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The Accused
The first-person story of a U.S. prisoner in the war against terror.

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.

Without confirmation, the reader is left to deal with a standoff. In the view of the Pentagon, Begg was, and still is, a dangerous terrorist. Although he was released by both the U.S. and British authorities without a single charge, a recent New York Times story reported that the Department of Defense still maintains that he "associated" with al-Qaeda operatives, attended several notorious paramilitary terrorist training camps, and financed, recruited and sympathized with terrorists. Newsweek carried a piece, Begg himself notes with disgust, suggesting that he had planned to fly unmanned drones into Western government targets. If this is so, Begg's memoir, which specifically condemns all terrorist attacks on civilians, is a work of mind-bogglingly crafty deception.

If, on the other hand, Begg's protestations of innocence are to be believed and the U.S. government was wrong about him, this book documents an unconscionable descent into a hell of government-sanctioned physical and psychological brutality, administered without even the most rudimentary due process. Taken at face value, the stupidity and cruelty that Begg recounts are utterly shocking to anyone who cherishes the vision of America as an enlightened, law-abiding government, not to mention the leader of the free world.

Begg's story shares many familiar features with profiles of other recent terror suspects. A devout Muslim, he grew up caught between cultures in a secular middle-class immigrant family in Birmingham, England. Despite his family's patina of learning and bourgeois values, he was picked on by white "Paki-bashers." Slightly built, he joined a thuggish ethnic street gang in high school and learned jujitsu. Increasingly, he found meaning and purpose in Muslim causes -- raising money and traveling to provide aid to Muslim fighters in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan.

Well-read and scholarly, Begg opened an Islamic book store in Manchester, which became an intellectual hub for jihadi sympathizers. The distinction between supporter of Muslim causes and terror suspect is at the core of this book, and it would have been more helpful if Begg had provided more analysis of it. Instead, he seems to straddle the two worlds without much reflection. He had scrapes with the law, not all of which seem fully explained. His social circle and his travels to visit relatives and friends in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- where he briefly visited a non-al-Qaeda paramilitary training camp -- drew the attention of the British security service, MI5. But Begg insists that, although he admired the ideas of the Taliban (but grew disillusioned with them once he saw them for himself), he never knowingly met anyone from al-Qaeda. He had heard of Osama bin Laden, he writes, but he had no sympathy with bin Laden's or any other group's call for jihad against the United States.

In the fall of 2001, Begg had just moved his family to Afghanistan, which he hoped would provide a cheap and welcoming Muslim environment in which to raise his children. Instead, he and his family were caught in the harrowing U.S. assault and forced to flee to Pakistan. They had just resettled in Islamabad when, after midnight on Jan. 31, 2002, as his family slept, he answered a knock on the door in his stocking feet and was made to kneel by a small group of silent, plain-clothed Pakistani and Western strangers. They forced a hood over his head, bound his wrists and ankles, and carried him into a waiting vehicle.

His account of his journey during the following three years is full of fascinating insight. He realized, at one point, that only fear could explain Americans' ridiculous overkill in their treatment of the detainees. On his last day in U.S. custody, as he was being transferred to the plane that would finally take him home to freedom, American soldiers lost the key to the extra chains and padlock in which they had ensnared him. Why, he wondered, would they expect him to try to escape at this point, when he was about to board the plane home? As he stood there, contemplating the futility of his entire imprisonment, as the soldiers scurried to find wire cutters, each pair bigger than the last, the metaphor is clear: In Guantanamo we don't know how to get out of the bind into which we've put not just our prisoners but also ourselves. ยท

Jane Mayer is a staff writer for the New Yorker.

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