Feb 25, 2020

The Other Latif: Episode 4

The Other Latif

Radiolab’s Latif Nasser always believed his name was unique, singular, completely his own. Until one day when he makes a bizarre and shocking discovery. He shares his name with another man: Abdul Latif Nasser, detainee 244 at Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. government paints a terrifying picture of The Other Latif as Al-Qaeda’s top explosives expert, and one of the most important advisors to Osama bin Laden. Nasser’s lawyer claims that he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that he was never even in Al-Qaeda. This clash leads Radiolab’s Latif into a years-long investigation, picking apart evidence, attempting to separate fact from fiction, and trying to uncover what this man actually did or didn’t do. Along the way, Radiolab’s Latif reflects on American values and his own religious past, and wonders how his namesake, a fellow nerdy, suburban Muslim kid, may have gone down such a strikingly different path.

 

Episode 4: Afghanistan 

Latif investigates the mystery around Abdul Latif’s classified time in Afghanistan. He traces the government’s story through scrappy training camps, bombed out Buddhas, and McDonald’s apple pies to the very center of the Battle of Tora Bora.  Could Abdul Latif have helped the most sought-after and hated terrorist in modern history, Osama bin Laden, escape? The episode ends with a bombshell jailhouse interview with Abdul Latif, the most reliable evidence yet of what was going on in this man’s mind in the months after 9/11.

This episode was produced by Annie McEwen, Sarah Qari, Suzie Lechtenberg, and Latif Nasser. Fact checking by Diane Kelly and Margot Williams. Editing by Jad Abumrad and Soren Wheeler. With help from Neel Dhanesha, Kelly Prime, and Audrey Quinn. Original music by Jad Abumrad, Alex Overington, Annie McEwen, and Amino Belyamani. 

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate

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Listener supported, WNYC Studios.

Male:

Before we start, a quick warning, this episode contains some graphic language, and it may not be suitable for all listeners.

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Wait, wait, you're listening ...

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All right. All right.

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You're listening to Radiolab.

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From ...

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WNYC.

Latif Nasser:

I'm Latif Nasser. This is The Other Latif: Episode 4, Afghanistan. When we last left him, Abdul Latif Nasser walked in to get his paycheck from Osama bin Laden's headquarters in Sudan, only to find nobody.

Cathy Scott-Clark:

I would imagine there would just be empty offices, windows flapping open, nothing there. Everyone's gone. Everyone was cleared out on one day.

Latif Nasser:

He didn't even know that Osama and his inner circle had any plans to leave. They just ghosted him. That same spring I was 10 years old. My family lived in the suburbs of Toronto, and at our local mosque we would watch videos and news reports about Muslims being persecuted around the world. The summer before, Bosnian Serbs had massacred 7,000 Muslims around Srebrenica. Russians were attached Chechen Muslims. Palestine was constantly in the news, and a few years later it'd be Kosovo. All these stories about all these Muslims being targeted, many being chased out of their homes. The videos I remember seeing most were about Afghanistan, about how the Taliban prevented girls my age from going to school, how they drove moderate Muslims like us into hiding, sometimes even killed them.

Latif Nasser:

My dad actually started raising money for organizations to help people who were fleeing the Taliban. One of them was the Aga Khan University Medical College in Pakistan. He raised so much money for them that a few years later they invited him to visit, and he took me along, to Karachi. I was 15. It was my first long-distance flight. After we got there, after we toured the university, we got on a bus, and they took us to a refugee camp. We met Afghans who had walked for weeks through the Spin Ghar Mountains just to cross the border into Pakistan.

Latif Nasser:

At the camp, I don't remember much, but I do remember looking into a tent and seeing a woman sleeping on a rug on the floor, holding the tiniest baby I had ever seen. They told me that she had had the baby just a few days before, in the middle of her death-defying mountain hike. I cried harder than I had ever cried before.

Latif Nasser:

Back in Canada, other people in our community literally dropped everything to go help. My friend Samira's parents, Roshan and Rahim Thomas, they were an optometrist and ophthalmologist with a thriving practice and three kids in Vancouver, uprooted their lives to go give eye care to Afghan refugees in Pakistan and start an elementary school in Kabul. Those were things in our family that we were so ...

Latif Nasser:

Anyway, all of that is to say that what Shelby says Abdul Latif Nasser did next makes sense to me, that while he was in Sudan ...

Shelby:

Stories of Muslims being persecuted around the world did have an effect on him.

Latif Nasser:

He was seeing the same kinds of videos and news reports that I was seeing at my mosque.

Shelby:

He was looking to learn more about what was happening in Chechnya and what there was to be done about it.

Latif Nasser:

Like people I know, he decided to act.

Shelby:

Exactly.

Latif Nasser:

In short, she says, he decided to go to one of these war-torn countries to try to help his fellow Muslims. He used what little life savings he had to buy a plane ticket, first to Yemen, and then he hoped to Chechnya, where he could help by, I don't know, I imagine distributing food and medicine and supplies. As for how he wanted to help, I just had trouble imagining it. He was poor, if not broke, didn't know anyone in those places, as far as I can tell, had no medical experience, no war zone experience, no charity experience, was not affiliated with an established aid group. I'd asked Shelby, if he was actually trying to help, how was he trying to help? Did he have a sense of, "I want to be a missionary," or was there a sense of how he would help other Muslims?

Shelby:

Classified.

Latif Nasser:

Virtually every question I asked about this period in Abdul Latif Nasser's life.

Shelby:

Classified. Classified. Classified.

Latif Nasser:

I got the same reply.

Shelby:

Sorry, I'm just looking to see if there's anything else.

Latif Nasser:

Classified?

Shelby:

Classified.

Latif Nasser:

She couldn't talk about it, or maybe she just thought it wouldn't help her client if she did. I don't know. From the time Abdul Latif leaves Sudan all the way up to his capture, I really have one version of events, the U.S. government version. Some of this version is based off of Abdul Latif Nasser's own confessions, information he gave up during interviews or interrogations at Guantanamo Bay. Now you might think, confessions are confessions. The thing to keep in mind is, just like basically every other detainee at Gitmo, Abdul Latif Nasser was tortured.

