SAFI, Morocco — His days in captivity inside the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he said he endured different forms of torture, are long over. If only the memories were, too.
Three years after his release, Younous Chekkouri says he remains shackled by constant nightmares, flashbacks and insomnia. He takes pills for anxiety, and he has yet to find a job. His future remains so uncertain, his past grips him so tightly, that he often feels as if he hasn’t left the prison where he was held for 14 years.
“I am still in Gitmo,” said Chekkouri on a recent day in this picturesque port city.
Chekkouri, and other former Guantanamo detainees, represent the legacy of the United States’ use of torture as a tool of counterterrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Thousands suspected of being al-Qaeda fighters and other militants were held in prisons, detention centers and other “black sites” around the world, where, human rights groups say, many were tortured or mistreated in other ways.
Years after their abuse, victims remain tormented by their experience at the hands of their American interrogators, jailers and guards, according to activists and psychologists working with former Guantanamo detainees. In addition, many carry the stigma associated with being incarcerated as alleged terrorists and have difficulty reintegrating into society.
“It’s well documented that the U.S. was really focused on psychological elements of torture,” said Katie Taylor, a deputy director of Reprieve, an activist group based in Britain that helps resettle ex-Guantanamo prisoners. “Because it was so systemized, it has had a long-term impact on many of the men who underwent it.”
U.S. officials accused Chekkouri of being a senior al-Qaeda member and co-founder of a Moroccan Islamist militant group. But he was never formally charged with a crime or faced trial. Six U.S. security agencies, including the CIA, FBI and Department of Homeland Security, eventually found no evidence to keep him in detention.
When he arrived in Morocco on a U.S. military plane in 2015, the authorities here jailed him, again for allegedly forming an extremist militant group. He was sentenced to five years in prison. But after five months, he was released on bail.
In February, he was acquitted of all charges by a Moroccan appeals court.
Today, Chekkouri is struggling to rebuild his life.
“Sometimes, when someone feels he’s incapable,” Chekkouri said in a recent interview, “he feels as though he’s nothing.”
Chekkouri was with his Algerian wife, Abla, in Afghanistan when two hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center towers in New York.
The couple, who he said had been there looking for work with a foreign aid agency, fled the capital, Kabul, as U.S. forces entered the country to oust the Taliban regime and pursue Osama bin Laden. After the couple crossed into Pakistan, locals captured Chekkouri, taking him for one of the many Arab fighters who had joined al-Qaeda. They handed him to U.S. forces, Chekkouri said.
It is impossible to independently verify Chekkouri’s account. Reprieve vetted his story and found that “it was very clear he was an economic migrant” in Afghanistan, according to Taylor.
Chekkouri was taken first to a U.S. detention center in the southern city of Kandahar, where he said his American jailers would strip him naked, place a bag over his head and beat him regularly. Some guards, he added, would also tear pages from his Koran.
Five months later, he arrived in Guantanamo.
There, his jailers beat his genitals with their shoes, he recalled. That required him to often ask for new underwear because “there was so much pain I felt in my genitalia.” But his interrogators would offer him underwear only in exchange for confessing that he was an al-Qaeda militant.
“That would make me want to kill myself,” said Chekkouri, his voice at times dipping so low that it was barely audible.
A Department of Defense spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Chekkouri’s torture allegations.
Abdelkrim el Manouzi, a physician in Casablanca who has treated Chekkouri for his psychological problems, said his claims of torture are “very credible.”
“I don’t think he will ever forget what happened to him,” said Manouzi, the former president of the Medical Association for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, a Moroccan organization where Chekkouri still receives psychiatric treatment.
Slim with brown eyes and a wisp of a beard, Chekkouri, 50, wore a puffy tan and orange jacket and a blue baseball cap that made him look younger. The night before, as usual, had been rough, with him tossing and turning, unable to sleep.
He had awakened to pain and difficulty breathing, as he did most mornings. They are the lingering effects, he said, of beatings and other physical mistreatment, and of being kept in frigid conditions to deprive him of sleep.
He lives an isolated life, mostly in the apartment he shares with relatives above an alley in a working-class neighborhood.
For Chekkouri, television news, filled with violence in Syria and recent school shootings in the United States, reinforces his sense that he was unjustly imprisoned. “When a man sees innocent people being killed, this is what terrorism is,” Chekkouri said. “You can’t simply put a man in a prison cell and call him the worst of the worst.”
He seldom discusses his experience in Guantanamo with family members or neighbors. He fears he won’t be able to control his emotions. Whenever he hears about Guantanamo or sees images, he gets flashbacks.
One recurrent image is that of an American woman who called herself Ana. She interrogated him for five years, threatening to have him hanged. “Until now, I still see her in my nightmares,” Chekkouri said.
Once a month, he travels for psychiatric treatment in Casablanca, 130 miles north of here. He says that some of his friends also are victims of torture who also receive care at the center. He counts six other Moroccan ex-Guantanamo inmates among them.
“Most of them are still suffering today,” said Manouzi, the doctor.
When Chekkouri arrived at the center in 2015, he was grappling with severe anxiety, depression and fear of the future, Manouzi said. Today, Chekkouri still suffers from insomnia, nightmares and other malaise, but his condition is “no longer as bad as it was.”
But overcoming the psychological and physical scars of Guantanamo “can only happen if Younous has the social requirements that will allow him to get back and participate in society,” Manouzi said. “He needs to work.”
Employment, however, has been elusive since his release from Guantanamo three years ago.
When he landed in North Africa, instead of finding freedom, he was taken to prison again. And even after his release, he said, he was under constant surveillance by Morocco’s intelligence and security services.
Morocco’s Justice Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
“He could not lead a normal life after being let out of jail,” said Khalid Idrissi, Chekkouri’s lawyer. “He was always living under the pressure that he could be arrested at any moment.”
Worse, Abla divorced him. She told Chekkouri that he had changed while at Guantanamo, that he was no longer the man she once loved. It was a devastating blow.
While at Guantanamo, he coped by writing love letters to Abla. In them, Chekkouri recalled, he often discussed an imaginary daughter, hoping this would earn some sympathy from his jailers, who read all his correspondence. He called the girl Fatima Zahra.
Today, he still does not have a job. He considered becoming a clothes trader, but he does not have money to launch a business. After spending much of his adult life in prisons, he has a thin résumé. And his time in Guantanamo is also not a selling point to prospective employers.
Chekkouri remarried a year ago. And a month before his acquittal, he got more reason for hope. His wife gave birth to a daughter.
When she’s old enough, Chekkouri said, he will speak to her about his imprisonment. He will tell her, he said, that “they tried to kill my humanity, to kill my heart, but the opposite happened.” Through his daughter, Chekkouri will always carry Guantanamo.
He named her Fatima Zahra.