Prisoner 590, Guantánamo Bay

The Times
by Giles Whittell
March 16, 2013

Ahmed Errachidi wasn’t an al-Qaeda fighter; he was a chef in a Mayfair hotel. Yet he spent five years imprisoned in Guantánamo – shackled, beaten, taunted, interrogated. Giles Whittell tells his story

At one point in the dreadful weeks after 9/11, Ahmed Errachidi allowed himself to think he might be saved by British secret agents. It was a forlorn hope, but he had no other sort to cling to.

Errachidi is a big, proud, fearless man, born in Morocco, fond of London and once a fan of Spurs. He is also a devout, well-travelled Muslim. In early 2002, as US special forces scoured Afghanistan for any trace of al-Qaeda leaders, he was arrested by Pakistani police across the border in the badlands of Waziristan.

How he got there is convoluted enough, but it was only the beginning of his story. Suspected of terrorism, he was sent via a series of jails to an interrogation centre in Lahore. Eventually, he was visited there by two men from the FBI. He imagined they would quickly check his background and arrange for his release. Instead, they transferred him to Kabul. Part of the giant Bagram airbase outside the Afghan capital was by then a US-run internment camp, and it was there that he heard British accents for the first time since leaving London.

He was not in good shape. He had spent six weeks being shackled, beaten and malnourished as his life ran out of control and the world around him descended into war. To make matters worse he was, his doctors said, bipolar, although the diagnosis would in the end help him.

Errachidi was told the British voices belonged to officers from MI5. “When I heard them coming, I thought, ‘My torture is over. My pain is over, because now I’m going to deal with someone who is civilised,’ ” he says. “I had one foot in freedom.”

In fact, the British were no help at all. They questioned him, gave no indication as to whether they believed him, and said in any case their hands were tied. Bagram was to all intents and purposes America.

And so the interrogations continued. Errachidi was moved to Kandahar, where he says his guards once spent a day removing his leg irons with bolt cutters and hacksaws. By the end he was sitting in a pool of his own blood. From Kandahar he was flown to Guantánamo Bay (26 hours on the floor of a troop transport) and there he spent five and a half years – beaten, sprayed, groped, taunted, interrogated and deprived of sleep so routinely that the monotony became almost as unbearable as the abuse.

Four of those years were spent in punishment blocks, in solitary confinement.

“How do I know?” he asks. “I counted out the year or so that I was not in isolation.”

Some of what Errachidi endured at America’s naval base on the southeast tip of Cuba will be familiar to connoisseurs of the “enhanced interrogation”, or torture, that the Bush Administration encouraged there. Some has not been reported until now. What makes his story unique is his response: he got mad, and almost got even. He became Guantánamo’s de facto guerrilla commander, sustained by small victories against the prison regime and fuelled in his search for bigger ones by a deep and boundless anger.

When detainees were forced to wear shirts they did not like, Errachidi persuaded them to rip them up. When their Korans were abused and prayer times interrupted, he led a series of rebellions to ensure they were respected. When things got desperate in 2006, and prisoners living with mounds of their own faeces were brought food by guards in full biological warfare suits and respirators, he daubed the words “YOU CRIMINALS” on his cell wall in his own blood.

Errachidi was in the first wave of prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo after 9/11, presented to their guards as the “worst of the worst” – men trained to kill and die and supposedly taught not to feel pain. Because of his influence over his fellow inmates, Errachidi was assumed to be senior al-Qaeda. He was nicknamed “the General”.

A secret 2004 memo from the camp commander to the Pentagon’s Southern Command headquarters in Miami was the closest thing US officials ever issued to a rap sheet for prisoner 590. It said he had “known affiliations with several Islamist extremist groups, to include a direct association with the leader of the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group as well as other contacts with known members of al-Qaeda”. He had travelled to Afghanistan, the memo continued, “to participate in jihad against the US”. Another document stated that in July 2001 he had received weapons training and bomb-making classes at the al-Farouq Training Camp, knew how to conduct suicide attacks on airliners with smuggled flammable liquids and had issued a fatwa authorising prisoner suicides.

Despite all this, the force of Errachidi’s rage still mystified his captors. One camp commander, Colonel Mike Bumgarner, risked his career by negotiating with the General, hoping to restore order in return for quality-of-life concessions. The deal didn’t hold, and at the end of his tour of duty Bumgarner was left scratching his head. What was it about this man that he had failed to grasp?

