Christian Lorentzen reviews Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi: In the autumn of 2001 Mohamedou Ould Slahi was working in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, setting up computer networks. He was born in the hinterlands, son of a nomadic camel trader, and had picked up the trade in Germany; he went to the University of Duisberg on a scholarship in 1988, at the age of 17. He’d long been a fan of the German national football team. He was also devout and had memorised the Koran as a teenager. In 1991 he went to Afghanistan to train with the mujahedin and pledged an oath to al-Qaida. He made another trip the next year, but saw little action fighting Muhammad Najibullah’s communist government before it fell. When the fighting disintegrated into factional struggles, he went back to Germany. He tried once to join the war in Bosnia, but couldn’t get through Slovenia. He worked in Duisberg until 1999, when his visa expired and pressure was coming down from the immigration office. He applied for permanent residency in Canada and went to Montreal, where he led prayers at a mosque attended by an Algerian called Ahmed Ressam. On 14 December 1999, Ressam was arrested at the US border with explosives and timing devices in his rented car. This was the Millennium Plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport, and though Ressam was a stranger to him it was the start of Slahi’s troubles.
In Montreal he believed he was being watched, possibly through a small hole drilled through his bedroom wall from his neighbour’s flat. (He called the police about it and they told him to fill the hole with caulk.) He was questioned by Canadian intelligence, but let go. Still, he was spooked, and in January 2000 he set off to return to Mauritania, via Dakar; on landing he was picked up by Senegalese special forces. He was rendered to Nouakchott, held for weeks, threatened with torture, and interrogated by Mauritanian intelligence and the FBI. Here was the start of the American authorities’ four-year fixation on two words, ‘tea’ and ‘sugar’, picked up on a tapped phone conversation and presumed to be code. They released him to return to his family. On his way out, the director of Mauritanian intelligence told him: ‘Those guys have no evidence whatsoever.’ [Continue reading…]
Khadija al-Saadi writes: Two very different flights landed at Mitiga military airport in Libya just over a decade ago. The first was organized by the CIA and MI6. On board were a family of six surrounded by guards, the frightened children separated from their parents, the father chained to a seat in a rear compartment with a needle stuck in his arm. The second flight, only a couple of days later, carried Tony Blair in comfort, on his way to shake hands and do business with Colonel Gaddafi.
I know about the first flight, because I was one of the children. I know about the chains and the needle because Sami al-Saadi — a long-time political opponent of Colonel Gaddafi — is my father and I saw him in that state. I was 12 years old, and was trying to keep my younger brothers and my six year-old sister calm. The guards took us to see our mother once on the 16-hour flight. She was crying, and told us that we were being taken to Gaddafi’s Libya. Shortly before the plane landed, a guard told me to say goodbye to my father, at the front of the plane. I forced myself ahead and saw him with a needle in his arm. I remember guards laughing at me. Then I fainted.
We were taken off the plane and bundled into cars. Hoods were pulled over my parents’ heads. Libyans forced my mother, sister and I into one car, my brothers and father another. The convoy drove to a secret prison outside Tripoli, where I was certain we were all going to be executed. All I knew about Libya at that time was that Colonel Gaddafi wanted to hurt my father, and that our family had always been moving from country to country to avoid being taken to him. Now we had been kidnapped, flown to Libya, and his people had us at their mercy. [Continue reading…]
Why kidnapping, torture, assassination, and perjury are no longer crimes in Washington
By Tom Engelhardt
How the mighty have fallen. Once known as “Obama’s favorite general,” James Cartwright will soon don a prison uniform and, thanks to a plea deal, spend 13 months behind bars. Involved in setting up the earliest military cyberforce inside U.S. Strategic Command, which he led from 2004 to 2007, Cartwright also played a role in launching the first cyberwar in history — the release of the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear program. A Justice Department investigation found that, in 2012, he leaked information on the development of that virus to David Sanger of the New York Times. The result: a front-page piece revealing its existence, and so the American cyber-campaign against Iran, to the American public. It was considered a serious breach of national security. On Thursday, the retired four-star general stood in front of a U.S. district judge who told him that his “criminal act” was “a very serious one” and had been “committed by a national security expert who lost his moral compass.” It was a remarkable ending for a man who nearly reached the heights of Pentagon power, was almost appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and had the president’s ear.
