A set of memos recently released by the Obama administration provide some support for allegations that the children of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) were tortured to reveal their father’s whereabouts. A detainee’s relative said that they had been tortured with insects in 2007, and the newly released memos approve the use of insects as a part of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.
KSM’s two children were arrested in Pakistan on September 11, 2002, during a raid on an al-Qaeda safe house. However, their father slipped the net and was not captured until early the next year, reportedly on March 1, 2003.
The first indications the children may have been tortured were reported in Ron Suskind’s 2006 book The One Percent Doctrine. When KSM was being held at a secret CIA facility in Thailand, apparently the revamped Vietnam War-era base at Udorn, according to Suskind, a message was passed to interrogators: “do whatever’s necessary.”
The interrogators then told KSM “his children would be hurt if he didn’t cooperate.” However, his response was, “so, fine, they’ll join Allah in a better place.”
More detailed allegations were made at a combatant status review tribunal in Guantanamo in the spring of 2007. According to a statement made by Ali Khan, the father of high value detainee Majid Khan, KSM’s children were “denied food and water by … guards.” In addition, “They were mentally tortured by having ants or other creatures put on their legs to scare them and get them to say where their father was hiding.” Accounts of the children’s ages at this time vary, although they are generally said to have been under ten.
Ali Khan said that he was told about the children by his son Mohammed, who was kept in the same detention center and obtained the information from Pakistani guards there. He also claimed that his son Majid was tortured, for example using stress positions, face slaps, hooding and cramped confinement.
The recently released memos expressly approve the use of insects in an attempt to scare a detainee into talking. For example, a memo by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee dated August 1, 2002—a few weeks before KSM’s children were captured—approved the use of “insects placed in a confinement box.” However, this memo only deals with the interrogation of training camp facilitator Abu Zubaida.
The memo sets out more detailed rules for the use of the insects. For example, if interrogators place harmless insects in the cell and tell Abu Zubaida they are actually stinging insects, then they are legally bound to tell him “the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain.”
According to an endnote to another of the memos, drafted by Steven Bradbury of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in May 2005, the technique was never used. “We understand that — for reasons unrelated to any concerns that it might violate the statute — the CIA never used the technique and has removed it from the list of authorized interrogation techniques,” Bradbury wrote.
However, the allegations by Ali and Mohammed Khan call Bradbury’s statement into question.
The use of insects, whether proposed or actual, as a part of the CIA torture program was not well known before the memos’ release. In fact, according to Time magazine today, “The CIA desire to use insects during interrogations has not previously been disclosed, according to two civil liberties experts.”
The link between the August 2002 memo authorising insects and the Khans’ allegations of insect use later that same year or early the next year is troubling. Did the Khans invent the allegations or garble them in some way and then “get lucky” two years later, when it was revealed the CIA was, at least, contemplating the techniques they alleged it used at the time in question? Given that nobody heard of the CIA using insects for another two years, why would they invent these specific allegations, which sounded bizarre when they were made?
The alternative is that the Khans are right and insects were used against KSM’s children. The CIA has never given an account of their detention and interrogation. If they were interrogated, it is unclear what guidelines would have been used. Their whereabouts are currently unknown.