The answer was simple. Errachidi was angry because he was innocent. In five and a half years, not a shred of evidence of terrorist activity or links to terrorists was produced against him. The allegations on the two official memos in his Guantánamo file were invented. Ahmed Errachidi was not al-Qaeda. He was a cook. He was not even a cook for jihadists, but for paying customers at a string of restaurants, some of them quite swanky, in London, his adopted home, where he had worked for 17 years.

In the summer of 2001, when he was supposed to be learning bomb-making in the mountains outside Kandahar, he was working shifts at the Westbury hotel in Mayfair. It would have been easy to check – by phone or even on foot. The Westbury is on New Bond Street, three blocks from the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. But no one bothered. No one, that is, except Clive Stafford Smith, the British-born human-rights lawyer. He met Errachidi in 2004, contacted the hotel and verified the story, whereupon the case against the General began to fall apart.

Six years on from his release, Errachidi has written a memoir. It took him two years to decide to write it and one to get it finished, and it is his first full account of his lost years as a suspected enemy combatant. It takes the reader step by step down through the multilevel hell on Earth created to dismantle al-Qaeda, and it will force anyone still on the fence about Guantánamo Bay to reassess not only what the camp says about America, but also the supposedly just war that filled it.

Errachidi condemns 9/11, but also the sledgehammer response. “If the US Army had gone into [Afghanistan] to look for bin Laden and al-Qaeda, or even the Taleban for that matter, I’d have been in favour,” he writes. “But I didn’t think and still don’t think they had a right to bomb civilians from the air… You can’t terrorise 29 million people and claim you are fighting terrorism.” (Estimates of the civilian death toll in the first four months of the war in Afghanistan range from 1,000 directly killed by air strikes to 20,000 when refugee deaths from disease and hunger are included.)

Errachidi writes and talks as someone who put himself under that bombardment and paid dearly. He has survived with a hard-boiled take on the morality of fighting terrorism – “To me, killing people with a car bomb or an F-16 is the same thing” – and a belief that he needs to tell the world what has really been happening in Guantánamo Bay before it loses focus and moves on.

Why should we care? He’s a cook with a Moroccan high-school education. The broad outlines of the abuse of prisoners and due process at Guantánamo are already known. And as President Obama has found, shutting the place down – given the risk that detainees sent home will be tortured (again) – is easier said than done.

For what it’s worth, Errachidi says that risk is wildly exaggerated. He calls it “the big lie, the old song”. Furthermore, Obama’s failure to keep his promise to shut Guantánamo creates the prospect of indefinite detention without trial on US-controlled territory, which would be a monstrous hypocrisy and a systematic denial of justice even if every inmate there were guilty of crimes against humanity. As it is, according to the available evidence, the vast majority are not. Errachidi is a case in point. That the camp is still open six years after his release makes his story more urgent, not less.

“This is me coming out of my shell,” he says, as we look for a patch of sun against which to take his picture in the steep backstreets of Tangier, where he was born and raised and where he now owns a thriving café above the port. His publisher would like him to come out of his country, not just his shell, to talk more widely about what he has written, but he can’t – he has no passport. The Moroccan government has refused to issue one since his release, but he believes the US is trying to muzzle him and blames Washington “for using the Moroccans as a jailer”. (The US Embassy in Rabat declined to comment.)

He hates being reminded he is now a prisoner in his own country. But the reminder comes anyway, the day after we first meet. He wants to show us the Atlantic coast, both for another picture and because it is magnificent. So we drive there in his 4x4, through Tangier’s salubrious western suburbs and past discreet walled compounds, ending at a famous lookout point above Hercules’ Cave.

Some Interior Ministry officials have got there first. They’re wearing dark glasses and long black overcoats as if supplied by central casting. They ask for permits. Without the right papers, a photo session is out of the question. Errachidi assumes they’ve been following us and boils over. After a brief shouting match we leave, reversing at high speed. He holds the steering wheel with one hand and his iPhone in the other, taking pictures of the goons and reminding them that he funds their Toyota Land Cruiser with his taxes.

It takes him a while to calm down. Further up the coast we stop and he sits, fuming. “This is how I get when I get angry,” he says. “When I’m provoked, I feel as if I’m back in Guantánamo.”