In fact, Gen. James Cartwright has not gone to jail and the above paragraph remains — as yet — a grim Washington fairy tale. There is indeed a Justice Department investigation open against the president’s “favorite general” (as Washington scribe to the stars Bob Woodward once labeled him) for the possible leaking of information on that virus to the New York Times, but that’s all. He remains quite active in private life, holding the Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as a consultant to ABC News, and on the board of Raytheon, among other things. He has suffered but a single penalty so far: he was stripped of his security clearance.
A different leaker actually agreed to that plea deal for the 13-month jail term. Nearly three weeks ago, ex-State Department intelligence analyst Stephen E. Kim pled guilty to “an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information.” He stood before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who offered those stern words of admonition, and took responsibility for passing classified information on the North Korean nuclear program to Fox News reporter James Rosen in 2009.
Still, someday Cartwright might prove to be unique in the annals of Obama era jurisprudence — the only Washington figure of any significance in these years to be given a jail sentence for a crime of state. Whatever happens to him, his ongoing case highlights a singular fact: that there is but one crime for which anyone in America’s national security state can be held accountable in a court of law, and that’s leaking information that might put those in it in a bad light or simply let the American public know something more about what its government is really doing.
If this weren’t Washington 2014, but rather George Orwell’s novel 1984, then the sign emblazoned on the front of the Ministry of Truth — “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” — would have to be amended to add a fourth slogan: Knowledge is Crime.
Gregory D Johnsen writes: Sunrise was still nearly an hour off when Nazih al-Ruqai climbed into his black Hyundai SUV outside a mosque in northern Tripoli and turned the key. The lanky 49-year-old had left the house barely 30 minutes earlier for a quick trip to the mosque on a Saturday. It was Oct. 5, 2013, and after more than two decades in exile, he had settled into a predictable existence of prayer and worship.
The homecoming hadn’t always been so smooth. Ruqai, who is better known in the jihadi world as Abu Anas al-Libi, was still feeling the effects of the hepatitis C he had contracted years earlier during a stint in an underground prison in Iran. Following overtures from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government, his wife and children had returned to Libya in 2010. But Libi stayed away, wary of the man he had once plotted to kill. Only when the Libyan uprisings started in early 2011 did he follow his family back to Libya. But by then it was already too late. His oldest son, Abd al-Rahman, the only one of his five children who had been born in Libya, was dead, shot while fighting for the capital.
After that, things moved in fits and starts. Qaddafi was killed weeks later in October 2011, and Libi eventually settled in Nufalayn, a leafy middle-class neighborhood in northeast Tripoli, alongside several members of his extended family. Life after Qaddafi was chaotic and messy — nothing really worked as the new government struggled to reboot after 42 years of dictatorship, often finding itself at the mercy of the heavily armed militias and tribes that had contributed to Qaddafi’s downfall.
Libi knew he was a wanted man. He had been on the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade, following an indictment in 2000 for his alleged role in al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two years earlier. Along with Libi the indictment named 20 other individuals, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, as defendants.
“He suspected that at any moment he would be killed,” his son later told The New York Times. Still, on that Saturday morning in early October, much of the danger seemed to have passed. Libi had been living in the open for nearly a year, attending prayers and settling local disputes, where his history as a fighter and knowledge of the Qur’an made him a respected arbiter. Neighbors called him simply “the shaykh,” a sign of respect in the conservative circles in which Libi still moved.
He had also taken steps to address his past. Three weeks earlier, on Sept. 15, Libi had sat down with Libya’s attorney general to discuss his indictment, according to one report. (The Libyan Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests to confirm Libi’s meeting.) But mostly he just wanted to move on with his life. He had applied for his old job at the Ministry of Oil and Gas and he couldn’t stop talking about how much he was looking forward to becoming a grandfather for the first time.
