Would Al-Qaeda Terrorists Really Be Reading Harry Potter at Guantánamo?

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Would Al-Qaeda Terrorists Really Be Reading Harry Potter at Guantánamo?

Every now and then, when the authorities at Guantánamo want to demonstrate how well catered for the prisoners are, a story emerges that purports to demonstrate how well-stocked the prison library is, and how the prisoners are enjoying a range of titles, including J.K. Rowling’s best-selling series of Harry Potter novels.

The first time I recall reading that prisoners in Guantánamo were enjoying reading the Harry Potter books was back in August 2005, when the Washington Times — in a story that soon spread around the world — claimed that “Harry Potter’s worldwide popularity is so broad-based that it has become favorite reading” for the prisoners at Guantánamo.harrypotteratguantanamo.jpg

That was the opening paragraph of an article entitled, “Detainees under Harry Potter’s spell.” However, in the second paragraph, Lori, the civilian contractor who had been overseeing the library for two years, conceded that, although the Harry Potter books were “on top of the request list” for the 520 prisoners held at he time, “followed by Agatha Christie whodunits,” only “a few” were “kind of hooked” on Harry Potter. In a further attempt to make the care of the prisoners appear benevolent, Lori added, “A couple have asked if they can see the movie,” even though, at the time, the only movie-watching privileges granted to any prisoner were to those who had been extremely cooperative with their interrogators.

When the Washington Times published its article, the author also stated that there were “more than 800 books” in the library, in addition to the copies of the Koran made available to most prisoners, although it was also noted that “Detainees may not peruse the bookshelves at Camp Delta … Instead, a staff of three librarians load up a book cart and go cell to cell.”

In September 2006, just a week after President Bush announced that 14 “high-value detainees” had been moved to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons whose existence the President had, until that moment, furiously denied, the Pentagon issued “Ten Facts about Guantánamo,” a largely transparent piece of propaganda, which included the risible claim that the “[e]ntertainment” at the prison included “Arabic language TV shows [and] World Cup soccer games.” The press release also claimed that the library — whose most requested book was still Harry Potter — now had “3,500 volumes available in 13 languages.”

It took until 2007 for some uncomfortable truths about the library to emerge, when a letter from a Saudi prisoner, Abdul Aziz al-Oshan (released in September 2007), was unclassified by the Pentagon’s censors. In the letter  (to his attorneys), al-Oshan, who had studied at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University in Riyadh, explained:

Some people think that the Gitmo camp library is a big hall with large drawers, well-organized shelves, shiny marble floors, state-of-the-art electronic catalog system for a rich library in which the detainees browse morning and evening, choosing the best of the available books in all fields and sundry sciences, in many different languages — just like that magnificent library I used to walk through five years ago when I was a student at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University in Riyadh, conducting my scholastic research work at the time.

The truth, as all will attest, is that the Gitmo camp library is nothing more than two small gray boxes with which guards walk around in some cell blocks, carrying them above their heads to protect themselves from the burning sun, or, at best, dragging them on a dolly with two little wheels. Inside the two boxes, there are no more than a combination of old, worn-out books, with their covers and some of their leaves torn by rain and other adverse factors that surround these two boxes. Furthermore, they are the same books that have been passed by the detainees for years … [T]he majority of reading material [is] available in English, which is not spoken or read by the overwhelming majority of inmates. You will surely find books about American history and the founding fathers. The detainees can do no more than turn these books this way and that and enjoy their shiny covers, not knowing what the books are about or gaining any knowledge of their contents.

In addition, you will find worn-out copies and old issues of National Geographic. A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of that magazine from the ruins of books in that dilapidated box and was astonished that the issue I picked up was dated 1973 — over 30 years ago. I asked the itinerant box carrier (the librarian, as the administration likes to call him) if I could have a more recent issue, dated 2000 or above. Evidently tired of carrying these boxes and walking around with them, he replied very calmly, “You have five more minutes to choose the books you want. This is all we have.” I thanked him for performing this arduous task and making this strenuous effort, placed that magazine on top of the stack of books in the box, and told him as nicely as I could, “please take my number off the check-out list. As of today, I will have no need for your plentiful library.”

