Alleged bomb plotter claims two and a half years of interrogation under US and UK supervision in ‘ghost prisons’ abroad
Stephen Grey and Ian Cobain
Tuesday August 2, 2005
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.
‘One of them made cuts in my penis. I was in agony’
Tuesday August 2, 2005
Benyam Mohammed travelled from London to Afghanistan in July 2001, but after September 11 he fled to Pakistan. He was arrested at Karachi airport on April 10 2002, and describes being flown by a US government plane to a prison in Morocco. These are extracts from his diary.
They cut off my clothes with some kind of doctor’s scalpel. I was naked. I tried to put on a brave face. But maybe I was going to be raped. Maybe they’d electrocute me. Maybe castrate me.
They took the scalpel to my right chest. It was only a small cut. Maybe an inch. At first I just screamed … I was just shocked, I wasn’t expecting … Then they cut my left chest. This time I didn’t want to scream because I knew it was coming.
One of them took my penis in his hand and began to make cuts. He did it once, and they stood still for maybe a minute, watching my reaction. I was in agony. They must have done this 20 to 30 times, in maybe two hours. There was blood all over. “I told you I was going to teach you who’s the man,” [one] eventually said.
They cut all over my private parts. One of them said it would be better just to cut it off, as I would only breed terrorists. I asked for a doctor.
Doctor No 1 carried a briefcase. “You’re all right, aren’t you? But I’m going to say a prayer for you.” Doctor No 2 gave me an Alka-Seltzer for the pain. I told him about my penis. “I need to see it. How did this happen?” I told him. He looked like it was just another patient. “Put this cream on it two times a day. Morning and night.” He gave me some kind of antibiotic.
I was in Morocco for 18 months. Once they began this, they would do it to me about once a month. One time I asked a guard: “What’s the point of this? I’ve got nothing I can say to them. I’ve told them everything I possibly could.”
“As far as I know, it’s just to degrade you. So when you leave here, you’ll have these scars and you’ll never forget. So you’ll always fear doing anything but what the US wants.”
Later, when a US airplane picked me up the following January, a female MP took pictures. She was one of the few Americans who ever showed me any sympathy. When she saw the injuries I had she gasped. They treated me and took more photos when I was in Kabul. Someone told me this was “to show Washington it’s healing”.
But in Morocco, there were even worse things. Too horrible to remember, let alone talk about. About once a week or even once every two weeks I would be taken for interrogation, where they would tell me what to say. They said if you say this story as we read it, you will just go to court as a witness and all this torture will stop. I eventually repeated what was read out to me.
When I got to Morocco they said some big people in al-Qaida were talking about me. They talked about Jose Padilla and they said I was going to testify against him and big people. They named Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, Abu Zubaidah and Ibn Sheikh al-Libi [all senior al-Qaida leaders who are now in US custody]. It was hard to pin down the exact story because what they wanted changed from Morocco to when later I was in the Dark Prison [a detention centre in Kabul with windowless cells and American staff], to Bagram and again in Guantánamo Bay.
They told me that I must plead guilty. I’d have to say I was an al-Qaida operations man, an ideas man. I kept insisting that I had only been in Afghanistan a short while. “We don’t care,” was all they’d say.
I was also questioned about my links with Britain. The interrogator told me: “We have photos of people given to us by MI5. Do you know these?” I realised that the British were sending questions to the Moroccans. I was at first surprised that the Brits were siding with the Americans.
On August 6, I thought I was going to be transferred out of there [the prison]. They came in and cuffed my hands behind my back.
But then three men came in with black masks. It seemed to go on for hours. I was in so much pain I’d fall to my knees. They’d pull me back up and hit me again. They’d kick me in my thighs as I got up. I vomited within the first few punches. I really didn’t speak at all though. I didn’t have the energy or will to say anything. I just wanted for it to end. After that, there was to be no more first-class treatment. No bathroom. No food for a while.
During September-October 2002, I was taken in a car to another place. The room was bigger, it had its own toilet, and a window which was opaque.
They gave me a toothbrush and Colgate toothpaste. I was allowed to recover from the scalpel for about two weeks, and the guards said nothing about it.
Then they cuffed me and put earphones on my head. They played hip-hop and rock music, very loud. I remember they played Meat Loaf and Aerosmith over and over. A couple of days later they did the same thing. Same music.
For 18 months, there was not one night when I could sleep well. Sometimes I would go 48 hours without sleep. At night, they would bang the metal doors, bang the flap on the door, or just come right in.
They continued with two or three interrogations a month. They weren’t really interrogations, more like training me what to say. The interrogator told me what was going on. “We’re going to change your brain,” he said.
I suffered the razor treatment about once a month for the remaining time I was in Morocco, even after I’d agreed to confess to whatever they wanted to hear. It became like a routine. They’d come in, tie me up, spend maybe an hour doing it. They never spoke to me. Then they’d tip some kind of liquid on me – the burning was like grasping a hot coal. The cutting, that was one kind of pain. The burning, that was another.
In all the 18 months I was there, I never went outside. I never saw the sun, not even once. I never saw any human being except the guards and my tormentors, unless you count the pictures they showed me.