Shelby:

Stripped naked, chained to the floor. Frozen water dumped on their heads. Loud music. Deprivation of water, clothing, warmth. Heated to the point of danger. Frozen to the point of danger. Being told, "If you admit to this you can go free. If you don't, we will find and rape your mother."

Latif Nasser:

According to many experts, including neuroscientist Shane O'Mara, torture is one of the most unreliable ways to get true information out of a person, so remember that. Let that inform everything you hear in the rest of this episode from here on out.

Latif Nasser:

Okay, so I want to tackle three of the most salient accusations the government has made about Abdul Latif Nasser, about things he supposedly did during his time in Afghanistan. We're going to take them one by one. First.

Male:

One.

Latif Nasser:

Training camps. In an interrogation, Abdul Latif talks about why he left Sudan. He says one day he was in the market in Khartoum and he met a Libyan guy. The guy was 30, about his age. He and this guy get to talking and go back to the Libyan guy's place, where that guy puts on a VHS tape. The video is two hours long and shows Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya being massacred. The video also, and I'm quoting here, "Focused on the glory of fighting jihad and the reasons why an individual should go to fight for Islam." In the interrogation, Abdul Latif says that when he saw that video, he decided he had to act. According to the government, he became, quote, "convinced" that he wanted to, quote, "conduct extremist operations," and he even chose a nom de guerre, a battle alias, Taha, which at first felt like a terrorist origin story B-movie, like he watches a VHS tape, jumps off the couch, and says, "I am Taha." Then again, this sort of thing does happen. Literally, while I was reporting this, a Canadian Muslim guy five years younger than me, from my hometown, plead guilty to leaving Canada to try to fight alongside ISIS in Syria. When they asked him why, he said he saw some videos online.

Latif Nasser:

According to the government documents, Abdul Latif flies from Sudan to Yemen, where he's supposed to meet a contact that the Libyan guy gave him, who in turn will help him sneak in to Chechnya to fight. The contact asks him about his combat experience. Abdul Latif tells him he hasn't got any. The contact tells him to sit tight, "I'll make arrangements." After seven whole months of waiting, hanging around a mosque, Abdul Latif gets a message. He cannot go to Chechnya. The door is closed. He discovers another option, somewhere he could go and train to fight whomever and wherever he wanted.

Latif Nasser:

He arrived in the desert city of Jalalabad, Afghanistan in late 1997, 32 years old. According to an interrogation log, he was staying at a guesthouse, like a hostel or a Muslim version of the YMCA. He said he was scared to go outside by himself because he didn't have a beard and he worried that the Taliban would harass him. He waited a week, grew out his beard, and went from guesthouse to guesthouse, until he eventually got the head of one of those guesthouses to introduce him to a commander in charge of a bunch of Al-Qaeda training camps. That guy assigned him to al Farouq, the largest Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. This is the camp where Osama bin Laden himself visited and lectured. This is the camp where at least seven of the 9/11 hijackers were trained.

Latif Nasser:

Now asking Shelby if any of this is true about Abdul Latif. Did he live in military training camps in Afghanistan?

Shelby:

Classified.

Latif Nasser:

She gives me the common refrain.

Latif Nasser:

Did he train in military training camps in Afghanistan?

Shelby:

Classified.

Latif Nasser:

Did he train others at military training camps in Afghanistan?

Shelby:

Classified.

Latif Nasser:

No clearer on that point. What the government documents don't tell you much or really anything about is what al Farouq was actually like, which when you really stare at it, definitely complicates things.

Female:

Can you turn the volume up a bit?

Latif Nasser:

Again, author and journalist Cathy Scott-Clark. Hey, can you hear me?

Cathy Scott-Clark:

Yes. Hello, how are you?

Latif Nasser:

Good. Good afternoon for you I guess.

Latif Nasser:

Cathy's written extensively about these training camps.

Latif Nasser:

Can you paint a scene for me a little bit? What were they like?

Cathy Scott-Clark:

A bit grim. A bit limited in their facilities. You'd have a few small huts, a very basic cooking area, target setup made of stone, hopefully a river somewhere nearby so you can wash, no proper sanitation facilities. Probably a large hill that you'd be made to run up and down 50,000 times a day. A place for young male, mujahideen, to go off and deal with their personal desires in an appropriate fashion. That was about it really.

Latif Nasser:

What do you mean by ... That's like an outhouse? What do you mean by that?

Cathy Scott-Clark:

There had to be somewhere where you could go and jerk off.

Latif Nasser:

What? Apparently these camps tended to have a dedicated masturbatorium.

Cathy Scott-Clark:

Yes.

Latif Nasser:

Anyway, al Farouq had about 200 trainees at a time. If you watch the Al-Qaeda training and recruitment videos, the impression you get is that the people at these camps are serious and dangerous and utterly dedicated to killing Americans. Then I came across this book from an Australian guy.

David Hicks:

Good day. I'm David Hicks.

Latif Nasser:

David Hicks, a former Gitmo detainee.

David Hicks:

I want to thank all GetUp members who helped me get out of the hell that was Guantanamo Bay.

Latif Nasser:

He was actually detainee number two, and he was at that training camp a little while after Abdul Latif. He wrote about his time there, about many of the guys who were training with them.

David Hicks:

It was a conglomerate of people from all around the world that went there and received basic military training for people that were interested in helping in, say, Chechnya or Kashmir or some of the other places-

Latif Nasser:

This one paragraph he wrote really surprised me. I'm quoting the book. "I know it might sound strange to some people, but some of the young men who came from military training thought it would make an interesting holiday during their time off from work or uni. They left the camps without any intention of getting involved in any conflict. They just saw it as a travel experience. Others trained for the personal challenges, such as getting physically fit. Some young men wanted to protect their families. Most of the people I met never seemed to have any intention of joining a military force and engaging in a combat situation."

