In an offhand remark during congressional testimony this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel revealed a morbid detail about the controversial swap the United States made for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl: The Taliban originally wanted six Guantánamo detainees but didn’t get their way. Not because the United States rejected the terms of the trade, but because the sixth man died in U.S. custody.
"It actually started with six," Hagel told a House panel on Wednesday, June 11. "One of them died."
Although the revelation inspired no follow-up questions or explanations (lawmakers were more concerned about the administration leaving them in the dark about the Bergdahl deal), the White House revealed on Friday the sixth detainee’s identity and the circumstances of his death, in a statement to Foreign Policy.
"In initial talks, the Taliban also sought the transfer of Awal Gul, who later died in Guantánamo of a heart attack in February 2011," White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said. "If you have further questions, please contact DOD."
The Pentagon declined to elaborate.
Back in 2011, Gul’s death ignited a heated discussion about his terrorist ties and hatred for America, not unlike the controversy surrounding the Bergdahl swap and the ensuing questions about the dangerousness of the Taliban Five.
Gul, 48, had been held without charges since 2002. According to U.S. officials, he "died of apparent natural causes" after exercising on an elliptical machine. Although most advocates accepted the government’s characterization of his death, they bitterly protested the nature of his detention.
"Awal Gul’s death illustrates too well what Guantánamo has become — a prison where Muslim men are held indefinitely until they die because the president lacks political courage to release or charge them in any forum," the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil liberties group, said in a statement at the time.
Gul’s lawyers, meanwhile, denied their client was a prominent member of the Taliban, citing a letter from Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual leader. "Indeed, we have documents from Afghanistan, even a letter from Mullah Omar himself on Taliban letterhead, discussing Mr. Gul’s efforts to resign from the Taliban a year or more before 9/11/01," Matthew Dodge, Gul’s attorney, said in 2011 statement. "He resigned because he was disgusted by the Taliban’s growing penchant for corruption and abuse. Mr. Gul was never an enemy of the United States in any way."
But the U.S. military bitterly denied that characterization of Gul. After his death, Southern Command in Miami called Gul an "admitted Taliban recruiter and commander of a military base in Jalalabad" who personally ran an al Qaeda guesthouse. The military also said he admitted to convening with Osama bin Laden and giving him operational assistance. Gul’s lawyers maintained that when he met with bin Laden in 1990, in a gathering for "rich Saudis" planning on building a hospital and school, he did not know the extent of bin Laden’s anti-American philosophy.
"It is shame that the government will finally fly him home not in handcuffs and a hood, but in a casket,” Dodge stated.
Besides Gul, eight other inmates have died while in custody in the Guantánamo Bay prison.
You can view Gul’s autopsy report (on page 11) courtesy Jason Leopold: