International Business

Gitmo Inc.: Five 'forever prisoners' have business plan

No, it’s not a kibbutz. But the crude jailhouse plans for a “Milk & Honey” farm business in Yemen are suggestive of one.

Five war-on-terror captives locked up inside Guantánamo prison have designed a self-sufficient agricultural business west of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. They envision a community of 200 families, 100 farmhouses, 10 cows, 500 chickens, 50 sheep, a honey bee subsidiary and computer system powered by windmills.

The would-be entrepreneurs drew up the 75-page prospectus before the prison hunger strike. But it recently emerged from U.S. military censorship at an opportune time — as the Obama administration searches for ways to safely send some prisoners home to Yemen and close the Pentagon’s costly prison camps in Cuba.

And, while the quirky business model makes no mention of the potent al-Qaida franchise that U.S. officials fear will attract freed Yemeni prisoners, it does illustrate that some of the 155 captives have a vision of life after a dozen years in American detention without charge or trial.

It is also the product of calmer, more trustworthy times at Guantánamo — before the guard shakedowns, genital searches and gunshots that put the prisoners under lockdown for their hunger strike. And the thrust of the project strikes Yemen expert Charles Schmitz as quite realistic.

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“Yemen could really use some low-tech, sustainable technologies,” said Schmitz, a professor of geography at Towson University who read a copy of the plan at the request of the Miami Herald. “Yemenis are very innovative; you could see it in what they’re doing.”

Schmitz has been visiting the poor Arabian peninsula country for 20 years, and has at times served as a translator at Guantánamo. He doesn’t know the five men who who drew up the plan, the self-described Milk & Honey Board of Directors. Each is an indefinite detainee, meaning in 2009 the Obama administration declared them impossible to try but too dangerous to let go.

But Schmitz saw in the scheme a blend of Yemeni ingenuity and Guantánamo influences.

Honey, in particular, is “a big deal in Yemen,” he said. People endow it with “curative health qualities and magic powers” — and pay top dollar for it. Wind energy is a largely untapped power, but the detainees can see it in the huge turbines that loom over the U.S. Navy base and are visible at the prison camps.

Of the 155 men held at Guantánamo, 77 are approved for transfer with security precautions. And the majority of them are Yemeni.

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Attorney David Remes, who represents several of the would-be directors, said the captives drew it up in the year before the hunger strike crisis. That was before Army guards took control of the communal prison camp. More-sympathetic Navy guards had let cooperative captives set up a Business School Behind Bars — and let a suspected al-Qaida financier run it as a self-styled Dean of Students.

Any riff on the Bible’s reference to Israel as the Land of Milk and Honey, according to Remes, is probably unintentional.

“I really doubt it was conscious,” said the lawyer, who has provided no-charge legal services to about 20 Guantánamo detainees, not all Yemeni, for more than a decade.

He said the goal of a self-sustaining community “is something that has been dreamed about by many societies through the years, including by individuals in the United States.”

Enter Saifullah Paracha, a former Pakistani businessman and American resident captured by the United States in Bangkok in 2003 on suspicion of financial dealings with Osama bin Laden. At age 66, Paracha is Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner. He set up the class but speaks no Arabic, said Remes, and insisted the prisoners learn English as the language of international business.

“We had 24 hours open access. There were about 35 inmates,” Paracha wrote recently in an account he sent the Obama administration parole board. They set up a “classroom with desks and chairs. There I had many students. Some of them were angry and rebellious. I kept them busy with extra homework.”

At times, the business plan they produced sounds like a social studies project. It has a primer on free-range versus conventional chicken-raising, a section on educating the farmers’ children from kindergarten “based on Montessori pre-school training” — and hand-colored maps and tables of statistics.

Guantánamo commanders have told reporters for years that while the captives watch satellite television reports from the Arab world, they don’t have access to the Internet inside their prisons. They get books and magazines from a prison camp library.

But the plan shows they know all about it. They propose a networked laptop computer in every farmhouse with capital raised through “ Kickstarter” or other social-media entrepreneurship.

For its part, the current prison management suggested in a brief statement that the business school was probably sanctioned by the administration, as Paracha wrote the parole board.

“Detainees in Camp 6 are in a communal setting,” said Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, “allowing them to interact up to 18 hours a day. The ability for one detainee to organize/instruct multiple detainees in business or agricultural practices is not surprising or prohibited.”

Some of it seems a bit fanciful, and may bear the imprint of a decade-plus detention at the U.S. Navy base cloistered behind a minefield in southeastern Cuba.

The Milk & Honey Board of Directors want a private telephone exchange, fiber-optic Internet communication, school, hospital, car-rental office, bank, park, motor pool, mosque and post office — just like Guantánamo, where a Navy goal is self-sufficiency also.

The U.S. military is building a $40 million fiber-optic link between the base and Florida, and the Navy has experimented with recycling cooking oil as fuel. The prisoners want to fuel their farm with wind energy and make gas from cow dung.

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