Latif Nasser:

Now you could argue that David Hicks is downplaying the danger of the camp, but if he's even 50% right, this is totally different than how I always imagined. A way motlier crew of guys, not just these diehard Al-Qaeda foot soldiers. If Abdul Latif Nasser did attend one of these camps, how are we supposed to interpret that. If he was there, how serious was he about it? Was he just working out? Was he trying to prepare himself to help Muslims in need, or was his goal to become a serious Al-Qaeda fighter? According to U.S. government documents, Abdul Latif Nasser was training to become the latter. He was selected to attend higher-level training camps, where he supposedly learned about advanced guerrilla warfare tactics, poisons and explosives. He allegedly received training in hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, TNT, mortars, C3, C4, and so on. Apparently, he was so good with explosives, he started teaching it himself. According to the U.S. government, in March 2001, Abdul Latif Nasser put those skills to use. This is big point against Abdul Latif Nasser ...

Male:

Two.

Latif Nasser:

... number two, which is a huge act of terrorism and destruction, but it's not 9/11.

Cathy Scott-Clark:

No, he wouldn't have known anything about 9/11.

Latif Nasser:

I just need to be super clear here for a second, because going into this reporting journey, that was actually one of my exact questions I wanted to ask you I realize is would he have known about 9/11. You think he would not have beforehand.

Cathy Scott-Clark:

Absolutely. No way. I can say that definitively, because 99% of people associated with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan at the time didn't know anything about what was coming.

Latif Nasser:

Everyone, including, much to my surprise, the U.S. government, is explicit that Abdul Latif Nasser had nothing to do with 9/11. In fact, in a U.S. government document from 2005 you will find the following statement, quote, "Detainee did not agree with the attack on September 11, 2001." He further thought the people killed were innocent, it was against Islamic principles to attack innocent people, and that Osama bin Laden was wrong. Not at all what you'd expect from Al-Qaeda's top explosive expert. Number two.

Male:

Bamyan.

Latif Nasser:

Bamyan.

Male:

Two of the world's largest statues of Buddha earned Bamyan the nickname Valley of the Gods.

Latif Nasser:

February 2001, the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, issued a decree ordering the destruction of all non-Muslim statues in Afghanistan. In particular, two sandstone Buddha statues in the town of Bamyan. These statues were hand-carved in the 6th century. They're a UNESCO World Heritage Site, considered one of the cultural wonders of the world, but to Mullah Omar they were pagan idols challenging the oneness of God. These statues survived Genghis Khan and the Mongols in the 1200s, Aurangzeb and the Mughals in the 1600s, the British invading in the 1800s, the Soviet bombs in the 1970s and '80s, but what they didn't survive, according to the U.S. government, was one person. Abdul Latif Nasser.

Latif Nasser:

According to the declassified U.S. government documents, quote, "Under orders of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar," Nasser placed mines in the statues and blew them up.

Male:

The serene giants that had watched over Bamyan for some 1,500 years fell, blown up by Afghanistan's Taliban government.

Latif Nasser:

I tried for months to get the world expert on the Bamyan Buddha statues on the phone with me. Eventually his daughter called and told me that he couldn't do the interview because, even now, almost 20 years later, it's still just too painful for him to talk about it.

Female:

You can come right here and you can sit down. Latif is actually already on the other side of this microphone.

Latif Nasser:

Right after that call, I happened to go hang out with a friend of mine, Omar Mullick, who's a cinematographer and filmmaker. I brought it up, as if to say how could someone feel this intensely about a statue? Compared to 9/11, let's say, this is nothing. These are objects. What I didn't realize is that Omar, he felt basically the same way that expert did.

Latif Nasser:

Just got under your skin.

Omar Mullick:

Yes, it did.

Latif Nasser:

These weren't just rocks.

Omar Mullick:

Yeah, it did get to me.

Latif Nasser:

He was in Afghanistan back in 2011 working as a war photographer. One day he went to Bamyan to take pictures of where the statues used to be.

Latif Nasser:

How big is it? Is it like a city or is it like a region or is it like a-

Omar Mullick:

A town. A small town that's a little spread out. Dusty and open. When the sun goes down, it casts these long shadows. Someone will come by with a mule and cart, and the shadows they will cast will just stretch on, right into the horizon. Then as you approach this cavity where the Buddhas were, and that's got deep shadows in it as the light moves around it.

Latif Nasser:

What did it feel like seeing that?

Latif Nasser:

He said the true meaning of the loss of these statues didn't actually hit him until he walked past them and started moving up into the mountain itself.

Omar Mullick:

Along the way, in these crevices and little holes, which from the ground you might not immediately recognize were ancient homes built into the wall, and these apple-cheeked children squinting and giggling from windows and people inviting you in. I remember walking into one of these homes, and we sat down. One of the kids was finishing reading the Quran and then turned to us to speak and serve us tea and all of that. I thought, "They're living in the Buddha, with this Quran, and no one's batting an eyelid."

Latif Nasser:

These Muslim families had been living inside these huge symbols to a different religion for generations.

Omar Mullick:

Everyone was proud of them. Everyone there would say, "Yeah, that's an amazing thing. We're proud that we love that." It was on the tongue of every person we met there. I was standing in a place where every single thing around me is proof.

Latif Nasser:

Physical, tangible proof.

Omar Mullick:

That a Muslim in the Islamic region had exercised for over millennia the kind of tolerance and inclusion that allowed the Buddhas to survive until only very recently, and that these people had actually a more inclusive sense of who they were as Afghans in that region than we probably do now as Americans right now, which should be a sobering thought. These Buddhists were proof that we could all get along, and that's what they destroyed.

Latif Nasser:

After talking to Omar, I couldn't help but take the destruction of these statues personally. This is a uniquely heinous act against all of us. It's everybody's loss. The thing is when I asked Shelby about all of this ...

Latif Nasser:

Did he blow up the Bamyan Buddha statues?

