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Jihadist or Victim: Ex-Detainee Makes a Case

The New York Times
June 15, 2006
By Tim Golden

When President Bush ordered Moazzam Begg's release last year from the Guantánamo prison camp, United States officials say, he did so over objections from the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. — all of which warned that Mr. Begg could still be a dangerous terrorist.

But American officials may not have imagined the sort of adversary Mr. Begg would become in the war of perception that is now a primary front in the American-led campaign against terrorism.

"The issue here is: Apply the law," Mr. Begg told an audience earlier this spring at the Oxford Literary Festival in England, one of many stops on a continuing lecture tour. "If I've committed a crime, we say, take this to court. After all of that, if they can't produce something in court, then shame on them!"

With a new book about his experiences and a small blizzard of media attention, Mr. Begg, a 37-year-old Briton of Pakistani descent, has emerged over the last few months as a minor celebrity in his home country.

Human rights groups have hailed his courage. University students have invited him to speak. Journalists have generally taken at face value his claim that he is an innocent man, unlawfully seized and arbitrarily held. After the three suicides at Guantánamo last Saturday, Mr. Begg instantly became a sought-after commentator for British newspaper and television reporters.

The respectful reception for Mr. Begg — whom the Pentagon still portrays as a terrorist — is one of many markers of the waning credibility of Washington's detention policies overseas, and particularly in European countries that are closely allied with the United States in fighting terrorists.

A British feature film that is to be released in the United States on June 23, "The Road to Guantánamo," depicts another group of former detainees as innocent, good-natured men cruelly mistreated by their American captors. The British attorney general, Peter Goldsmith, recently called the prison "unacceptable" and said it should be shut down.

Whether Mr. Begg is the potential threat the Pentagon claims or the harmless man he professes to be cannot be fully resolved from the available evidence. But the mystery makes Mr. Begg one of the more intriguing case studies in the trans-Atlantic divide on detention policy.

He and another Briton, Feroz Abbasi, were among the first six Guantánamo detainees designated by Mr. Bush in 2003 as eligible for trial by military commissions there. Pentagon officials say Mr. Begg trained at three terrorist camps, "associated" with an array of operatives of Al Qaeda and was ready to fight American-led forces in Afghanistan but fled into the Tora Bora mountains when the Taliban lines collapsed.

The British government's refusal to accept the Guantánamo tribunals, in which rights of due process are sharply limited, eventually forced American officials to set aside the prosecutions of Mr. Begg and Mr. Abbasi. Officials said they and two other Britons were finally sent home, in January 2005, after Mr. Bush overruled most of his senior national security advisers as a favor to Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was then being harshly criticized for his support of the Iraq war.

Now, the Bush administration finds itself in the awkward position of insisting on the danger of a man it set free. "He has strong, long-term ties to terrorism — as a sympathizer, as a recruiter, as a financier and as a combatant," said a Defense Department spokesman, Bryan Whitman.

In interviews in Britain and in his memoir, which is to be published in the United States on Sept. 11 as "Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantánamo, Bagram and Kandahar," Mr. Begg denied that he ever supported terrorism, knowingly associated with Qaeda members or took up arms against the United States. Rather, he offers himself as evidence that the wide American net had trapped many Muslims who never threatened United States interests.

A Professorial Air

A small, soft-spoken man with a professorial air, Mr. Begg has distinguished himself from other former prisoners partly by his tone.

While others have told (and, in some cases, sold) the British press lurid tales of American interrogators' tempting them with prostitutes and torturing them to confess, Mr. Begg avoids the word torture. He was sometimes badly mistreated, he says, and kept in prolonged isolation. But he makes a point of telling audiences of his friendships with some of his military police guards, and he espouses a tolerance that seems incompatible with the hatred of militants to whom American officials link him.

One British interviewer described Mr. Begg as "devastatingly reasonable."

Of nearly 20 American military and intelligence officials who were interviewed about Mr. Begg, none thought he had been wrongly detained. But some said they doubted that he could be tied to any terrorist acts. At Bagram, where he was held for 11 months, Mr. Begg's interrogators nicknamed him Hemingway.

