Good, Evil, and the Unfortunate Case of Majid Khan

Written by: Graham Brown

In a remarkable rebuke of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), eight military jurors decried their handling of former Al-Qaeda courier Majid Khan as a “stain on the moral fiber of America.” When hearing Khan—who is the first Guantanamo Bay prisoner to publicly detail his abuse—tell his story, it is a remarkable reminder of the human cost of the War on Terror and just how evil the “good guys” can be. 

Kahn’s 39-page statement details some of the most shocking and breathtaking accounts of violence imaginable. He tells of how he was repeatedly force-fed through tubes up his nose and anus, which caused him to bleed and gave him hemorrhoids that he still endures. At one black site, he was shackled to the wall in a position that made it impossible to rest or sleep. He was left there, chained like an animal on the cold, hard ground—shivering because he had been left naked. Other times guards would throw ice water on his naked body and then turn a fan on him to keep him freezing. The leg shackles he was bound in left scars that still remain on his legs. He was waterboarded, sexually assaulted, and forced to stay awake for inhumane amounts of time. He repeatedly attempted suicide, with every attempt bringing retribution from his captors. Once, he demanded that a guard let him speak to a lawyer. According to the statement, the guard laughed and said“Are you kidding, a lawyer? You are in no man’s land. No one even knows where you are.” 

In 2002, the Bush Administration approved the CIA to use “alternative interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding, to acquire information from captured terrorists. Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft all signed off and declared this plan to be legal and administration policy. Kahn described agents repeatedly pressing him for information regarding alleged Al-Qaeda plots at London’s Heathrow Airport—which he knew nothing about. It didn’t matter. Kahn’s imprisonment was not about getting information, it was about cruelty. He was cooperative with the government, telling them everything he knew and lying when he didn’t know in order to stop the abuse. In his statement, he details one moment where he pleaded with a guard to know why he was committing such heinous acts. “Because you’re a fucking terrorist,” the man replied.

Majid Khan was born in Pakistan but attended high school in suburban Baltimore—he grew up messing around with musical equipment, occasionally smoking marijuana, and taking an interest in computers. There isn’t too much of a difference between Catonsville, Maryland, and my home in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, or the various hometowns of so many UW students. The hard fact to face is that had we been born twenty years earlier, Majid Khan could have been my friend and he could have been yours. He said in court that during a period of feeling “lost and vulnerable” following his mother’s death, he was recruited to join Al-Qaeda on a trip home to Pakistan. He was captured in March of 2003 and was accused of delivering 50,000 U.S. dollars to an Al-Qaeda affiliate that was used in the bombing of a Marriott in Jakarta, Indonesia after Khan was in CIA custody. He was also accused of planning activities with the notorious Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Of course, he wasn’t formally charged for nearly a decade, as that would have required him to be treated humanely and given rights that the U.S. government didn’t want him to have. He has admitted his guilt and expressed remorse, saying that, “I ask forgiveness from those whom I have wronged and I have hurt.”

His activities with Mohammed included planning to wear a suicide vest to assassinate then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a US ally. In just three years, he had gone from a job with the Maryland Department of Planning to working side-by-side with the man the 9/11 Commission described as the “principal architect” of the attacks.  He said that 9/11 caused a religious transformation. He describes that feeling that the universe was “kicking me while I was down” by making himself question his religion so soon after his mother’s death. He just couldn’t believe that Muslims were responsible for the terror attacks. He was “miserable” and ultimately leaned into faith to search for answers, which is what led him to Pakistan and Al-Qaeda.

This article is not about excusing or justifying what Majid Khan did—there are plenty of people who have dealt with tragedy without joining terrorist organizations to deal with their internal struggles. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a human being. Popular culture makes it so simple—we know who to line up with, who’s good, and who’s evil. We’re always on James Bond’s or Jack Bauer’s team. The bad guys are the enemy, unequivocally. Movies and television shows never ask why the criminals are the way they are—we just presume that villains are evil because they’re evil and terrorists hate America because they hate America.  It makes everything so much easier.

It’s disgusting enough to imagine this torture conferred on anyone, let alone an asset with no information to offer who joined a terrorist cell as an emotionally vulnerable young man. The jury’s rebuke is a good first step and I hope that Majid Khan finally gets justice and peace (under the deal he has with the US Government, he is scheduled for release this February.) If the Intelligence Community is looking for a lesson to draw from this despicable incident—I can’t imagine they are—they would be wise to remember Friedrich Nietzsche’s line that warns those fighting monsters to be cautious, otherwise, they will end up as a monster themselves. Although, the best time to remember that probably was the day before they snatched up a 23-year-old Pakistani-American errand boy.