Shelby:

Absolutely not.

Latif Nasser:

She was uncharacteristically candid and blunt.

Shelby:

It's offensive to him that someone would do that, and thus it's offensive that he'd be in any way implicated, especially given that he wasn't ... Anyway.

Latif Nasser:

After that conversation with Shelby, I started going back through the government documents to try to figure out where exactly this accusation came from. As far as I can tell, Abdul Latif never confessed to blowing them up. Instead, the government's evidence on this point, at least what's declassified, comes from the statements of two different Guantanamo detainees. Two. A Saudi guy and a Yemeni guy. The Saudi guy is named Aljedani, and he said that he heard that Abu Taha, Nasser's alias, placed the explosives. That's it. That's all it says. Hearsay testimony and not even implicating Nasser directly, just his alias. I did a little research on this guy. Turns out at the time the Buddhas were destroyed, this guy wasn't even in Afghanistan. He was in Saudi Arabia. I also found an instance where a district court judge threw out Aljedani's testimony in a similar case as, quote, "inherently unreliable" and as, quote, "amounting to no more than jailhouse gossip." That's the Saudi guy who claimed Abdul Latif Nasser blew up the Buddhas.

Latif Nasser:

The other guy, a Yemeni, Yasim Mohammed Basardah, told interrogators that he heard from a fellow Yemeni who he met in Kandahar Prison that Nasser helped the Taliban destroy the ancient Bamyan Buddha statues. He said that Nasser placed mines in the statues and blew them up, under orders of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Again, secondhand information, but this time more specific. Basardah's name actually pops up in Abdul Latif's file probably more than anybody else. He describes specific moments where he had direct conversations with Abdul Latif Nasser. This is the same guy who said that Abdul Latif Nasser was one of the most important military advisers to Osama bin Laden, but it's tricky, because this guy Basardah ...

Female:

This star witness, if you will.

Latif Nasser:

... is kind of famous. The U.S. government's most prolific informant.

Male:

Who was captured.

Latif Nasser:

At Guantanamo Bay. Over the course of dozens of interviews, Basardah provided evidence against-

Male:

At least 123 of his co-prisoners.

Female:

At least 123 other prisoners there.

Latif Nasser:

123 different detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Male:

That's an extraordinary number.

Latif Nasser:

I found out through reporting by Del Quentin Wilber that in exchange for all of this information, he was being given gifts. While most detainees at Gitmo were forced to live a pretty spartan life, this guy got his own private cell, a CD player, coffee, chewing tobacco, a truck magazine, other items, which may or may not be porn, and my favorite of all, McDonald's apple pies. All of this stuff and the fact that he ratted on 123 people ...

Male:

Of course it does raise the question whether he has not been exaggerating.

Latif Nasser:

Fully it becomes apparent to even his interrogators that he's probably not telling the truth. For example, at one point, Basardah names a bunch of guys who were at a training camp with him during a specific time frame, but then a military official finds that not a single guy he named was even in Afghanistan at that time. You can actually see the doubt unfold over time in the documents themselves. These disclaimers start appearing next to his claims in detainee reports. I'm quoting here. "In every interview where Basardah was questioned on detainee, Basardah has changed his story," or this one, "Research into the other detainees' timelines does not readily support Basardah's information." The most extreme of all, Basardah, quote, "Should not be relied upon. Trusting him strains the imagination." Okay, so oh for two. There is literally no other evidence that the U.S. military has publicly acknowledged to argue that Abdul Latif Nasser was involved in the Bamyan Buddha bombings. That's it.

Latif Nasser:

Now I wanted desperately to talk to these two guys, to hear the story from their perspective, but I couldn't get in touch with either of them. Instead, I went back to that DoD document and looked for other names of guys who had said incriminating things about Abdul Latif. None of them could or would talk to me, except for this one guy.

Mohamedou Slahi:

My name is Mohamedou Slahi. I am a Mauritanian citizen, 47 years old, electrical engineer, information technology.

Latif Nasser:

Mohamedou Slahi was in Guantanamo Bay from 2002 to 2016. Really I just have one question for you, and it may be a difficult one, which is that in reading Abdul Latif Nasser's DoD detainee assessment file, there was this quote, and I wanted to ask you about it. The quote is, "Detainee," which is Nasser, "Admitted he attended the wedding in Kandahar of Osama bin Laden's son, Mohammed bin Laden. Mohamedou Ould Slahi," that's you, "Corroborated detainee's participation in the February 2001 ceremony." Did you say that? What do you make of that?

Mohamedou Slahi:

I absolutely have not the slightest idea. This is possible that I told them that, even though this is the first time I ever heard that he attended this wedding. My understanding is that he was in Afghanistan much, much later than I. We never crossed paths, ever, in Afghanistan. I left Afghanistan around March of 1992, and this wedding is February of 2001. How possibly would I know about the wedding that happens in February of 2001 when I was thousand of miles away? It was impossible for me to be there. Absolutely impossible.

Latif Nasser:

Why would you have said yes to that, if you did say yes to it?

Mohamedou Slahi:

Because I went through so much pain and suffering, including sleep deprivation, multiple sexual assault, the threat against dear members of my family, including my mother, that I said, "I'm not going to make this anymore." Whatever they want me to say, I would say. For instance, like this wedding, [inaudible 00:29:59] they showed me a million times, but I could think, "I don't know about this event." Then after the torture, I told them, "Oh, of course it happened," and everything they ask me, I say yes. Could you talk to Basardah?

Latif Nasser:

Basardah, Basardah, oh, I tried, I tried. I really tried. He's in Spain. From what I've heard is that there are so many people who are very angry at him, and potentially even want to kill him, he's deep in hiding.

Mohamedou Slahi:

To be honest to you, I don't think anyone wants to kill him.

Latif Nasser:

You think?

Mohamedou Slahi:

Everybody knows that he's very disturbed mentally. He tried to kill himself. You know that.

Latif Nasser:

No, I did not know that.