A trio of cars around 6 a.m. ended all of that.
Inside the family’s apartment, Libi’s wife heard the commotion. From a window she looked out over the beige wall that surrounded their building and into the street where several men had surrounded her husband, who was still in the driver’s seat of his black Hyundai.
“Get out,” the men shouted in Arabic. “Get out.” Then they smashed the window. Most of the men were masked, but she could see a few faces, she said later in Arabic interviews. They looked Libyan; they sounded Libyan. Some of them had guns; some didn’t, but they all moved quickly.
By the time the rest of the family made it to the street, all that was left was a single sandal and a few drops of blood.
Early that same morning, nearly 3,000 miles away in the seaside city of Baraawe on Somalia’s eastern coast, U.S. Navy SEALs crept through the darkness toward their target, which a local resident later described to me as a walled compound more than 100 yards inland. The Americans had been here before. Four years earlier, in September 2009, a contingent of Navy SEALs had ambushed a two-car convoy just outside of town. Flying low in helicopter gunships, the SEALs quickly disabled the cars and then touched down to collect the bodies.
This time the target — Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Abd al-Qadir, a young Kenyan of Somali descent better known as Ikrima — was stationary. The SEALs would have to go in and get him. Pre-raid intelligence suggested that the compound housed mostly fighters with few or no civilians present. Only 130 miles south of Mogadishu and what passed for the Somali government, Baraawe had been under the control of al-Shabaab, a fragmentary militant group, since 2009. Fighters came and went freely, as al-Shabaab implemented its own narrow version of Islamic law in the city.
Moving up the beach and into enemy territory, the SEALs needed the element of surprise. Through the trees and scrub brush ahead of them, most of the city was dark. Baraawe had only a few hours of electricity each day, usually from evening prayers until midnight. But al-Shabaab’s members lived separately and, along with some of the city’s wealthier residents, got around the shortages by running private generators. The plan that night took this into account, calling for the SEALs to jam internet signals, apparently in an attempt to cut off communication once the raid began. That would prove to be a mistake.
Inside the compound, some of the al-Shabaab fighters were up late and online. And, according to a report in the Toronto Star, when the internet suddenly went out in the middle of the night, they went to look for the source of the problem. At least one fighter stepped outside, and as he moved around in the darkness he spotted some of the SEALs.
The plan to knock the internet offline and isolate the fighters in the villa had backfired, effectively giving al-Shabaab an early warning that the SEALs were on their way. (In the days after the raid, al-Shabaab would arrest a handful of local men who were known to visit Western websites, accusing them of spying and aiding U.S. efforts.)
The firefight lasted several minutes, although residents reported hearing gunfire throughout the night as members of al-Shabaab discharged their weapons into the dark for hours after the Americans had withdrawn, empty-handed.
In the span of a few hours, the U.S. had launched a pair of raids — one successful and one not — 3,000 miles apart, in countries with which the nation was not at war. Hardly anyone noticed.
More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is what America’s war looks like, silent strikes and shadowy raids. The Congressional Research Service, an analytical branch of the Library of Congress, recently said that it had located at least 30 similar occurrences, although the number of covert actions is likely many times higher with drones strikes and other secret operations. The remarkable has become regular.
The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: MI6 officers were under no obligation to report breaches of the Geneva conventions and turned a “blind eye” to the torture of detainees in foreign jails, according to the report into Britain’s involvement in the rendition of terror suspects.
Even when individual MI6 and MI5 officers expressed concerns about the abuse of detainees they did not pass on their thoughts for fear of offending the US, Britain’s closest intelligence partner.
British officials were reluctant to question sleep deprivation, hooding, and waterboarding for “fear of damaging liaison relationships” – an unmistakable reference to the CIA.
This is the message of the 115-page report by a panel led by Sir Peter Gibson, the former appeal court judge, into Britain’s involvement in the extra-judicial abduction of terror suspects who were flown in secret to prisons where they were ill treated. [Continue reading…]
John Sifton writes: I have just arrived here in the Gambia, in westernmost Africa, to testify before the African Commission of Human Rights about a CIA rendition case involving Djibouti, 4,000 miles east at the mouth of the Red Sea.
