At Guantanamo Hearing, Alleged Cole Mastermind Is 'All Swagger'

Nov 9, 2011
Originally published on November 9, 2011 6:53 pm

[The alleged mastermind of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole was seen today for the first time in nine years during an arraignment in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It's the first test of the Obama administration's revamped rules for military commissions. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston was there.]

When Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri walked into the Guantanamo courtroom this morning, he was all swagger.

He was wearing a white prison uniform and black high top sneakers and even waved to the gallery that came to see him.

While he spoke almost exclusively in Arabic, aside from occasionally saying "yeah" or "wait a minute" to his lawyers, it was clear he was very engaged in the proceedings. He was answering the judge and occasionally smiling.

Before today, there had been some question as to how vigorous al-Nashiri would look.

He had been held in a CIA "black site" and had been subjected to waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques by interrogators before he came to Guantanamo.

Since then he has been in a secret maximum security facility here.

But he entered the courtroom without leg shackles. And while pictures taken of him before his arrest made him look thin and weedy, today he appeared to have bulked up — perhaps from working out.

Al-Nashiri, a 46-year-old Saudi, was formally arraigned. He is accused of masterminding the attack on the Cole that killed 17 service men and women. Scores more were injured. If convicted, he could be put to death.

As we reported earlier, the enhanced interrogation techniques used on him make this a complicated case. It means the military commission will have to grapple with torture in this case as well.

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A Saudi man accused of plotting the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole walk into a military courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, today. His name is Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. And it was his first public appearance since he was captured nine years ago. The case is controversial because the CIA has admitted that it waterboarded al-Nashiri while he was in their custody.

Today's arraignment marks the beginning of the highest profile military trial since the Bush administration launched tribunals after the 9/11 attacks, and it's the commission's first death penalty case to go to trial.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston was in the courtroom in Guantanamo today and she joins me now. And Dina, you were in the gallery when al-Nashiri walked in. Describe that scene for us.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, there was a lot of discussion about what nine years of incarceration - remember, there was four years in the CIA black site and five years at Guantanamo - what all that time in prison would have done to him. And I think most of us in the gallery expected he'd look really sickly, and instead it was just the opposite. He seemed really self-assured.

He literally swaggered into the courtroom and he had guards on either side of him and he was wearing handcuffs, but no leg shackles. And he was wearing this white prison uniform and black high-top sneakers and he looked really bulky, like he'd been working out. And from all the pictures we've seen of him that were taken before his capture, he looked really thin, so that was a bit of a surprise.

RAZ: And what about his demeanor?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that was kind of surprising, too, and before the judge came in, he actually turned around in his chair and faced us in the gallery. We were about 50 feet away and he gave us this big wave and a smile. And, remember, no one's laid eyes on this guy in nine years and he was someone who had spent four years in a CIA secret prison and is seen as one of the worst of the worst, a high value detainee. So this demeanor was a bit remarkable.

And he seemed to have a really good relationship with his lawyers. He was talking to them through an interpreter and he was smiling and giving them the thumbs up and he even joked around with the judge, saying in broken English that he had trouble pronouncing American names. And the judge, who had pronounced al-Nashiri's name at least three different ways over the course of this proceeding this morning, he said he had trouble with names, too.

RAZ: Dina, remind us exactly what he is accused of doing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he's accused of planning several attacks against ships around Yemen, but the biggest plot, the one that everybody remembers, is the U.S.S. Cole, this attack against an American destroyer in Yemen. He's accused of having hired some al-Qaida operatives to fill a rubber boat with explosives, float it up alongside the Cole and then detonate it.

And 17 service members did die in the attack and scores were injured. So the actual charges he's facing include terrorism and murder and conspiracy. And those charges, if he's found guilty, carry the death penalty.

RAZ: Talk about his treatment in custody and how that is going to affect his case.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, the CIA has admitted that, while it was holding al-Nashiri, they waterboarded him, among other things. And I was speaking to the chief prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins, yesterday about how he was going to deal with that kind of information. And he said that any information that was gleaned from enhanced interrogations wouldn't be allowed to be at any trial at Guantanamo.

And, you know, the defense strategy seems to be to try to keep al-Nashiri alive. So today in court, they were talking a lot about whether - if the U.S. waterboarded someone, if it lost the moral authority to put him to death. And that came up, in particular, when the defense tried to get the judge to offer his personal opinion on torture.

One of the defense attorneys asked the judge whether he thought torture was such a mitigating circumstance that it essentially would take the death penalty off the table, but the judge wouldn't bite. He said he would simply follow the law.

RAZ: Now, Dina, this wasn't a trial today. It was just an arraignment. So what happens next?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, prosecutors suggested a trial date of this coming February 2nd. They basically have a clock that starts ticking once the arraignment happens of 120 days and the defense immediately stood up and said they wanted to get at least a year to prepare the case and they wanted to push it off at least until November 2012. And the prosecution had no objection to that.

I mean, the other interesting thing that happened is, just before the gavel went down on this proceeding, al-Nashiri said that he would be trying to attend every single session.

RAZ: Dina, thanks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

RAZ: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reporting from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.