to think of him making the transition from Africa to north of the Arctic Circle, he must be pretty, he must be pretty safe but pretty cold.
SHEPHARD: Oh, it was great, Terry. On that flight I'll never forget, you know, trying to explain to him what snow was and the fact that he was going to live somewhere where there's times of the year when the sun would never go down. And other times, like when we were arriving, when there's only these two hours of twilight. And, you know, he was processing it all and, you know, saying, how am I going to play soccer in the snow? And then at one point he said, you know...
SHEPHARD: He loves, he loves to play soccer.
GROSS: He only has one foot.
SHEPHARD: He had a prosthetic and he vowed that he would play soccer once he got a better prosthetic, which he has been given in Norway and he's running again. But one of his greatest concerns on that flight was he said, what do I do during Ramadan? I'm going to starve because how would he break the fast if there was sun, you know, the sun never went down? So we explained to him that he wouldn't starve and I think that the Muslim community there had figured it out. But, no, he's a remarkable kid and he's doing really well. And it's so rare in journalism that you actually, you know, see impact from something you write. And this was, you know, just one kid but it meant a lot.
GROSS: What language is he speaking now and how do you communicate with him?
SHEPHARD: Well, we're Facebook friends and he does well on Facebook. But he actually, his English is getting a little bit better. He speaks in a really adorable Norwegian Somali accident. And from what I understand, I don't speak Norwegian, but from what I understand, he's almost fluent in that now. So he's doing really well.
GROSS: That's great. It must feel very good to actually have had an impact on somebody's life as direct as you've had on his. Is he making a living or is he studying?
SHEPHARD: You know, Norway has a beautiful program for - in Harstad in particular, that they've put him up. They give him a small amount to get by on, a small salary and he's been given school. So he's - before he left Mogadishu he only had about a grade nine equivalent but he's worked his way through high school and he'll actually get some sort of university courses. Last I talked to him, he was helping them out as a translator at the airport because there's actually, you know, quite a few Somali refugees who go there. So he was sort of helping the meet-and-greet team at the airport.
GROSS: You just tell me what you found so remarkable about him in addition to his ability to, you know, withstand the torture that he was subjected to.
SHEPHARD: Well I think what made it so special - and the other boys too - who have, two of them have actually also managed in the time since to get to Nairobi, they're not doing as well because they're suffering there, trying to get by but, you know, he, Ismail was the youngest. And I think what made him so remarkable was that he said no to the Shabab. And I think so often here when we're talking about, you know, al-Qaida proxy groups in various countries, you know, we think about this entire population who is radicalized and believes in the, you know, holy global jihad movement that al-Qaida and bin Laden espouses. And really, a lot of times that's not it at all. And especially in Somalia, it was a matter of survival.
For a long time the Shabab was the group that provided security. Somalia's government was notoriously corrupt, and so to survive especially as, you know, a teenager who probably doesn't have a whole lot going on, doesn't have, you know, has been raised with nothing but violence because, you know, Somalia has been without a functioning government for two decades. When the Shabab comes and knocks on your door and offers you a phone and offers to look after your family, you say yes, you know, whether you believe in what they're fighting for or not, it's just the smart thing to do. So the fact that he actually stood up to them and said no, knowing the risk that that would pose, really was remarkable. It was remarkably brave and, you know, he was severely punished for that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Shephard. She's the national security correspondent for the Toronto Star. And she's the author of two books. Her most recent is called "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She's also the author of "Guantanamo's Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr." She's been covering Guantanamo since 2006 and has been writing a lot about the people who had been in prison there and have subsequently been released.
Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Michelle Shephard, and she is the national security correspondent for the Toronto Star. She's been covering Gitmo since 2006 - she was just there. She's the author of two books, "Guantanamo's Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr." And a more recent book which is called "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone."
So on your latest trip to Guantanamo, which ended over the weekend, right? You got back over the weekend?
SHEPHARD: That's right.
GROSS: You were there, among other things, covering the pre-trial hearing of the Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four others charged with orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, and charged with the murder of everybody who died during those attacks. Some people are calling this the trial of the century. Why?
SHEPHARD: It's an incredibly important trial. It's 11 years after 9/11 and we are now just having the alleged architects go on trial. And the fact that it's happening in Guantanamo is something that Obama said wouldn't happen. And he in fact tried to prosecute these five on U.S. soil, but when he suggested that, there was a great outcry because the proposed trial site once near two in Manhattan - near to ground zero and people just objected to that. So he was forced to bring it back to Guantanamo. I think that's important. I think when he says he is intent on still closing Guantanamo, that puts the status of this trial up in the air. So we'll have to see, if he's re-elected, what will happen with this trial, and is there a possibility it actually can move to U.S. soil. Having watched the last week and I was there in May for the arraignment, which was a 13-hour arraignment, I think it's really safe to say that this trial is going to take years to prosecute.
GROSS: So I want to talk with you about Salim Hamdan, who was the subject of a really important test case and that ended up in the Supreme Court. He was Osama bin Laden's driver. He was the first Gitmo prisoner convicted at a U.S. war crimes trial since World War II. Last week, there was a big development for him. He's already out. He's been living in Yemen for the past few years. But what was the development last week?
SHEPHARD: Well, last week, Washington's appeals court overturned his conviction. And what they ruled was that what he had been charged with under the Military Commissions Act - which was providing material support to terrorism - wasn't a war crime at the time he committed the offense. So when he was chauffeuring Osama bin Laden, that wasn't considered a war crime. He was charged in 2006, and what the court found was that he could not be prosecuted retroactively. It was a really important decision because it does question many of the charges that are under the Military Commissions Act.