Mohamedou Slahi:

Yeah, he tried to commit suicide.

Latif Nasser:

Oh wow.

Mohamedou Slahi:

It was very hard. He was very young. They kept giving him cheeseburger, hamburger, pizza, and he kept just saying random stuff, and they know he was lying. Everybody knows he was lying. Everybody knows 252 was lying, including interrogator. They laugh about him. They joke about him.

Latif Nasser:

Do you blame him or do you think it's such a-

Mohamedou Slahi:

I will be very honest with you, Latif. At first I did blame him. You should say there is no loyalty if someone commits crime, but if someone didn't, then you should not lie about people. Then one day I was so angry when they told me that a detainee lied about me. When I was tortured, I did not blame them anymore, because I was saying, "Wow. This is one way for Allah to show me that I am a weak person too."

Latif Nasser:

Even though they wouldn't talk to me, I went through all the rest of the stories of the guys who gave incriminating information on Abdul Latif Nasser. Now there's a lot of classified evidence that I'm not allowed to see, but as far as I can tell, in all the leaked and declassified evidence about Abdul Latif Nasser, there is not a single named human source who seems reliable, stable, and non-coerced. It makes you wonder, if this is the standard of evidence, if this is the actual evidence, I'm not nearly convinced he blew up the statues. I'm not convinced of anything.

Blake Crozier:

Howdy. This is Blake Crozier from Nashville, Tennessee. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

Female:

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Latif Nasser:

This is The Other Latif. I'm Latif Nasser.

Male:

Three.

Latif Nasser:

The third major accusation that the U.S. government holds against Abdul Latif Nasser is that he was allegedly a top military advisor to Osama bin Laden and fought on his behalf at the Battle of Tora Bora.

George W. Bush:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America.

Latif Nasser:

This is the big battle in Afghanistan that happened right after 9/11.

George W. Bush:

Two airplanes have crashed.

Latif Nasser:

The towers had just fallen, and even the government agency that specialized in gathering intel was out for blood.

Gary Berntsen:

My order was to kill him and cut his head off.

Latif Nasser:

Osama bin Laden's head?

Gary Berntsen:

Yes, and bring his head back for the president.

Latif Nasser:

Whoa. Wow.

Gary Berntsen:

Of course I wouldn't have cut his head off. We would've just killed him and buried him.

Latif Nasser:

Wow. This, by the way, is former senior CIA officer Gary Berntsen.

Gary Berntsen:

I served in the Directorate of Operations for 24 years, served in the U.S. military before that.

Latif Nasser:

He was leading one of the first American teams in Afghanistan post-9/11. It's funny to me because you're CIA, you're intelligence people, but the goal here wasn't to capture and to question and stuff. You were like, "We're going to kill these guys."

Gary Berntsen:

Yes.

Latif Nasser:

Was that weird? Did that feel like you were like, "Oh, I'm doing somebody else's job here," or how did that feel?

Gary Berntsen:

Look, they had just killed 3,000 people in the United States. It didn't feel weird. It felt like revenge. That's what it felt like.

Latif Nasser:

Less than a month after 9/11 the United States enters Afghanistan, seizes the capitol city from the Taliban government.

Gary Berntsen:

Kabul folds. Bin Laden fled the city. He moved in a very, very large convoy.

Latif Nasser:

According to government documents, Abdul Latif Nasser followed close behind him. A day or two later, Berntsen gets a tip.

Gary Berntsen:

We get a phone call, satellite phone.

Latif Nasser:

From a town 60 kilometers east of Kabul.

Gary Berntsen:

We had one of our sources down there.

Latif Nasser:

His source said, "I've got a visual on bin Laden and his people." They were headed for the mountain range of Spin Ghar, specifically to a cave complex called Tora Bora.

Male:

Tora Bora, high up in the white mountains, close to the border with Pakistan.

Female:

Al-Qaeda's only remaining stronghold.

Latif Nasser:

Gary was part of a skeleton crew of only eight guys, so to follow them, he needed to assemble a bigger army.

Gary Berntsen:

I built a force of 2,000 men.

Latif Nasser:

That took about two days.

Gary Berntsen:

Cost me about $4 million. I had a big Rubbermate trunk of $14 million with me. I made my communications officer sleep on top of it every night.

Latif Nasser:

Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Wow. Wow.

Female:

Latif. Latif, I want to-

Latif Nasser:

Let's keep going. They headed south.

Gary Berntsen:

We got down to a schoolhouse at the foot of these mountains.

Latif Nasser:

It's a huge mountain range, and Berntsen knew that bin Laden was gathering his forces somewhere nearby. Can you describe the mountains a bit for me?

Gary Berntsen:

They're covered, like pine trees. They're very sharp. They're steep.

Latif Nasser:

To find bin Laden ...

Gary Berntsen:

We took four of my men.

Latif Nasser:

Sent them up into the mountains.

Gary Berntsen:

With donkeys and 10 Afghan guards.

Latif Nasser:

They climbed for hours, heading toward a high point in the mountain range, hoping to be able to look down and get a few of bin Laden's people. How did they even know where to look?

Gary Berntsen:

We were listening to radio coms.

Latif Nasser:

Oh really?

Gary Berntsen:

Yes. One of our guys was a native Arabic speaker who had been listening to bin Laden for 10 years, all of his intercepts. We had him moved out there, positioned, and he was with the team-

Latif Nasser:

Wow.

Gary Berntsen:

... that was there. He was doing the intercept himself.

Latif Nasser:

Wow. Side note I'd later learn that the Al-Qaeda folks knew the Americans could hear them, and they even warned bin Laden about it. His response, "Let them listen." Quote, "I want them to know where to come." Bin Laden was assuming that the Americans would parachute in, just like the Soviets had back in the '70s, and if he could lure them to Tora Bora, a landscape he knew and they didn't, he'd have the advantage.

Gary Berntsen:

We're on top of them.

Latif Nasser:

It worked. Gary's men find what they're looking for. What exactly are they seeing?

