How MI5 had me kidnapped and thrown into CIA's Dark Prison
UK Daily Mail | July 29, 2007
James Bond interviewed informants in nightclubs and luxury hotels.
Le Carré's George Smiley preferred park benches or safe houses in Belgravia. But when Bisher Al-Rawi met the men from MI5, they chose somewhere more prosaic: a table in the basement section of McDonald's in Kensington, West London.
"I always had a Filet-O-Fish," Al-Rawi says drily. "They would only drink. One supposes they didn't like the food."
It wasn't the only difference between Britain's real and fictional spies. Having risked his life and reputation to inform MI5 about Islamic radicalism in London in the months after 9/11, Al-Rawi was betrayed.
The reward for his unpaid help was a secret emailed "telegram" from the British Security Service to the CIA, in which they told the Americans that Al-Rawi was carrying a timing device for a bomb – in reality, an innocuous battery-charger bought from Argos – on a business trip to Gambia.
Al-Rawi, the telegram added, was an "Iraqi extremist" associate of the London-based preacher Abu Qatada, who was regarded by the Security Services as Osama Bin Laden's "Ambassador" in Europe. The telegram did not, however, mention the crucial fact that he had been seeing Abu Qatada at MI5's behest.
A few months earlier, in the spring of 2002, Abu Qatada was wanted under the Government's 2001 Terrorism Act, which allowed foreign nationals believed to be involved in terrorism to be detained without charge, and had supposedly gone into hiding.
At this time Al-Rawi visited Abu Qatada numerous times with the knowledge of his MI5 handlers, in the hope of arranging a meeting between them. In addition, Al-Rawi had told MI5 all about his own life and his other activities and tried to provide an insight into Britain's Islamic scene.
All of it was thrown in his face. Arrested and interrogated on his arrival in Gambia in 2002, a month later Al-Rawi was flown on an illegal CIA "rendition" flight halfway across the world and spent four-and-a-half years detained without charge in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
From the beginning, he says, the main basis of his hundreds of interrogations was the information he had already freely given to MI5.
Last week, in two days of interviews, Al-Rawi told his story for the first time, almost four months after his release. He is the first man to describe in detail the CIA's rendition flights, but he also gives a powerful insight into the regime at America's prison at Guantanamo Bay.
He was speaking out for one reason – to help his friend, Jamil el-Banna, who was arrested in Gambia with him and shared his ordeal. Like Al-Rawi, he has now been deemed to pose no threat by the Americans. But el-Banna, a Jordanian who settled in Britain and who has five British children, is still in his cell in Guantanamo because the Government has refused to allow his return.
Al-Rawi looks older than his 39 years and thinner than in photos from before his arrest. Clean-shaven, in designer jeans and a sweatshirt, he remains animated and articulate, punctuating even the grimmest episodes with an expansive, mischievous laugh.
His family came to Britain when Al-Rawi was 16 after his father, a wealthy businessman, was tortured by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.
For a time he went to top public school Millfield and later studied engineering at London's Queen Mary and Westfield College. After his father died in 1992 his mother, brother and sister acquired UK citizenship, but Al-Rawi remained an Iraqi, hoping that this would one day make it easier to retrieve property the family had left behind.
Passionate about outdoor activities such as rock-climbing, parachuting and scuba-diving, during the Nineties he ran his own engineering business and learned to fly helicopters.
It was through his business that Al-Rawi got to know Jamil el-Banna.
Al-Rawi thinks he met Abu Qatada through a mosque and gradually the friendship progressed as Al-Rawi attended the preacher's prayer meetings in Acton, West London. "I got to know his kids," he says. "My relationship with Abu Qatada wasn't much different from with a lot of people in the community."
Years later, after 9/11, officials would claim that Abu Qatada had been "Osama Bin Laden's ambassador in Europe".
But Al-Rawi insists that although Abu Qatada supported Muslim causes in places such as Chechnya and Kashmir, he never heard him advocate attacks against the West, and that when he was asked whether Muslims in Britain should emulate 9/11, "he went purple with rage, saying, 'That's the last thing we should do.' He said if anyone had asked him, he would have advised against 9/11."
Several times before 9/11 Al-Rawi was asked to be an interpreter at meetings between MI5 officers and Arabic speakers, including Abu Qatada.
