Arrested in Afghanistan in late 2001, David Hicks became arguably the most prominent Western detainee at Guantanamo Bay. A Muslim convert, the Australian-born Hicks was accused by the Pentagon of joining al-Qa`ida and training at its terrorist camps. Yet despite the charges, Hicks was transformed into a folk hero for the thousands of his compatriots who campaigned for his release. In April 2007, Hicks was released from Guantanamo Bay and returned to Australia. After being freed by Australian authorities in December 2007, Hicks would eventually publish his memoir in 2010, recounting his life experiences.[1]

Counterterrorism analysts examining Hicks’ memoir would expect to uncover insights into the appeal that radical Islamic movements have had for Western converts. One aspect that makes Hicks’ story especially interesting is the fact that he eventually renounced Islam and spent his last years at Guantanamo Bay as an object of suspicion for some of his fellow inmates. As a result, Hicks’ memoir could have provided detail on the process by which converts become disillusioned with Islam. This article, however, argues that Hicks has not aimed at full disclosure in his autobiography. While he appears to offer significant details about the conditions of his detention at Guantanamo Bay, including several diagrams on the layout of the prison camp,[2] he is vague and often incoherent when recounting the activities that led to his arrest. The result is an extended but implausible cover story meant to explain away his presence in Afghanistan at the time of the U.S.-led intervention.

A Profile of David Hicks
There is no dispute about the basic facts of Hicks’ life. An only child of parents who later divorced, Hicks dropped out of school at 15, worked on cattle stations and then trained horses in Japan. Watching Japanese television, he was moved by the plight of Kosovo, and went off directly to train in a camp in Albania run by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Coming home, he applied unsuccessfully to the Australian Defence Force (ADF), toyed with going to East Timor to help its people, adopted Islam and encountered the Tablighi Jama`at missionary Islamic movement.[3] After some time in Pakistan, he switched allegiance to Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LeT) and went to fight in Kashmir.[4] At LeT’s request, he moved to Afghanistan for further military training.[5] His capture in December 2001 led to five and a half years of imprisonment.

More specific details on Hicks’ life are up for contention. According to his 2004 Pentagon charge sheet, Hicks was accused of conspiracy, attempted murder by an unprivileged belligerent and aiding the enemy.[6] Another charge sheet dated February 2007 only accused him of providing material support for terrorism. The charge sheets claim that after arriving in Albania around May 1999, Hicks was trained in a KLA camp and “engaged in hostile action” before returning to Australia. Having joined a “terrorist organization,” namely LeT, after going to Pakistan in November 1999, Hicks “engaged in hostile action against Indian forces” on the Line of Control (LOC) between Pakistani and Indian Kashmir.[7] Hicks then allegedly went to Afghanistan with LeT funding to be trained by al-Qa`ida.[8] He is accused of staying at an al-Qa`ida guesthouse, where he handed over his passport and said he would use the kunya (alias) “Muhammed Dawood.”[9]

According to Leigh Sales’ work on Hicks, Usama bin Ladin visited the al-Faruq training camp while Hicks was undergoing training there in 2001. Hicks reportedly complained to Bin Ladin about the lack of training material in English. The al-Qa`ida chief urged Hicks to translate some material into English.[10]

After two courses, according to the Pentagon, al-Qa`ida’s military chief, Muhammad `Atif, recommended to Hicks an urban tactics training course at Tarnak Farm near Kandahar.[11] The curriculum included marksmanship, the use of assault and sniper rifles, rappelling, kidnapping and assassination methods. In August 2001, Hicks was trained in information collection and surveillance in an apartment in Kabul. `Atif then reportedly asked Hicks if he was willing to carry out a suicide attack, but Hicks was uninterested.[12] Hicks was in Pakistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, but afterward he traveled back to Afghanistan “to rejoin his al Qaeda associates.”[13]

Hicks’ Own Account
As long as the information on which the U.S. charges were based remains unpublished, it is not possible to ascertain which data Hicks himself supplied to Pentagon interrogators.[14] In his book, Hicks described his activities on Kashmir’s LOC: “We stayed for a week, and during that time a lot of fire was exchanged…We did not fire upon Indian soldiers or any other people. We only participated in the symbolic exchange of fire.”[15] Hicks claimed that he left the LOC before he could be “launched” as an infiltrator. By contrast, Hicks told his family in a letter excerpted by The Australian newspaper that he and three others did indeed cross the LOC, armed with rocket-propelled grenades.[16] This claim is impossible to verify. If Hicks did not prove his value to LeT in Kashmir, the group’s later investment in his further training seems unwarranted.

