'I've Never Been to America. America Came to Me'

Ex-Guantanamo Bay inmate Moazzam Begg recalls his three-year journey through Americas war on terror

On Sept. 11, 2001, British Muslim Moazzam Begg was in Afghanistan, helping to build a girl's school. Three months later, he was arrested in Pakistan by men he guesses were American. It was hard to be certain: after they broke down his front door, they stuck a gun in his face and put a hood over his head. For the next three years, Begg was shuttled from one American detention facility to another, finally winding up at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During that time, he was tortured, beaten and repeatedly asked about his involvement with terror suspects, including Khalil Deek, a former Orange County resident who moved to Pakistan and was arrested for his alleged role in the aborted "Millennium Eve" plot against Jordanian tourist targets on Dec. 31, 1999. After several months, the Jordanians released Deek for lack of evidence. He returned to Pakistan and went missing in that country in May 2001. Deek has never been added to the FBI's official list of terror suspects; his family claims he died last year, although no body nor any details of his death has surfaced (see "Where Is OC's Missing 'Terrorist'?" June 16).

Begg was finally released from Guantanamo Bay for lack of evidence in January 2005. The U.S. government sent him back to England, which refused to charge him with any crime. Begg claims he never knew much about Deek, or Al Qaeda, but says he learned a lot about America's war on terror during his imprisonment. He recently took a break from his busy schedule promoting his new book, Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar(The New Press, 2006), to share his story.

Tell us about your childhood in England.

My father was of Indian origin and had migrated to Pakistan after the partition—he moved to England in the 1960s, where I was born. My initial schooling there was at a Jewish school in Birmingham. My father taught us about our Islamic heritage, but was very liberal in his ideas. I grew up listening to UB40, the Specials, and English reggae from local groups like Aswad and Steel Pulse. I had a phase where I really liked Ice-T and N.W.A. But I started regarding Islam in a political way during the first Persian Gulf War. I was seriously thinking about joining the British army before that. My family had a tradition of that—my grandfather fought in Normandy, his brother was a POW and his great-grandfather fought in the Boer War. But when the British army became involved in the Gulf War, I couldn't see myself joining. I became an observant Muslim and saw what was happening in Bosnia Herzegovina with the rape camps and the massacres and decided to go there as part of an aid group.

That's where you first met Khalil Deek, right?

I knew him for just a short time there. It didn't seem to me he was involved in the foreign fighting forces. He was just living there and talking politics, more of an analyst. He didn't seem physically active.

You mean he was overweight?

That's what I mean. I don't mean it as an insult, but he didn't seem overtly active, but political and rhetorical. I didn't speak Arabic very well, but he and I communicated in English briefly. He was involved with a whole load of people that had come from Arabic countries to provide aid like I had. The Serbs and the Croats were armed and supported by Serbia and Croatia, but the Muslims were not being supported. Even Margaret Thatcher called for the arming of the Muslims. There was a global sense of sympathy for the Bosnians. I would have fought if the opportunity occurred, but it never did. I was there four or five times between 1993 and 1997, two years after the war ended, but mainly in the winter, and there was no fighting in the winter.

It's been reported that you also went to Chechnya. Did you do any fighting there?

No, I never went to Chechnya. I went as far as Turkey, to the border with Georgia, but they wouldn't let us in. I was trying to bring aid to the Chechen Muslims fighting the Russian army, and giving money to the Chechen resistance. But fighting wasn't out of the question. These people were getting slaughtered. They needed our help and support and no aid was getting in.

Why did you go to Afghanistan?

My family and friends raised money to build wells in northwest Afghanistan, where there was a drought in 2000. Each family member raised $250 to drill a well, and I went there and we had several wells built. We also had a project to build a school for girls in Kabul, which was novel because of the Taliban. They were very strict, but from what I knew of the place before the Taliban, warlords abounded, there was no security, the opium trade was booming, children were being used as sex slaves. At least the Taliban provided security and were building roads, and as opposed to the warlords, they seemed honest. They didn't give us license to build the school, but they didn't try to stop us either. There were other non-Muslim groups that got nowhere with the Taliban. But the Taliban were more receptive to Islamic volunteers building the schools. I didn't see the type of repression of women in Kabul that occurred in Kandahar, where they were stronger. Kabul was more cosmopolitan and you would see women going to the market.

Next Page »