Sandy Sulzle sits in her apartment in Amman, Jordan.

Collateral Damage

“Still in Solitary Over Here in Baghdad”: A Forgotten American’s 14-Year Nightmare in Iraq

Sandy Sulzle, photographed in her apartment in Amman, Jordan. Photo: Nadia Bseiso for The Intercept

In the early years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, an American citizen got caught up in the war’s chaotic detention system. Over a decade later, Shawki Omar, his body marked by torture and his health failing, remains locked in an Iraqi jail on terrorism charges, his fate determined by courts that human rights groups have called inhumane and unjust. The murky details of Omar’s case, which has involved secret evidence, witnesses who later recanted, and no opportunity for him to clear his name, are redolent of the worst excesses of the so-called war on terror.

“Please Call the Congressmen”

Sandy Sulzle barely recognized the shaky handwriting on the prison letter delivered by the Red Cross. Only when she saw the signature did she understand that it was from her husband. “I did not hear from anyone, no lawyer, no phone calls, still in solitary over here in Baghdad,” Shawki Omar wrote. “I still do not have any underclothes, they can’t find my size. Please call the congressmen and see if they can do anything.”

It was January 2005, and this was the first time Sulzle had heard from her husband since he’d disappeared in Iraq three months earlier. She was both relieved and horrified. Omar, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had vanished after going on what he had described as a business trip in the wake of the U.S. invasion, just as the country was descending into a sectarian bloodbath. She had pleaded with him not to go.

Now at least Sulzle knew that Omar was being held by the U.S. military, and at first, she had high hopes of getting him out. As a U.S. citizen, he had constitutional rights and she was sure this missive from a U.S. military prison in Iraq would be met with consular and legal actions to expedite his release. If he had committed a crime, then he would be tried at home in a U.S. court, she believed. But the letter would turn out to be only the first salvo in a grueling, extraordinary ordeal that remains unresolved after more than 14 years.


One of many letters from Omar to Sandy, delivered by the Red Cross.

Photo: Murtaza Hussain/The Intercept
As a couple, Sulzle and Omar had always been out of the ordinary. Theirs was an unlikely union between a conservative Lutheran nurse who, at the time they met, had never held a passport, and an adventuresome Palestinian student seeking a new start in the U.S. They had initially crossed paths in a grocery store in South Dakota in 1982 and gone on an awkward first date that had unexpectedly blossomed into romance.

Sulzle remains devoted to her husband after 35 years of marriage. In America, they built a family together, and Sulzle eventually converted to Islam. But after relocating his family to the Middle East in 1995, Omar made a series of questionable choices that set him on a collision course with military and civilian authorities in three nations. For that, and because of the harsh wartime detention policies of the U.S. and Iraqi governments, he and his family have paid a huge price.

In late 2004, Omar was captured by U.S. forces in Iraq and tagged as one of “the 200” – high-value detainees who included many accused of being followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner to today’s Islamic State. A U.S. military panel, citing previous accusations by Jordan’s State Security Court, accused Omar of terrorist offenses in Iraq that he and his family deny. He would spend years in U.S. military detention and Iraqi government prisons, where he says he has been repeatedly tortured, and where he remains today.

His legal case against the detention wound its way through the U.S. justice system, all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2008 that American courts could not help Omar. Despite obligations under U.S. and international law not to transfer individuals to a state where they are likely to suffer torture or other maltreatment, the ruling stated that it was not the court’s role to “pass judgment on [the] legitimacy” of the Iraqi legal system. He was transferred to Iraqi government custody on July 15, 2011, just a few months before the U.S. announced its formal withdrawal from Iraq.

Last October, Omar was joined in Iraqi detention by another American, a man of Saudi origin who had been captured in Syria and accused by the U.S. military of fighting on behalf of the Islamic State. After the Defense Department sent the man, known publicly only as John Doe, to Iraq for processing, his case was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU won the right to “immediate and unmonitored access” to the detainee, and in January, John Doe said he intended to sue the U.S. government to challenge the legality of his detention. The John Doe case has opened a potential pathway to freedom for Omar, and Sulzle is now in discussions with the ACLU about whether the group will take up his case.

The U.S. military and the Iraqi government did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment about Omar’s case. However, several sources from Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, or GID, which accused Omar of committing terrorist offenses there in 2004,  told The Intercept that if he were returned to that country, he would likely face legal jeopardy unless the United States intervened.

“Should Shawki return to Jordan, he most likely will not see the light of day again,” a GID source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The state can indict him again on terrorism charges and hand him a long prison sentence — unless the U.S. demands his extradition, in which case Jordan will oblige according to its extradition treaty with the U.S. as he is a dual American citizen.”

This account is primarily based on interviews with Sulzle and other relatives, lawyers, court and military documents, declassified photographs and medical records, a report on Omar’s case by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, and more than 100 prison letters from Omar.

Sulzle and her lawyers say there has been a deliberate effort to cover up what happened to Omar, including the torture he says he first suffered in U.S. military custody and later, at the hands of the Iraqis. In Sulzle’s view, a man whose story began as an embodiment of the American Dream now illustrates how the so-called war on terror has turned cruel, degrading, sadistic, and extralegal.

“If it’s true that he is a terrorist, where is the evidence?” she asks angrily. “We have never seen it. Shawki is innocent and yet has been through 14 years of hell. We as a family have suffered terribly. I thought that America stood for more than that.”

Sandy Sulzle in her apartment in Amman, Jordan.

Sulzle in her apartment in Amman, Jordan.

Photo: Nadia Bseiso for The Intercept

An American Dream

Sulzle lives today along a series of dusty bends and lanes in Sweilah, a Palestinian refugee suburb of Amman, the Jordanian capital. Sitting behind shuttered windows on a brown velour couch, she speaks with a lilting South Dakota accent, a holdover from her Great Plains upbringing. She wears a mask of head-to-toe black chiffon, including black gloves, socks, and a niqab, or face veil. The walls of the apartment are bare, save for her grandchildren’s doodles.

Producing a handful of old photos, she recalls her first sight of Omar at a Red Owl grocery store in Pierre, South Dakota, in 1982. At 6-foot-5 with long, black hair, a John Travolta collar, and tight jeans, the Palestinian student was hard to miss. “He was full of himself with his sunglasses on, surveying his kingdom,” she laughs. “He was foreign-looking. Cute.”


Omar in 1982, when he first started dating Sulzle.

Photo: Courtesy of Sandy Sulzle

At the time, Sulzle, then just 20 years old, was a student nurse preoccupied by forthcoming exams. After a disastrous first date, in October 1982, Sulzle’s college friends set her up on a second night out with Omar, one of a group of Middle Eastern students who had come to the U.S. to improve their English. To the trainee nurses, the young men appeared exotic. Olive-skinned and polite, most of them did not drink or smoke.