The case against Djibouti was brought by Mohammed Abdullah Saleh al-Asad, a Yemeni citizen who was arrested in 2003 in Tanzania and taken on a private flight to Djibouti. There the CIA — with help from Djibouti authorities — detained him short term and then flew him to another CIA facility in Afghanistan. His petition provides evidence that he was subjected to beatings and torture in both locations. The CIA appears to have realized later that al-Asad was not involved in terrorism or al-Qaeda, and returned him to Yemen in 2005.
The al-Asad case is one of several brought to hold the US government and its co-perpetrators accountable for unlawful arrests, detentions, and interrogations carried out by the CIA during the Bush administration — serious abuses that my colleagues and I documented for Human Rights Watch in numerous reports in 2004 to present. Known CIA interrogation techniques included severe sleep deprivation, forced standing, exposure to cold, slapping and hitting, confining detainees in small boxes, and throwing detainees against the wall. Some were waterboarded. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: An elite U.S. interrogation team abandoned its questioning of an al-Qaeda militant who was snatched in Libya after he stopped eating and drinking regularly on board a U.S. Navy ship where he was being held, a U.S. official familiar with the matter said.
As his health deteriorated, U.S. authorities decided to fly the suspect known as Abu Anas al-Liby to New York last weekend, where he was taken to a hospital for treatment.
Al-Liby, whose real name is Nazih al-Ragye, was expected to be arraigned in Federal Court in Manhattan on Tuesday on long-standing charges related to the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.
Upon arrival in the United States, al-Liby became subject to the rules of the civilian American court system. That means he can no longer be interrogated without being advised of his constitutional right to avoid incriminating himself, the official said. [Continue reading…]
Jamie Dettmer reports: For Americans, he is a monster, a major al-Qaeda leader who had a hand in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 224 civilians and—until U.S. Special Forces snatched him off the streets of Tripoli last week—a veteran terrorist tasked with uniting jihadists not just in Libya but across the arc of North Africa.
Sitting down, though, with his wife of 22 years and three sons in their cramped apartment, on the elevated ground floor of a small apartment building in a middle-class district in the Libyan capital on Saturday evening, I heard a different story that didn’t fit the bogeyman portrait drawn by American officials.
And it is one that prompts the question: has the U.S. got the right man?
For his family, Abu Anas al-Liby, to use his nom de guerre, is an easy-going husband and kind, playful father who, just days before a Delta Force team grabbed and bundled the 49-year-old out of Libya, told his oldest son, Abdullah, that he was looking forward to becoming a grandfather.
For them, he is a Libyan patriot who sacrificed a great deal. His commitment to the ousting of Libya’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, required them all to suffer, including several years of imprisonment in poor conditions in Iran after the family fled Afghanistan. They say they endured harassment and surveillance in Britain, where they sought political asylum and lived from 1997 to 2000. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: A federal judge in Manhattan on Friday rejected a request that he appoint a lawyer to represent a terror suspect who was captured last weekend in Libya and was said to be undergoing interrogation while in military custody on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
After that interrogation is over, the suspect, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, is expected to be advised of his right to a lawyer and speedy court appearance, and would eventually be brought to Manhattan for criminal prosecution.
Mr. Ruqai, 49, who is better known as Abu Anas al-Libi, faces indictment in Federal District Court on conspiracy charges stemming from the 1998 bombings of two United States embassies in East Africa that killed 224 people.
On Tuesday, David E. Patton, the chief federal public defender in New York City, wrote to the judge overseeing cases stemming from that indictment, arguing that Mr. Ruqai was “a defendant in an indicted case before this court” and was entitled to be taken “without unnecessary delay” before a magistrate judge, where he would also have the right to counsel.
But on Friday, the judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, said that such a requirement was triggered only by a “federal criminal arrest.”
