Beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual abuse, isolation used on us - Ex-Gitmo prisoner
Guantanamo bay. The infamous prison facility has been the cynosure of attention since the day it opened its inhospitable doors to the hapless inmates America deemed a threat to a national security. The facility keeps grim secrets, but some have been revealed and shocked people across the globe, including torture and abuse. But how exactly would one end up in Gitmo? Are real enemies of the state incarcerated there, or just people unlucky to be caught up in Washington's unforgiving dragnet? To find out, we talk to a former Guantanamo prisoner - Mourad Benchellali is on Sophie&Co today.
SS:Mourad, thank you very much for coming on our program. So tell me, how did you end up in Guantanamo? Why were you labeled a high-risk terrorist?
MB: I was captured by Pakistani villagers, who delivered me to the American army, who then sent me off to Guantanamo. That is how I wound up there.
SS:We will talk about this in detail later, but I just want to go back a little bit. You are French, born and raised in France, but according to the French police, your family members are Islamist extremists. What does this mean, exactly? And to what extent is your family extremist, or has become extremist? Did their ideas cause you to become a jihadist, at one point or another?
MB: Me, I was not raised in anger, I was not raised in violence or in hate. I think that my mother, and my family, above all, was much more a victim of extremism, of terrorism, than the people who sympathize with it. My family was arrested after 9/11, soon enough after that, so I think they were swept away, made an example of, rather than being arrested for actual extremist views.
SS:And they were arrested, if I understand correctly, because you were, at the age of 19, with your brother, left to Afghanistan and ended up in an Al-Qaeda training camp. You did not know where you were going, and... the Taliban were in power at the time, no?
MB: Yes, so it is true that at 19 years old, I left to Afghanistan, and I went there for other reasons than to go fight. It is true that it is hard to understand, but it was in a very specific context: it was before 9/11, and Al-Qaeda, Bin Laden, and the training camps – we never heard of them. And it is upon my arrival over there that I was taken to a training camp. The people who welcomed me – were the people who took me there.
SS:Yes, but – why did you go to Afghanistan? And how did you end up in this camp? Why didn't you leave right away?
MB: Yes indeed, upon my arrival at the camp, I wanted to leave right away – this is what I explain in my book, actually, but the training camp was in the middle of the desert, it was impossible to leave it. The people who ran the camp indoctrinate these youth, they do not want them to escape. I went because a relative offered me to go – at the time, it was a country that fascinated me. I went not to fight – I went because I was excited by the idea of traveling.
SS:Now tell me – what would have happened to you if you had tried to leave the camp? Would you have been killed?
MB: Well, in any case, it was physically impossible – no, I do not think they would have killed me. But it was in any case physically impossible to leave the camp because it was in the middle of the Kandahar desert, several hours, some time away by car, so it was difficult to leave in any case. And then, you needed a good excuse, a good reason, but evidently it was not easy for me, I had to endure the whole 60 days forced upon me there.
SS:But who forced you, and how did you end up in this camp, if you did not go willingly?
MB: There was an organized system: to make all youth who came from all countries, to make them into soldiers. Obviously, these were things that I discovered. I wanted to leave when it was possible, and this is what I did, in fact, when I was let out of the camp. I wanted to go home. But right away, at the exit from the camp, 9/11 took place and the trap slammed shut.
SS:But what were you doing at this camp, exactly? How were you taught to fight?
MB: So there was military training, which was mandatory – we had to run, there was weapons training, but mostly we were shown what existed- the goal was to harden us.
SS:But did you tell them, to the people who trained you, that you did not want to do the jihad, that you did not want to fight, or did you listen to them and tell yourself that when it's done, it's done, and I'll go home?
MB: I had to stay there. I was forced to stay there. But once I was able to let go, what I did was to head towards home, I fled Afghanistan to come home.
SS:And you even met Osama bin Laden, according to what you wrote. What did you think of him? What impression did he make on you?
MB: So, it was before 9/11 – I repeat this because it is important – I did not know who this person was. He wasn't famous at the time. Also, I do not understand Arabic, so I did not know what he said.
SS:Yes, and later? What did you think of him? You did not know who he was, but were you told “It's Osama bin Laden”? How did you know it was Osama bin Laden?
MB: I realized it when I was in Guantanamo, when I was told that the person I met in the camp was Osama bin Laden. The first time I heard his name was after 9/11. I did not know who he was before.
SS:And in what circumstances did you meet him?
MB: Well, he came to the camp. He made a speech and then he left, at the training camp.
SS:What did he say?
MB: I don't know, I don't remember. In any case, I fled Afghanistan because I did not come for that, I did not come to train or to fight, so I left as soon as I could to Pakistan, and it was there that I was captured. I never took up arms.
SS:As you say, you were captured by Pakistani militia. How did this happen, exactly? They captured you at the border, is that it?
MB: Some villagers received me in Pakistan, they gave us a place to stay. Then, they handed us over to the Pakistani army, who detained us in a military barracks for 3 weeks. Then, we were handed over to the American army, who sent us to Guantanamo.