Al-Rawi claims MI5 were on cordial terms with Abu Qatada long before 9/11 and had been cultivating him as a useful source on general matters affecting the Muslim community.
"On two occasions I asked the officers in private, 'Is it OK to have a relationship with Abu Qatada? Is this a problem?' They always said it's fine, it's OK."
Several weeks after the Twin Towers attacks, two MI5 men, who called themselves Alex and Matt, came to his home.
"The family was freaking out so I took them to sit in the conservatory and closed the door. They'd done their homework very well – they knew a lot about me. It was like an interview."
They came back a week later but because his family felt uncomfortable, Al-Rawi says they began to meet at a pub in Victoria, and later at McDonald's. "In those early days they were always offering me money. I was clear with them. I told them I wasn't going to be paid. I agreed to talk to MI5 because I believed it would do some good."
But Al-Rawi was concerned lest he might somehow incriminate himself, by speaking of people who – unbeknown to him – really might have links with terrorism. He also sought assurances that everything he said was in confidence.
Soon afterwards, he was asked to meet an MI5 lawyer called Simon. "He gave me very solid assurances about confidentiality," Al-Rawi says. "He promised they would even protect my family if they had to. He said that if I were ever arrested, I should co-operate with the police and if ever a matter got to court he would come as a witness and tell the truth."
Last night, MI5 declined to comment on this or other aspects of the case. Despite repeated and detailed requests, a spokesman did not return calls.
Under the Government's 2001 Terrorism Act, foreign nationals such as Abu Qatada were allowed to be detained without charge. Shortly before the law was passed, Abu Qatada disappeared. Like most of his associates, Al-Rawi had no idea of his whereabouts. But one day in early spring, a stranger phoned and asked to meet him at a London mosque. He took him to a house where Abu Qatada was staying. "He asked me if I could help him find somewhere new."
Through a friend, Al-Rawi found him a flat. "Less than a week later I saw Alex in McDonald's. He asked me, 'Bisher, do you know where Abu Qatada is?' I thought to myself, if I was going to tell a lie, now was the time to do it. But I didn't. I said, 'Yes, I do.'"
A few days later, they met again, this time with Alex's boss, Martin. "He seemed excited. Until then British authorities had no idea where Abu Qatada was."
Soon afterwards Al-Rawi told Abu Qatada that he had informed MI5 he knew where he was. "He looked at me in amazement. He didn't like it, yet at the same time he tolerated it. I really thought I could bring them together."
So began the crazy weeks when Al-Rawi acted as go-between, taking messages between the preacher and MI5. "The balancing act was extreme. Yet I really believe that if they had met, history might have been different. Maybe if Abu Qatada could have talked to MI5 he would have stayed out of jail, and the young hotheads would have listened to him. Who knows? Perhaps there would have been no 7/7."
Finally, in early summer 2002, Al-Rawi says, he was sure that Abu Qatada was ready to meet MI5 officers, but quickly changed his mind. Soon afterwards Al-Rawi had a final phone call from Alex. "It was a brief conversation terminating our relationship. It was very tense, like breaking off with a girlfriend. But I was also relieved – it was a huge load off my shoulders."
Eventually, in October 2002, Abu Qatada was arrested under the 2001 Terrorism Act. Later MI5 claimed in court they were unaware of his whereabouts for almost a year. Al-Rawi finds this implausible. "As I told Abu Qatada at the time, all they had to do was follow me on my motorbike. I am certain that they did."
It was Al-Rawi's brother, Wahhab, who had the idea of setting up a business in Gambia. A family friend told them that peanut-processing plants – where nuts are shelled in situ and turned into oil – could be lucrative.
Wahhab travelled ahead to Gambia and on November 1, 2002, Al-Rawi, el-Banna and another friend, Abdullah el-Janoudi, tried to board a flight from Gatwick to Banjul, Gambia's capital.
The previous evening, MI5 and the police visited el-Banna and, according to an MI5 memo disclosed to his lawyers, tried to recruit him. El-Banna refused but officers promised he could travel to Gambia 'without a problem' and later return to the UK.
