Gitmo From the Inside
By Onnesha Roychoudhuri
September 27, 2006
When Moazzam Begg was abducted from his home in the middle of the night on Jan. 31, 2002, he thought he was being kidnapped by thugs. Those thugs turned out to be the U.S. military and CIA. Begg was shuffled from Kandahar to Bagram to Guantanamo and held for three years before he was finally released in January 2005. As with the majority of the other detainees, Begg was never charged with any crime.
He and others endured routine physical and psychological torture, indefinite imprisonment, and solitary confinement. While it's nearly impossible to fathom emerging from years of this abuse and wrongful imprisonment, it is perhaps even more of a stretch to imagine being capable of forgiving your captors. Begg’s new book, "Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim's Journey to Guantanamo and Back," co-written with Victoria Brittain, puts his experience in context of the broader war on terror. As one of the few English-speaking detainees, Begg is a powerful witness to the massive failure of U.S. and British military intelligence in preventing terrorism.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri: When did you first decide you were going to write this book?
Moazzam Begg: Oddly enough, the suggestions to write the book came from U.S. soldiers, interrogators, and other detainees. They were fascinated by the story, by my experiences. The more open-minded ones even understood that writing about this episode is a very important piece of history.
Roychoudhuri: Can you take me to the beginnings of your story? What led you to Afghanistan and Pakistan? Were you were abducted and taken to Kandahar?
Begg: In 2000, I had already begun working on a project to build wells in the northwest region of Afghanistan. At that time, there were some severe droughts. We had built over ten wells as a community from here where I lived with my family and other members. We'd also begun a project to build a school for girls in Kabul, which was a novelty because we were all told that the Taliban wouldn't allow female education. That's something that my wife and I had invested in and that we pursued as a family in 2001when we moved there to continue to help the progress of the school.
Roychoudhuri: You were first abducted in Pakistan. Can you describe what happened?
Begg: We had evacuated to Pakistan after the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. Pakistan is where my parents are from, and I speak Urdu, so it was easy for me to be there. I was safe for a few months until I was abducted on the night of Jan. 31, 2002. There was a knock on the door, [and] I answered to be faced with people pointing guns. They pushed me to the ground, dragged me across the floor, took me into the front room, put a bag over my head, bound my legs and wrists, and then carried me off into the back of this vehicle.
Roychoudhuri: What were you thinking at the time?
Begg: That this was a kidnapping. I thought that they were local gangsters. They didn't identify themselves, ask me who I was, or show identification and they didn't search me. For the first ten minutes, I thought that these guys were gangsters until one of them pulled my hood up.
There was a Caucasian trying to look like a local and doing a pretty bad job at it. He had this black thing wrapped around his head in a style that no local would ever do; it just looked funny. It was funny and frightening all at the same time. He produced handcuffs and said that he was an American, and that he got the handcuffs from one of the wives of the 9/11 victims who had told him to go catch the perpetrators. So then I realized that this was obviously the CIA, and that things were going to get worse probably before they got better.
Overkill is a good description of how people reacted in the broader picture of both the terrible terrorist attacks, but also the response to that attack. We occupied two countries with populations in total of over 30 or 40 million. That's a huge overreaction.
Roychoudhuri: When you were first kidnapped, you were taken to a Pakistani jail. What happened there?
Begg: I was afraid of being in Pakistani custody because it's well-known that you get beaten. They're notorious for getting all kinds of confessions. At first, I was glad that there were Americans there. But the irony is that the Pakistanis were extremely apologetic, they called me "son," they said they felt bad about what was happened, that I was fully legal in the country as far as they were concerned. But they said the Americans were telling them to do this, and that they have to be either with them, as the president said, or against them. The great paradox was that the second I was transferred to U.S. custody, that's when the brutality began.
Roychoudhuri: From Pakistan, you were sent to Kandahar, then Bagram?
Begg: I was held in Kandahar for about six weeks. That was the most brutal processing experience I had. When I was held by the Pakistanis, they didn't shackle me, they just put a towel over my head when I was moving around so I couldn't see things. But with the Americans, it was the legs shackled, hands behind your back, clothes torn off with a knife, dogs barking, being beaten, punched, shaved, having trophy photographs taken by soldiers, and being naked and interrogated. I could never have imagined this was how the United States treated people. It was clear that the process of dehumanization was already in effect from the moment I reached Kandahar.