SS:How did the Pakistani army treat you? Was it different from the American treatment, for example?
MB: It was not so different, finally. We were hooded, we were bound, beaten, tied up in trucks, so it was pretty violent, as much as with the American army.
SS:And did they tell you, at this point, why you were arrested?
MB: They simply told us that the Americans were interested and were buying all foreign persons for $5000.
At the time, the Americans dropped leaflets from planes, promising $25 million for Bin Laden, and less for other people too, and we were the last ones at $5000. Wikileaks uncovered that story. The Pakistani soldiers explained to us that they captured us because the villagers received a bounty for doing it. All those who wanted to escape Afghanistan and were anything but Afghan were of interest to Americans. They didn't take the time to find out who did what, they didn't have the time to figure it out, in any case.
SS:Did you understand why you ended up in the US, in an American prison?
MB: No, I did not understand, because when the American army captured me, at first I was happy because I told myself that they would hand me over, extradite me to my country, to France. And finally, I ended up in Cuba and I didn't understand why.
SS:For an American, for example, if he was looking at your story at the time, he would see that you traveled to Afghanistan, trained in an Al Qaeda camp, and you were affiliated with a terrorist group, after all. So for them, it was logical to arrest you. Did you feel guilty at all, or did you consider yourself innocent?
MB: All of the appearances were not in my favor, it's true. But I always proclaimed my innocence. I was never about to, at any moment, to join a criminal group, or to participate in a criminal project, I was light years away from that, and I always proclaimed my innocence, and I always explained things. And so I did not understand why they treated me in that way, why they didn't understand this.
SS:And did you refuse to cooperate in Guantanamo? Is that why you were tortured?
MB: No, on the contrary. I always answered the questions. Even when the French police interrogated me, I always answered the questions. Be it the FBI, the CIA, the military police, I always answered their questions. But that didn't change anything, I was always mistreated.
SS:Can you describe, in detail, how the interrogations took place, exactly? Who led them? Describe the process.
MB: There were, like I told you, the CIA, plainclothes agents, or the FBI, and the military police. I could not really tell them apart, because they didn't introduce themselves, they didn't say 'Hi, I'm from the CIA'. Well, some did.. Each had their own methods. Sometimes brutal methods: they hit us, we were kept handcuffed in uncomfortable poses, they used air conditioning to make us cold, flash lights in our eyes, or blasted music in our ears– all this was mixed together, depending on the interrogator. Those from the FBI were more about specific questioning. The CIA was more, for example, we would be put in the interrogation room for the whole night, bound up, handcuffed in a painful position, and the CIA would come back the next day saying: it's me who put you in this situation, so if you want me to take you out of this situation, you have to give me information. Things like that.
SS:And what was the worst physical torture that you had to undergo?
MB: It was when I was attached – handcuffed- for hours to a post, for 24 hours, My shoulders hurt so bad, that was for me the most difficult thing, physically.
SS:Was there also psychological torture? You said that it was the worst, psychological torture. What type of psychological torture did you mean?
MB: It was sleep deprivation, isolation too - we were locked up in this cage, we almost never went outside. Guards told us that we would get the electric chair. Female guards were also used, soldiers who got undressed. We didn't know if they actually were soldiers or prostitutes, we didn't know. But these women touched the detainees, undressed them. I remember a female guard who wiped her menstrual blood on the face of a detainee. She put her fingers in her private parts, when she had her period, and put her fingers on the face of a detainee. It was disgusting. There was profanation of the Koran, too.
An interrogator could decide who your cell mate will be. He could choose the building of the prison we were in. He could choose whether we would be put in isolation or not. He could choose whether we got our letters or not. He could choose whether we had a blanket or not. It wasn't the guards who had the power, but the interrogators. They always asked the same questions, and we always replied the same way over and over. They always hoped for different answers. They asked us: why did you leave to Afghanistan, was it to come back to France and carry out attacks? We would tell them: no no, it had nothing to do with that. They would ask us: what were your plans? What were you supposed to do? Who do you work for? Who sent you? And we told them that it had nothing to do with this, that we never intended to participate. Since it wasn't always the same interrogation teams, each time we started at square one.
SS:In your opinion, what did they want to know so badly that they tried to make you crack? What were they looking for? What would you have had to say to satisfy them?
MB: I think that our answers were not really important. That Guantanamo was above all a school of the techniques of interrogation. The people who interrogated us told us: in any case, what you say doesn't interest us, but we try new methods on you. They spoke about Abu Ghraib, they spoke about exporting it elsewhere. I think that they knew from the beginning, quite quickly, that we didn't have any information, we had no value, but they were in a system that, in any case, since we were there, they took advantage of it. I think that it was not what we said that was important, but it was the methods with which they asked the questions that mattered.
SS:You know, there are former detainees who remember soldiers who apologized for their actions. Were there any who did not want to take part in the torture? Were some of the interrogators kinder than others?