It was not to be. The three men were stopped at Gatwick airport, searched and detained for five days at Paddington Green police station. Among a number of 'suspicious' items found in Al-Rawi's luggage were a £12 battery-charger, drill bits, a gas cylinder and a bundle of electrical wires wrapped around set of tweezers.
Al-Rawi insisted they were tools and parts he needed for the peanut-processing plant.
Two days after their release, the three men went ahead with their plans and flew to Gambia.
But by now the damage had been done. On the day of the arrests, MI5 sent its first telegram to the CIA, describing the charger as "a timing device [that] could possibly be used as some part of a car-based IED [improvised explosive device]". A second telegram three days later failed to correct this, repeating the claim that Al-Rawi was "an Islamic extremist" and saying the men would soon be on their way.
In a report last week on the case, the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee cited testimony it was given in secret from MI5, claiming that the service had sent 'caveats' with the telegrams asking for no action to be taken. These, it was clear, were ignored.
"This case shows a lack of regard on the part of the US for UK concerns," said the committee. "This has serious implications for the working of the relationship between the US and UK intelligence and security agencies."
It added that MI5 "could not have foreseen" that the US would disregard the caveats and that both Al-Rawi and el-Banna had been formally "cleared for release" by the Guantanamo authorities. The committee said MI5 "should have told Ministers about the case at the time" and were concerned it took several years and a court case by the two men's lawyers to bring it to their attention.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the committee concluded that the false information about the battery-charger was not the main reason for the men's arrest. In any event, all three were held when they arrived in Banjul, together with Wahhab and his local agent, who had come to the airport to meet them.
The following morning, Al-Rawi was confronted by his interrogators, led by an American called Lee. "From the beginning, the questions made it plain that the Americans had been given the contents of my own MI5 file which was supposed to be confidential," says Al-Rawi.
"Lee even told me the British were giving him information. I had agreed to help MI5 because I wanted to prevent terrorism, and now the information I had freely given them was being used against me in an attempt to prove that I myself was some kind of terrorist."
He was also accused of having planned to start a Gambian terrorist training camp. During his last week there, one of the Americans came to Al-Rawi's cell. "He told me, 'We know you were working for MI5.' He said I was going to Afghanistan but if I told the truth, I would get out. He said he would go to the media if I didn't [get out]. Needless to say, he never did."
Days before the men's illegal rendition, MI5 told the parliamentary committee, the Americans informed them it was going to happen. Nevertheless, the British said they would not attempt to extend consular protection to Al-Rawi and el-Banna but only to Wahhab and el-Janoudi – the UK citizens – who were promptly released. El-Banna and Al-Rawi were shackled, blindfolded and hooded, then taken to a car.
"My hands were cuffed behind my back," says Al-Rawi. "It was incredibly uncomfortable. I could barely breathe through the hood.
"At last we got to the airport – I knew because I could hear jet engines. I had to sit for a while in some kind of waiting room, with two Gambian guards either side of me. They were nice, they could see I was in pain and one of them started to massage my feet. They stood me up and walked me a few paces, then let go. Two other guys grabbed me really hard and started dragging me. I thought, 'Ah-ha, these are the Americans.'"
Then, he says, six or seven Americans, dressed in black and wearing balaclavas, cut off his clothes and removed his hood. "They dressed me in two layers of nappies and tracksuit bottoms and a top. There was no light in the room. One of them shone a torch in my eye. He was trying to blind me, make it impossible to see. I was so angry and despairing but I tried to be witty. I told him, 'Excuse me, but I think your torch needs a new battery.'"
Al-Rawi says that over his clothes "they put a harness, and shackled and cuffed me again, fixing the chains through the harness. They dragged me forcefully up the stairs and into the plane. They forced me on to a stretcher and tied me to it so tightly I could hardly move at all.
"I felt trussed like an animal, lying on my back. There were belts restraining my feet, legs and my body. They covered my eyes with a blindfold and then goggles, and put something over my ears. I could still hear the plane's engines. I knew we were about to take off.
"To say it was extremely stressful is a real understatement. All the way through that flight I was on the verge of screaming. But somehow you just hold on.
"At last we landed, I thought, thank God it's over. But it wasn't – it was just a refuelling stop in Cairo. There were hours still to go.