"I don't think he was the mastermind of 9/11, but nor do I think he was just an innocent," said Christopher Hogan, a former military interrogator who oversaw some of Mr. Begg's early questioning there but said he did not have access to top-secret American or British intelligence files on him. "We compared him to somebody who went off to Spain during the civil war — more of a romantic than some sort of ideologically steeled fighter."

Like other military and intelligence personnel familiar with Mr. Begg's interrogations, Mr. Hogan also described him as having been unusually forthcoming. "He provided us with excellent information routinely," he said.

Yet if Mr. Begg is a more ambiguous figure than the Bush administration now describes, the story of his life before he was seized in Pakistan in January 2002 is also more complicated than the account he has put forward, and full of questions.

Like many from Europe who fell in with Islamic militants in the 1990's, Mr. Begg was a son of immigrants who settled in a working-class environment where economic struggles fueled racial prejudice.

During high school in Birmingham, the industrial capital of the English Midlands, he joined a gang of mostly South Asian teenagers who banded together against skinheads, punk rockers and other anti-immigrant legions of the day. Mr. Begg, who now stands 5-foot-3, was the smallest member of the gang; he said he rarely joined in the fights.

But much of his upbringing did not fit the pattern. His family was relatively comfortable and liberal. His father, a Muslim born in India, was a bank manager who wrote poetry in Urdu. He sent Moazzam and his brother to a Jewish primary school, where they wore blazers with the Star of David.

Inspired by Mujahedeen

Moazzam's interest in Islam was awakened during a trip with relatives to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in his late teens. On a second visit to Pakistan in late 1993, he writes, he crossed into Afghanistan with some young Pakistanis and visited a camp where mujahedeen rebels were training to fight the Soviet-backed Afghan government.

Inspired by the guerrillas' commitment, he threw himself into helping besieged Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He said he traveled to the Balkans 9 or 10 times with a small aid agency, Convoy of Mercy. But the group's founder, Asad Khan, said he had no recollection of Mr. Begg.

Defense Department officials said one of Mr. Begg's former associates was Omar Saeed Sheikh, who volunteered on a Convoy trip in 1993. Mr. Sheikh was later convicted of kidnapping Western tourists in India and is facing execution in Pakistan for the murder of the Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl. Mr. Begg insisted he did not know Mr. Sheikh.

There are some notable gaps in Mr. Begg's memoir. The book does not mention that while working as an interpreter at a government welfare office in 1994, he and a friend were arrested and charged with defrauding the agency. The police found a night-vision sight, a bullet-proof vest and what news reports called "extremist literature" at Mr. Begg's home.

The charges against him were later dropped for lack of evidence, but his friend, Shahid A. Butt, pleaded guilty and served 18 months in prison. Mr. Butt was later convicted with seven other Britons of plotting a terrorist bombing in Yemen, where he served a five-year sentence.

In early 1998 Mr. Begg, by then married, with two small children, moved his family to Peshawar, Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan. He describes the period as idyllic, with evening strolls through a local park and a quick trip to visit another training camp in Afghanistan, this one run by Iraqi Kurds. He and his wife socialized primarily with members of the town's small Palestinian community, as well as some Arab and Afghan veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad.

But the book does not mention one Palestinian friend, Khalil Deek, who also lived in Peshawar at the time. The United States 9/11 commission described Mr. Deek, a naturalized American, as an associate of Abu Zubaydah, a senior Al Qaeda lieutenant of Palestinian descent who was also in Peshawar then, recruiting new operatives and sending them to train at Afghan camps.

An American counterterrorism official who began tracking Mr. Begg in 1999 said the Central Intelligence Agency and MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence service, suspected Mr. Begg of working with Mr. Deek to create a CD-ROM version of a terrorist manual, "Encyclopedia of Jihad," which Mr. Deek gave to two Palestinians who plotted with Mr. Zubaydah to bomb tourist sites in Jordan.

American intelligence officials also said Mr. Deek helped arrange transportation to Jordan for some operatives in the foiled plot, but after being held in Jordan for 17 months, he was released without charge.

Mr. Begg acknowledged in an interview that he had met Mr. Deek in Bosnia and later invested with him in a small business deal to sell traditional Pakistani clothing. But he said he had never met Abu Zubaydah — something Pentagon officials said he had admitted to his American interrogators.