I was held [at Bagram] between 10 and 11 months before I was transferred to Guantanamo. The Bagram facility was an old Russian warehouse, there was no natural light. For almost a year, I didn't get to see any natural light.
Roychoudhuri: Every time you were moved, was there a similar procedure?
Begg: Yes, you were sensory deprived. You would be disoriented as to where you were going, as to what you were hearing and your ability to speak. All of those senses were impaired. And of course, they shackled you with what they call the three piece suit: a shackle around the legs, around the waist, and around the wrists, all of which are attached to the waist.
We were stripped quite regularly and searched regularly in all crevices.
Roychoudhuri: I know it's difficult to talk about, but it seems evident that this was part of a broader attempt to humiliate the detainees.
Begg: I think so. President Bush hasn't denied it. He says we don't condone torture. But in my estimation, what happened in Bagram and Kandahar certainly constitutes all of those things -- psychological and physical torture as well as cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment. My evidence for that is the culmination of is this type of behavior in the deaths of two detainees. There have been heavily documented cases of people who died in Bagram, one of which I was interviewed for by intelligence people who are bringing a murder case forth.
My other experience was when I was threatened be sent to Egypt in order to face further torture. That was where a man previously (Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi) had been sent and tortured. He confessed under torture that al Qaeda was trying to provide Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction. That was used as a justification to enter Iraq. These things were very close to me. I was prospectively going to Egypt myself. That was probably one of my worst fears.
Roychoudhuri: You faced roughly 300 interviews in three years. In the book, you discuss how fixated the interrogators seemed to be in connecting all Muslim groups to al Qaeda.
Begg: Not every interrogation was a classic interrogation. A lot of them were just curious soldiers and interrogators who wanted to speak to the British guy. But certainly, I tried in vain to explain there are all sorts of Muslim groups, all sorts of places in the world where Muslims are challenging their occupations. So, to accuse them all of being synonymous with terrorism is the height of unintelligence. What you're doing is painting us all with the same brush and saying we're all responsible, and by doing this you're making yourselves many more enemies than you ever had after 9/11.
Roychoudhuri: Was there a standard procedure for the interrogations?
Begg: There were occasions when the CIA and the FBI sat together with military intelligence. But for the most part it was clear to me that they were not cooperating with one another. Whenever each alphabet agency came to ask their questions, and I answered them, they acted like it was the first time they were hearing this. I came across FBI agents who were very angry with the CIA, and vice versa. They made it quite plain that they didn't like the interference.
A British government foreign office representative came with a member of MI5. He asked me what the name of my headmaster at school was, as if to say there was some serious doubt as to whether I was British or not. I asked him, "Why has it taken you so long to come here?" And he said, "Why do you think?" I thought, if I knew the answer to that question, why the hell would I be asking you? I don't know. Perhaps he was alluding to the possibility that the Americans weren't cooperating.
Roychoudhuri: There was only one person you came across during your detainment that claimed any connection to al-Qaeda, a man named Uthman al-Harbi.
Begg: The only one I know of in Guantanamo who has said as much. Even in his case, I think he thinks himself to be more than he really is. That's the estimation that the interrogators seemed to have of him. He's not on the radar, not on the most wanted list or anything like that. Perhaps he's someone [who] agrees with the ideology of al Qaeda, but as far as somebody who has actually done anything, I don't know that he's very useful.
Roychoudhuri: He actually says that no one else in Guantanamo is al Qaeda.
Begg: Well, why would there be? Al Qaeda, before all of this, was a very small organization. If you go to the FBI website before 9/11, you'll see that they have the names of the most wanted, but it's a small organization. Now, al Qaeda has now become synonymous with every organization in the world. The reality is that it's much easier to put everybody under this label whereas you could say people use their methodology or synthesize this. But, to say they're a part of the organization is, I don't think, very useful thinking.
Roychoudhuri: What were some of the ways you coped while you were being held? I know you mentioned greeting every detainee in Guantanamo.