“The government denies that any federal criminal arrest has taken place,” he wrote, “and there is no evidence to the contrary.” As a result, Judge Kaplan wrote, there was “no proper basis” for the court to conclude that “the obligation to produce the defendant before it in this criminal case has come into existence.” [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Libya has demanded an explanation for the “kidnapping” of one of its citizens by American special forces, hours after a separate US military raid on a terrorist target in Somalia ended in apparent failure and retreat.
In Tripoli the US army’s delta force seized alleged al-Qaida leader Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Abu Anas al-Liby and wanted for the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 220 people.
But US navy Seals suffered a major setback when they launched an amphibious assault to capture an Islamist militant leader said to be Ahmed Godane, described as Africa’s most wanted man and the architect of last month’s attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya. The elite Seals were beaten back by heavy fire and apparently abandoned equipment that the Somali militants photographed and posted on the internet.
As dramatic details of Saturday’s twin operations emerged, US secretary of state John Kerry insisted that terrorists “can run but they can’t hide”, but faced growing questions about America’s military reach in Africa and the consequences of unilateral aggression.
Al-Liby was captured outside his family home at 6.15am in Noufle’een, a quiet suburb in eastern Tripoli, according to witnesses, but there were conflicting reports over who took him. His brother, Nabih, told the Associated Press that al-Liby was parking when a convoy of three vehicles encircled his car. Armed gunmen smashed the car’s window and seized al-Liby’s gun before grabbing him and taking him away, the report said. The brother said al-Liby’s wife saw the kidnapping from her window and described the abductors as foreign-looking armed “commandos”.
But al-Liby’s son Abdullah insisted that Libyan forces were involved. Appearing on Tripoli’s Nabir TV station, he said: “The people who took my father were Libyan, not Americans – they spoke with Tripoli accents. [Continue reading…]
A former CIA officer involved in the 2003 kidnapping of a Muslim cleric, Osama Mustapha Hassan Nasr, in Milan, spoke to McClatchy: Confirming for the first time that she worked undercover for the CIA in Milan when the operation took place, Sabrina De Sousa provided new details about the “extraordinary rendition” that led to the only criminal prosecution stemming from the secret Bush administration rendition and detention program launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The cleric, Osama Mustapha Hassan Nasr, was snatched from a Milan street by a team of CIA operatives and flown to Egypt, where he was held for the better part of four years without charges and allegedly tortured. An Egyptian court in 2007 ruled that his imprisonment was “unfounded” and ordered him released.
Among the allegations made by De Sousa in a series of interviews with McClatchy:
– The former CIA station chief in Rome, Jeffrey Castelli, whom she called the mastermind of the operation, exaggerated Nasr’s terrorist threat to win approval for the rendition and misled his superiors that Italian military intelligence had agreed to the operation.
– Senior CIA officials, including then-CIA Director George Tenet, approved the operation even though Nasr wasn’t wanted in Egypt and wasn’t on the U.S. list of top al Qaida terrorists.
– Condoleezza Rice, then the White House national security adviser, also had concerns about the case, especially what Italy would do if the CIA were caught, but she eventually agreed to it and recommended that Bush approve the abduction. [Continue reading…]
Edward Snowden is accused of breaking the law, but Robert Seldon Lady, the former CIA chief in Milan, was convicted of kidnapping and given a nine-year prison sentence.
In 2003, Lady initially claimed diplomatic immunity but after that was rejected by an Italian judge in 2005 and he has been on the run ever since. It’s now reported that he ended up in Panama where he was arrested yesterday.
Panama and Italy don’t have an extradition treaty and so it remains to be seen whether Lady will be able to continue evading his prison sentence.
President Obama has zero tolerance for whistleblowers but he still thinks kidnapping is cool, so in this particular case it doesn’t look like the U.S. government will show any interest in justice.
Washington casts a friendly eye on those who commit crimes at its request, but anyone who dares to expose the government’s criminality will be made to suffer the consequences.
The Guardian reports: The UK’s support for the CIA’s global rendition programme after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US was far more substantial than has previously been recognised, according to a new research project that draws on a vast number of publicly available data and documentation.
