Tuesday morning, NBC News broadcast an interview with Saad Iqbal Madni, a former Guantanamo detainee. Madni’s story is an old one and there is no real “news” here. The New York Times published basically the same story more than two years ago. (You can read my analysis of the Times piece here.)
Like the Times, however, NBC did not bother to scrutinize Madni’s claims. The result was a hopelessly biased and one-sided segment.
NBC’s journalists should have investigated Madni’s background further before reporting. Madni’s claim of innocence is difficult to square with transcripts of his own testimony during hearings held at Guantanamo. Even while denying any wrongdoing during those hearings, Madni conceded that he repeatedly met with terrorists who were plotting against Americans in Indonesia in late 2001. Officials at Guantanamo clearly thought that Madni was, in fact, conspiring with these terrorists when he was detained. Even though the U.S. government’s declassified files are freely available online, however, NBC did not inform viewers of the files’ contents.
Similarly, Madni’s claims of torture were not scrutinized in any way. Madni’s tale often takes a turn into the bizarre and is completely unsupported by any independent evidence. But NBC accepted Madni’s torture story at face value even though parts of it, at the very least, are quite obviously fabricated.
Allegedly Plotted Against Americans
The U.S. government’s declassified files on Madni are available on the New York Times’s web site and contain a number of startling revelations. During his hearings, Madni told military officials at Gitmo that he traveled from Pakistan to Indonesia to attend to family business in 2001. Madni claimed that he just happened to find himself in the company of terrorists who were conspiring to commit terrorist attacks against Americans and others on or around New Year’s Day 2002. When he learned what these terrorists were up to he tried to get away from them, Madni claimed.
But Madni’s story is difficult to believe given the circumstances Madni himself described. And intelligence professionals at Guantanamo clearly did not believe Madni’s claims of naiveté.
Here is a summary of Madni’s story:
Madni was detained at Guantanamo because he was allegedly involved in an al Qaeda plot against an American official working in Jakarta. He was apparently fingered as the accomplice of a known al Qaeda agent. In its summary of evidence memos for Madni, the U.S. government alleged that he “asked an unidentified confidant where and with whom a United States government official would be on New Year's Eve.” Madni “wanted to know if there were protective officers with the government official and if they were American,” because he stated “it was better to kill one U.S. Government Official than 100 Americans.” The U.S. government claimed that Madni “speculated that something big was going to happen during a meeting with other al Qaeda operatives” in December of 2001.
Madni denied the government’s allegations, but made a number of admissions in the context of his denials that are, in fact, damning.
Madni admitted he was “introduced to four terrorists in Indonesia,” including Habib Rizq, the president of an organization called the Islamic Defense (or Defenders) Front (IDF), which is affiliated with al Qaeda. The IDF is known to attack nightclubs, bars, brothels, or any other establishment that offends the organization's deep Islamist sensibilities. According to BBC, Rizq has stated publicly that his organization has accepted Osama bin Laden’s call “for a Jihad for the truth” because, Rizq says, there is no evidence tying the terror master to the September 11 attacks.
Madni explained that Habib Rizq, in addition to being the IDF’s leader, was “also the guardian of the al Qaeda organization in Indonesia” and had telephone conversations with Osama bin Laden. Moreover, Madni said, Rizq and his comrades were planning terrorist attacks when Madni met them. Madni explained to his Guantanamo tribunal that he could not remember the name of one of the four IDF terrorists he met, but he did remember that he “was getting himself ready to harm himself in a terrorist type of way; self suicide.”
Madni admittedly spoke at length with another of the four IDF terrorists he met at a “classy hotel.” Madni claimed this terrorist was named Hani Yahya Saqqaq, or more simply, “Yahya.” Madni admitted further that he tried to impress Yahya. “I accept the fact that I showed actions in Indonesia to portray that I was a high level person,” Madni explained.
For example, Madni showed Yahya a picture he had taken with A.Q. Khan. Madni also relayed a warning he had heard from Osama bin Laden, who announced that Muslims should avoid flying on civilian aircraft.
By his own admission, Madni also told Yahya something else that worried American officials. And here NBC News clearly misreported:
Madni says he was told by the officials who detained him that they were acting on CIA instructions after he told an Islamic group that he knew how to make a shoe bomb. Madni denies the charge, saying that nobody ever even questioned him about the alleged comment during his detention.
This is a good illustration of why you cannot just accept Madni’s word at face value now that he is giving self-serving interviews in the press. During his combatant status review tribunal, Madni freely conceded: “I also told [Yahya] that there was a type of shoes in which you could hide the bombs.”
In addition, U.S. intelligence officials identified Madni as the “acquaintance” of Richard Reid, who attempted to blow up an airliner in December 2001 – the same month Madni was telling IDF terrorists about shoe bombs.
Yahya was so impressed with what Madni had to say, according to Madni’s own testimony, that Yahya began to divulge the details of his terrorist plotting. Yahya “explained to me that one year ago, he tried to blow up the American embassy in Jakarta,” Madni told his tribunal at Gitmo.