I have no doubt that the library has improved to some extent since Abdul Aziz al-Oshan wrote his perceptive and slyly humorous letter. Although nine years of imprisonment without charge or trial is, in all ways, worse than six years of imprisonment without charge or trial, it seems clear that President Obama has arranged for more prisoners to be allowed to socialize, to read and to watch films than was imaginable under the Bush administration.

However, in the latest report that once more brought up the popularity of Harry Potter — an article in TIME on August 20 — it is clear that little has really changed. Although there are now, apparently, “18,000 books, magazines, DVDs and newspapers on offer from the library,” which “span some 18 languages including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, Russian, French and English,” the article also stated, in a passage that could have been written in 2005, “Prisoners don’t browse the shelves of this particular library; instead, they wait for a weekly visit by a cart of books prison officers think they might be interested in. There are mysteries and books of poems, copies of National Geographic magazine (a favorite), dictionaries and science textbooks. If the prisoners see something they like they are allowed to check it out for 30 days.”

Although the TIME article also recognized that “There’s not a lot to look forward to if you’re one of the 176 prisoners held in the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay — no visits from loved ones; no parole or release date; and for many, no prospect even of a day in court to answer charges,” the author, Kayla Webley, couldn’t resist adding, rather cheesily, “Still, at least there’s Harry Potter. He may not come riding in on the back of a hippogriff to free his favorite captives from their own version of Azkaban, but he shows up once a week on a cart of books from the prison library, offering an escape of the imagination treasured by many.”

Figures to illustrate exactly how many prisoners were treasuring the “escape of the imagination” offered by J.K. Rowling were not provided by TIME or by the Pentagon. I was amused by comments made by H. Candace Gorman, the attorney for Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan freed in Georgia in March this year, who “likened his own plight to the inmates of Azkaban,” while “President George W. Bush was his own version of Voldemort,” but above all it occurred to me that, if these books about a pagan boy-wizard and his companions really are as popular as the authorities are stating, then it serves only to demonstrate that the enduring claims that Guantánamo contains a significant number of al-Qaeda members of sympathizers are wildly mistaken, as it is unimaginable that, under any circumstances, Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri would take some light relief from their ideology by reading books that are so thoroughly drenched in paganism and sorcery.

Of the 176 prisoners still held, only 35, according to the Obama administration’s own appraisal, have been cleared for release and are not, essentially, regarded as any kind of security threat. Another 35 have been recommended to face trials, 48 are supposed to be detained indefinitely without charge or trial, and 58 others are Yemenis, cleared for release but still held. The ongoing detention of the Yemenis — for whom only one exception has been made — arose because of hysterical overreaction to reports that the failed Christmas Day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited by a Yemeni-based al-Qaeda cell, and fears that any prisoners released will be easy prey for terrorist sympathizers and supporters in their home country of 23 million people (all of whom have, as a result, been tarred as terrorist sympathizers by President Obama’s moratorium on releasing any Yemeni prisoners).

So what does an analysis of these figures mean? Could it be that just 35 non-Yemenis, cleared for release, are the only prisoners avidly devouring the works of J.K. Rowling, or could it be — as seems far more likely — that some of those regarded as a security threat (whether cleared for release or not) are actually the kind of jihadists, terrorists and terrorist sympathizers whose commitment to violent jihad against the United States and other Western targets is so feeble and so overstated that they are actually the kind of men who are trying to while away their seemingly endless confinement with fictional works of pagan escapism?

I think we should be told …

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is a journalist and historian, based in London. He is the author of The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 759 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison, the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in America's illegal prison. For more information, visit his blog here.

 

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