He also denied an assertion by Mr. Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman, that he spent five days in early 1998 at Derunta, a notorious Al Qaeda-affiliated training camp in Afghanistan, learning about poisons and explosives.

Two Defense Department officials read to a reporter from what they said were lengthy sworn statements Mr. Begg made to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, admitting that he had supported jihad in Chechnya and Kashmir, knew a half-dozen Al Qaeda figures and had trained at Derunta and two other Afghan camps.

Mr. Begg said that he had never told the F.B.I. anything of the sort, but that he did sign some documents in custody because he feared for his life.

After he returned to Birmingham in the summer of 1998, he and a friend opened an Islamic bookstore, which he described as a meeting place for young Muslims, including some who later fought in the separatist struggle in Kashmir.

Mr. Begg received a first visit from an officer of MI5 soon after the shop opened. A year later, in late 1999, dozens of police agents searched the book shop and Mr. Begg's home. They were raided again in February 2000, and Mr. Begg was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, but was quickly released without charge.

'It Was Going Too Far'

Mr. Whitman, at the Defense Department, said the British government cited Mr. Begg's "proven or suspected links to persons who have been arrested or convicted of terrorist offenses worldwide," including Richard C. Reid, who was later convicted of trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with a shoe bomb. Mr. Begg said he had never met Mr. Reid or two other men, Ibn al-Shekh al-Libi and Abu Qatada, whom Pentagon officials linked to him.

"Up until this time I had thought it was all just a silly mistake or a fishing trip," Mr. Begg wrote of the security services' interest in his activities, "but now I knew it was going too far."

He said in an interview that he had never even heard of Al Qaeda before 9/11. He knew something about Osama bin Laden, he said, but generally agreed with those who saw Mr. bin Laden's conflict with the United States as counterproductive for Muslims. He said he opposed attacks against civilians but saw justification for jihadi assaults on "military targets" in "times of war."

In July 2001, little more than a year after his brief arrest, Mr. Begg moved his wife and children to Afghanistan. Despite the Taliban's status as an international pariah for its treatment of women and its hospitality toward Al Qaeda, the Beggs saw it as a fine, inexpensive place to raise a family. The memoir describes Mr. Begg's work on charity projects and his fascination with the atmosphere of Kabul. But without television, he writes, he did not grasp the enormity of the Sept. 11 attacks. Only when bombs and cruise missiles began to strike on Oct. 17 did he realize "it was time to go."

But, he said, he became separated from his family and reunited with them only after he crossed the border to Pakistan. They had been in Islamabad only a couple of months when, on Jan. 31, 2002, Pakistani intelligence agents and C.I.A. officers burst into their home, pulled a hood over his head and took him away.

Mr. Begg's memoir recounts a three-year odyssey from a safe house in Pakistan to a prison camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to the main military prison at Bagram Air Base and finally to Guantánamo. He describes endlessly repetitive interrogations, with soldiers sometimes demanding information about events that took place after his capture.

Even now, he says, the accusations against him remain maddeningly vague.

"There is no specific allegation; there are no specific charges," he said in one interview. "Whom did I recruit? When did I recruit them? Who told them this? What is the corroborating information — names, times, places?"

After repeated questions about Mr. Begg by The New York Times, Pentagon officials offered some information they said had been declassified from intelligence files. Mr. Whitman said the files showed Mr. Begg to be "a sympathizer, a recruiter and a financier" for terrorists. But officials offered almost nothing to corroborate such assertions other than excerpts they read from the F.B.I. statements.

Still, Mr. Begg has hardly been ignored by the administration. Earlier this year, a State Department public diplomacy official, Colleen P. Graffy, challenged his supporters, saying, "Guantánamo is not a spa, but nor is it an inhumane torture camp." The department's little-known Office of Countermisinformation has also sought to refute Mr. Begg's claims.

But other American officials said their secrecy about the detainees was partly responsible for having Mr. Begg's version of events accepted as credible.

"This has been the story of our lives here in trying to convince the world about the propriety of keeping people in Guantánamo," said one senior administration official in Washington, who asked not to be named because he was criticizing government policies. "It's been difficult to persuade all U.S. government agencies to release enough information publicly to show that individuals like Begg represent a significant threat."

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