Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story

By Andy Worthington
In his first interview since his release from Guantánamo, British resident and torture victim Binyam Mohamed has reinforced all the horrendous claims made about his treatment since he was first seized in Pakistan in April 2002 — in particular, his torture in Pakistani custody (supervised by US agents), and his torture in Morocco and at the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Kabul — in a wide-ranging discussion with David Rose for the Mail on Sunday.
Most worryingly for the British government, he has also revealed more of the British role in his
interrogations by the Americans’ proxy torturers in Morocco than has previously been publicly available, which will only add to the pressure on the government to explain its role in actively gathering intelligence obtained through torture, rather than hiding behind blanket statements that “We never condone or authorize the use of torture.”
In the wake of his lawyers’ long struggle to secure the facts about Binyam’s case, this is a claim that looks increasingly evasive and untenable, especially in light of more recent revelations that the British intelligence services regularly feed questions to Pakistani interrogators, in the cases of British suspects seized in Pakistan, even though they are aware that the Pakistani authorities use torture, and also with reference to comments made last week by Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan.
In an appeal on his website for supporters to write to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, urging the members to hear his evidence on the UK government’s policy of using intelligence gained through the use of torture, Murray wrote, “I can testify that beyond any doubt the British government has for at least six years [had] a considered but secret policy of cooperation with torture abroad,” and that, at an FCO meeting in March 2003, “I was told … that it is not illegal for us to obtain intelligence gained by torture, provided that we did not do the torture ourselves. I was told that it had been decided that as a matter of War on Terror policy we should now obtain intelligence from torture, following discussion between Jack Straw and Richard Dearlove” (the head of MI6).
The background to Binyam’s story
Over the years, the outline of Binyam’s story before he made his ill-fated trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan has been available, but has never been provided in much detail. Speaking to David Rose, Binyam gave the most comprehensive account to date, explaining how, in 1992, when he was just 14, his father, a senior executive with the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, fled to the United States with his three children after the dictator Haile Mengistu was overthrown and his colleagues were being arrested. The family settled in a suburb of Washington D.C., but Binyam was subjected to racist bullying at school, and so, after around two years, his father decided to see if the UK would be a better home for him. “I didn’t like the US at all,” Binyam said. “It just didn’t feel right for me to be there and I wanted to get out.”
Binyam and his father arrived in London in the spring of 1994, but after a week, when they stayed in a hotel, his father returned to the States, leaving him to fend for himself. After being housed in a hostel by Social Services, he was placed in a housing association flat, applied for asylum — and was given leave to remain — and enrolled at Paddington Green sixth-form college, where he passed an A-level in electronic engineering, and then began studying at the City of Westminster College.
His troubles began in the summer of 1996, when, he was persuaded to smoke some cannabis at the Notting Hill Carnival. Within two years, he said, he was smoking heroin and, on occasion, crack cocaine. “Often I didn’t even bother to go to college,” he said. “I was surrounded by people who were doing the same thing. I was also drinking a lot. Finally, I dropped out.”
In 1999, Binyam began trying to kick his habit. Kick-boxing was a start, and, as David Rose noted, “if he was searching for a father figure, he seems to have found it in his kick-boxing instructor, of whom he still speaks reverentially.” Binyam explained, “I had to get fit again, and I started using my money to buy food again, not heroin.” He also began wondering if some help could be found through his mother’s religion, Islam, and, by the summer of 2000, was working as a janitor at an Islamic Cultural Centre. As Rose described it, he “began to spend as much time there as he could, often staying the night — largely in order to avoid his old drug-abusing friends who still clustered around his apartment.”
At the Centre, he met someone who told him about Malcolm X, and explained that he had only understood Islam properly when he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. This person then suggested that Binyam should travel to Afghanistan, to see the “pure” form of Islam implemented by the Taliban. Rose asked him how much he knew about the Taliban. “Minus one,” came the reply. “I really had no idea what it was.”
In May 2001, he flew to Islamabad, using money he had saved. As he didn’t have a passport (his Ethiopian passport had expired, and, as an asylum seeker, he didn’t have a British one), he borrowed a British passport from a friend and changed the photo. From Islamabad, he crossed the porous border into Afghanistan in a truck. “No one looked at my documents,” he said. “I just kept down.”
He insisted, however, that he travelled not to fight, but to provide humanitarian assistance, and explained that, in London, he had, as Rose described it, “been moved and appalled by watching TV news stories about the plight of civilians caught in Russia’s second war against Chechnya, where thousands, mainly Muslims, had been killed and tortured.” “To me, the Chechens were the freedom fighters and the Russians were the oppressors,” he said. “It was the sight of the women and the kids being killed: innocent lives being lost for no reason. I wanted to go there to do what I could — not for fighting, but as an aid and rescue worker.”
On arriving in Afghanistan, Binyam said that he found people with connections to the Chechen resistance in a guest house in Jalalabad. “I was told,” he said, “that the Russians don’t separate between aid workers and those doing the fighting, and that if I wanted to go to Chechnya, I needed basic training. I was so young, I didn’t question it. I didn’t expect to fire a gun except in training, let alone kill someone. I would never have taken up arms against British or American soldiers, let alone attacked civilians. I wanted to protect civilians, not kill them.”
Persuaded to attend a training camp, like many others who travelled to Afghanistan through an ill-defined desire to help the Chechen resistance (and who also ended up in Guantánamo), Binyam said that he was there for 45 days, but, as Rose put it, “Much of the time … was spent sitting around doing nothing,” and that he “learnt nothing that could be construed as terrorist training: there were no lessons on bomb-making, for example.”