Their second meeting proved more successful, and after six months of dating, Omar proposed. Sulzle became pregnant with their first child soon after they married. A boy named Ahmed was born in December 1983. As she settled into married life, Sulzle was gradually drawn to her husband’s increasingly austere Islamic faith. Eventually, she converted and began to wear the veil — a significant transformation for a young woman who had grown up as a deeply conservative Christian. Until the birth of their second child in 1986, a girl called Sarah, Sulzle worked as a nurse and was the family’s main breadwinner, while Omar borrowed money from his parents back in the Middle East and studied, but did not complete, a succession of vocational courses. During the couple’s 12 years of married life in America, they moved many times, always at Omar’s instigation. Each time, Sulzle was expected to pack up at short notice. In 1989, after undertaking a succession of training courses, Omar moved his family once more to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he got a job as a vending machine repairman. The couple would have four more children: Zaina in 1989, Manal in 1991, Salah in 1993, and Abdullah in 2001.


Omar with three of his children, Ahmed, Zaina, and Sarah, in 1989.

Photo: Courtesy of Sandy Sulzle

Confident and charming, Shawki Omar had arrived in the U.S. in 1980 on a visa to study English at Chowan College in Murfreesboro, North Carolina. At the time, this unassuming Baptist school drew large numbers of Arab students, a result of the dean of admissions shipping batches of brochures to U.S. embassies in the Middle East. Chowan’s mission was proselytizing; the school didn’t require prospective candidates to take an English test in advance, making it a popular choice for ambitious, young Arabs hoping for a future in the West. Once their English had improved, the foreign students mostly stayed in the U.S., looking for an American wife and a green card.

Chowan would later become infamous as one of the colleges that 9/11 architect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, or KSM, attended during his time in the U.S. KSM, who had been raised in Kuwait like Omar, found Chowan xenophobic. All students were required to study Christianity regardless of their religion. That meant praying, singing, and attending Bible class. Outside school, KSM was jeered in the street as an “Abby Dhabbie.” He later told Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, Osama bin Laden’s personal spiritual adviser, and other close friends in Al Qaeda that the experience had awakened the anti-American resentment that would ultimately lead him to lobby bin Laden to support the 9/11 plot.

Shawki Omar had a better experience at Chowan and there is no evidence he ever met KSM, who arrived two years later. Sulzle recalls that although Omar had been raised in a traditional Muslim household in Kuwait, in the U.S. he played pool and soccer and never seemed to pray.

On their second date in 1982, Sulzle and Omar went out in downtown Pierre. Sulzle took photos, including one of a grinning Omar dressed in jeans and a gray striped sweater. They clicked. “I liked the difference in him, and how he would talk to anyone, charming them,” she says. “Wherever he went, he would own the room in a minute.”

Sulzle wondered how she was going to break the news of their engagement to her parents, who had dropped one set of friends just for changing churches. But Sulzle’s father, Lew, suffering from a weak heart, was too fragile to quarrel. Her mother, Ethel, seemed only mildly peeved, commenting when her daughter announced the news: “We don’t always like what our children do.”

Omar joked with Sulzle that her religion was a “lot of hocus pocus,” but to please her, they were married at the Zion Lutheran Church near her home in Mobridge, South Dakota. “It shocked me how fast it all happened,” Sulzle recalled, remembering how the whole community came to ogle the Christian girl marrying a Muslim.


Sulzle in elementary school.

Photo: Courtesy of Sandy Sulzle
“I was a strong Christian,” Sulzle said, adjusting the black veil that covers her face, with only a slit for her eyes. “I grew up in a strong Christian household. I went to a Christian school. My brother is a Lutheran minister. Secretly, I thought I would be able to convert Shawki.”

Today, Sulzle’s wedding photos are locked away in accordance with her strict interpretation of the Quran, which dictates that she can never show her face to men outside her immediate family. She took them out to show a female reporter, however: snapshots of a pretty young woman wearing a white dress and carrying a bouquet of white, yellow, pink, and blue carnations. A handsome Middle Eastern man in a stylish brown suit towers over her.

The wedding was a traditional Sulzle affair: The dress was secondhand, borrowed from Sulzle’s sister, and the cake was homemade. But Sulzle loved Omar and their goals appeared complementary. Omar wanted a life in the U.S., while Sulzle wanted to expand her life experience beyond stultifying Mobridge, a small, almost exclusively white farming town steeped in hardship, stitched together by Christianity, and cupped in a kink in the Missouri River.

Babies and a Green Card

Two months later, Sulzle and Omar went to the Canadian border, to the nearest U.S. immigration office where they could apply for Omar’s green card. Although he had been born in Kuwait, Omar’s parents were Palestinians from the West Bank, and his family had Jordanian passports because Kuwait denied citizenship to almost everyone not of Kuwaiti ethnicity.

Soon afterward, Sulzle became pregnant. Doubts about the suitability of their union first began to creep into her mind around this time, she recalled. The prospect of a child, arguments over their roles in parenting and earning money, cultural differences, and immigration issues all strained their relationship. There was also the question of how they would support themselves. A stipend from Omar’s father had so far kept the couple afloat. But it wasn’t clear how far that money would go as their family grew and Omar was in no hurry to get a job. “He wanted to concentrate on his studies,” Sulzle said. “We had a few bumps.”

Instead of painting the nursery and installing blackout blinds, Omar announced that he was dropping out of a course in electrical engineering, and they were moving to Brainerd, Minnesota, where he had his eye on a different course that would teach him to fix vending machines. “My husband was always a wanderer,” said Sulzle.

In Minnesota, Omar made friends quickly, joining a college soccer team and helping to form a group with fellow Arab students to fight racism and discrimination. Sulzle, heavily pregnant, was shyer by nature and less outgoing. She worked long hours as a nurse during the day and spent her evenings home alone.

Their first son was born that winter. He had straw-colored hair and Sulzle features, but Omar insisted on giving him a Muslim name: Ahmed. Sulzle, who had worked right up until the day she gave birth, did not protest.

She quickly discovered that when it came to child care, she was on her own. “Shawki was from a very traditional Middle Eastern family,” she recalled. Sulzle sought comfort in the local church, taking Ahmed with her. At Christmas, they had a tree with lights, which amused Omar’s Arab friends.

A few months later, Omar decided to quit his studies once again and try out for the National Guard. His green card had come through and he believed that military service could speed his citizenship application. Since money was tight, Sulzle moved back to Mobridge while he trained, staying with her parents.

In her living room in Jordan, Sulzle handed over a photo she took of Omar on the day he came back from basic training. It shows him with a buzz cut and grinning. But he was unhappy, having just learned that because he was not yet a U.S. citizen, his post-training options in the National Guard were severely limited. In a fit of pique, he had asked for a discharge without thinking through the consequences. Sulzle was exasperated. “We moved on again,” she sighed.

This time they relocated to Salt Lake City, the world headquarters of the Mormon church, where Omar had found a college that offered a course in mechanical engineering. Sulzle was now a 13-hour drive from home and pregnant with their second child. A few weeks after the move, her father died.