Yahya took Madni to meet with IDF leader Habib Rizq, and there Madni “saw approximately 50 to 100 people sitting in rooms” as they were preparing to commit “terrorist acts” to commemorate New Year’s Day 2002.
[Yahya] told me they were planning to blow up two hotels on New Year's. An American Ambassador had a program in one of the hotels. He also introduced me to his father who was responsible for three schools that trained terrorists.
There is more to Madni's story, too. He is not the only member of his family allegedly involved in terrorism, according to the U.S. government. The government’s files allege that a member of his family was the head of the women’s wing of a known extremist group. And Madni’s grandfather was “a leader” of the Jamaat Tablighi – a missionary organization that has become increasingly radicalized and is used as a cover for al Qaeda agents traveling abroad. These familial ties provide intriguing context for Madni’s life story.
Madni also conceded during one hearing held at Gitmo that he frequented meetings held by a “religious organization in Pakistan” that “was against the Shiites.” From the U.S. government’s files we learn that this group, Sipah-e-Islam Pakistan (SIP), is “a mirror of the group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).” The SSP is a known extremist organization affiliated with al Qaeda.
NBC’s viewers did not learn any of this during Tuesday’s broadcast.
No Evidence of ‘Torture’
The centerpiece of NBC’s segment was Madni’s torture tale. Madni makes a number of allegations, all of which, NBC concedes, are “impossible to independently corroborate.” This should not concern us, however, because “experts say [Madni’s story] stands up to scrutiny.”
No, Madni’s story does not.
NBC cites as an “expert” one Sultana Noon of “Reprieve, a U.K.-based charity that represents prisoners who have been rendered and abused around the world.” But Reprieve is not a credible source. It is not some unbiased institution seeking the truth. It is a notorious advocacy group that has no misgivings about spreading disinformation, including manufactured tales of torture, on behalf of its “clients.”
As a case in point, consider Reprieve’s advocacy on behalf of Binyam Mohamed – an al Qaeda recruit who was allegedly plotting to attack the U.S. in 2002. Mohamed was detained in Pakistan, held in Morocco, and ultimately shipped to Guantanamo. Reprieve has claimed that Mohamed’s genitalia were repeatedly sliced over an 18-month-period in Morocco. There is no evidence that this is true. The extreme nature of the claim in and of itself should give one pause, as the allegation makes waterboarding look rather tame by comparison.
Moreover, medical professionals examined Mohamed when he arrived at Guantanamo and found “no evidence to support [Reprieve]’s claim that Mr. Mohamed’s genitalia were brutalized.” One would expect to find scarring if the alleged torture had really taken place, but the doctors could not find any scarring.
Reprieve offered a laughable response. The organization did not deny that Mohamed’s genitalia lacked any physical evidence of torture, but insisted that the Moroccans' tactic was the equivalent of cutting oneself while shaving, which of course doesn’t leave a scar! Reprieve’s analogy here is plainly absurd, but this is not atypical for the group. Reprieve continues to allege that suspected terrorists are brutalized by American and allied forces to this day – even during the Obama administration.
The point is that Reprieve is not the type of group journalists should look to for unbiased “expert” validation. And there is every reason to believe that Madni’s story is cut from the same cloth as Binyam Mohamed’s tall tale.
For instance, Madni claims that American officials had cells filled with refrigerators. “They keep me a six month in refrigerator, naked – in underwear,” Madni told NBC in his broken English.
Contrary to popular mythology, Guantanamo has long been compliant with the Geneva conventions. And there have been at least several thorough investigations of Guantanamo through the years. Not one has turned up any evidence of refrigerator cells. The International Red Cross, which has had access to detainees since the very beginning of Gitmo’s existence, has also failed to discover such refrigerator cells.
In reality, there is no reason to believe that Madni was held naked (or in his underwear) for six months in a refrigerator. This is the stuff of anti-American, anti-military mythology.
Madni says that American guards purposefully insulted the detainees’ religion and desecrated the Koran routinely by writing curse words inside the detainees’ copies. Madni even repeats the tired old myth (first reported by Newsweek and then retracted when it proved to be false) that the guards flushed a copy of the Koran in a detainee’s toilet.
These are standard talking points for former detainees, and their advocates, but they have no basis in fact. The troopers at Guantanamo are actually trained to avoid insulting Muslim sensibilities. It is a smear to claim otherwise.
It is possible that Madni was harshly treated while he was held in Egypt, which does not have the highest standards for detention. But, again, there is no evidence to validate his claims and we do not know that this is true.
Thus, NBC leaves us with no reason to believe anything Madni says. And there are, in fact, good reasons to doubt everything Madni says about his treatment by American authorities.
Instead of truly investigating who Saad Iqbal Madni is, NBC compiled a puff piece that sanitizes Madni’s history and takes his unsupported allegations of torture at face value.
Sadly, this is an all too common occurrence in the media’s reporting on Guantanamo.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.