The Problem with Equating Travel Routes and Terrorism: 34 Dead Civilians

A few weeks back, Seton Hall published a report showing that since the DC Circuit reversed the habeas petition of Mohammed al-Adahi, “the practice of careful judicial fact-finding was replaced by judicial deference to the government’s allegations. Now the government wins every petition.” The report traced a number of factors that, before al-Adahi, judges examined with some skepticism, but after, fairly regularly accepted as evidence that a detainee was a member of al Qaeda.

Among those factors were staying in certain guest houses and traveling a particular route that–the government effectively claimed–meant you were a terrorist. Thus, it no longer mattered whether you had fought for al Qaeda. In the absence of more direct evidence, the government argued that where you traveled was one piece of evidence that you should be detained as a terrorist.

Tellingly, while the government has a declaration they routinely submit in Gitmo cases on the significance of guest houses to al Qaeda, they have not (as far as I know) ever submitted a similar declaration providing evidence for a tie between travel routes and al Qaeda membership (the closest they have is a report on Tora Bora which seems to argue “if you were in this vicinity you must have been in Tora Bora and, Osama bin Laden!”). In fact, that’s part of what infuriated David Tatel in the Latif case–the way the majority opinion simply accepted the government’s evidence about Latif’s travel back to Pakistan–where hundreds of innocent of Arabs were picked up at the time–as corroboration for the error-ridden report the government submitted as its main proof that Latif could be detained.

Latif left Kabul in November 2001 and then traveled through Jalalabad before eventually arriving at the Pakistani border where Pakistani authorities detained him. According to the government, this path mirrors that of Taliban soldiers retreating from Kabul. Although not contending that this evidence is dispositive, the government argues that because Latif’s admitted route is consistent with that of Taliban soldiers and with information in the Report, it is a helpful piece in the puzzle, bolstering its claim that the Report’s inculpatory statements are accurate.

Fair enough, but how helpful? If this route is commonly used by innocent civilians, then the evidence is not that helpful at all. To understand why, consider a simple hypothetical. Suppose the government were to argue in a drug case that the defendant drove north from Miami along I-95, “a known drug route.” Familiar with I-95, we would surely respond that many thousands of non-drug traffickers take that route as well. Given what we know about our own society, the I-95 inference would be too weak even to mention. Cf Almerfedi, 2011 WL 2277607, at *4 n.7 (noting that some conduct such as possessing an AK-47 is so “commonplace in Afghanistan [that it] does not meaningfully distinguish an al Qaeda associate from an innocent civilian”). On the other hand, if the alleged drug trafficker had driven along an infrequently traveled country road, then a contention that that road was “a known drug route” would carry more weight. The burden of proof is on the government to demonstrate whether travel on a particular route to the Pakistani border, when considered in context, is mqre like the lonely country road and thus worthy of consideration when it comes to distinguishing between enemy combatants and innocent civilians.

I raise all this not just to point you to the Seton Hall report, which is well worth your time. But because today, SCOTUS will decide whether or not to accept two cases–Latif and Uthman–in which these issues are central (we won’t find out whether they’ll take the cases until Monday).

And because of this WSJ report, showing the tragic result of assuming that travel patterns must be indicative of terror ties: 34 dead civilians, targeted by Turkish warplanes after a US drone spotted a caravan of Kurdish smugglers using a route frequented by PKK guerrillas.

Above and out of sight, a U.S. Predator drone loitered. It was on a routine patrol when U.S. personnel monitoring its video feeds spotted the caravan just inside Iraq and moving toward the Turkish border, according to U.S. officials and the Pentagon’s assessment of the fatal strike.

U.S. military officers at the Fusion Cell in Ankara couldn’t tell whether the men, bundled in heavy jackets, were civilians or guerrilla fighters. But their location in an area frequented by guerrilla fighters raised suspicions. The Americans alerted their Turkish counterparts.


Then Turkish warplanes appeared. “It was like a lightning bolt,” Mr. Encu said. “I saw a bright light and the force of the explosion threw me to the ground…When I turned my head I could see bodies on fire and some were missing their heads.”

Read more

What the Government Claims Didn’t Get Videotaped

Earlier, I reported that Judge Gladys Kessler had held the government in contempt for failing to follow her order that they videotape the habeas testimony of Mohammed al-Adahi. As part of her contempt order, she ordered the government to make the transcripts more readily available. Eventually those documents should be here. But in the meantime, I’ve liberated them from PACER (part one, part two).

The Visual Aspects Not Videotaped

The transcripts are interesting for two reasons. First, they show that the defense counsel and the Judge highlighted the filming that was supposed to be going on. Kessler emphasizes that when the hearing starts.

THE COURT: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is the case of Mohammed Al-Adahi versus Barack Obama, CA 05-280. All counsel are present.
We are going to have videotaped testimony this afternoon I do believe from the petitioner, Mr. Al-Adahi. He will be testifying from Guantanamo.

Then, al-Adahi’s defense counsel in DC warned that those in Gitmo might be sweating on account of the lack of air conditioning.

MR. CHANDLER: A couple of minor items, Your Honor.

First, in the room in Guantanamo there is no air conditioning. Ms. Wilhelm said that may speed up her questioning. But if you see people perspiring profusely, it is because they are in the Caribbean with no air conditioning.

Then there’s an exchange between Chandler and Kessler in which the Chandler warns Kessler that al-Adahi is chained to the floor, which appears to frazzle Kessler.

MR. CHANDLER: There was a third thing I meant to call to the court’s attention, and that is that Mr. AI-Adahi is chained to the floor in Guantanamo.

THE COURT: I see. All right. Mr. AI-Adahi is now going to testify, and he does need to be sworn in. I know that he is using his religious book, the Koran, and of course that is acceptable to the court. Mr. AI-Adahi, would you please –oh, he cannot stand. I am sorry. Excuse me.

MR. CHANDLER: He can stand, he just can’t move around.

MS. WILHELM: Yes, Your Honor he can stand.

THE COURT: Oh, he can. All right. Would you please stand up.

In other words, Kessler and the defense counsel were all taking heightened note of the visual aspects of the scene, and al-Adahi’s own lawyer was arguably playing aspects of that image–the perspiration, the manacles–up for the videotape. Read more