Sulzle mourned the loss deeply and went home to Mobridge for the funeral, but in her own new family, things were finally gelling as Omar began spending more time with her and their son. She took pictures of Omar with Ahmed, age 2, on a carousel at a local amusement park, and mock-wrestling at home on the couch. She also noticed changes in her husband that made her wonder. He toyed with growing a beard, only to repeatedly shave it off, as if he were trying on different personas to see how they fit. However, Sulzle was still the only one who ever talked about God — over dinner, with friends and acquaintances — just as her parents always had done.


Omar and his son Ahmed in 1985.

Photo: Courtesy of Sandy Sulzle

Life changed after Sarah, the first of the couple’s three daughters, was born in January 1986. “My husband started praying and fasting,” Sulzle says, contemplating a photograph of Omar cuddling his new daughter. “The responsibility got him thinking about what kind of person he wanted to be.” Since arriving in Salt Lake City, Sulzle had worked as a nurse in an intensive care ward for severely disabled children. After Sarah’s birth, Omar promised to take the pressure off her and get a job.

Around this time, Omar’s mother came to the U.S. on a visit and they attended mosque together. It was the first time Sulzle had met any of her in-laws, and watching mother and son praying, she found herself wondering about Islam. “I was becoming curious,” she said. Privately, Sulzle was beginning a gradual but profound spiritual transformation. That was the last year they had a Christmas tree.

It was a long and agonizing transition. “I’d still go to church on Sunday, and he would go to mosque on Friday,” she reflects. “Sometimes we would do both.” Initially, she hid her growing interest in Islam. But because so many of his friends were Middle Eastern and spoke a language she could not understand, she secretly signed up for a crash course in Arabic. Even in Mormon-dominated Salt Lake City, Omar had found a small Muslim community. But after three years, Omar announced that he wanted to move again, this time to Raleigh, which had a much bigger Muslim population. There, Omar finally got a job.

By 1994, Sulzle felt ready to convert. “I was going through inner turmoil. Christianity doesn’t give you a lot of direction in your day-to-day life. I needed more structure. Islam was calling out to me.”

Secretly, she began reading Islamic books Omar had bought for her earlier in the marriage that had sat gathering dust on a shelf. “There’s a daily structure around prayer in Islam, which I liked. And sharia [religious law] is there to show the right way in all decisions, from how to use the bathroom to how to have sex with your husband,” she explained. She took a hard look at everything she’d been taught in Bible class. “Christians are good at praising God, but not good at obeying. They follow, but don’t stick to, the Ten Commandments,” she said. “In Islam, you have to make more of an effort.”

On her second son Salah’s first birthday, Sulzle finally told her husband she wanted to convert. “I told him to say the shahada with me,” the Muslim declaration of faith, “and then I took a bath.” She came back to find Omar beaming. “He was very happy, but we did not go out to celebrate.” This was a private moment. “He showed me how to pray. I went to sleep with [Quranic] suras floating past my eyes.”

The Road to the Middle East

Six months later, Omar dropped a bombshell. “Take the children to Jordan, so they can be raised as proper Muslims and learn Arabic,” he told her. She was not to feel nervous, Omar told her; he had a sister who lived there and would look after her. Why would she need Omar’s sister to help, she asked, when she had a husband? “I’m not coming with you,” he replied, sending Sulzle into a complete panic.

Omar had recently started his own business, a commercial appliance service center, and said he could not afford to give it up. “I’ll save money and come later,” he said. Sulzle, who would be traveling for the first time outside the U.S., felt she could not say no. “I’ll do two years maximum on my own, OK?” she told him.

For months after her arrival in Jordan, Sulzle, who had five children to care for, struggled with the language and culture. “You could not drink water from the taps but had to have it delivered to a tank on the roof. I did not know how to order the water or how to haggle in the shops. I hated shopping the most.” Sulzle already wore a headscarf, known as hijab, and an abaya, the long black gown traditionally worn by women in the Arab world, but so few Western women in Amman dressed this way that locals would stop and stare when Sulzle opened her mouth and her American accent came tumbling out.

Sulzle regularly pleaded with Omar to join them. To show his wife he was making a genuine effort to relocate back to the Middle East, he set up a business to import carved Syrian furniture to the U.S. Deliverymen filled Sulzle’s cramped apartment in Amman with samples. He visited, but continued living in Virginia, running his repair shop.

Two years stretched to three, then five. When, during one trip to Amman, Omar claimed his right under Islam to take a second wife and married a Jordanian woman, Sulzle fought to suppress her jealousy. “I wasn’t happy about it at all,” she said. Omar now divided his limited time in Jordan between his two wives. In July 2001, Sulzle gave birth to their sixth child, Abdullah. Sulzle was upset by Omar’s frequent absences, but “when I look back now, I think all of this was a drop in the ocean compared to what was to come,” she said.

She occasionally returned to the United States but found that she had fallen out of synch with the country of her birth. Whenever she visited, she remained fully covered, as did her older daughters, Sarah and Zaina, who were by then in their teens. “People would laugh at us and ask if Halloween had come early,” she said.

Dangerous Liaisons

Everything changed after the 9/11 attacks. Omar finally came to live in Jordan full-time, bringing along his eldest son Ahmed, 19, who had been attending high school in America. The country they called home was no longer accepting of Muslims, Omar told Sulzle. Although his son had only just graduated, Omar was in a hurry to marry him off. He told Sulzle that he had already chosen a bride: a daughter of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a well-known Palestinian religious scholar who lived in Jordan and had a controversial past. Between 1995 and 1999, Maqdisi, a former carpet salesman, had served time in Swaqa, a Jordanian prison over which the GID has exerted significant influence, and that has been a site of abuse, according to Human Rights Watch. He was convicted of plotting to blow up key sites in Amman with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — a former street fighter and drunk who would go on to become the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Because of his associations with Zarqawi and other jihadists, including Osama bin Laden, the GID regarded Maqdisi as a terrorist, but in Jordan’s expat Palestinian community, he was a superstar, and newly arrived Omar wanted to benefit from his influence. The decision to bind the two families together would prove devastating for Omar, Sulzle, and their six children.


Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi at his home in Rusaifa, Jordan, in July 2017.

Photo: Cathy Scott-Clark for The Intercept

Omar had first met Maqdisi during a trip to Jordan in 1999, the year Maqdisi was released from prison. Omar had gone to pay his respects at Maqdisi’s home in Rusaifa, outside Amman, and on discovering that his and Maqdisi’s mothers were from the same West Bank town of Barqa, he’d proposed a marriage between their children. “Shawki wanted our eldest son to marry someone from his hometown, not an American,” Sulzle recalls.