MB: I spoke with guards, who explained to me that when they enlisted with the army, they were told that Guantanamo held the worst terrorists, and then when they met us, they realized that it was more complicated than that. They said that they found our situation unfair, that upon their return to the US, they would tell people about this injustice. And they did that, actually. But there was no human relationship with any of the interrogators. I didn't have any amicable contact with them. It is true that they were not always violent, and some simply asked questions and then left, I’ll be honest. But I can't say that they were nice – even though some guards acted better than the interrogators.
SS:What was your relationship with the other detainees? Was there someone whom you considered a friend, after a while?
MB: It is hard to have friends because we were constantly changing cells. Every 15 days we had to change places. So it was hard to create relationships. We crossed paths with almost everyone, but to say that there were bonds of friendship between us is a bit difficult, because we didn't have the time. But we spoke often, all of us.
SS:Did you stay in touch with someone, after leaving Guantanamo? Do you know what happened with these people? Especially the people who were innocent?
MB: Yes, I kept in touch with some of the former prisoners from Guantanamo, those who were freed, with some French citizens like me, who were in Guantanamo. With some Europeans too, who left this prison. We kept in touch. Today, we are the only Europeans who went through that prison, actually, when we came back. They were freed and they went home and they continued their lives.
SS:I read a statistic that 2.7 million dollars per year is spent on each prisoner of Guantanamo. How was your cell? What did a normal day there look like? Could you describe it?
MB: Not much, in truth. The rhythm of the days was determined by the interrogations. The rest of the time, we were in our cells, doing nothing, waiting. For a long time, our only reading material was the Koran, and we prayed, and that's it, there was nothing else. We went outside a single hour a day, in another enclosure, but apart from that, nothing else happened.
SS:What did you get to eat? Could you write to your family, talk to them from time to time? Could you read something other than the Koran, if you asked?
MB: No. We received little post, which was pretty scarce, and went through the Red Cross, but the letters were censored. Other than that, we had no access to the outside world.We were cut off from outside world except rare post through Red Cross
SS:So you could not read books other than the Koran? You could not talk to people outside the prison?
MB: Me, when I was in Guantanamo, there were not many books. Actually, not all the prisoners who had right to them, and it was pretty rare to have other reading material except the Koran. There were a few books, but they were rare. We were really cut off, completely cut off from the world.
SS:The Guantanamo file that Wikileaks put up on the Internet described you as a high-risk enemy combatant. You seem to lead a life without high risk, and without any combat of any kind. But there is also people who are over there for a reason, there are terrorists who are held there, there are people who really committed crimes. In your opinion, is this prison completely useless?
MB: In terms of fighting against terrorists, I think that the Guantanamo prison is counterproductive, in reality. Terrorists are not at all the majority of detainees, they are a minority, a small minority of the prisoners. As a matter of fact, most of them were innocent, and holding people like this, without rights, on the contrary, this creates terrorism instead of fighting it.
SS:I read that you wrote “I understood my captors after being confronted with the images of the 9/11 attacks”. Do you still feel like you understand them?
MB: I understand some guards, but not all, not those who mistreated us. And then, what I don't understand are the people responsible for this system, that of Guantanamo. Yes, they asked questions about 9/11, and what we knew about Al Qaeda. I asked them who Al Qaeda was, and they said – you are. I understood that a lot of the guards enlisted because of 9/11 and that the trauma of 9/11 made them want to join the army and protect their country. These are things that I could understand. But we told them that we had nothing to do with it - we asked why we should be punished for crimes that others committed, when we had no responsibility in that. So we felt we were the scapegoats.
SS:So despite everything that you went through, despite having gone through Guantanamo, you are, today, an active campaigner against the jihad. How do you keep a clear head?
MB: I am trying above all to dissuade young people from leaving to Syria, to make sure that they do not go through what I went through, that they put themselves in harm's way or that they end up accomplices of extremist groups. It is for them that I do this, I don't want young French Muslims end up in the situation I ended up in. And I tell them my story and what I went through.
SS:Is there more fervor to go fight in Syria now, compared to when you left with the Taliban, for example? Do you understand why youth leave to do the jihad today?
MB: Yes, there are more than before, that's true, and this means that the current policy doesn't work. But, above all, nothing has been done, until now, to stop people from leaving. There is discrimination as well, there is unemployment, people don’t see their own future... There are many factors that contribute to the departures. There are social reasons for these departures, reasons that have not been addressed.
SS:So you say that they do not have a future in France, so that is why they leave to look for a future in Syria? Is there really no future for youth in France?
MB: If young people relate to the speeches of the Islamic state, it is because they are vulnerable to them. We must try to understand why. There is fertile soil for this, certainly, there is social context, there are reasons that explain why young people relate to these speeches. And I think this that we should look at above all, that this is not only a matter of radical Islam, I think that there are also youth that go look for their future elsewhere because they could not find it in France.
SS:And do you think that it is possible to get rid of your Guantanamo past? Or is it a mark that will stay forever?
MB: I learned to live with it, and not to forget it. I know that I will never forget it. And this is precisely why I try to make something positive out of it today.