He was taken there because of a disastrous overlap of world history and his own.

From his café in central Tangier, the view of Europe is extraordinary. Seven miles away across the Strait of Gibraltar lie Spain, the Rock and opportunity. Dozens of bodies of Africans who set out to swim to a better life are washed up on Tangier’s beaches every year, but in 1985 the 18-year-old Errachidi knew better. He acquired his first passport and a Spanish tourist visa, and took the ferry.

At large in Europe, he headed first for Chesterfield, where he had a standing invitation from a couple he’d once shown around Tangier. He gravitated to London and felt oddly at home. “I even liked it when it was dark and rainy and I couldn’t catch the vaguest glimpse of the sun,” he writes. He found it easy to get on with Brits. He learnt the language, learnt to cook and learnt the fine art of extracting visa extensions from the Home Office.

By 2001 he had a wife and children in Tangier, but his work was still in London. It was a complex life, made more so by a nervous breakdown when his father died, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and a running battle over his immigration status. Worse than any of these was a heart defect detected in his infant son, Imran. Errachidi had friends in London, mainly from the mosques he attended in Finsbury Park and Regent’s Park. But he was feeling a long way from where he was most needed.

Then the twin towers were attacked. He watched “with disbelief and horror” in a North London café as they fell. Soon afterwards, he was told that Imran would need expensive surgery to fix his heart. “In the run-up to that news I was already thinking of starting my own business,” he says. “When the news came it was like a light going on: time to go, time to do it.”

He knew that if he left Britain he might not be allowed to return, but Britain, for once, was not part of his plans. Pakistan was.

At this point, his movements became, in retrospect, a series of red flags for intelligence analysts: fighting-age Moroccan male who attends radical North London mosques heads to Pakistan weeks after 9/11. Crosses into Afghanistan as refugees pour out. Picked up in northern Waziristan as hunt for Osama bin Laden moves there from Tora Bora.

It might have helped that his explanation fell into the category of stuff you can’t make up. But it didn’t help. People with the power to free or detain him simply did not believe him.

His account goes like this: on leaving London for the last time, Errachidi went first to Morocco to see his family. Then he flew to Islamabad in search of silver jewellery to bring back in his suitcase and start selling. (He’d opted for silver from Pakistan over silk from China or Turkey, but had also considered getting into washing-up liquid and rabbits; there is a decent market in Morocco for rabbit meat.)

In Islamabad, he spent some of his time scoping out the local silver markets but much of it watching CNN and BBC World News in his rented room, and crying. “What they were showing on TV was just catastrophic. All the channels, they were doing a lot on all these refugees, all these children crying, facing death, fleeing their homes.”

He realised this misery was unfolding a few hours’ drive away across the Afghan border and, he says, resolved to go and help. He claims he went out of simple fellow feeling and because of his distress over his son – rather than despite it. “I had my pain, my problems,” he says. “I desperately wanted to get away from them.”

For dozens of interrogators, this defied credulity. Readers may share their doubts, and even Stafford Smith concedes the story makes sense to some only in the light of Errachidi’s bipolar disorder. Nonetheless, it is his story. It has never changed, and after seven hours in his charming, outraged company, I could only conclude it was the truth.

To get to Kabul he took taxis when he could and walked when he had to, sometimes at night. There, he says, he saw collateral damage up close: sometimes the survivors of extended families ripped apart by bombs from the sky, sometimes just warm limbs. He spent 25 days cooking for a refugee convoy travelling from Kabul to Kandahar. At one point, a grateful boy proffered a double handful of walnuts, and it all seemed worth it.

Strolling along Tangier’s main beach at dusk more than a decade later, he says he often thought of that boy’s hands when looking at his own, in handcuffs in Guantánamo.

Camp rules required prisoners to push their hands through a hole in their cell doors, wrists together, to be cuffed before leaving for exercise or being moved to another cell. New detachments of guards would often tremble with fear when first forced into close proximity with inmates for this sort of chore. But most would quickly lose that fear, and then it was the prisoners’ turn to be afraid.

The first wave, almost all of whom have now been released, were guinea pigs in a long-running experiment in how to control and extract information from supposedly hardened terrorists without blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions.