Evidence gathered by The Rendition Project – an interactive website that maps thousands of rendition flights – highlight 1,622 flights in and out of the UK by aircraft now known to have been involved in the agency’s secret kidnap and detention programme.
While many of those flights may not have been involved in rendition operations, the researchers behind the project have drawn on testimony from detainees, Red Cross reports, courtroom evidence, flight records and invoices to show that at least 144 were entering the UK while suspected of being engaged in rendition operations. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The full extent of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme has been laid bare with the publication of a report showing there is evidence that more than a quarter of the world’s governments covertly offered support.
A 213-page report compiled by the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), a New York-based human rights organisation, says that at least 54 countries co-operated with the global kidnap, detention and torture operation that was mounted after 9/11, many of them in Europe.
So widespread and extensive was the participation of governments across the world that it is now clear the CIA could not have operated its programme without their support, according to the OSJI.
“There is no doubt that high-ranking Bush administration officials bear responsibility for authorising human rights violations associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition, and the impunity that they have enjoyed to date remains a matter of significant concern,” the report says.
“But responsibility for these violations does not end with the United States. Secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations, designed to be conducted outside the United States under cover of secrecy, could not have been implemented without the active participation of foreign governments. These governments too must be held accountable.” [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: A Milan appeals court on Friday vacated acquittals for a former CIA station chief and two other Americans, and instead convicted them in the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian terror suspect from a Milan street as part of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program.
The appeals court sentenced former CIA Rome station chief Jeffrey Castelli to seven years, and handed sentences of six years each to Americans Betnie Medero and Ralph Russomando. All three were tried in absentia at both levels. A lower court that convicted 23 other Americans in 2009 had previously acquitted the three citing diplomatic immunity.
The November 2009 convictions, which were held up on two levels of appeal, were the first anywhere in the world against CIA actors involved in a practice alleged to have led to torture.
None of the Americans tried in Italy have ever been in Italian custody, but they risk arrest if they travel to Europe and lawyers have in the past suggested that final verdicts would open the way for the Italian government to seek their extradition. No such action has yet been taken.
The Guardian reports: Tony Blair, prime minister at the time MI6 rendered Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a prominent Libyan dissident, to the Gaddafi regime in 2004, has said he had “no recollection” of the incident.
But he said he was sure the operation would be investigated “as it should be”.
Interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, Blair added that it should be remembered that “people in the Middle East were also trying to fight terrorism and extremism”. Britain’s co-operation with Libya at the time was important, the former prime minister said.
He referred to comments made by the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, who said the government had been opposed to unlawful rendition. “As far as I know [the government] kept to that position,” Blair said.
Straw has said: “We were opposed to unlawful rendition. We were opposed to any use of torture. Not only did we not agree with it; we were not complicit in it and nor did we turn a blind eye to it.”
However, Straw has added: “No foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time.”
The Guardian reports: Just when Fatima Bouchar thought it couldn’t get any worse, the Americans forced her to lie on a stretcher and began wrapping tape around her feet. They moved upwards, she says, along her legs, winding the tape around and around, binding her to the stretcher. They taped her stomach, her arms and then her chest. She was bound tight, unable to move.
Bouchar says there were three Americans: two tall, thin men and an equally tall woman. Mostly they were silent. She never saw their faces: they dressed in black and always wore black balaclavas. Bouchar was terrified. They didn’t stop at her chest – she says they also wound the tape around her head, covering her eyes. Then they put a hood and earmuffs on her. She was unable to move, to hear or to see. “My left eye was closed when the tape was applied,” she says, speaking about her ordeal for the first time. “But my right eye was open, and it stayed open throughout the journey. It was agony.” The journey would last around 17 hours.
Bouchar, then aged 30, had become a victim of the process known as extraordinary rendition. She and her husband, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a Libyan Islamist militant fighting Muammar Gaddafi, had been abducted in Bangkok and were being flown to one of Gaddafi’s prisons in Libya, a country where she had never before set foot. However, Bouchar’s case is different from the countless other renditions that the world has learned about over the past few years, and not just because she was one of the few female victims.
