The Accused

Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, outside the U.S. Embassy  in London in March 2006
Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, outside the U.S. Embassy in London in March 2006 (AP)
Reviewed by Jane Mayer
Sunday, September 10, 2006

ENEMY COMBATANT

My Imprisonment at Guantanamo,

Bagram, and Kandahar

By Moazzam Begg with Victoria Brittain

New Press. 397 pp. $26.95

In the five years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. government has been radically reshaped and reoriented so as to harden our defenses against what has been described as a new threat of unprecedented proportions, posed by Islamist extremists bent on our destruction. It is a peril so dire, we have been told, that our former systems of criminal law and military justice were inadequate to counter it. To fight back, we have twisted the Constitution to justify the imprisonment and interrogation of hundreds of suspects who have been held incommunicado for years now without charges.

In Enemy Combatant , co-authored with Victoria Brittain, Moazzam Begg becomes the first prisoner to give book-length voice to the experience of being on the other side of America's war on terror. Begg's memoir details the three years he spent as a U.S.-held detainee in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before being released without charges in his native Great Britain. His book shows that he does indeed pose a serious threat -- but not the sort for which our intelligence and military establishments have steeled themselves. Begg has launched a devastating public-relations attack against American policies, one that is all the more effective because it is restrained, fair-minded and highly readable.

It's both fascinating and frustrating to read this firsthand account. To this day, no impartial outsider has been allowed to interview a single one of the more than 500 detainees still caged in Guantanamo, with the possible exception of the Red Cross, which is proscribed from publicizing its findings. Thanks to the intervention of U.S. courts, over the objections of the Bush Administration, many of the detainees now have lawyers representing them. But the lawyers are forbidden to release full and uncensored transcripts of their clients' statements, or to pass on details that the U.S. government hasn't cleared. The Pentagon has yet to allow unfiltered journalistic access to the detainees, many of whom have now been held without being charged or allowed to have contact with their families for more than four years. Instead, we have had to take it on faith that these prisoners are, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once famously dismissed them, "the worst of the worst" or, as another U.S. military official put it, "people who would chew through a hydraulic cable to bring a C-17 down."

In the midst of this information vacuum, Begg provides some ideological counterweight to the one-sided spin coming from the U.S. government. He writes passionately and personally, stripping readers of the comforting lie that somehow the detainees aren't really like us, with emotional attachments, intellectual interests and fully developed humanity. Surprisingly perhaps, given his viewpoint, not all of the detainees he describes are innocent. One in particular, an unapologetic, self-described member of al-Qaeda, continues to defend the Sept. 11 attacks as sanctioned by Islam, despite Begg's arguments with him to the contrary.

Even more unexpectedly, perhaps, in Begg's view not all of the American prison guards are evil. In fact, he forged amazing friendships with some, who related to him as a fellow human being, unshackling him as they confided their dreams and doubts about everything from their personal lives to American foreign policy. From these conversations, Begg says he learned that "all Americans were not the same." Some of the Americans who come into contact with him seem equally surprised to find that not all Muslims are terrorists. These odd flashes of understanding in this most unlikely of settings add elements of humor and hope, saving both the author and his book from bitterness.

Frustration sets in for anyone seeking definitive proof because Begg's account is subjective and unverifiable. He hears screams from unknown prisoners, including a hauntingly tortured female voice at a U.S. military prison in Afghanistan. He witnesses what he believes are two murders of fellow captives in Afghanistan by sadistic U.S. servicemen. He is interrogated more than 300 times, by his count, during which the authorities get nothing they can prosecute him with, other than a laughably false confession. Meanwhile, the allegations against him are fuzzy, the conditions of his imprisonment Kafkaesque.


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