A young Russian, also arrested in Pakistan and taken to Guantánamo, told The New York Times after his release: “In Russia, they beat you up; they break you straightaway. But the Americans had their own way, which is to make you go mad over a period of time. Every day they thought of new ways to make you feel worse.”

Errachidi experienced them all, sometimes all at once. He lists some: extreme cold; food and sleep deprivation; pepper spray; continuous loud noise from industrial vacuum cleaners and strimmers placed near the cells; strong-smelling liquid sprayed over the cells’ all-metal surfaces that brought on headaches, vomiting and dizziness. In principle, guards were not supposed to beat up inmates. In practice, he says beatings by special units on the pretext of maintaining order were routine.

“In the middle of all this we were like zombies,” he says. “Then this woman soldier would come with a piece of chocolate and make me watch, and she would start moving her body and slowly eating it.” His reaction was fear rather than arousal – “The fear that you are not dealing with a human being. To think that the human being in front of you has no mercy is more frightening than losing your freedom.”

Some guards did not conform to type. Errachidi remembers one, a Vietnam vet, who stood out as older, calmer and more obliging than the others. Another, Terry Holdbrooks, sought out prisoner 590 for conversations about Islam and converted while on the base. He told an interviewer later that when his fellow guards found out they promised to “skull-f*** the Taleban” out of him.

“But most of them were KKK,” Errachidi says, using the term loosely. “They were immune when they saw us in pain. There was a lot of yee-hah and jumping for joy when they saw us screaming.”

It is now nine years since the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq first exposed this sort of behaviour by US soldiers; and nine years also since the US Supreme Court first resisted White House efforts to create at Guantánamo what one Bush Administration official called “the legal equivalent of outer space”. Even so, it would be another two years before Stafford Smith managed to persuade US officials that Errachidi was not worth detaining any longer.

In the meantime, Mike Bumgarner’s efforts to find common ground with his prisoners failed. The place became, in prisoner 590’s words, a war zone. He was accused of inciting hunger strikes and suicide attempts – falsely, he says – and was placed in a punishment block for what he describes as 23 straight days of torture. To protest their innocence rather than merely their conditions, prisoners started defecating on their cell floors instead of in their buckets for up to ten days at a time.

In June 2006, three inmates, two Saudis and a Yemeni, hanged themselves in their cells.

At no point, Errachidi says, did any of his dozens of interrogators take seriously his claims of innocence. “They were told to get ‘actionable intelligence’, not show that the US had made a gross error,” says Stafford Smith. “Most interrogators were simply trying to confirm things that others had said, most of which were false. Such are the fruits of coercion.”

Stafford Smith says Errachidi’s bipolar diagnosis was vital for winning back his freedom. Without it, his decisions to travel to Pakistan and then Afghanistan at such a dangerous time were not deemed explicable.

Looking back, does he consider those decisions rational? “I was as normal as I am talking to you now,” he says. “What affected my decisions was the health of my son. The news that he would need an operation was a catastrophe.”

He makes two further points: for a Muslim with a Moroccan passport and no European work visa but a compelling need to start a business, Pakistan was not a crazy place to go, even in late 2001. It was one of few sensible options open to him. As for his one-man mercy mission to Afghanistan, he wonders why he should believe the US Army went there partly to relieve suffering if US soldiers refuse to believe that he, as a Muslim, might want to do the same.

By 2006, Bumgarner had given up on Errachidi and allowed his name to go on a list of inmates eligible for release. Actual release did not come for another year, and when it did, it was abrupt. “Five and a half years, then, ‘You’re free to go,’ ” he says, still sounding amazed. “No explanation, no apology, nothing.” Just a kit bag containing some cheap clothing and toiletries. But freedom came with a bonus: his son, Imran, had recovered without surgery and was now a healthy six-year-old at primary school.

Errachidi still sees orange prison suits in his nightmares, but he is a survivor. Besides his café, he owns a chicken restaurant up the hill. Some of the Brits who fly in on Ryanair have probably been there. If not, they should. It’s good, and its owner is a generous host. He believes George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld should stand trial for what has happened at Guantánamo. He is furious with Obama for leaving it open and resents Hillary Clinton’s lectures on human rights over the past four years. Otherwise, he bears no grudges: “I can distinguish between people and their leaders,” he says, a man of the world itching for his horizons to expand again. “If I had a visa, I’d take my kids to Disneyland tomorrow.” 

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