Begg: I didn't experience it for very long, but for the time I did, it was a solidarity between the detainees. It was based on Muslim or Islamic ethics, and it would begin of course with phrase "As-salaam Alaikum" which means "peace to you." Then, we would ask each detainee individually, even if there happen to be 40 on the other side that you can't see because they're on a different block, "How are you, how did you sleep, how is your day?" Just before the meal, everybody would shout out the Arab equivalent of "bon appetit." It was quite amazing because you couldn't even see the face behind the voice on the other side, and often these were people of many different nationalities.
Roychoudhuri: Did you ever lose your composure?
Begg: There was an occasion where I had an anxiety attack. I had temporarily lost sanity. I punched and kicked the walls, screamed and cried. A military psychiatrist came along and sat down looking very attentive and asked me, "558, have you ever thought about hurting yourself?" I said, "No, not really. Not willingly."
And then she said, "Have you thought about suicide?" I said, "No."
She said, "Have you thought about getting your trousers and threading them with your sheets and then tying that around your neck, and tying it to the top of your cell and then jumping off the ledge?" I said, "No, not until you put it into my mind." She said, "Well, I was just wondering." I don't know whether she was completely inept and stupid, or whether there was something much more sinister she wanted to convey.
Roychoudhuri: I want you talk about your ability to forge friendships while you were being detained. Was it strange to befriend guards and interrogators who had a positive interaction with you, but were very violent with others?
Begg: That's probably one of the hardest things to deal with. I like to look at the good in everybody, including the guards. Yet, when I hear things, it's so difficult in my mind to regard them in the same way. But all I have is my own experiences and not other people's experiences.
One of the first guards who ever befriended me in Kandahar was a Southern redneck for all intents and purposes, but with one little difference -- he grew up on a Cherokee reservation. He said that when he saw us, he empathized with our plight. He said it reminded him of his people -- the Cherokee -- and how they had been demonized, expelled from their land, and thrown into reservations because they spoke different languages, had different cultures and different colored skin. Yet, he was one of the people who had, by the time his tour was ending, become so desensitized that it was easy for him to beat one of the detainees to the point where, I believe, it led to his death. I saw him dragging the body of a detainee with another soldier across the cell into the medicine room, and then he was carried out on a stretcher with his face covered, not moving at all.
[The Cherokee guard] came into work a few days afterward and told me that he had administered martial-arts-style strikes onto this guy. It was almost as if he was trying to justify himself. He was saying about the guy, "I don't believe he tried to escape, he shouldn't have tried to escape." I think he clearly felt bad about what he had done. But he felt justified in telling me because he thought I was one of the people who would have understood. You know, this guy tried to escape. You understand, you speak English. I can relate to you a lot easier. Perhaps that was in his mind. I don't know.
Roychoudhuri: Being English-speaking seemed to be both a blessing and burden to you. You could communicate better; it also caused some of the guards to assume you must be some sort of criminal mastermind.
Begg: With some of the guards I had the kind of relationship where we could joke. They'd go around saying, "Look, there's a British assassin." I knew they were joking, and they knew I was joking, and we took it all in good cheer. But of course, these types of things get filtered to a guard who doesn't realize this. From him, it goes to an interrogator. When the interrogator finds out, he thinks he's struck gold, that a person has actually admitted to being an assassin. So the rumor was that I was an assassin, that I was a graduate of Oxford, that I was a black belt in various forms of martial arts, that I could speak ten different languages, and that I was al Qaeda's top man.
All of these things are based on some truth. I did do jujitsu, but I only got a green belt, I speak three languages -- Urdu, Arabic, and English. My wife is Arab, my parents are from India, and I'm from the U.K., so it's not surprising that I speak those languages. I'm not a high level al-Qaeda operative, but I'm the perfect anti-hero they're looking for. To put that label on an Afghan villager, who has lived in Afghanistan all his life and is only worried about where he's going to get the next meal for his goat, doesn't make sense.
Roychoudhuri: Some of this miscommunication seems to have its root in supreme idiocy. Can you give an example of an experience in which someone's lack of knowledge led to an accusation? I was thinking in particular of your use of the work "pixelated."
