Family of Guantanamo detainee grapples with his terror plea and torture

Mahmood Khan had no idea that his brother had succumbed to "this poison" of terrorism.

When Majid Khan was arrested by Pakistani security forces in 2003, family members — many of whom still live in the Baltimore area — believed he had been abducted by criminals.


When they didn't hear from him for three years, they feared he was dead.

When Majid admitted before a U.S. military commission that he had helped al-Qaida carry out a deadly hotel bombing in Indonesia and pleaded guilty to war crimes including murder, spying and conspiracy, Mahmood says, they were shocked.


"We did not think that it is even possible," Mahmood said.

In the nearly 15 years since Majid Khan left Baltimore County for Pakistan and joined up with some of the top figures in al-Qaida, his family has been slowly coming to terms with his journey from a tech job in Northern Virginia to detention at Guantanamo Bay.

Mahmood, 43, is the first family member to speak publicly about his brother's case since Majid pleaded guilty and his torture by the CIA was revealed.

Majid Khan told the military commission in 2012 that he had plotted with self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and blow up gas stations in the United States.

He admitted carrying money to Thailand that was used by al-Qaida in the 2003 suicide car bombing at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta that killed 11.

Khan was named in the Senate torture report released in 2014, and additional notes detailing his torture were declassified last year. The Senate investigators found that Khan had been subjected to sleep deprivation and rectal feeding, was kept naked and submerged in ice water.

For the family, each new revelation has raised new questions. But with Khan locked up at Guantanamo, and contact severely limited, they haven't been able to ask them.

Khan, 36, has pleaded guilty and agreed to help authorities prosecute his former al-Qaida comrades in exchange for his eventual release. In an unusual arrangement, he is to be sentenced at a later date, with the length of the sentence based in part on his level of cooperation. Under the plea agreement, he is to serve no more than 19 years.


Now a hearing Wednesday is likely to complicate his case. In a case involving a different terror suspect, a federal court has ruled that the military commission at Guantanamo Bay doesn't have jurisdiction to hear one of the charges to which Khan has pleaded guilty, and prosecutors have agreed to drop it.

A case before the federal appeals court in Washington could bring the other charges against Khan into question. Khan has agreed to change his plea deal, which will delay his sentencing still further.

Majid Khan is the youngest of four brothers from a middle-class family from Hyderabad, Pakistan. His brother said the older siblings had a saying: "Better that God make you a dog than a youngest brother." When they were growing up, the brunt of the chores fell on Majid.

Mahmood Khan said he was involved in a political party that was targeted by the Pakistani government. In the mid-1990s, the family left the country and claimed asylum in the United States.

They settled in Baltimore County, and Majid Khan graduated from Owings Mills High School in 1999. A deepening interest in technology led to a good-paying job as a database administrator in Northern Virginia. He loved cricket and music, Mahmood Khan said, and tinkering with the family's cars.

"What annoyed me the most was the big boombox he had in the trunk, and the noise that used to come out of that," Mahmood Khan said. "It made my car make noises it never had before."


Majid Khan hadn't been particularly religious, his brother said, but started going to the Islamic Society of Baltimore in Catonsville to teach a computer class. A family friend who told tales of fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan inspired him to explore violent interpretations of his faith, Khan said in his plea agreement.

In 2002, Majid Khan traveled to Pakistan for an arranged marriage. He was 22.

His father later told investigators that he believed his son came under the influence of anti-American family members in Karachi.

Majid Khan quickly made contact with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and ultimately traveled to Thailand with money that would be used to pay for the 2003 bombing of the hotel in Jakarta.

At the time of the attack, Khan was already in custody. Pakistani security forces had arrested Khan, his brother Mohammed, Mohammed's wife and their infant daughter in early 2003.

The family had few details, and thought that the two brothers must have been taken for ransom.


"We were completely in shock," Mahmood Khan said. "We did not even understand the abduction or who took him. First we thought it was a criminal act."

Mohammed Khan was eventually released, but Majid Khan disappeared. The family began to believe he was dead. But in 2006, President George W. Bush acknowledged that the CIA had been running secret "black site" prisons and that Khan was among 14 "high-value" detainees being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

Mahmood Khan said the news left him with more questions about what had happened in those 31/2 missing years — but also a sense of relief.

"At least we knew he existed and where he existed," Mahmood Khan said. "Before that, it was completely a feeling of helplessness."

At first, Khan said he was innocent. He challenged the allegations against him at a 2007 hearing. But in 2012, he pleaded guilty.

Mahmood Khan got a copy of the Senate torture report after it was released in 2014. He waited one night until his wife and children had gone to sleep before opening it.


As he read, the tears rolled from his eyes.

"It was so detailed and graphic that words cannot describe it," Khan said. "Especially when your own family member was subjected to all the techniques that were outlined in it and how and when and what was done to him."

Mahmood Khan says he doesn't understand how his brother became involved in such serious offenses in just a few months overseas. He said he takes comfort in knowing that his brother has agreed to cooperate, and hopes the court takes that into account.

"Hopefully they will look him as a person that is trying to make any wrong into a right again and help the government and help others to eliminate this poison that is going on around the world in the form of terrorism," he said.

The family wants to be able to talk all this over with Majid. But they have had only very limited contact with him. Their first chance came last year, when the Red Cross was allowed to organize video conferences for the former CIA prisoners.

Family members headed down to Washington and sat around a conference table. Khan's father had tears in his eyes before his son even appeared on the large TV screen in the room, Mahmood Khan recalled.


Then his face popped up.

"The feeling for the family was a sense of relief, a sense of joy," Mahmood Khan said.

Majid Khan's future remains uncertain. President Barack Obama promised during his 2008 campaign to close the detention center at Guantanamo, but he has been blocked by Congress, and a few dozen men remain there.

Even if the federal appeals court finds that the Guantanamo court doesn't have jurisdiction to hear the case against him, it's unlikely he would be released.

Khan's lawyers have indicated he would be willing to plead guilty in a civilian court and serve a prison sentence outside the United States. He could enter such a plea by video link, without leaving Guantanamo Bay. But that arrangement requires approval in Congress.

Mahmood Khan said he hopes his brother will be free one day to return to Pakistan. His wife and daughter live in a small town outside of Hyderabad.


"If he gets the freedom of going to Pakistan and living with his family," Mahmood Khan said, "that would be in itself enough satisfaction."