"They hadn't told me I was wearing nappies and I was desperate to urinate. I was fighting not to soil myself, and it was adding to the pain. I asked three times to go to the toilet, and still they would not let me. My back was so painful, the handcuffs were so tight. All the time they kept me on my back.
"Once, I managed to wriggle a tiny bit, just shifted my weight to one side. Then I felt someone hit my hand. Even this was forbidden."
At last, Al-Rawi says, he felt the plane descending. He had landed in Kabul. Released from the stretcher and thrown forcefully into a truck, he was driven to the most notorious of the CIA's "black sites" – the Afghan Dark Prison.
Al-Rawi's blindfold had been removed, but the darkness was absolute. The unheated cell was so cold he could feel ice crystals on the water he was occasionally given to drink. "For three days or so I just sat in the corner, shivering. The only time there was light was when a guard came to check on me with a dim torch – as soon as he'd detect movement, he would leave.
"I tried to do a few push-ups and jogged on the spot to keep warm. There was no toilet-paper but I tore off my nappies and tried to use them to clean myself. I kept telling myself, 'They haven't killed me yet, this is good.'"
After about a fortnight, he and el-Banna were taken to Bagram, where interrogations began again. On the way, "they really beat me up. Of course I was hooded, so I couldn't see anything. But you know how in cartoons when people get hit on the head they see stars? I thought, ah, now I know what those cartoons mean. I saw stars".
He and el-Banna came under pressure to incriminate Abu Qatada, who was by now being held at the high-security Belmarsh prison. He was later transferred to Long Martin where he is still fighting deportation from the UK – where he faces no criminal charge. However, he has been convicted in absentia of terrorist offences in Jordan on the evidence of co-defendants who had been tortured.
This, says Gareth Peirce, the solicitor who represents Al-Rawi, el-Banna and Abu Qatada, is the real reason why el-Banna is still in Guantanamo. The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, says she is considering whether to rescind his status as a refugee.
If so, he would be taken to Jordan – and there, perhaps, finally tortured into giving evidence.
Al-Rawi and el-Banna were taken to Guantanamo in March 2003 – a regime of isolation and casual brutality. Until his release on March 31 this year, Al-Rawi was held in Camp 5, where communication between inmates is impossible.
During his years in prison, Al-Rawi sank into depression. "One tried hard to be normal, to maintain balance. The thing was, the people around me were suffering so much and in the end you can't help feeling pretty bad yourself. Jamil knew his mother wasn't well and he begged to be allowed to phone her, to speak to her before she died. They refused and she passed away last year."
Only his lawyers, including Peirce, Clive Stafford Smith and Zachary Katznelson from the campaign group Reprieve, and the letters from wellwishers kept him going. "The first lawyer I met was an American, Brent Mickum. I felt like a drowning man in the ocean who had suddenly been given a lifeline."
MI5, it was evident, had not fulfilled its promise to help Al-Rawi if he ever got into trouble. But after he had been in Guantanamo for about six months, an officer came to see him. "It was someone I hadn't seen before. He asked me, 'Do you feel betrayed?'"
Later, his former handler Alex paid a visit. "He was nice enough. He asked if I wanted anything. I asked for a book. He never came back and I never got the book."
His last and strangest visit came from MI5 officers Matt and Martin. Al-Rawi says they tried to recruit him again, saying: "You know, Bisher, if you agree to work for us when you get back to Britain, we'll get you out." There was to be yet another broken promise. When Al-Rawi came before a Guantanamo tribunal supposed to assess whether his detention was justified, he asked for Matt, Alex and Simon to corroborate his story as witnesses.
The British refused to identify them, and the Americans said that because he did not know their full, real names, they could not be traced.
Al-Rawi has now been cleared by the Americans of being involved in terrorism and deemed to pose no threat to America or its allies.
Perhaps surprisingly, he says he feels no bitterness towards America or Americans in general. MI5, however, has left him deeply disappointed. "I used to think of them as cool, tough, as gentlemen. I used to speak about them in the Muslim community, saying they had a level of dignity and that we could trust them.
"When I got back home, one of the first messages I got was from a friend who said, 'Bisher, they weren't very honourable, were they?' I suppose he was right. All the credit for what I went through goes to them."
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