Although Omar took Sulzle to meet Maqdisi and his two wives, he did not inform her of Maqdisi’s terrorism conviction and friendship with Zarqawi, and Sulzle knew nothing about them. “I was quite naive when it came to these things,” she recalled. “I rarely even watched the news.” As far as she knew, Maqdisi was a family man who happened to be a notorious or respected religious scholar — depending on your beliefs and where you lived. She had no inkling that Maqdisi was considered Zarqawi’s primary mentor, a relationship that began in Pakistan and continued in the Jordanian prison, where Maqdisi had honed Zarqawi’s rough Islamist ideology during the 1990s.

The September 11 attacks did not dissuade Omar from completing the union between the two families, and his frequent meetings with Maqdisi during the winter of 2001 to discuss arrangements for the forthcoming wedding drew the attention of U.S. and Jordanian intelligence. It was the price of coming into his orbit, the scholar told Omar, warning him to be careful. But when the GID called Omar in for questioning about Maqdisi, Omar initially treated the intelligence agents with contempt. “Shawki thought he was more American than Palestinian,” Sulzle said. “It was a terrible misjudgment.”

At GID headquarters, Omar refused to answer any questions and pushed a mattress up against the door of his holding cell to stop the intelligence agents from getting in. “He told me later that he began drumming on it with his feet, demanding to speak to the U.S. embassy,” said Maqdisi, who, having served years in GID detention, warned Omar that disrespecting the Jordanian authorities would have serious consequences. In an interview at his home in Rusaifa, Maqdisi told The Intercept: “The intelligence people didn’t like him, and they set out to exact their revenge.”

Maqdisi explains that Omar thought he was untouchable. “The trouble was [Omar] thought he was a businessman from America. He had an American passport and he talked to them like an American. He told them to back off. They did not like the disrespect.”

In Jordan, everyone offered obeisance to the GID, which had a well-documented reputation for violence and vengeance. According to a 2006 Human Rights Watch report, “officers routinely beat detainees to extract confessions” and manufactured evidence to convict them.

What Omar also did not appreciate was that post-September 11, his American citizenship would not help him. After the attacks on America by Arabs from the Middle East, an existing alliance between the GID and the CIA deepened significantly as the two intelligence agencies sought to uncover other terrorist plots against the U.S. At the CIA’s request, the Jordanian agency began to help track Zarqawi, who had been born in the Jordanian town of Zarqa, next door to Maqdisi’s Rusaifa, and anyone associated with him.

The GID informed the CIA that Maqdisi was still a key link to Zarqawi, although the scholar insisted to The Intercept that he had not seen his notorious pupil since they were released under royal amnesty in 1999. Prior to 9/11, Maqdisi had become a cheerleader for bin Laden, who regularly cited the scholar’s theological writings, and Zarqawi had volunteered for military duties with Al Qaeda. But after 9/11, Maqdisi and Zarqawi had fallen out over Zarqawi’s brutality in Iraq. Their mutual condemnations were published on jihadi websites with Maqdisi arguing that Zarqawi’s campaign of barbarism alienated the wider Muslim community; while Zarqawi accused his old teacher of going soft.

When Omar married his son to Maqdisi’s oldest daughter, Umaima, in July 2002, Sulzle said, the Jordanians added Omar to the Zarqawi network chart, even though there was no proven link between them beyond their children’s union. Maqdisi was on the run from the GID at the time of the wedding, accused by Jordanian authorities of conspiring to commit another wave of terrorist attacks, so he attended dressed as a women in an abaya and a niqab. Sulzle, who was in another room with Maqdisi’s wives, knew nothing about his surprise appearance until Omar told her much later.

When, a month after the wedding, the requests for Omar to present himself at GID headquarters became more insistent, the whole family decided to leave Jordan. Sulzle said that Omar was struggling financially and wanted to make another foray into the furniture export business. First, they visited Syria to secure contracts with makers of traditional inlaid furniture. Then they went to Iraq, where Omar said he wanted Ahmed to attend university, despite the threat of war with America.

Three months later, with the U.S. invasion looming, they relocated back to Syria. “Baghdad felt far too dangerous,” Sulzle recalled. “But we could not return to Amman because we’d given up the house and sold everything.” After the Americans invaded Iraq in March 2003, Sulzle pleaded to move even farther away and Omar agreed. They relocated to the United Arab Emirates, where their daughter Sarah already lived with her husband. “We planned to run the furniture business there, far away from the trouble,” said Sulzle.

For the first few months in the UAE, the family appeared to be regaining its footing. In May 2003, Umaima, Maqdisi’s daughter, gave birth to her first child, a girl called Haja. Sulzle, who lived close by in a modest rented apartment with her unmarried children, helped care for the baby. Just as Sulzle was starting to feel more settled, Omar, who was frequently absent on business trips to Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, announced that he had taken a third wife, an Iraqi woman named Narmeen Saleh. He needed a local wife to help him make business connections in Baghdad, he said. Sulzle was devastated.

Despite her relative isolation and the worsening security situation in the Middle East, Sulzle dared not call her American relatives for fear of infecting them with her new family’s notoriety. “I just got on with my life,” she said.

Amman, JORDAN:  (FILES) -- This image grab from Jordan's official TV dated 26 April 2004 shows Jordanian al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. Iraqi television announced 08 June 2006 that the Jordanian-born Zarqawi had been killed in Iraq. AFP PHOTO/Jordanian TV  (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

A still from Jordan’s official TV network on April 26, 2004, shows Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq and a former pupil of Maqdisi.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Night Raiders in Iraq

As the Middle East began its post-2003 descent into violence, Omar’s family connections to Jordanian jihadis caught up with him again.

In April 2004, the Jordanian authorities announced that they had foiled a major Zarqawi-led plot to mount a series of dirty bomb attacks in Amman. Among the targets were the U.S. embassy, the Jordanian prime minister’s office, and GID headquarters. The GID estimated that if the attacks had gone ahead, they would have killed thousands of people.

Four plotters were captured alive. Under intensive interrogation, they revealed details of how Zarqawi had allegedly planned the attacks using a large circle of accomplices inside and outside Jordan. He had allegedly communicated with them using messages written in invisible ink on bank notes delivered by people posing as businessmen. Others had helped transfer funding for the attacks into Jordan by buying and selling used cars and other imports such as furniture, the Jordanians said.

Determined to break up the entire network, the GID cast a wide net. Shawki Omar, Maqdisi’s relative by marriage, an importer-exporter of furniture who traveled frequently around the region and was already on the GID list of troublemakers, became an obvious suspect. Although Maqdisi knew many men who fought and died for Zarqawi in Iraq, including his own son, he denies that Shawki ever left his family to join the fray. “I never heard that [Omar] had been one of them and I never heard that he was connected to Abu Musab,” Maqdisi told The Intercept.

Despite signs that he was once again under GID surveillance, Omar shocked his family by announcing in June 2004 that he was returning to Iraq. Lucrative U.S. reconstruction contracts were coming up, he said, and he wanted to start a new company to bid for them. He told Sulzle that she didn’t have to come; he planned to travel there with his Iraqi wife, Narmeen Saleh. Sulzle was relieved, but when her 9-year-old son, Salah, announced that he also wanted to go “for an adventure,” and Omar agreed to take him, she grew furious. She pleaded with Omar to leave the boy behind, but as usual, Omar refused to listen.

In Baghdad, Omar and his Iraqi wife rented a house and an office, where he worked every day. The chaos of war was all around them, Salah recalled. There were regular bombings and U.S. military operations. The boy was scared and rarely went out, even to school, but Omar appeared to be making progress, according to Salah, who told The Intercept in a recent interview that as far as he knew, his father’s business efforts were genuine and they were not under any kind of surveillance by the U.S. military. In phone calls with Sulzle, Omar told her that business was going well.

That all changed on October 17, 2004, when Omar was named by the Jordan authorities as a suspect in the foiled Zarqawi-led plot to mount dirty bomb attacks in Amman. One of those arrested in the GID raid of April 2004 had allegedly named Omar as an accomplice. Omar was indicted in absentia along with Zarqawi and 12 others. Sulzle, who for personal reasons had by now returned to live in Jordan, was terrified for her husband and her son. But she dared not call them.

Eleven days later, on the night of October 29, 2004, the U.S. military mounted a raid that captured Omar in Baghdad. Omar and his wife Saleh had attended an engagement party at Saleh’s uncle’s house. The party ended late, and the house was full of guests staying overnight, including Omar, Saleh, and Salah, who recalls that he was up around midnight, playing games on a computer. “All of a sudden I heard sirens,” Salah told The Intercept. “I looked out of the window and saw movement in the backyard. Then I heard a helicopter overhead.”

Salah ran to the bedroom where his father and stepmother were sleeping and saw his father at the window with his hands up, shouting: “Don’t shoot, I’m going to open the door.” Seconds later, Salah said, all the doors in the house were blasted open with explosives, and U.S. Marines swarmed inside with dogs, smashing possessions and tackling people to the floor. Omar shouted for his son to stay in his room and lock the door. It was the last time Salah saw him.

While Salah was corralled in a room with the women, the Marines rounded up Omar and five other guests. Omar and his wife maintain that they were all relatives. But a U.S. military panel that later branded Omar an enemy combatant alleged that four of them were Jordanian jihadis and the fifth was an Iraqi insurgent.

“There was a lot of yelling and banging. I was terrified,” said Salah, 24, who is a U.S. citizen and now lives in Raleigh. At one point, Marines brought Narmeen Saleh into the room where the women had been told to gather, and where Salah was crouching on the floor. “I spoke to the soldiers in English. They heard my American accent and could see I was an American kid, but they just left me,” he recalled. A few minutes later, the Marines came back into the room and dragged Saleh out again by her hair.

In Omar’s bedroom, he and Saleh both say they were beaten with the butts of guns. Omar passed out. “My husband was bleeding profusely from the wounds inflicted by the severe beating,” Saleh said during a British parliamentary hearing on the case in 2014. “I tried to stop the soldiers and pleaded with them to stop beating my husband, but they would not. There were so many U.S. soldiers, they filled the room.” After four hours of beating, Saleh was taken away along with her husband.

When the Marines left, Omar’s son Salah was too scared to move. In the morning, he ventured into his father’s bedroom. “There were bloodstains on the wall and floor and a cupboard door had been ripped off its hinges. There had obviously been a huge fight.” All that remained of Omar were his bloody pajamas, which had been ripped off during the raid and flung against a wall.

Salah would be stuck in Baghdad for months as the terrorist campaign led by Zarqawi reached its peak. “I was so scared. I was staying with Narmeen Saleh’s mother in a Shiite neighborhood. She warned me never to go outside as I would be killed.”

Back in Amman, Sulzle knew nothing of the raid until Saleh was released after two weeks in U.S. military detention and called her. Eventually, the Red Cross repatriated Salah to Amman, where he was reunited with his mother. Neither Narmeen Saleh nor Salah knew what had become of Omar.


Medical examination photos of Omar in a U.S. detention facility in 2005, released as part of a 2007 court order by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

Saleh recalled that on the night of the raid, she and Omar, both terrified and bleeding, had been flown to a U.S. military facility that, from the sound of aircraft taking off and landing, they judged to be close to the Baghdad airport. It was Camp Nama, which by 2004 was a notorious U.S. military detention facility. There, they were beaten, sexually taunted, and subjected to electric shocks. Others who were held at the facility reported puerile but horrific acts of humiliation that included being tricked into drinking urine.

They were punched, kicked, and forced for hours into painful stress positions. Six-foot-plus Omar was squeezed into a small box that bent his frame. Saleh, who was four months pregnant, was forced into a small cage that resembled a dog kennel. (The following year, Saleh gave birth to a daughter who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which doctors told her had likely been triggered by her mistreatment.)

“The interrogations did not stop for one minute,” Saleh, who now lives in the U.K., told members of Parliament. “Investigators came in one after the other. They tried every means to make me say what they wanted me to say. They used beatings and electric shocks. They threw cold water on me and threatened to rape me if I didn’t confess. They told me they would send me to Abu Ghraib and do to me what they did to the people there. … When they found out that I was pregnant, they told me they would kill the child in my womb. They then concentrated their beating and electric shocks on my abdomen area.

“I could hear them torturing my husband as he was in the room next door. They took me in to watch them as they used electric shocks on my husband’s genitals. They put his head in cold water. They used sleep deprivation. They brought me three times in front of my husband and threatened to rape me if he didn’t confess. They kept telling him they would also rape his 10-year-old son in front of him. They did not have Salah, but my husband did not know this.”

Five months earlier, Abu Ghraib had become notorious around the world for the abuses committed there, but Nama, which was a secret facility, largely escaped scrutiny at the time. In 2006, a Human Rights Watch report lambasted U.S. detention policy in Iraq, singling out camps like Nama as sites where detainees were subject to “beatings, exposure to extreme cold, threats of death, humiliation, and various forms of psychological abuse or torture.” Noting that huge numbers of Iraqis had been detained without evidence or legal recourse, a 2005 U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq report also noted that there was an urgent need to end lengthy prison sentences that had been handed out “without adequate judicial oversight” and that were based solely on vague “security” threats.

In late 2004, three unidentified American military officers from the Multi-National Force – Iraq visited Nama to interrogate Omar before classifying him as an “enemy combatant.” This status enabled the U.S. to continue holding him without charge.

“We’re Just Holding Him for the Iraqis”

Despite Omar and Sulzle’s strained relationship prior to his arrest, she refused to give up on her wayward husband, whose communication channels now narrowed to a trickle of pitiful prison letters delivered by the Red Cross. He told his family that he often spent long periods of time in solitary confinement without any explanation. In some letters to his wife, he tried to strike an upbeat tone: “Inshallah, we will see each other soon. I love you so much. Sadness will not last forever.” Sometimes, he was combative. “Sue them all Sandy,” he wrote in one letter. Other times, he was fatalistic: “I am slowly dying here.”

As time went on, U.S. military censors, who read all correspondence to and from enemy combatants in U.S.-run detention facilities in Iraq, began heavily redacting Omar’s letters. “Finally today they allowed me to send a letter after the Red Cross left, I don’t know if they will give me more to write or not,” he wrote in one. “I am alhomdililah [sic] fine … they transferred me to [Camp Bucca] and put me in a lovely place called W2 …” Most of the rest of the message is blacked out until the end, where Omar wrote, “kiss the kids for me … I will see you soon.” According to Sulzle, he repeatedly went on hunger strike to protest his classification as an enemy combatant, his detention without official charges, and the harsh conditions under which he was held. He told her that he had obtained an Iraqi lawyer, who repeatedly demanded to see the evidence against him, but was denied access. All the U.S. military would say was that Omar was classified as being among “the 200” high-value detainees, including those who were supposedly linked to Zarqawi.

In August 2005, Sulzle learned that the case against Omar was being referred to the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, established by the U.S. to take over jurisdiction of terrorism offenses and other criminal cases. She was filled with dread.

The court was supposed to replace Iraq’s war-crippled legal institutions, but it was under-resourced, poorly supervised, and would later be condemned by human rights groups for being dysfunctional and ignoring due process. According to the 2008 Human Rights Watch report, the court failed to ensure that suspects were adequately represented by lawyers, did not properly examine evidence, and was accused of ignoring widespread torture in Iraqi jails. “Defendants often endure long periods of pre-trial detention without judicial review, and are not able to pursue a meaningful defense or challenge evidence against them,” the report concluded. Abuse in detention, typically with the aim of extracting confessions, appeared common, “thus tainting court proceedings.” Most defendants tried by the court “had ineffectual legal counsel,” Human Rights Watch found; the court instead “frequently relied on the testimony of secret informants and confessions likely to have been extracted under duress.”


A photo of Omar after his 2004 capture in Iraq, released as part of a 2007 court order by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

From Amman, Sulzle bombarded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad with inquiries, and with the help of Omar’s relatives living in the U.S., she hired American lawyers, who took to U.S. courts to stop the transfer, arguing that Omar was American and therefore entitled to a fair trial in the U.S.

Joseph Margulies, one of Omar’s American lawyers, said his client was just a businessman seeking investment opportunities in Iraq, noting that the rationale for holding him changed over time. “The [U.S.] government initially made allegations that he was involved in extremism, but never went forward with any proof of this, and they later just shifted to saying that regardless of whether those allegations are true or not, we’re just holding him for the Iraqis,” Margulies said. That suggested that the U.S. government had lost confidence in the original allegations made against him by Jordan’s GID, the lawyer argued.

In February 2006, Margulies sought a restraining order to stop Omar’s formal transfer into Iraqi detention. On February 13, a U.S. district court granted that motion, acknowledging Margulies’s claim that the “likelihood the petitioner will suffer irreparable injury is high” inside the Iraqi system. The U.S. government argued back that a multinational military force, not the United States, was holding Omar. U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo M. Urbina sided with Margulies, ruling that “the threat of tangible harm to the petitioner resulting from the court’s failure to act outweighs any potential harm to the Executive’s exercise of its war powers. The court, moreover, notes that it is in the public’s interest to have a judiciary that does not shirk its obligations.”

Sean Watts, a former military lawyer who is now a professor at the Creighton University School of Law, told U.S. News and World Report in 2008 that the desire to transfer detainees into foreign custody represented a change from the treatment that was once afforded American citizens captured abroad. “It’s a different ballgame [now] when you’re dealing with United States citizens,” he says. “These cases are departures in that we are not willing to treat them with [the] usual restraint and deference.”

While Sulzle remained hopeful that Margulies and her husband’s other U.S. lawyers would get his case transferred to the U.S., Omar hit another serious roadblock in February 2006 when the Jordanian State Security Court sentenced him to death in absentia, along with Zarqawi and eight others, for plotting the foiled 2004 chemical attacks in Amman. Omar was convicted on the written testimony of other plotters who had been captured during the initial GID raid of April 2004 and had spent the past two years in GID detention.

Back in the U.S., Omar’s lawyers, suspicious of the Jordanian convictions, continued to fight for his right to have his case heard in an American court. Pushing back against U.S. government assertions that Omar was being fairly treated in Iraq, Margulies petitioned for the disclosure of photographs taken by the U.S. military during Omar’s arrest and detention. Sulzle had learned of their existence during a rare phone call with her husband in 2005.

The images, disclosed by court order in 2007, were shocking. Some showed Omar at the moment of his capture, bloodied and apparently unconscious. In others, taken at Nama by members of the Multi-National Force – Iraq who had interrogated Omar in 2004, a large part of Omar’s scalp appeared to have been ripped off and stapled back down. His legs, arms, face, and torso were badly bruised. Also disclosed were Omar’s medical files, which showed that he had lost an alarming amount of weight and was suffering from malnutrition and a complex series of other ailments.


Photographs of wounds on Omar’s head and leg, released as part of a 2007 court order by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Omar’s lawyers argued that “the photographs produced to date undeniably support Mr. Omar’s claim that he was tortured in U.S. custody,” adding that the “nature of the photos means that there is a legitimate concern that the government will not maintain this and other sensitive evidence that it now possesses regarding either Mr. Omar’s torture and mistreatment at the hands of U.S. officials, or the torture and mistreatment of other detainees. … Under the circumstances, petitioners fear some such evidence may already have been destroyed.”

The legal assault led to a small victory in the D.C. district court, which was upheld by the D.C. Circuit. A federal appeals court ruled that Omar’s transfer should be halted as he had “yet to be convicted by a foreign tribunal.”

Justice Department lawyers fought back, submitting a report in which they claimed that Omar and those captured with him were conducting “surveillance of potential kidnap victims within Baghdad and they conducted weapons training in Fallujah.” According to the written testimony of the five other men who had been captured with Omar and were being held elsewhere in the Iraqi prison system, he had “directed and participated in the insurgent cell activities of selection and surveillance of potential kidnap victims.” The Justice Department report also alleged that bomb-making materials had been found in Omar’s house.

Then-Maj. Gen. John D. Gardner, who ran the detention operations in Iraq, said in a statement that Omar had links to Zarqawi’s terrorist network in Iraq “and is believed to have acted as al Zarqawi’s personal emissary to insurgent groups in several cities in Iraq.”

After learning through court disclosures that the U.S. had cited Omar’s conviction in Jordan as part of their justification for his detention, Sulzle and Omar’s lawyers suspected that the same agency that had accused Omar of making dirty bombs to attack multiple targets all over Jordan had also asked the U.S. military to run him to ground in Iraq.

There were many questions that Omar’s American legal team would have liked to ask about the U.S. military’s accusations against him, but the case lodged in the U.S. was confined to issues of Iraqi sovereignty and U.S. constitutional reach. The lawyers also didn’t have an opportunity to examine the GID allegations against Omar, even though his conviction in the 2004 Amman chemical plot would be overturned in May 2007 by another Jordanian court, which ruled that the convictions were unfair because the prosecutor who interrogated the suspects “was one of their targets when they plotted their attacks.”

“This violates an article of the Jordanian penal code which states that a person should not be an opponent and at the same time a judge or part of the investigation process,” according to the 2007 ruling. But it came too late to help Omar.

In June 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously that Omar was not entitled to constitutional protections. Sulzle felt as if she had been punched in the stomach. “His fate was sealed,” she said. “The moment he was captured, the U.S. military had already decided he was guilty and they were going to make an example of him, with or without evidence. There was no way he was going to get a fair hearing.”

No Way Home

After the Supreme Court ruling crushed his attempt to claim habeas corpus, Omar remained in U.S. custody for another three years. “It’s as if they wanted to hold onto him until the last possible moment,” Sulzle said.

In June 2010, after almost six years in detention without being charged, Omar was given a date for his first hearing by an Iraqi court, although no charges were listed, according to his family and lawyers. He informed his Iraqi lawyer to prepare for the case. However, at the last minute, the date was moved forward, giving Omar’s lawyer no time to get to court. “Shawki was being held in a shipping container at the time and he asked to use a phone to warn his Iraqi lawyer the case had been brought forward,” recalled Sulzle. “They gave him a cellphone, but there was no reception inside the container, so he could not get through.”

In court with no legal representative to guide him, Omar — still unofficially accused of being one of Zarqawi’s henchmen — discovered that he was no longer classified by the U.S. as an “enemy combatant” and that he was not being charged with terrorism offenses either. The case against him now hinged on entering Iraq illegally, a claim he heard for the first time that day. He was incredulous. His entry card had been stamped when he’d crossed the Syrian border into Iraq in June 2004, Omar told Sulzle in a phone call, but the Marines had seized that and all his other identity documents during his arrest in 2004. With no means of proving otherwise, he was convicted of entering the country illegally and sentenced to 15 years in jail.

The following month, the U.S. military in Iraq formally handed over Camp Cropper, the last Iraqi detention facility under its control, to the Iraqi government. The Iraqis renamed the facility Karkh prison, but the U.S. would continue to hold “the 200” high-value detainees — including Omar — in a special facility there consisting of shipping containers and called “compound five.”

“That was another low point for us,” says Sulzle.

Omar was finally transferred to Iraqi custody on July 15, 2011 — part of the last batch of prisoners handed over before the U.S. military officially left Iraq, trading his U.S. prisoner number, 200165, for an Iraqi one, 41852.

Iraq's Minister of Justice Dara Noureddin, left, and U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, right, hold a symbolic key to the US Theater Internment Facility at Camp Cropper during a ceremony transferring the facility to Iraqi control, Thursday, July 15, 2010 in Baghdad, Iraq. The United States handed over the last detention facility under its control to Iraqi authorities on Thursday, a milestone in Iraq's push for complete sovereignty seven years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Iraq’s Minister of Justice Dara Noureddin, left, and U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, right, hold a symbolic key to the U.S. Theater Internment Facility at Camp Cropper during a ceremony transferring the facility to Iraqi control on July 15, 2010 in Baghdad, Iraq.

Photo: Maya Alleruzzo/AP

Although Omar had won an appeal to cut his immigration sentence in half in February 2011, he remained in the shipping containers at Karkh with the rest of “the 200.” The beatings and abuse started almost immediately, according to Sulzle. One of Omar’s former U.S. lawyers, University of Chicago Law School assistant professor Aziz Huq, said the allegations of harsh treatment were no surprise. “You would have to be extravagantly optimistic in engaging in these handovers to think that you’re not exposing these people to substantial risk of abuse,” Huq said.

As the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez and other U.N. officials intervened in Omar’s case, warning the Iraqi government that his detention was “devoid of any legal basis and therefore arbitrary.” They argued that many international agreements had been contravened in his arrest, detention, torture, prosecution, conviction, and continued jailing. According to the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions, Iraq operated “a smokescreen of flawed legal processes.”

In August 2012, after the Iraqi government announced the unprecedented execution of 21 unnamed terrorist suspects, including three women, in a single day, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay condemned the rampant use of the death penalty in Iraq as “obscene,” adding: “It is like processing animals in a slaughterhouse.”

With over 120 executions approved that year, Sulzle began to worry seriously for her husband’s life. Sectarian hatred seemed to be driving these court-sanctioned killings in post-war Iraq, and since Omar was still condemned as one of “the 200,” she thought his name was likely to be high on the government’s hit list. Three months later, Sulzle reached Omar on the telephone. He told her that a new round of brutal and intensive interrogations had begun regarding the old terrorism allegations brought by the GID in Jordan and by the U.S. military at the time of his capture. Several other “terrorist” prisoners held with him at Karkh and accused of being part of “the 200” had recently been sentenced to death. Zeina Ahmad, Omar’s Iraqi lawyer at this time, told Sulzle that when she visited him in Karkh, he had been so badly beaten that his feet and legs had swelled and turned blue.

In 2013, stories of abuse started to emerge from Karkh. In January, 25 detainees were seen being transferred out of the prison, only to permanently vanish. Detainees were seen coming out of interrogations “with fractured bones and burns,” according to a U.N. report.

Omar had been on hunger strike for several weeks when on May 19, 2013, authorities raided his cell, smashing or seizing most of his possessions. A few days later, on May 21, he was taken from his cell and subsequently vanished. When Sulzle learned the news, she was distraught. “I rang everyone I could, but nobody could tell me anything,” she said.

Narmeen Omar, right, wife of Shawki Ahmad Omar, imprisoned in Iraq, and their daughter Zeynap, left, hold placards with pictures of him as they stage a protest demanding his release outside the US Embassy in central London, Saturday, May 18, 2013. Omar, a Jordanian who became a U.S. citizen in 1986 came to Iraq, shortly after Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003. US troops arrested him at his Baghdad home, allegedly finding guns and bomb parts. He was held for more than a year without charges or, he says, legal counsel, and he was handed to an Iraqi prison, according to the family. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Narmeen Omar, right, Iraqi wife of Shawki Omar, and their daughter Zainab, stage a protest demanding his release outside the U.S. Embassy in London on May 18, 2013.

Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

The Red Cross finally located Omar six months later. He was being held in solitary confinement at Baghdad Central Prison, formerly Abu Ghraib. The Iraqi authorities refused to confirm anything about his condition, triggering Amnesty International to issue an urgent call for his release. The human rights group also demanded that the Iraqi authorities clarify his legal status.

In 2014, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Omar’s case revealed “serious procedural violations,” including lack of access to legal assistance, and concluded that his sentence was “harsh and disproportionate.” The U.N. group asked that Iraq immediately release Omar and compensate him. The Iraqi government did not respond to these allegations of ill-treatment.

The following fall, as Omar neared the end of his immigration sentence, Iraqi prison officials moved him again, this time to a Ministry of Justice facility. There, he was interrogated about the original U.S. military allegations that he had been a senior aide to Zarqawi. According to Sulzle and Saleh, several weeks of beatings and intimidation followed before he was charged with terrorist offenses. Sulzle and Curtis Doebbler, an international human rights lawyer she’d hired in 2013, have never been informed of the precise charges. Doebbler had previously represented Saddam Hussein in front of the Iraqi justice system, which made his dealings with the opposing side in Omar’s case all the more challenging. Nonetheless, he contends that the legal process Omar underwent in Iraq was shambolic by any standard. “To this day, the Iraqi government has never produced any evidence against him,” Doebbler told The Intercept. “All they have to show his guilt are some statements from the U.S. military calling him a terrorist.”

Last year, Sulzle discovered that the new case against her husband was based on the written testimony of a Jordanian man who had been arrested with him in October 2004, the same testimony that the U.S. Justice Department had used in the 36-page report that led to Omar losing his habeas corpus petition in 2008. A second corroborating statement came from a Jordanian man with no connection to Omar, who had been interrogated by the U.S. military before being released in 2009.

In May 2016, Omar was tried and sentenced to another 15 years in prison for unspecified terrorism offenses. Omar told Sulzle in a phone call soon after that in the run-up to his trial, the Iraqis had “done everything to me.” Sulzle found some of what Omar said hard to take. Speaking as always in English, hoping the guards would not understand, he said that Iraqi interrogators had used a glass bottle to rape him.

Subsequently, it emerged that one Jordanian prisoner whose statement had helped to convict Omar had been released and had returned to Amman, where he recanted everything he had said about Omar through the Jordanian Bar Association. The other Jordanian witness whose testimony was used to convict Omar also recanted, Sulzle told The Intercept. Both men told lawyers in Jordan that they had been tortured into making false accusations about Omar.

Forever Prisoner

Today, Omar occupies a cell in Harithiya prison in Baghdad. He suffers from a complicated range of medical conditions, including high blood pressure, celiac disease, malnourishment, and diabetes, and he has difficulty walking. According to Sulzle, he is regularly denied his medication, cannot eat the prison food because of his intolerance to gluten and, in a recent photograph taken by an official from the U.S. embassy, he had aged significantly. His hair is white. He has dark rings around his eyes. He looks jaundiced, thin, weak, and desperate.


Omar in March 2016.

Photo: U.S. Embassy in Baghdad
“As an American, a Sunni, and a Palestinian, Shawki is viewed with outright hatred by almost everyone in Harithiya, from the other prisoners to the lawyers, the government, and the guards,” Sulzle said.

Unlike Iraqi prisoners, Omar is officially forbidden to write letters and make or receive phone calls, Sulzle said. Over his 14 years in detention, he has been represented by six different Iraqi lawyers, two of whom died in suspicious circumstances, according to Sulzle. The lawyer who represented him during the May 2016 trial told his Iraqi wife, Narmeen Saleh, that she had faced so much harassment that she wished she had never taken up his case. At this point, Sulzle cannot find a single Iraqi lawyer willing to take up his appeal. Even Saleh has given up on him and told Sulzle that she had filed for divorce. Saleh did not respond to recent interview requests.

In messages smuggled out by other prisoners’ families, Omar complains about dirty food, ill-fitting clothes, and being denied access to blood pressure medications. The medicines and money Sulzle sends via the U.S. embassy in Amman do not reach him.

The Intercept contacted the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after Sulzle learned that Omar had received a visit from embassy personnel in June 2017. “Is it possible to share any details of his condition as recorded on that last meeting? And are you aware of who the Iraqi lawyer is who is defending him in this case, or what the status of his case is? His American lawyer is unsure, and any information you could provide about him as an American citizen would be helpful to document his status,” The Intercept wrote in an email to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The response, when it came, was stark: “I’m afraid I don’t have any other information for you at this time.”

In the past few weeks, Sulzle was informed that Omar had received another embassy visit on September 25. Consular officials reported that he “appeared ill and could only walk with crutches,” Sulzle told The Intercept.

The Jordanian GID did not respond officially to requests for comment about Omar’s case. But a GID official, who asked not to be named, recently told The Intercept: “If he returns [to Jordan], Omar will most likely be retried and imprisoned in Jordan with the help and cooperation of the U.S. intelligence agencies. The GID will consult with the FBI and the CIA as to what to do with Omar because of his citizenship status. His fate practically rests with the Americans, which is not a good option either for Omar.”

Neither the U.S. military nor the Iraqi government responded to requests for comment about Omar’s case. “We believe that the U.S. government wanted to make sure Shawki never had a chance to talk about the false accusations made against him and his torture by Americans and the Iraqis,” his daughter Manal said.

However, one GID official offered a simple way to keep Omar quiet: “Lock Omar up in a GID prison outside the official legal system, indefinitely, in which case both the American and Jordanians will not have to deal with the case publicly or revisit it.”

A hand written note from Sandy Sulzle’s husband, Shawki Omar, that says “ I love you “ flipped, to be viewed as a mirror reflection. A note he wrote for her 30 years ago and she keeps in her purse at all time.

A note handwritten by Omar to Sulzle 30 years ago that says “I love you” in reverse, to be viewed in a mirror. She keeps it in her purse at all times.

Photo: Nadia Bseiso for The Intercept

Sitting in her home in Amman, Sulzle produced a letter she had received from another prisoner who has been held with her husband for more than a decade and was transferred into Iraqi custody with him in July 2011. It makes for shocking reading: “I was categorized by the American forces as one of the ‘High Value Detainees’ or as they called us ‘the 200,’” writes Ismail Abdul Majeed Taufiq, prisoner number 41867. On April 10, 2016, the day he wrote the letter, he said, “I have been sentenced to death. At any time I could be taken for execution. I have been told by my interrogators that officials from the government and from the office of the Prime Minister were under the orders of the American government to not allow any of the prisoners who remain from ‘the 200’ to ever be released and to get them to confess by any means so that we can be sentenced to life terms or death. I feel like I have no one who cares about my case.”

The lack of tangible evidence against Omar and the abuse he has suffered in detention continue to torment Sulzle. Although his status as an American makes his case unique, Omar is one of an unknown number of men detained by U.S. forces during the occupation of Iraq and then rendered over to an Iraqi justice system notorious for corruption and sectarianism.

After an ordeal that has lasted so many years, Sulzle despairs of ever seeing her husband again. “I firmly believe that U.S. hands are keeping him in. Our son Salah gets excited sometimes at the thought of his father coming home, but I doubt that Shawki will ever get out.”

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