'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.

Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001?

I was living in Kabul, in a well-off neighborhood. I didn't have a television, so I couldn't see any pictures, but I heard there had been a terrible attack. People started to trickle out of Afghanistan. I waited because we had the school about to open, but when the U.S. bombing happened [in November 2001], we evacuated to Pakistan, where I had relatives, and family and friends.

Didn't you spend time with Khalil Deek and Abu Zubaydah, the top lieutenant of bin Laden, in Pakistan? I've read that you met with both of them there.

I've read that too. That is the extent of my knowledge of Zubaydah. I've never met him. I've read the same thing about [shoe bomber] Richard Reid too, who I've never met. The last time I saw Deek was in England in about 1996, when he was en route to Pakistan. It was a courtesy visit. We had exchanged telephone numbers in Bosnia. We talked for a couple of hours, and he went to Pakistan. I read about him afterwards, that he was involved in the Millennium plot. I didn't know him well enough to be too surprised, but in a sense it was surprising to read about anyone you know being involved in terrorist activities. But I also read that he was in prison for a year and then released, and that he was completely exonerated, although he is still considered a terrorist. Nowadays, it's acceptable to be accused and convicted of this without any evidence. I know that because I fell victim to the same thing.

When were you arrested?

I was still in Pakistan, working to help refugees coming in from Afghanistan until Jan. 2, 2002, when I was abducted at gunpoint at my home in Islamabad. The men never identified themselves or asked who I was, they just knocked on the door and when I opened it, they put a gun in my face, placed a hood over my head and shackled me and placed me in a vehicle. Some of them were Pakistanis, but there was an American. I could tell from his voice. He had a pair of handcuffs and told me they were given to him by a 9/11 widow. He placed them over my hands, even though I was already handcuffed.

I was held in Pakistan for a few weeks and questioned by American and British intelligence.

The Pakistanis were very apologetic—if we don't act, the Americans will come after us next. They were bewildered about why they had come to my house. They didn't even search me. I had a cell phone in my pocket and after they put me in a cell, I was able to call my father so he could arrange to find lawyers to help me. They were asking me a lot of questions about why I was in Pakistan. I told them the whole story. I didn't hide anything, but the more I talked, the worse it was. They asked me why I went to Bosnia, and then I began to realize it was one big fishing exercise and they had already decided my fate was Kandahar, Bagram and Guantanamo.

What happened in Kandahar?

I spent six weeks at a U.S. detention facility there, then 11 months at a military base in Bagram and two years in Guantanamo. Kandahar was a dehumanization process, the breaking process, to terrify people to become compliant so they would say everything and anything. I was stripped naked. My clothes were ripped off with a knife. I was beaten, spat at, screamed at with dogs barking. If somebody had showed me photographs of the detainees at Abu Ghraib before it became public, I could have immediately said it was the work of Americans. At Bagram, things were more organized, with six-by-three-foot individual cells and specific orders for punishment from interrogators as opposed to a general way of frightening everyone. But you could go months without interrogation and then be interrogated for days on end.

Didn't the Americans play rock music to torture inmates in Afghanistan?

That didn't work on me because I'd grown up listening to loud music. The people they used it on were local Afghans who grew up in villages and heard nothing but singing or folk music. Can you imagine what it was like for them hearing Eminem or Marilyn Manson at full volume for days on end? But these were relatively calm techniques compared to others—tying people up for days with their hands behind their backs hanging from the ceiling, with only breaks for meals. They put me in that position for hours for talking to another detainee. That was the punishment. But I saw two people killed there, and one of them was beaten while he was tied up in that position. He died in an isolation cell afterward.

Who was in charge of the interrogations?

There were a lot of intelligence agencies competing with each other: FBI, Pentagon, CIA. They were all trying to get me to admit to something, to get brownie points, to see who could get the information and ultimately prove I was guilty. They asked me about Deek. I think they didn't know he had been to Bosnia until I told them. They asked me about hundreds of people and all these things they claimed Deek was involved in. I understood they needed to question me. What I didn't understand was the overkill, the stripping away of all dignity or decency. They threatened to send me to Egypt to be tortured. They had a recording of the sound of a woman screaming who I was led to understand was my wife, who I hadn't seen since they arrested me and thought was also in captivity. But I didn't know anything about 9/11 or Al Qaeda.

How did you end up at Guantanamo Bay?

After a year, I wrote a very powerful letter that I was told would reach the highest levels of U.S. government. I said that I hadn't seen the sun or moon for a year, that I witnessed two deaths, and had no knowledge of acts of terror or had ever been a member of a terror group. I was told by seemingly sympathetic people that I was going to Guantanamo because I had been cooperative, so I was actually looking forward to it. When they put me on the plane, I was given earmuffs, blacked-out goggles and a hood thrown over my head for good measure, and my hands and feet were shackled. The journey was so excruciatingly painful that I pleaded for a sedative and one guard obliged. So I woke up in Guantanamo dazed and disoriented. I only remember being frog-marched from place to place in shackles and they put me in an isolation room, an eight-by-six-foot cell—a box, a cage. It was my home for the next two years.

What happened to that letter you wrote?

A couple of days after I arrived, the same two guys who interrogated me in Bagram and threatened to send me to Egypt with the woman's screams turned up again. They told the guards to leave and produced a confession and said, "Sign this and you can see a lawyer. If not, there will be no trial. You are already convicted and gas chambers have already been built, and that's where you'll be going." It was a frightening and ludicrous moment. The confession looked like the ramblings of a college dropout, not a terrorist. It was a six-page confession, a mixture of truths and falsehoods. I told them I had been to a Kashmiri training camp in 1993, but they took this and said it was an Al Qaeda camp. This camp was supported by the Pakistani government to fight against the Indian occupation of Kashmir. It had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but they said that the money I donated to this organization went to support the 9/11 hijackers. I thought no court would ever believe it, so I signed it.

I'm guessing they never let you meet with a lawyer.

They continuously told me it would be next week, tomorrow, in a few hours. I speak English and they didn't need to translate reams of paperwork and I had already signed a confession. But they had no charges against me. That's what they were probably grappling with. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of detainees having the right to habeas corpus, they knew they had to let lawyers in to help write the petitions. The British government agreed with Bush's idea of having military tribunals, but as time went on, there was a huge outrage and the idea that you could have a fair trial at Guantanamo was rejected by everybody. That's what opened the door to me being returned to England—the only solution other than just remaining there forever.

Bush agreed to release you over the objections of the FBI, Pentagon and CIA.

That's what I've read. But Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq on the advice of the CIA and FBI, and against their advice he releases me? It sounds like a special favor to Tony Blair, but I don't think it's as clear-cut as that. The fact is, nobody could charge me with anything to justify what they did to me. President Bush says that I, along with the other detainees, are the worst of the worst, and now I'm free, walking the streets of London. And now I'm working with an organization called Caged Prisoners, which highlights the cases of all the detainees in Guantanamo.

What should American people know about your experience right now, as Bush tries to convince us to allow torture of detainees there and elsewhere around the world?

Back in Bagram, a week before they threatened to send me to Egypt, there was another man held there who they did send to Egypt and he was tortured to the point of saying he helped Al Qaeda give weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein. I could have been that person. If they sent me to Egypt, I could have been the person to admit to being a high-ranking Al Qaeda person helping Saddam get WMDs. That confession was used as an excuse to invade Iraq. That invasion has put Americans in more danger than at any time in their history, at least any American who travels outside their country is in more danger now than ever before.

Have you ever been to America?

No. I've never been to America. America came to me.

nschou@ocweekly.com

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