The Guantánamo Spy Who Wasn’t

It was all a big mistake. Ahmad Al-Halabi was sure this had to be some sort of misunderstanding that he could clear up before his flight in a few hours.

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It was July 2003, and Al-Halabi, a 24-year-old American citizen and Air Force airman, was being escorted through the naval air station in Jacksonville, Fla., by four government agents who said they wanted to talk to him. They walked him into an empty bathroom, where they searched his pockets and removed a small Quran that he always carried as an observant Muslim. They told him they had some questions, but they didn’t want to talk in the restroom; he would have to come with them. Al-Halabi told them he was worried about making his flight, but he agreed. They told him they were going to handcuff him.

“Why?” he asked.

“We’ll explain as soon as we can,” one officer said.

A jacket covered his handcuffed wrists but hardly hid the spectacle: A young man in jeans and a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt, surrounded by four men, one on either side, one behind him and one in front. The terminal was crowded with people — some of them could be his co-workers. He was too embarrassed to look up, but he felt their eyes on him. The agents led him to a waiting car and drove to a small office nearby.

He wondered if this was about his leave. Al-Halabi had been serving as a translator at Guantánamo Bay, America’s sprawling detention center on the eastern edge of Cuba for hundreds of foreigners held as terrorists in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. He was traveling to Syria for his wedding. The trip required many days of travel; the paperwork was complicated. Had he done something wrong? Or had something happened in Guantánamo?

Call my supervisor at Travis, Al-Halabi urged the agents, referring to his home base in California; he will explain my travel has been cleared.

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