A former Guantanamo detainee on the death of Osama bin Laden
By Moazzam Begg,
WHAT SURVIVES: Outlook features four lives shattered and transformed by Osama bin Laden: A woman whose mother was killed on 9/11; a Marine sent to war; a detainee held in Guantanamo; and a Muslim-American mistakenly put on a no-fly list.
Three weeks ago, a friend gave me a book about a man I’ve never met but whose actions and beliefs have transformed my life over the past decade. Its author, Michael Scheuer, is said to be the expert on the subject. The book’s title is “Osama bin Laden.”
Since my release from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay six years ago, I have spent a lot of time explaining to people how I — and the majority of the men held there — were not members of al-Qaeda and did not agree with its methods, and how we paid the price, regardless, for being alleged members of the terrorist organization.
During my three years in U.S. military custody at Kandahar, Bagram and Guantanamo, I was asked about bin Laden more often than I can remember. I was shown photographs of the atrocities they said he was responsible for and was interrogated countless times about his associates, movements, beliefs and plans.
In January 2002, I was taken into custody in Islamabad in front of my wife and children by CIA and Pakistani intelligence agents. I was soon handed over to the U.S. military in Kandahar, where, after being punched, kicked, spat upon, stripped naked and shackled by U.S. troops, I was taken to my first interrogation.
While I was shivering from cold and fear, a man in an FBI baseball cap asked me, “When was the last time you saw Osama bin Laden?”
I replied that I’d never seen him — except on television.
I was born and raised in England, but I had been living with my family in Kabul since June 2001, working at a school. We remained there until the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Dodging cruise missile attacks and bombings, we went to Pakistan, where my family originally comes from.
We took up residence in Islamabad and began helping refugee families who were fleeing the war. I believe it was this action, along with bounty money offered by the United States for suspected members of al-Qaeda, as well as erroneous information from British intelligence services, that led to my capture. I had traveled to Afghanistan and Bosnia many years earlier and briefly visited a couple of training camps, but my interrogators did not appear to know this until I told them about it myself.
Over the years in custody, I was asked again and again about my views on bin Laden, and I have to admit that at times I felt he was personally responsible for my woes. I was trapped in a cell, away from my family, largely because of this man I didn’t even know. That feeling of blame changed over time. Bin Laden did not incarcerate, torture, abuse and violate my body and dignity. He was in fact fighting the people who were doing this to me.
I learned more about the man from a few prisoners who did know him. The picture they painted was of a pious man determined to strike the West, someone who knew he would die at the hands of his enemies.
After my return from Guantanamo in 2005, I joined the human rights group Cageprisoners to campaign against extrajudicial captivity and killing. We are often called upon to defend the rights of people whose actions we do not necessarily agree with. If bin Laden had been captured, he probably would have been one of them.
I believe the killing of bin Laden — and those with him in Abbottabad — was extrajudicial, like the U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan. At the end of World War II, Nazi leaders captured by the Allies were not executed summarily. They were tried at the Nurembergwar tribunals, and the world saw the full extent of their crimes. In contrast, extrajudicial captivity and killing have became hallmarks of American-style justice in the era of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
According to U.S. authorities, the intelligence that led to bin Laden came from Guantanamo detainee Abu Faraj al-Libi — incredibly, more than six years ago. Supporters of the prison have said this is another reason to keep it open. I believe it offers further arguments to shut it down. How can information be described as credible if it took six years to act upon and was quite possibly obtained by coercion?
Today Guantanamo remains open, even though Obama promised to close it soon after taking office. Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, but the war in Afghanistan continues. Drone attacks have become the more efficient way of fighting the war on terror, and I cannot see any change in the near future simply because bin Laden is dead.
On a trip to Egypt and Libya a week ago, I met former prisoners tortured by the regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gaddafi, as well as men who had, like me, once been held at Guantanamo. They were now involved in the momentous revolutions in their countries, uprisings that have been unsuccessfully portrayed by the likes of Gaddafi as an al-Qaeda plot. On the contrary, you can see on the streets of Benghazi graffiti that says: “No to al-Qaeda” as well as “No to foreign troops.”
Since I began reading the book about bin Laden, the president of the United States has announced that the al-Qaeda leader is dead. There is clear jubilation and excitement in the United States about eliminating America’s most wanted man. But, in labeling him the arch-villain of modern times, America may be distorting the bin Laden narrative somewhat.
Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, writes: “As to bin Laden himself, Americans have been told that he is many things, but virtually none of the portraits of him feature his piety, generosity, personal bravery, strategic ability, charisma and patience.”
Such characteristics can be admirable in any human being.
Bin Laden and his legacy were born out of a conflict — the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — that saw the United States and the nascent al-Qaeda on the same side. The path that bin Laden followed afterward put him on a violent collision course with the United States; the way that nation responded to that violence continues to shape its perception in the world.
The vast majority of Muslims did not agree with bin Laden’s targeting of civilians. Yet many will remember him as the man who made the United States tremble — prompting it to unleash a war on terror in Muslim lands and thus strengthen al-Qaeda as a global idea, instead of an organization whose numbers could once be counted.
Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, was never charged by the United States and was released from Guantanamo by order of President George W. Bush in 2005. He is the author of “Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back,” and the director of the human rights group Cageprisoners.