Gary Berntsen:

Down below there's a valley, and in that valley there was a single road up into this position. They see bin Laden has set up camp there.

Latif Nasser:

Vehicles, tents, weapons.

Gary Berntsen:

He's now below us. He's got roughly 800 to 1,000.

Gary Berntsen:

I want every one of them extinguished, because I saw every one of them as a potential pilot that could fly a plane into a skyscraper.

Latif Nasser:

According to government documents, Abdul Latif Nasser was one of these men.

Gary Berntsen:

We request permission to initiate combat and start calling an airstrike.

Gary Berntsen:

Of course, immediately.

Latif Nasser:

They radio for the planes.

Gary Berntsen:

They come in, they circle over, they get lined up.

Latif Nasser:

Gary's men in the mountain break out this glorified laser pointer called a SOFLAM.

Gary Berntsen:

Unbelievable technology.

Latif Nasser:

They turn it on.

Gary Berntsen:

Paint the targets.

Latif Nasser:

Aim this visible beam of infrared light at a very specific point in the camp below them, like the windshield of a truck.

Gary Berntsen:

Incredible accuracy with these devices.

Latif Nasser:

The airplane would come in.

Gary Berntsen:

Release ordinance. That ordinance would find the light.

Latif Nasser:

Lock on to the invisible beam.

Gary Berntsen:

Ride the light right into the target. They could literally fly very, very large bombs right in the window of your house.

Newscaster:

ABC's Dan Harris reports now from the front line.

Dan Harris:

At Tora Bora today, U.S. fighter planes and B-52s dropped their payload.

Gary Berntsen:

It was very, very effective.

Dan Harris:

Well over 400 bombs had been dropped in the area on Thursday and Friday alone.

Gary Berntsen:

After 56 hours of this beating, they had their armor and their vehicles and their trucks and their communications destroyed, they then crawled up into the mountains of Tora Bora right behind them.

Latif Nasser:

This whole time, Berntsen's men are able to hear Al-Qaeda communicating with each other over the radio.

Gary Berntsen:

We actually listened to bin Laden apologize to all of his people too, as all this was going on.

Latif Nasser:

What'd he say?

Gary Berntsen:

He told them he was sorry, that he had led them into there, that they all needed to fight and sacrifice for the prophet. He prayed with them on the radio.

Latif Nasser:

Wow. Wow. At some point things were looking so bad that Osama bin Laden wrote his will. Quote, "Allah bears witness that the love of jihad and death in the cause of Allah has dominated my life, and the verses of the sword permeated every cell in my heart."

Gary Berntsen:

Then we came and we threw a blue 82 at them, which was a 16,000 pound of ice was dropped in there.

Latif Nasser:

What is that? What does that mean?

Gary Berntsen:

It's the size of a Volkswagen. They used those in Vietnam to make airfields out of the jungle.

Latif Nasser:

Eventually the Americans discovered that this bomb not only collapsed caves all along the mountain, but according to captured Al-Qaeda fighters, it literally vaporized men deep in the caves.

Gary Berntsen:

We thought we killed him. I'll be honest with you. I thought I had him. I thought he was dead, but he crawled out of there. Three or four months later when I'm back in the United States, or five months later, he comes on TV and there's a yellow-colored video that he did where he's announcing that he's alive, you could've knocked me over with a feather at that point. I thought he was done.

Latif Nasser:

A few days later Abdul Latif Nasser was found in a village two days hike from Tora Bora on the way to the Pakistani border and was turned over to the Northern Alliance. He had on him an AK-47 and 800 U.S. dollars. Of course I asked Shelby, what happened? No surprise.

Shelby:

Unfortunately, that's not something I can answer, because it's not unclassified, but the government likes to characterize it as if you were anywhere near Tora Bora, never mind walking in one direction or another, you were definitely in the caves with Osama bin Laden that day, helping him in some capacity. The truth of the matter is the region of Tora Bora and the escape routes used by civilian women, children, you name it, is an enormous region, and is, as far as those in the area were concerned, one of the only ways to survive the bombing campaign.

Latif Nasser:

As far as his capture, Shelby pointed to the bounty flyers than then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had talked about at the time.

Donald Rumsfeld:

We have large rewards out.

Latif Nasser:

Targeting any bearded or Arab-looking men.

Donald Rumsfeld:

We have leaflets that are dropping like snowflakes in December in Chicago.

Latif Nasser:

How much are these bounties?

Shelby:

It ranges up to $3,000 per person, which of course that was actually a lot of money. Where was he? Was he in a house?

Latif Nasser:

In a car, yeah.

Shelby:

Who was the guy that grabbed him? Unfortunately, those are the details that we've gone over in classified proceedings and don't have unclassified.

Latif Nasser:

What we can know was that he was in Tora Bora. What you're saying is he was in Tora Bora, he was fleeing, and then he was apprehended by somebody and then sold for a bounty to the American government? That's all-

Shelby:

Exactly.

Latif Nasser:

... true?

Shelby:

Yeah.

Latif Nasser:

There's no more specificity than that, right?

Shelby:

Right.

Latif Nasser:

I ran some of those general ideas by Berntsen to see if he thought they were plausible.

Gary Berntsen:

Let me explain something to you. Let me explain something to you right now. If you were not a jihadist, you wouldn't have gone south.

Latif Nasser:

Meaning you wouldn't have gone to Tora Bora at all.

Gary Berntsen:

You'd have just stayed on the road, Highway 1, for another hour and a half and walked into Pakistan.

Latif Nasser:

Gary says if he was just a normal person trying to escape ...

Gary Berntsen:

It was easy to take a bloody bus. He could've got on a bus in Jalalabad. He could've bloody walked. He chose to go south with bin Laden. Why? Because he's a member of Al-Qaeda, and the force is trying to stay together. They're trying to defend themselves and fight together. They have critical mass that way.

