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.