And I was lucky enough to meet Hamdan in Sanaa when I was there in 2009. And I called him, again, I was actually in Guantanamo, and called him from an interview, which in itself was rather surreal because I'm standing on a tarmac in Guantanamo using my Canadian cell phone, which actually gets Cuba cell phone service, calling Yemen. But I called to get his reaction and, you know, he was obviously pleased. But, as you said, he's already served his sentence and it had little effect, little impact for him.
GROSS: What do you know about what his life is like now in Yemen?
SHEPHARD: Well, I haven't seen him in Yemen since 2009, but at that time it was difficult. Life for many people in Yemen is difficult. I mean it's one of the, it's the Arab world's poorest country. Many people get by on two dollars a day. So it was difficult for him. He was trying at the time to make a living as a taxi driver. He had two daughters, a wife. And when I talked to him just last week, he said he'd given up the pursuit to drive a taxi. It was just too hard. So he was unemployed and he has two more children now. So there's four children and his wife that he's trying to support. So I think it's - from what I understand, it's pretty hard to get by.
GROSS: His name is pretty...
SHEPHARD: ...two more children now, so there's four children and his wife that he's trying to support. So I think it's - from what I understand, it's pretty hard to get by.
GROSS: His name is pretty famous here because of the Supreme Court case Hamdan versus Rumsfeld. You describe it as the beginning of the end for Gitmo because of the ruling that said that President Bush had abused his executive power and that Gitmo wasn't beyond the reach of the U.S. courts. So is his name well known in Yemen where he's living now?
SHEPHARD: Interestingly, not really. One of the conditions I had of interviewing him in 2009 was that we - I was with a photographer - but that we couldn't take any pictures of him. And he was worried that, you know, if his photo was out there on the Internet that people would realize who he was. Which is sort of ironic, because he looks very much the same as he did in photos of him that are out there.
But I think, you know, he's very wary about having his name and his face well known. And he's really not that well known in Yemen. There's so many other issues that are going on in Yemen, especially in the last couple of years, that Hamdan's case is not very high on the radar.
GROSS: So from, you know, having met with him and from knowing a lot about his case, what are your impressions about how much he knew of al Qaida and its plans to attack on September 11th when he was Bin Laden's driver?
SHEPHARD: Well, his lawyers portrayed him as a mere foot soldier. And their argument before the military commissions was that he was someone who was desperate for the $200 a month payment he was getting to act as a driver, but he really wasn't part of the inner circle.
And the fact that he was only convicted of the one charge of providing material support - which has now been overturned - and given a sentence that gave him credit for time served. So after his conviction he actually returned quite shortly after that to Yemen, I think was an indication that perhaps the military jury saw it as such, as well.
From spending time with him, you know, limited time but that was my impression as well. That he wasn't part of the inner circle. You know, I've interviewed people who have had past affiliation with al Qaida that that certainly seemed, you know, more savvy than him.
I think with him there was the case of his brother-in-law who actually got him to Afghanistan in the first place, someone who goes by the name of Abu Jandal, and I spent a lot of time with him in Sana'a as well. And I think he was definitely someone who, you know, was more sophisticated and more part of the inner group.
GROSS: So it's interesting that bin Laden's driver can't get a job as a taxi driver now in Yemen, because times are so hard. And it makes me wonder, like, does he tell people when he's applying for a job driving a taxi...
GROSS: ...that he'd been bin Laden's driver? Is that considered a good credential or a bad credential?
SHEPHARD: Well, it's an interesting question. Would that help you on your resume? I'm not sure, in Yemen. You know, I think it's just difficult for anybody to get a job right now, in Yemen. It's really an impoverished place that has been rocked by the protests of last year. And while there's been a change of regime and there's some optimism there about the future, it's just a very difficult place for people to live. And it's not uncommon to have people who are unemployed.
So, frankly, I'm not surprised that he's not working right now because that's like so many people living in the capital.
GROSS: So in writing about Gitmo I don't think you've been making the argument like everybody in Gitmo is innocent and all of this was just a big mistake. What are your concerns about how Gitmo has been handled?
SHEPHARD: Well, absolutely not. I mean, we saw that last week with, you know, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad as the self-professed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and was, you know, considered al-Qaida's number three before his capture. So there's many people in remaining Gitmo that will face prosecution in some form or another, should face prosecution.
I guess one of the unfortunate things about, you know, taking all the legal and moral concerns - which of course are huge - but taking all of those aside, one of the things I've focused on over the years is Guantanamo's reputation. And so whatever you think about Guantanamo, when people say that its reputation has damaged the U.S. reputation, you know, I can attest, from my travels, that that is true.
So despite whether or not this trial for the 9/11 suspects or any others that go before Guantanamo, whether or not they are, you know, legally just and the military commissions afford the same level of justice as the federal courts, they are not going to be seen as fair trials by majority of the world. And I do think that's problematic.
Because I think one of the main issues, and one of the issues that, you know, the West is really lost on, or did lose on after 9/11, was controlling the narrative. And so much of what fuels al-Qaida and its proxies is propaganda. And they've just been given a lot of gifts, and, you know, frankly, their job has been too easy over the years.
GROSS: Michelle Shephard, thank you so much for talking with us. And, you know, safe travels.
SHEPHARD: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Michelle Shephard is the national security correspondent for the Toronto Star and author of "Guantanamo's Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr" and "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Gray Zone." You'll find links to her recent articles on our website freshair.npr.org.
Have you ever read Charles Portis, who's best known for his novel "True Grit"? If your answer is no, John Powers is about to tell you why that's the wrong answer. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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