Begg: [laughing] They had taken my computer from my home in Pakistan, and they had miraculously undeleted a whole lot pictures and asked me why I had them. I couldn't tell them straight away because nobody knows what all the graphic image files they have on their computer are. So, I looked at one particular picture and said, "Oh, that looks a bit pixelated, I can't see it properly." And the major who was in charge at that time, who, from that point on, I called Major Idiot, said, "Well, I wouldn't know that word. It obviously means you know a lot about computers because not many people I know would know the term 'pixelated.'" My 7-year-old daughter knows about pixels. They learn about these things in school; why would that make me an expert on computers? He just jumped to these conclusions.
He also jumped to conclusions because there was a picture of the Pope among many of the other pictures on my hard drive. My homepage is the BBC World Service, so anything in current affairs was stored in the cache memory files, and he says to me, "If anything happens to the Pope, I'll break all your fingers. I'm a Catholic." And I said, "Well, bully for you, mate. I'm really glad that you're a Catholic, but what's that got to do with me? Do you think I'm working on a plot to convert the Pope to Islam or something? What is that you're so afraid of?"
Roychoudhuri: You have said in other interviews that you coped with your experiences in part by thinking about it philosophically.
Begg: There was a guard, actually, a Southern Baptist, a very decent guy, with me anyway, and he used to say that when life's troubles and difficulties face you, the first thing people ask is, "Why me?" He'd say, "Well, why not me?" He was talking about all his difficulties in his own life. I thought about that quite a bit.
But nevertheless, I think that one feeling always prevails: What did I do to these guys? What have I done to deserve this? It was just the feeling of being in this limbo, not knowing when I was going to go home, waiting, agonizing, months on end sometimes for communication from home which came sometimes a year after letters had been written. Even then it had been obscured by the censorship department.
Roychoudhuri: That included a letter from your daughter, right?
Begg: I have that letter right here. It's a letter she wrote to me when she was 7. Most of it has been blocked out. The only legible thing that remains is "I love you, Dad." I showed her this letter when I brought it back with me and asked her what it said. She said, "I wrote a poem: One, two, three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, then I let it go again." And I thought, oh, I see, the American military must have thought this was some sort of enigmatic code. I actually showed this letter to Gen. Jay Hood, the former commander of Guantanamo when he came to visit my cell. I asked him what it is that he feared from a 7-year-old girl. He was embarrassed. He didn't know what to say.
Roychoudhuri: How have you adjusted since being released? What are your plans for the future?
Begg: I value my time alone more than I ever did before. I need to be alone often. There are days when I find myself pacing up and down -- three steps one way, three steps back and back again. That developed when from the quarters I was in. Sometimes I find I'm doing it completely unconsciously.
I plan to keep lecturing up and down the country and talking to the media about Muslims, Guantanamo, and the war on terror. My work is cut out for me. It's sad in one sense because it means I am confined to this identity of former Guantanamo detainee.
Roychoudhuri: I know one of the lawyers that you've worked closely with. Clive Stafford Smith has said that you need think about forgiveness if you want to put this behind you. How do you think of the concept of forgiveness at this point?
Begg: I think about it all the time. Can I forgive, can I forgive? Just yesterday, I was thinking about when I was in Bagram. Specifically, when there was a woman screaming in the next room, and I thought it was my wife, and they had the audacity to say, "Do you think your family is safe?"
Just from that alone, I feel an intense amount of hatred. But then it gets cooled down when I'm sitting with my family and I see my children and my home, and think of humanity in the way I'd like to. It all gets washed away. So, to me, forgiveness on my part is easy in a sense because I'm free. But the hard part is that I can't forgive them for what they're doing to other people. When I was being held, the hardest thing for me wasn't my own humiliation, it was watching other people's. It was watching and being impotent, not being able to do anything to stop somebody else's humiliation, to stop somebody else from being beaten.
I can't be completely forgiving until people are released and come back to their homes with their families and their loved ones. Until that point, I only forgive them myself.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. A former assistant editor at AlterNet, she has also written for MotherJones.com, Women's e-News and PopMatters.