First the Chauffeur, now the Media Man: Bahlul at Gitmo

by Binoy Kampmark
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge, and lecturer at the University of Queensland. Email:

First the driver, now the media man. The trial system established by the Bush administration to strike fear into America's enemies, can barely tweak their noses. Not only has the infamous system of miliary commissions at Guantanámo Bay failed to convict any notable personality in the crudely termed GWOT ('Global War on Terror'), it has failed to shake off the appearance of being a half-baked enterprise. US authorities keep resorting to piecemeal tactics against an organization that shows no signs of disappearing just yet. Who do we have amongst the convicted terrorist luminaries behind bars? Bin Laden's chauffeur, Salim Hamdan, and now, the equivalent of Al Qaeda's Dan Perino (though less well coiffed), Ali Hamza al Bahlul.

The allegations against Bahlul centred around his conspiring with Al Qaeda, soliciting murder and providing material support for terrorism. The trial already had that air of the surreal - the defendant and his lawyer refused to participate in a whole-hearted defence of the case. Bahlul himself had little affection for Air Force Major David Frakt, the officer designated his defense counsel.

If Bahlul was perturbed, he rarely showed signs of it. At this conviction by the nine-member jury, he had made a makeshift paper plane (perhaps the next item to be confiscated before boarding flights), and read out a bit of his less than impressive poetry praising the attacks of September 11.

Jailing the media man (or secretary, as some reports put it) can hardly be a worthwhile incentive against professional terrorists or practitioners of atrocity. Making videos and managing the media material of GWOT fiends may not be something to condone, but it is hardly something that should lead to a life sentence. Bahlul is far from an expert propaganda minister (Goebbels, don't eat your heart out), and his amateurish media methods (grainy recruitment videos and commercials) would have made the Third Reich's most prominent filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, cringe.

One video demonstrating an attack on the USS Cole harboured in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000 that led to the deaths of 17 American sailors, is suitably tasteless but hardly worth a life sentence. If that were the case, most of Rupert Murdoch's media minions, not to mention Mr Hegemony himself, would be well behind bars for inciting an illegal war on Iraq. Yet again, the legal services of the Gitmo system demonstrate why they should be immediately disbanded and shifted to standard criminal courts. The deluded continue to promote Camp X-Ray as if it were a tropical, well-equipped holiday camp, with all the shackled trimmings thrown in. An FBI agent who interrogated Bahlul in early 2002 went so far as to call this carceral paradise 'very comfortable' (3 Nov Reuters).

President Barack Obama made murmurings during his candidacy that this detention facility, and with it the legal absurdities that arose out of it, should end. That would be wise, if the US has any genuine intention of winning this abstract and vague conflict on 'terror'.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge, and lecturer at the University of Queensland. Email:

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