Latif Nasser:

If I'm playing devil's advocate, there are people who run towards battle zones or front lines who are, the example in my head is a medic or someone, someone who actually thinks they could, if he was an aid worker theoretically, and he was wanting-

Gary Berntsen:

Let me explain something. They don't know there's a battle going on. They're running south to stay together. There's no army. They don't see a battle coming. Not until the bombs start dropping. His story falls apart. It's stupid.

Latif Nasser:

At this point I felt stuck. I could see all the sides. I could see Shelby's account, and honestly I wanted to believe that account. Like I said, the desire to help, that made sense to me. I'd felt it. At the same time, as much as I didn't want to admit it, Gary's skepticism also made sense to me. Why was this guy there to begin with, if not to fight? Through it all I just felt haunted by this image, this image of this pinpoint, laser-guided bomb, juxtaposed against this just fog bank, this informational haze, that is actually justifying that very bomb. Anyways, I was sitting in that haze, not knowing what to think, until ...

Latif Nasser:

I'm just champing at the bit to talk to you.

Jon Lee Anderson:

That's fun.

Latif Nasser:

I met this guy.

Jon Lee Anderson:

My name is Jon Lee Anderson. I'm a reporter with the New Yorker. I covered the war in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.

Latif Nasser:

Jon Lee is one of the few people who knows firsthand what happened to Abdul Latif Nasser next and is allowed to tell me about it.

Jon Lee Anderson:

I'm pretty sure it's December 2001. I'd been in country since September.

Latif Nasser:

He'd been there on the mountainside at Tora Bora, watching the bombs fall.

Jon Lee Anderson:

It was a very strange and surreal scene where you could make people out on the scree and the distant glaciers of the mountains. There were explosions.

Latif Nasser:

Wow.

Jon Lee Anderson:

The journalists were kept back, by and large, from the [fighting 00:47:30]

Latif Nasser:

As the war was winding down, Jon Lee found himself at a Northern Alliance prison camp with a rare opportunity to interview two Al-Qaeda prisoners.

Jon Lee Anderson:

Nobody at that moment had, to my knowledge, interviewed someone who said they were from Al-Qaeda.

Latif Nasser:

The day he went to visit the prisoners was bright and cold.

Jon Lee Anderson:

We were led into the outer gate of the prison. It was a very old prison, and there was this dusty outer garden, and then there was an intersection with buildings that were in lockdown. Few days, it may have been the day or two before, the news spread of several Al-Qaeda prisoners that were being taken to Pakistan inside a vehicle, and they overpowered their guards, murdered them, and had escaped.

Latif Nasser:

Oh wow.

Jon Lee Anderson:

The atmosphere was quite murderous.

Latif Nasser:

Jon, his translator, a few others were brought into the outer courtyard of the prison. They were told the prisoners would be shackled.

Jon Lee Anderson:

There they were.

Latif Nasser:

No restraints. Standing there.

Jon Lee Anderson:

It was these two prisoners.

Latif Nasser:

Some of the guards stood up and formed a circle around Jon Lee and the two men.

Jon Lee Anderson:

I didn't trust the circumstance. I didn't trust the guards to be fully on their game. I also had to contend with Jack Idema, the American, the mercenary, because he was with-

Latif Nasser:

Because he was with you.

Jon Lee Anderson:

He was with me. He was very belligerent.

Latif Nasser:

As a journalist in Afghanistan, it was necessary to have protection. Jon Lee Anderson's protection at this time happened to be this infamous American bounty hunter.

Female:

Jack Idema, self-styled American soldier of fortune in Afghanistan.

Latif Nasser:

This was a guy who was eventually arrested by the Afghan government for running his own prison.

Female:

A private prison in his house where he tortured people.

Latif Nasser:

Jon Lee would be trying to ask questions to the prisoners.

Jon Lee Anderson:

Meanwhile I had Jack, who would periodically interrupt me and say bellicose things to them.

Latif Nasser:

He'd shout about September 11th, tell them America was coming to get them.

Jon Lee Anderson:

I had to hold him back and tell him to calm down a few times, but in any case the game was on. We just started talking.

Latif Nasser:

One of the guys was in his 20s, short, stocky, big black beard. He was from Kuwait.

Jon Lee Anderson:

He was very watchful of me. He had a story about being there to build water, to do charity on behalf of the Muslim people. I found him quite unsettling, because he kept edging towards me. By the end of the encounter we'd moved several feet.

Latif Nasser:

That's menacing.

Jon Lee Anderson:

The other fellow, darker, thinner, as I recall he had a scraggly beard.

Latif Nasser:

He wore a gray pakol porkpie cap, a camouflage jacket, U.S. combat boots.

Jon Lee Anderson:

Where Faiz the Kuwaiti was very vigilant and watchful, he was in his own head. He had just a very neutral, matter of fact, fatalistic, I guess, presence.

Latif Nasser:

This guy was from Casablanca, Morocco. His name ...

Jon Lee Anderson:

Was Nasser Abdul Latif.

Latif Nasser:

Abdul Latif Nasser.

Jon Lee Anderson:

He began by telling me ...

Latif Nasser:

Before I tell you what Abdul Latif actually said to Jon Lee Anderson, I got to preface it by saying how extraordinary this interview is. Jon Lee asks basically every question I would've asked had I been there that day. He recorded the answers and published them soon after, without ever having to get anything declassified by the U.S. government or spun by a defense attorney. As a journalist interested in this guy's story, it's a pretty remarkable, and I would argue trustworthy snapshot, at a pivotal moment in his story, potentially even a moment before his testimony was tainted by the kind of torture he would later get at Guantanamo.

Jon Lee Anderson:

He did not speak any English. He began by telling me that he was Moroccan, he had been here and there, he'd somehow ended up in Afghanistan because he was attracted by its strict Islamic rule and because there Mawlawi, there were Islamic scholars there, but that he hadn't gone there to fight, but then when the war had come he'd found himself essentially caught up in it.

Latif Nasser:

As an aside I should say this is pretty much Shelby's story of what Abdul Latif was doing in Afghanistan, that he was there studying, praying, helping people.