Documents discovered in Tripoli show that the operation was initiated by British intelligence officers, rather than the masked Americans or their superiors in the US. There is also some evidence that the operation may have been linked to a second British-initiated operation, which saw two men detained in Iraq and rendered to Afghanistan. Furthermore, the timing of the operation, and the questions that Bouchar’s husband and a second rendition victim say were subsequently put to them under torture, raise disturbing new questions about the secret court system that considers immigration appeals in terrorist cases in the UK – a system that the government has pledged to extend to civil trials in which the government itself is the defendant.
This year, the Crown Prosecution Service announced police had launched an investigation into the “alleged rendition and alleged ill-treatment” of Bouchar and Belhaj, and a second operation in which a Libyan family of six were flown to one of Gaddafi’s prisons.
It appears inevitable that Scotland Yard’s detectives will want to question the man who was foreign secretary at the time – Jack Straw.
Ten years before Bouchar’s abduction and rendition, many of her husband’s associates had been permitted to settle in Britain. These men were members of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah fi-Libya, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an organisation formed in the early 1990s and dedicated to Gaddafi’s removal. The LIFG was not banned in the UK, and its members appear to have found the country a convenient place to gather and raise funds. There were even reports – officially denied – that MI6 encouraged the LIFG in an unsuccessful attempt on the dictator’s life.
But from 2002 the UK ceased to be such a safe haven for the LIFG. The US and UK governments were beginning to repair their relations with Gaddafi, a rapprochement that would soon see him abandon his WMD programme and open his country’s oil and gas reserves to western corporations.
One Thursday evening in November that year, a 36-year-old LIFG member who was living in London was arrested by armed police as he attempted to board a flight at Heathrow. He was told he was being detained under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act, a piece of legislation that had been rushed on to the statute books within weeks of 9/11, and which allowed the British government to detain international terrorism suspects without trial. From that moment the man was anonymised, by court order – in part to protect his relatives in Libya – and could be referred to only as “M”.
When M had arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker eight years earlier, he had readily told Special Branch detectives that he was a member of the LIFG. On his arrest at Heathrow he insisted that the organisation had no connection with international terrorism and was concerned only with the removal of Gaddafi. After being detained at Belmarsh high security prison in south-east London, M appealed to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), a tribunal that allows the government to give evidence in secret, unseen by the appellant or the appellant’s lawyers.
In March 2004, M became the first and only person detained under the act to win an appeal at SIAC. The tribunal accepted that there were no links between LIFG and al-Qaida, and criticised the Home Office for its “consistent exaggeration” of M’s alleged links with members of al-Qaida. As the law permitted only “international terrorists” to be detained without trial, and not domestic insurgents, M was set free. A few days after SIAC’s decision, notice was passed to the Home Office and MI5, and Fatima Bouchar and her husband were detained in Bangkok.
Bouchar’s husband made no secret of being a leading member of the LIFG. That year, the couple had left China, where they had been living in exile, and attempted to travel to the UK via Malaysia. When they were detained in Kuala Lumpur and questioned about Belhaj’s false Iraqi passport, an acquaintance went to the British high commission to explain that the couple were attempting to reach London. Shortly after this, they were told that they would be permitted to travel to the UK on a BA flight, despite not having EU passports or UK visas. But when the aircraft stopped off at Bangkok, the pair were detained and taken to a US-run detention facility.
It was known that the CIA had been operating a secret prison in Thailand since 9/11, but its precise location was unknown. Bouchar and Belhaj arrived there within minutes of being detained, suggesting that it was located within the perimeter of Don Muang international airport. They were immediately separated.
Belhaj says he was blindfolded, hooded, forced to wear ear defenders, and hung from hooks in his cell wall for what seemed to be hours. He says he was severely beaten. The ear defenders were removed only for him to be blasted with loud music, he says, or when he was interrogated by his US captors. [Continue reading…]