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Guantanamo Inmate Database: Mourad Benchellali

McClatchy Newspapers
by Matthew Schofield
June 15, 2008

LYON, France — The interrogator pushed a photo, a portrait, across the table in front of Mourad Benchellali.

"I know him," Benchellali said through a translator. "I saw him once in the camp, back in Afghanistan."

The "him" in the photo was Osama bin Laden, and during the next hour, as the interrogator in the small room at Guantanamo pushed photos of the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001 — the blasts of fire against the Twin Towers, the panic and dust of their collapse, the moonscape look of their ruins — it hit him:

"I put myself in the worst place on Earth to be, at the worst possible time to be there," he recalled in an interview. As his interrogators told him how deeply involved he'd been in the deaths of almost 3,000 innocents, he said, he realized that his detention at Guantanamo and Kandahar, the roundups in Pakistan, the bombing attacks, the entire U.S. reaction made sense.

What didn't make sense was his role in all this, and how what he called a rash decision to go off on an adventure with a childhood friend, Nizar Sassi, led him into the center of hell.

Benchellali was born in Lyon into a devoutly — police have said radically — Islamic family. But he said that he never shared the religious fervor of his father and brother. Instead, he was a student.

"It was June 2001, and I thought I'd take a vacation, be back in time for classes in September," he said. "Later, the papers would say I was a desperate outsider, trapped looking in on an uncaring nation. But that's not true. I was happy. I was getting an education. I had a job. I had a fiancee. I just thought I wanted a bit of adventure."

French police have indicated that he was involved more in an adventure than a conspiracy. After being released from Guantanamo, Benchellali was taken into custody in France in December 2006, and later found guilty of consorting with terrorists, a French law that makes it illegal to have attended the training camp that he admits he attended. He was sentenced to time served leading up to the trial.

At the hearing, during which four other former detainees were convicted of the same crime, French prosecutor Sonya Djemni-Wagner criticized "the Guantanamo system."

"None of them should have been held on that base, in defiance of international law, and to go through what they went through," she said.

Benchellali expected the verdict, and he said he wouldn't disagree with French law on this. His brother, Menad Benchellali, has been a target of French anti-terrorism efforts, and it was his brother, he said, who convinced him to go on the trip that ended in an American prison.

"He told me I needed to journey through a Muslim land, and he arranged a trip to Afghanistan," he said. "I told him I was afraid of the Taliban, but he said they were nothing like they appeared in the newscasts, that I'd be safe. Nizar and I thought the trip — Britain, Pakistan, Afghanistan — sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure."

After the two arrived in Afghanistan, however, they realized that there wasn't much available to them. They didn't speak a word of the local languages, Dari and Pashtu, nor Arabic, so they stumbled around for a few days before they met some Algerians who spoke French. The Algerians, he said, suggested that they spend part of the summer at a Muslim camp, so off they went.

It was an al Qaida camp. Benchellali claims that he and Nizar had never heard of al Qaida and knew nothing about international terrorism. After they arrived, he said, they realized that the camp wasn't merely for religious studies and wasn't at all what they had hoped to find. In fact, all al Qaida camps were military training facilities.

"They told us that once our foot crossed the threshold of the camp, we were in for the entire program," he said. "We were trapped."

The two, he said, studied the Quran, ate not quite enough and did physical training, which consisted of a lot of running and exercises. Some days, they studied weapons, though Benchellali claimed that he was never allowed to use one. They talked about jihad, or holy war, and fighting the West, the Americans.

Benchellali said that he and Nizar were terrified. They realized that the only people who were able to leave were those who got sick, so they pretended to be sick, he said.

There was a hospital in the camp, though. They got desperate, then Nizar really got sick and lost 45 pounds. He was sent to a hospital in Kandahar, 90 minutes away. Benchellali was alone.

"One day, everyone was really excited, talking about how a great man was coming to speak to us," he said. He was ushered into an open area with 200 others, where, he said, everyone was chanting, "Osama, Osama." The al Qaida leader started speaking in Arabic to wild cheers, but, Benchellali said, he didn't understand a word and went back to his tent.

In late August, he was told that his training was finished and he was free to leave. He was driven to Kandahar, where Nizar was waiting for him. Again, they were lost because they couldn't speak Pashtu, so they asked the same Algerians for help getting back to Pakistan. The Algerians said they'd need to wait some weeks while they made arrangements.

Benchellali and Nizar were so weak after the summer that they stayed in Afghanistan without complaint, he said.

Benchellali then heard reports of the 9-11 attacks.

He said he was arrested and told by the Afghans who detained him that he was being turned over to Americans for a $5,000 bounty.

None of what happened after that — detention in Afghanistan, a transfer to Cuba, the behavior of the guards, the American woman who undressed in front of him as she purred questions — made sense until he saw photos of the Sept. 11 devastation.

"The United States had to react, strongly, to what happened," he said. "I can't blame them for what they did. I just wish I hadn't been caught in the middle of it."

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