Hicks admitted that he undertook military training in Afghanistan, but asserted it was in “government-sanctioned camps.” He claims not even to have heard of al-Qa`ida until he was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay,[17] which is one of the most astonishing assertions in his book. According to Hicks’ account, an unnamed LeT friend escorted Hicks to Afghanistan.[18] In Kandahar, they went to a large, white building where at least 100 non-Afghans were staying. Hicks called it the “Kandahar Hotel.”[19] Not one of the foreigners he met there, Hicks wrote, had come to prepare for jihad. “No matter how angry they were at what was taking place, they never spoke of committing terrorist acts,” Hicks claimed. “On the contrary, they wanted to help their fellow human beings, not to harm them.”[20]

As Hicks considered his course options, another comrade brought him to a nearby school where “we passed five or six visiting Afghan and Arab scholars sitting on chairs. We…shook the hands of these scholars…After a few minutes, my acquaintance…asked if I recognized one in particular [Bin Ladin].”[21] His description of this meeting seems somewhat peculiar. Bin Ladin was not always so taciturn and unforthcoming. Last year, the author interviewed a former member of Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiya, Amran bin Mansoor. Amran participated in a training course in 2000 at an al-Qa`ida camp. He was one of a group of Southeast Asians introduced to Bin Ladin at a Kandahar guesthouse for jihadists from all over the world. Bin Ladin spoke to the Southeast Asians for 20 minutes, according to Amran, discussing among other topics the weather in Malaysia and Singapore. Yet nine months after that session, seated casually with a group of other “scholars,” as Hicks put it, Bin Ladin supposedly said nothing to a Westerner who had come for military training despite the potential value he represented for al-Qa`ida.

Regardless, at the camp Hicks had to choose between basic training or going to another camp. He reluctantly agreed to more basic training at a “mainstream camp” that was “administered by the local Afghan government” two or three hours by bus from Kandahar.[22] He spent seven weeks there.[23] Hicks offered no details of his training at this camp, in conformity with his habit of giving almost no information about any training he received. In particular, he avoided mentioning any weapon he learned to use. His training in Pakistan, for example, had been “mostly sport-oriented, for there was little funding for ammunition.”[24] LeT’s limited resources are surprising given that Hicks described the group as “a virtual branch of the [Pakistani] government.”[25]

After the basic training course, Hicks attended a mountain warfare course at the same camp, then an urban warfare course near Kandahar.[26] The urban warfare class dealt “with such situations as are found in Kashmir…when a village would need to be defended to deter soldiers from entering.”[27] His final course was in Kabul.[28] He offered no detail about this last course. Yet Feroz Abbasi, another inmate at Guantanamo Bay, was also an English-speaker in Afghanistan at the time. Abbasi described his training in an autobiography he composed in Guantanamo.[29] He arrived in Afghanistan early in 2001. After eight weeks of basic training at al-Faruq, Abbasi took “mountain training” once more at al-Faruq. He then undertook “city tactics” training at Kandahar airport, and finally was trained in the reconnaissance of potential targets in Kabul. Bin Ladin once gave a lecture at al-Faruq during Abbasi’s time there.

Hicks failed to see that Abbasi’s account is actually devastating for his own case.[30] Even without seeking to incriminate Hicks, Abbasi has outlined a program that was remarkably similar to Hicks’, except that Abbasi did not claim his camps were “administered by the local Afghan government.” The chances that both al-Qa`ida and the Taliban offered courses of identical training at roughly the same time seems highly unlikely.

Curtain Fall
In August 2001, Hicks decided that he wanted to leave Afghanistan and go home, which is why he was in Pakistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks.[31] Yet he has to convincingly explain to his readers why several months later, in December 2001, he was captured in Afghanistan by Northern Alliance forces. According to his account, Hicks needed a new Pakistani visa and money for his airfare to Australia.[32] After taking a taxi to Quetta, he claimed that he left his passport and some Afghan clothes in Kandahar. He thought that it would be difficult to enter Australia on a forged passport, but apparently did not think to tell Australian officials in Islamabad that his passport was lost.[33] Therefore, even after watching the 9/11 attacks on Pakistani television, he decided to travel back into Kandahar supposedly to collect his possessions.[34]

After entering Afghanistan, U.S. airstrikes began. Hearing that the Pakistani border was closed, Hicks weighed his options.[35] The mountain warfare graduate, who wrote lyrically about mountains and spent several months in Kashmir, decided against seeking refuge in the mountains near the Pakistani border as they “represented hardship with little food and water, and inadequate warmth in the night.”[36] He instead traveled to Kabul, where he teamed up with an LeT acquaintance.[37] Hicks was armed, but he did not identify his weapon.[38] According to Hicks, there had been some “old and rusty” guns in Kandahar that he and some traveling companions collected. Hicks later sold his gun and ammunition to finance a proposed taxi trip to Pakistan. By then, however, he was captured and sold to U.S. forces.

Hicks’ chapters on his last months in Afghanistan are the most incoherent in his book. They underline his inability to provide a clear picture of his motives and actions. This vagueness and evasiveness undermine the very story he has set out to construct. In the end, Hicks provides a dishonest account of his involvement with militant groups in South Asia. Rather than provide insight into his conversion to Islam or why he joined radical Islamic groups, Hicks’ autobiography is a self-serving document meant to “explain away” any suggestion that he was involved with al-Qa`ida or terrorist activities.

Unsatisfactory though his story is, Hicks is still worth studying because of the danger that white jihadists peculiarly represent to Western countries due to their “insider” status. Elements of his make-up, and some of his motives where they can be determined, may well be found in other Western recruits. At the same time, Hicks did provide one important, unintentional contribution, which is that his confused text is unlikely to inspire other Westerners to the jihadist path.

Ken Ward is a former Foreign Affairs officer and Indonesia analyst at Australia’s Office of National Assessments. He is currently a senior research associate of the department of political and social change, Australian National University. He researches Indonesian terrorism.

[1] David Hicks, Guantanamo, My Journey (Sydney: Heinemann, 2010). The author is grateful for comments on this article from Greg Fealy and Nelly Lahoud.

[2] Hicks himself does not state when he left Islam. A former fellow detainee of his, Moazzam Begg, does so in his memoir, Enemy Combatant.

[3] Hicks, p. 71.

[4] Ibid., p. 93.

[5] Ibid., p. 145.

[6] These are available in a book about Hicks by Leigh Sales, Detainee 002 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007), a book Hicks does not refer to in his memoir. The charge sheets are reproduced on pp. 256-260 and 264-270.

[7] Ibid., p. 257.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 258. In fact, this name is not a kunya. A kunya is a name using the words “Abu” or “Umm,” meaning father or mother, combined with the name of the eldest son, or eldest daughter if there is no son. For example, Bin Ladin’s kunya was Abu Abdullah. Aliases in kunya form have often been adopted even by recruits who have no children. Hicks was the father of two children, from whose mother he was long separated. Since “Dawood” is merely Arabic for “David,” it is unlikely that Hicks could have used this as his alias in Afghanistan since it was too close to his real name. The second charge sheet corrects this error, giving his alias as “Abu Muslim al-Austraili.”

[10] Ibid., p. 259.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., pp. 25, 279.

[13] Ibid., p. 259.

[14] Sales reports that Hicks in fact divulged everything to anybody interrogating him. She quotes an American prosecutor who saw him as “a total liability on a proper operation: he can’t keep his mouth shut. He talked from the second we caught him. We never had to use any techniques at all on him at Guantanamo.” Ibid., p. 85.

[15] Hicks, p. 113.

[16] In December 2007, The Australian published a selection of self-incriminating letters that Hicks had sent to his family from his travels, which had reportedly been seized by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) from Hicks’ parents’ house after his arrest.

[17] Hicks, p. 158.

[18] If Hicks is to be believed, he and his traveling companion encountered no difficulty crossing the border.

[19] Hicks, p. 142.

[20] Ibid., p. 140.

[21] This is the only meeting with Bin Ladin that Hicks acknowledges in his book. Nothing is learned of Bin Ladin’s alleged call for Hicks to carry out translations. Ibid., p. 143.

[22] Ibid., p. 146.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 104.

[25] Ibid., p. 147.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 146.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory, The Suicide Factory (London: HarperCollins, 2006), pp. 210-213.

[30] Hicks wrote that this detainee later claimed he had been mistreated and became convinced “that the only way to save himself was to bring his own false accusations against me.” Hicks, p. 320.

[31] Hicks, p. 147.

[32] Hicks does not provide any information about how he has financed himself since last leaving Australia in 1999 beyond admitting he received benefits from LeT, such as airfares.

[33] Hicks, p. 151.

[34] Ibid., p. 150. Hicks said he had a “collection of local clothing he wanted to take back to Australia.” Yet Afghan clothes were probably readily available in Quetta, given its large Pashtun population. If Hicks had indeed left his passport in Afghanistan, he might well have found it difficult crossing the Pakistani-Afghan border in either direction. Amran bin Mansoor, the Malaysian, told the writer he had been turned back at the Afghan border the first time he tried to cross it and had to go back to Quetta. If he was alone in a taxi, it would have been hard for Hicks to pass himself off as a Pashtun to border police. He did not speak Pashtu. If he had wished to acquire a new Pakistani visa during his visit to Quetta, not having a passport with him to have it stamped would have been quite a nuisance.

[35] Ibid., p. 152.

[36] Ibid., p. 153.

[37] Ibid., p. 160.

[38] Ibid., p. 155.

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