Suspect's tale of travel and torture
Alleged bomb plotter claims two and a half years of interrogation under US and UK supervision in 'ghost prisons' abroad
London Guardian | August 2 2005
By Stephen Grey and Ian Cobain
A former London schoolboy accused of being a dedicated al-Qaida terrorist has given the first full account of the interrogation and alleged torture endured by so-called ghost detainees held at secret prisons around the world.
For two and a half years US authorities moved Benyam Mohammed around a series of prisons in Pakistan, Morocco and Afghanistan, before he was sent to Guantánamo Bay in September last year.
Mohammed, 26, who grew up in Notting Hill in west London, is alleged to be a key figure in terrorist plots intended to cause far greater loss of life than the suicide bombers of 7/7. One allegation, which he denies, is of planning to detonate a "dirty bomb" in a US city; another is that he and an accomplice planned to collapse a number of apartment blocks by renting ground-floor flats to seal, fill with gas from cooking appliances, and blow up with timed detonators.
In an statement given to his newly appointed lawyer, Mohammed has given an account of how he was tortured for more than two years after being questioned by US and British officials who he believes were from the FBI and MI6. As well as being beaten and subjected to loud music for long periods, he claims his genitals were sliced with scalpels.
He alleges that in Morocco he was shown photos of people he knew from a west London mosque, and was asked about information he was told was supplied by MI5. One interrogator, he says, was a woman who said she was Canadian.
Drawing on his notes, Mohammed's lawyer has compiled a 28-page diary of his torture. This has been declassified by the Pentagon, and extracts are published in the Guardian today.
Recruits to some groups connected to al-Qaida are thought to be instructed to make allegations of torture after capture, and most of Mohammed's claims cannot be independently verified. But his description of a prison near Rabat closely resembles the Temara torture centre identified in a report by the US-based Human Rights Watch last October.
Furthermore, this newspaper has obtained flight records showing executive jets operated by the CIA flew in and out of Morocco on July 22 2002 and January 22 2004, the dates he says he was taken to and from the country.
If true, his account adds weight to concerns that the US authorities are torturing by proxy. It also highlights the dilemma of British authorities when they seek information from detainees overseas who they know, or suspect, are tortured.
The lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, says: "This is outsourcing of torture, plain and simple. America knows torture is wrong but gets others to do its unconscionable dirty work.
"It's clear from the evidence that UK officials knew about this rendition to Morocco before it happened. Our government's responsibility must be to actively prevent the torture of our residents."
Mohammed was born in Ethiopia and came to the UK aged 15 when his father sought asylum. After obtaining five GCSEs and an engineering diploma at the City of Westminster College in Paddington, he decided to stay in Britain when his father returned, and was given indefinite leave to remain. In his late teens he rediscovered Islam, prayed regularly at al-Manaar mosque in Notting Hill, and was a volunteer at its cultural centre. "He is remembered here as a very nice, quiet person, who never caused any trouble," says Abdulkarim Khalil, its director.
He enjoyed football, and was thought good enough for a semi-professional career. "He was a quiet kid, he seemed deep thinking, although that might have been because his language skills weren't great," says Tyrone Forbes, his trainer.
In June 2001 Mohammed left his bedsit off Golborne Road, Notting Hill, and travelled to Afghanistan, via Pakistan. He maintains he wanted to see whether it was "a good Islamic country or not". It appears likely that he spent time in a paramilitary training camp.
He returned to Pakistan sometime after 9/11, and remained at liberty until April 2002 - during which time, US authorities believe, he became involved in the dirty bomb and gas blast plots. His alleged accomplice, a Chicago-born convert to Islam, Jose Padilla, is detained in the US. Mohammed says interrogators repeatedly demanded he give evidence against him.
Mohammed was arrested in Karachi while trying to fly to Zurich - and thus entered a "ghost prison system" in which an unknown number of detainees are held at unregistered detention centres, and whose imprisonment is not admitted to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
His brother and sisters, who live in the US, say the FBI told them of his arrest in summer 2002, but they were unable to find out anything else until last February. In recent days the Bush administration is reported to have lobbied to block legislation, supported by some Republican senators, to prohibit the military engaging in "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment", and hiding prisoners from the Red Cross.
Mohammed alleges he was held at two prisons in Pakistan over three months, hung from leather straps, beaten, and threatened with a firearm by Pakistanis. In repeated questioning by men he believes were FBI agents, he was told he was to go to an Arab country because "the Pakistanis can't do exactly what we want them to".
The torture stopped after a visit by two bearded Britons; he believes they were MI6 officers. He says they told him he was to be tortured by Arabs. At one point, he says, they gave him a cup of tea and told him to take plenty of sugar because "where you're going you need a lot of sugar".
He says he was flown on what he believes was a US aircraft to Morocco, while shackled, blindfolded and wearing earphones. It was, he says, in a jail near Rabat that his real ordeal began. After a fortnight of questioningand intimidation, his captors tortured him with beatings and noise, on and off, for 18 months. He says his torturers used scalpels to make shallow, inch-long incisions on his chest and genitals.
Throughout, he was accused of being a senior al-Qaida terrorist and accomplice of Padilla. He denies these allegations, though he says that while tortured he would say whatever he thought his captors wanted. He signed a statement about the dirty bomb plot. At one point, he says, interrogators told him his GCSE grades, and asked about named staff at the housing association that owns his bedsit and about a man who taught him kickboxing in Notting Hill.
After 18 months, he says, he was flown to Afghanistan, escorted by masked US soldiers who were visibly shocked by his condition and took photos of his wounds.
During five months in a darkened cell in Kabul, he says he was kept chained, subjected to loud music, and questioned by Americans. Only after he was moved to Bagram air base was he shown to the Red Cross. Four months later he was flown to Guantánamo.
Mr Stafford Smith was first allowed to see him two months ago. He said there were marks of his injuries, and he is pressing the US to release the photos taken in Morocco and Afghanistan.
Asked about the allegations, the Foreign Office said the UK "unreservedly condemns the use of torture". After consulting with the Home Office, MI5, and MI6, a spokesman said: "The British government, including the security and intelligence services, never uses torture for any purpose. Nor would HMG instigate or condone the use of torture by third parties.
"Specific instructions are issued to all personnel of the UK security and intelligence services who are deployed to interview detainees, which include guidance on what to do if they considered that treatment in any way inappropriate."
The FBI, the US justice department, the Moroccan interior ministry and the Moroccan embassy in London did not return calls. The CIA declined to comment.