Courted as Spies, Held as Combatants
Sunday, April 2, 2006
LONDON -- As they tried to board a flight at Gatwick Airport in November 2002, three Arab residents of Britain were pulled aside by security agents. Police had questions about their luggage and ties to a radical Islamic cleric. After four days in custody, the men were cleared of suspicion and resumed their trip.
But British intelligence officials weren't ready to drop their interest in the men. Before the three flew out of the country, the MI5 security service sent cables to a "foreign intelligence agency," according to court testimony and newly declassified MI5 documents, calling the men Islamic extremists and disclosing their destination: Gambia, a tiny West African country.
When they arrived on Nov. 8, they were detained by Gambian and U.S. intelligence operatives, who interrogated them again, this time for a month, British and U.S. documents show. Then two of the men, Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna, disappeared into the netherworld of the U.S. government's battle against terrorism, taken first to a prison in Afghanistan, then to the Naval detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The primary purpose of this elaborate operation, documents and interviews suggest, was not to neutralize a pair of potential terrorists -- authorities have offered no evidence that they were planning attacks -- but to turn them into informers.
U.S. and British efforts to infiltrate Britain's Islamic underground went into high gear after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the documents show. The two men, acquaintances of the radical cleric Abu Qatada, were singled out by MI5 for threats, cajoling and offers of cash and protection if they would channel information. Although one of them offered some assistance, MI5 wanted more.
Rawi, 38, and Banna, 43, remain at Guantanamo. They have told their attorneys that U.S. and British intelligence operatives have visited them repeatedly there and in Afghanistan, renewing demands that they inform, offering them freedom and money in exchange. Both men say they have refused.
A review of hundreds of pages of documents recently released by the U.S. Department of Defense, a British court and the men's attorneys illustrates how the U.S., British and Gambian governments worked together in an operation that circumvented their judicial systems and, through a process known as extraordinary rendition, had two men incarcerated who had not been charged with breaking any law.
George Brent Mickum IV, a Washington lawyer who represents both men, acknowledged that they were friends of Abu Qatada. But he said neither shared the cleric's radical beliefs nor represented a security risk to the United States.
He said he was still trying to understand why British intelligence would engineer their seizure. "Either it was an attempt to put these guys at risk and to use them to find evidence that would implicate Abu Qatada," he said, "or it was an attempt to bring them within the closer control of MI5."
Spokesmen for the Pentagon, the CIA and the U.S. Embassy in Banjul, the Gambian capital, declined to comment for this article. MI5 has a policy of not commenting to the media.
The British Foreign Office released a statement last week denying complicity by the British government: "The United Kingdom did not request the detention of the claimants in the Gambia and did not play any role in their transfer to Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay."
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said she could not answer questions because of a pending lawsuit seeking to force the British government to intercede on the men's behalf. On March 22, the government said it would ask for Rawi's release; its previous position was that it could not intercede for a non-British citizen.