The Fire Ants of Guantanamo Bay

Seymour Hersh / Seymour Hersh's Substack

An untold story in the history of American torture

Encep Nurjaman, a native of Indonesia known by the nom de guerre Hambali, was arrested fifty miles north of Bangkok in the summer of 2003 by a joint US-Thai counterterrorism team. He has been a prisoner of the US for the last twenty years, most of them under severe duress at Guantánamo Bay. He was on the Bush administration’s “high-value” target list for his alleged ties to Osama bin Laden and his work with Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian terrorist group that the US claimed he headed. JI was accused of carrying out a series of terror bombings, including blasts that killed two hundred victims in Bali in 2002. Hambali’s arrest was quickly made public, and he was flown within days in secret on a chartered plane operated by the Central Intelligence Agency to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. More than fifteen years ago, I reported and wrote a story on Hambali’s imprisonment and torture, but for various reasons, the story was never published.

President George W. Bush praised the arrest in a speech three days after it happened. He called Hambali “one of the world’s most lethal terrorists” and said: “He is no longer a problem to those of us who love freedom.” A few weeks later, it was reported that the US had given $10 million to the Thai security forces; the funds were to be shared among those responsible for Hambali’s capture. Three of Hambali’s alleged accomplices in one of the bombings were sentenced to death and a fourth, who apologized and expressed remorse—he also claimed that Hambali had no prior knowledge of the bombings—is still in prison.

In his speech Bush also asserted that Hambali was a “close associate” of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, known as KSM, an early American arrest in the war on terror. KSM, who is still detained at Guantánamo, was said to have revealed that Hambali met with Osama bin Laden and was Al Qaeda’s point man for research on biological weapons. The American press was told that during the summer of 2001 Hambali was teaching the essentials of biological warfare at an Al Qaeda training camp near Kandahar in Afghanistan.

The leaks kept coming. Hambali was said to have confessed what he knew of Al Qaeda’s worldwide operations and to his involvement in terrorism attacks in Southeast Asia. On October 9, 2003, CBS news, citing summaries of American interrogations, reported that Hambali was “implementing plans” involving “biological weapons, most likely anthrax.” The network said he was likely trying to open a biological weapons plant with the support of Al Qaeda.

In December, the Chicago Tribune, citing American intelligence officials, reported that Hambali “began cooperating almost immediately, enabling them to thwart planned attacks in the region and break up terrorist cells. Within a few weeks, Hambali allegedly began talking about Al Qaeda’s effort to develop chemical and biological weapons. . . . One reason US officials are taking the allegations so seriously is that Hambali’s cooperation has been so strong.”

Hambali arrived at Guantánamo on September 4, 2006, after three years and fifteen days of detention at CIA black sites. I learned that the interrogation tactics he was subjected to there had become an issue of bitter controversy among CIA officers. It took months of reporting before I learned the outline of a story being circulated at the highest levels of the agency about the extreme things an agent in the field might have done on his own to Hambali. His actions were the subject of an agency inquiry that went nowhere.