I met Osama Bin Laden
By Aziz Zemouri
February 14, 2006
Freed from Guantanamo, then from French prisons, Mourad Benchellali granted us his first interview. Here is the itinerary of a kid from Venissieux, who strayed into the fighting in Afghanistan, and who describes his detention and ill-treatment.
He has put on weight and has his hair tied in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. He speaks softly, expresses himself calmly, but his gaze is elsewhere, lost in who knows what memories. At 24, he has already lived out one lifetime.
Mourad Benchellali has come from very far away, from the "hell" of Guantanamo, the US enclave in Cuba, passing through the jails, unfit for habitation, of Kandahar, the former stronghold of Mullah Omar that became a US base after the fall of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan.
Benchellali is a kid from the suburbs east of Lyon. This is a grey and depressing suburb where the future often does not extend beyond the street corner. So, Benchellali and his buddy, Nizar Sassi, aged 26, who, like Benchellali, would end up at Guantanamo, bought a ticket for Afghanistan, via Pakistan. Did they set out for adventure, as they claim, or were they recruited by some terrorist and jihadist network?
"I had no criminal intention whatsoever in going to Afghanistan," explains Mourad Benchellali today to Figaro Magazine. Previously, in his Venissieux district and before "his" war, Mourad was a rather quiet type. Too much so, perhaps, since the little tough guys of the housing projects called him chicken. Benchellali says that at the time he was simply "shy".
Today, of course, his reputation has changed. But here, no-one takes him for a hero. Some even stare at him somewhat aggressively. Those people reproach him for having given a "bad" image of Islam and of the housing projects by joining up with Taleban combatants.
Mourad grew up in the shadow of his father, Chellali, and his big brother, known as Abdelhakim for the public records and as Menad to the police. It is an odd family: The father and the brother are two minor champions of the "defence of Islam", or of the idea that they have of it, in a Salafist and intransigent version that holds to a literal reading of the texts of the Koran.
First, the father. A pensioner who was indicted by antiterrorist Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, he was first a militant in Bosnia, and then he opened a prayer room on the ground floor of his apartment building. There he inflamed his audience with devastating sermons. The senior Chellali is a figure of the Minguettes district.
Next, the big brother. Menad is incarcerated in the framework of an investigation into "Chechen networks", whose objective is to recruit combatants for Chechnya. Menad is charged in particular with having transformed the bathroom of the family residence into a chemical laboratory.
Did Mourad want to imitate his older brother, this somewhat secretive individual, whose personality smothered that of his younger brother and whose trips - to England, the Sudan, or to countries of the East - added to the mystery? According to investigators, Menad helped Nizar Sassi and Mourad get to Afghanistan for an adventure that turned out badly and ended in a Guantanamo cell. Mourad was repatriated to France in July 2004. Judge Bruguiere had him imprisoned immediately. He was indicted for "criminal conspiracy in connection with a terrorist undertaking". Freed last 12 January, he is awaiting trial, which is expected to be held this year.
Benchallali's account: "After 11 September, we found ourselves caught in a trap"
"I spent 30 months at Guantanamo and 17 months in Fleury-Merogis prison. Before being transferred to Guantanamo, I was imprisoned at the US Kandahar base in Afghanistan. People had always talked to me about this country at war, and to go there was almost a challenge. So I went there in June 2001 - via London and Pakistan. Yet, in the Venissieux district where I grew up, they took me for somebody shy. Moreover, when people knew that I was being held at Guantanamo, they could not get over it. That is what people told me. Everyone thought of my big brother when they heard that a Benchellali was at Guantanamo. In Minguettes, he did not have much to do with the people of the district, and he was considered rather different.
"I, too, wanted to make something of my life, like my older brother, a model for my father. In fact, I was going nowhere. In my family, things were not going so well. As far as work was concerned, I had no prospects, and as far a love life was concerned, I was supposed to get married. But I felt that I was a little young. I no longer wanted to have to settle down so soon, just to please my father, even if I loved the girl I was with. I preferred to leave so that I could choose my own life. It was not really to learn the Koran; I did not read Arabic at the time. I grew up in a religious family, but I used to go out, with Nizar, and we were more like young men of today who do not like too many constraints. We left with roundtrip tickets. I even intended to return to Lyon at the end of two months, although we had bought open tickets valid for six months. For me, it was like leaving on an adventure. That way, in the district, I would be viewed differently. I might match my brother. It was fate that decided things differently.
"I ended up in Afghanistan several days before the attack against Commander Massud. After that, one thing followed another. All the non-Afghan Muslims, the "Arabs", as they said, were forced to leave Afghanistan. They gathered us all together. It was there that I saw Osama Bin Laden. When I saw him, I did not know that it was he; I recognized him in a photo that the DST [Territorial Surveillance Directorate - French domestic intelligence] presented to me at Guantanamo. They showed me several and I recognized him. The police told me that it was Osama Bin Laden. You have to place yourself in the context of the time: His face was not very well known before 11 September 2001; and, at that time, I was in Afghanistan.
"Massud was assassinated. There was the 11 September attack and we found ourselves caught in a trap. The borders were closed. They then asked us to leave Afghanistan, or to take up arms. More than a thousand of us left by way of the mountains to get to Pakistan. It was winter. We were with Herve Djamel Loiseau, who was originally from Paris. One night, he took off his shoes. It was ordinary gesture that for him was fatal. In the morning, his shoes were frozen. He put them on anyway. He could not walk. He slid into a snow-covered crevasse. People tried to help him, but in vain. He told them to go on without him. After that, there was no more news.
"When I arrived in Pakistan, I tried to get in contact with the French embassy. Some Pakistanis arrested me and turned me over to the Americans. Around December 2001, I was transferred to Kandahar, where conditions were terrible. I remained there for about three weeks. There were several dozen of us in a cell of a few square meters. I was beaten. They were waiting for me to "confess". I repeated my story. No-one believed me. I did not find out about the World Trade Centre until several days before the Americans bombed Afghanistan.
"They hit us. They piled us one on top of the other. Sometimes, they took photos of us completely naked. We were interrogated several times a day. They handcuffed us to hurt us. I was tied to a bar placed above my head or then they tied me up very low on my back. Americans peed on detainees. I saw the Red Cross, but its representatives told me that there was nothing they could do.
"Then, in January 2002, I was transferred to Guantanamo. I was beaten up on the bus that was taking us to the camp. We were treated differently depending on whether or not we responded to questions. Those who did not `cooperate' were awakened every hour with the aim of preventing them from sleeping at all costs. They might put us in a room with the music very loud broadcast through large speakers or make us endure flashes of light for several hours at a time. Sometimes, they left us handcuffed for hours to a chair or then they turned down the air conditioning. The humiliations were numerous, in particular of a sexual nature. The Americans had prostitutes come into the camp. One of them planted herself in front of a Saudi - they were in the majority at Guantanamo - and smeared her menstrual blood on his face. The searches were constant and humiliating. They tied the Koran above us and took pleasure in batting it around.
"I am a believer, and practice my faith, but one can be a Muslim in France. I do not need either Pakistan or Afghanistan. I repeat, however, the course of my life is not tied specifically to religion.
"Today, I would like everything to stop. I truly hope to turn the page after the trial. I aspire to a quiet life; I want to get married, find a job and housing. I held on because my mother was fighting for me. Almost my entire family has had problems with the antiterrorist courts (editor's note: Two of Mourad's brothers and his father and mother have been indicted; one of his brothers is still imprisoned in Paris). My mother was imprisoned for 16 months; I learnt this when I returned to Paris, once I was released from Guantanamo. I could not allow myself not to stand fast while she was suffering and resisting."
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