Jon Lee Anderson:

I said, "What were the circumstances when you were caught? By then were you carrying a gun?" He said, candidly, "Yes, I was." At a certain point, it was as if he had decided to tell the truth. He just said, "By the time the Americans came, I wanted to fight them, and I was fighting for jihad," and that when the country was attacked he happily and fullheartedly fought against the foreign invaders. I felt that I was at least talking to someone who had the courage or the courtesy to be honest.

Latif Nasser:

Was he saying this kind of stuff proudly?

Jon Lee Anderson:

He was very matter of fact. I seem to recall him just standing there and being not exactly absent. He had, I don't want to say a faraway look in his eye, but I had the impression I was with a true believer. Latif was a man whose notions of the jihad came from the book. I didn't feel that he looked at me with hatred. It was an interesting moment. I felt that he was being honest and therefore I appreciated it.

Latif Nasser:

Jon Lee Anderson wrote about this encounter in his book, The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan. I asked him to read parts of that book, and this is how that meeting with Abdul Latif Nasser came to an end.

Jon Lee Anderson:

I asked if either of them had seen Osama bin Laden. Faiz Mohammed Ahmed said no, but Nasser Abdul Latif said that he had. "He was in Tora Bora for a long time, and he was receiving a lot of visitors. Osama bin Laden told us, 'Believe in us. Believe in Allah. Believe in me and this jihad we will win in the end.'" Nasser Abdul Latif stared at me directly with his pale brown eyes, "We did not come here to fight Afghans. We came here to fight Americans, and we will keep fighting until we destroy them totally."

Latif Nasser:

Fuck. It's pretty bad. Probably the most dependable evidence I've come across, and it's also the most damning evidence I've come across. There is this New Yorker journalist Jon Lee Anderson. Do you know what I'm talking about here?

Latif Nasser:

When I read Jon Lee's passage to Shelby, "We did not come here to fight Afghans. We came here to fight Americans, and we will keep fighting until we destroy them totally."

Shelby:

I read that, yeah. The truth is, I've not discussed the existence of the interview or its publication in a book with Abdul Latif, so I suppose I can't comment on that.

Latif Nasser:

She said she couldn't comment, of course, but ...

Shelby:

To be honest, I suppose I can tell you what I thought of it when I first read it. It's scary as hell.

Latif Nasser:

Yeah, pretty scary.

Shelby:

Yeah, especially the description of his eyes.

Latif Nasser:

She says that is not the guy she knows and has been representing for four years.

Shelby:

Nah. I don't really see that. I don't really see staring at someone like that and saying that in such a menacing manner. Even though I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the accounting of what was said, I do tend to doubt information that was taken in the context of, for example if Abdul Latif the day prior were beaten by Afghan forces, and to be honest ...

Latif Nasser:

She basically said you'd be an idiot to trust anything that anyone said in the context of that prison. Consider his circumstances. He was most likely being tortured by Northern Alliance soldiers who were paid like mercenaries to deliver Al-Qaeda soldiers to Americans, and their basic MO was to pick people up, sometimes at random, and torture them, until they admitted to be aligned with Osama bin Laden. The only way to stop the torture, admit guilt. The soldiers were standing right there. If he didn't say what he said, what do you think would've happened? That made sense to me, until I thought about that other guy right next to him, who said he was doing charity work. Why didn't that guy feel the same pressure? Then I heard another angle on this from the journalist Cathy Scott-Clark. She said, "Let's just take him at his word. Presume he meant everything that he said. Put yourself in his combat boots and imagine why he might've felt that way."

Cathy Scott-Clark:

He has seen many days of pounding with JDAMs and huge aerial bombardment on that mountain, which decimated the troops fighting up there. I've interviewed people who have been released from Guantanamo, including a doctor, and he was forced to do amputations and all sorts of horrible operations without any anesthetic, just using a knife. Obviously if Nasser was there and witnessed all of that, and also what you have to realize by that stage is that there have been some pretty horrific massacres of innocent wives and children of Al-Qaeda operatives. A group of women and children from Al-Qaeda families were fleeing from Kandahar to a place called Panjwai, which is southwest of Kandahar. They were in a convoy of vehicles, and two American helicopters followed them and all these women and children got blown to bits.

Latif Nasser:

As for Abdul Latif himself, according to government documents, he flees the fighting. As he does, this is actually from the U.S. government account, U.S. helicopters come and shoot 35 of the guys he's running away with, as they're running away, including one of this close friends. That was about a week before this interview. That's all true. Makes total sense he would hate America, and say so. Here's the thing that Americans should be able to get behind more than anyone from any other country. You're allowed to say you hate America. It's not a crime to say things. It's a crime to do things. In an interview with Jon Lee Anderson, he didn't say that he did anything specific or criminal. The U.S. combat boots he was wearing, no Americans died at Tora Bora. Supposedly you can pick those up at any market. Soon after this jailhouse interview, Abdul Latif Nasser would be transferred to American custody. That precise moment is when his story becomes our story.

Latif Nasser:

Independent of what you think he did or didn't do, he got sent to a place where he got treated as if he did it all. We have to ask, as Americans, does what he did to us, whatever that is, justify what we ended up doing to him? That's where we're headed next. Guantanamo Bay.

Latif Nasser:

This episode was produced by Annie McEwen with Sarah Qari, Suzie Lechtenberg, and me, Latif Nasser. Fact checking by Diane Kelly and Margot Williams. Editing by Jad Abumrad and Soren Wheeler. We had help from Neil [Dinesha 01:01:48], Audrey Quinn, and Kelly Prine. Original music by Jad Abumrad, Alex Overington, Annie McEwen and Amino Belyamani. Tune in next week when we go to the upside down.

Joanna:

Hi, this is Joanna, and I'm calling from the beautiful Lubeck in Germany. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad and with Robert Krulwich and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O'Donnell, Tad Davis, and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.

 

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