Afterwards, he said, he went to Kabul, where he was struck down by malaria and hospitalized. It was while he was in the hospital that he learned of the 9/11 attacks, which prompted him to try to leave the country. “All I wanted to do,” he said, “was to get back to London, to the country that I thought of as home, to continue my education and find a job; to get back to my life, minus the drugs.” As Rose explained, he was then “swept up in the tide of refugees,” fleeing from city to city until he managed to cross the border into Pakistan, where he made his way to Karachi in the hope of returning home. In the heightened paranoia of the time, however, he was turned back by officials as he tried to board a flight on April 3, because his passport “looked wrong,” and a week later, when he tried again, was detained by the authorities and taken to Landi prison.
Pakistan: the nightmare begins, and the British become involved
This was when his nightmare began. After two weeks, an American agent, who identified himself as “Chuck,” and who said that he worked for the FBI, visited him. As previously noted, this was when Binyam asked for a lawyer, but was told, “The law’s changed. There are no lawyers. Either you’re going to answer me the easy way or I get the information I need another way.” It was also at this time that he made what turned out to be his most grievous error, when, as Rose put it, he “mentioned that while he was in Pakistan he had seen a website with spoof instructions for building a nuclear device — instructions that included advice to refine bomb-grade uranium by whirling a bucket round one’s head,” unaware that the US intelligence agencies were “obsessed” with claims that al-Qaeda had acquired a nuclear device. “I mentioned the website to Chuck,” Binyam said, adding, “It was obviously a joke: it never crossed my mind that anyone would take it seriously. But that’s when he started getting all excited. Towards the end of April he began telling me about this A-bomb I was supposed to be building, and he started on about Osama Bin Laden and his top lieutenants, showing me pictures and making out I must have known them. He started asking me about operations and what type I had been trained for.”
As the joke turned into a plot that would lead Binyam to torture chambers in Morocco and Afghanistan, Binyam’s treatment between interrogations — at the hands of the Pakistani authorities — got worse. “For at least ten days,” he said, “I was deprived of sleep. Sometimes the Pakistanis chained me from the top of the gate to the cell by my wrists from the end of one interrogation to the start of the next for about 22 hours. If I shouted, sometimes I would be allowed to use a toilet. Other times, they wouldn’t let me go and I would piss myself. They had a thick wooden stick, like a kind of paddle, which they used to beat me while I was chained. They’d beat me for a few minutes, then stop, then start again. They also carried out a mock execution. A guard put a gun to my head and said he was going to pull the trigger. They were saying, ‘This is what the Americans want us to do.’”
As Rose explained, “Details of the abuse Mohamed underwent in Pakistan are contained in the ‘redacted’ section of the British High Court judgment on his case that Foreign Secretary David Miliband is refusing to release, claiming that to do so would damage the intelligence-sharing relationship with America. As the court has made clear in the open section of its judgment, when an MI5 officer known as ‘John’ went to interrogate Mohamed on May 17, 2002, he was made fully aware of what had been happening.”
Binyam elaborated. “John was a white male, 30, with short black hair and a goatee,” he said. “He was about 5ft 10in and stocky. There was another guy with him, about the same size with a full, dark beard. I don’t know if he was British or American. The Americans had already been threatening to send me somewhere where I would be tortured far worse, like Jordan or Egypt.” He then added an anecdote about British knowledge of his forthcoming rendition that has been reported before. “I was given a cup of tea and asked for one sugar,” he said. “The other guy told me, ‘You’ll need more than one sugar where you’re going.’”
He continued, “They asked me about the A-bomb website and I told them it was a joke. They wanted to know everything about my life in the UK and I gave them all the information I had. Later I realized that was part of my undoing: I told them the area I lived in had 10,000 Moroccans and was known as Little Morocco. The feedback I got later from the Americans was that because the Brits told them I had lived in a Moroccan area, they thought Moroccans would be more likely to make me talk. At the same time, they thought I must know something about what Moroccans were up to in London.”
After pointing out that a Moroccan interrogator later specifically told him, “Do you know who sent you here? The British sent you here,” Rose discussed an MI5 memo, disclosed to Binyam via the American courts, which, as Rose indicated, “suggests the British saw themselves as central to his interrogation.”
The memo stated, “We believe that our knowledge of the UK scene may provide contextual background useful during any continuing interview process. This may enable individual officers to identify any inconsistencies during discussions. This will place the detainee under more direct pressure and would seem to be the most effective way of obtaining intelligence on Mohammed’s [sic] activities/plans concerning the UK.” This was in spite of the fact that MI5 saw “inconsistencies” in Binyam’s account of the “dirty bomb” plot, and that “John” had also recorded Binyam’s statement that the website he had seen was “a joke.”
As Rose put it, “MI5 concluded that Mohamed and another prisoner being interrogated were ‘lying to protect themselves’ and ‘evidently holding back,’” and, as a result, “Day after day, MI5 kept the Americans supplied with questions and information.” As Binyam explained, “John told me that if I co-operated he’d tell the Americans to be more lenient with my treatment.”
In another confidential memo, Rose explained, “John” wrote, “I told Mohammed [sic] that he had an opportunity to help us and help himself. The US authorities will be deciding what to do with him and this would depend to a very large degree on his co-operation — I said that I could not and would not negotiate up-front, but if he persuaded me he was co-operating fully then (and only then) I would explore what could be done for him with my US colleagues.” As Rose went on to note, “John” clearly felt Binyam “wasn’t co-operating enough,” and the memo concluded, “While he appeared happy to answer any questions, he was holding back a great deal of information on who and what he knew in the UK and in Afghanistan.”
Morocco: 18 months of torture, and more British collusion
Abandoned by the British government, Binyam was then subjected to “extraordinary rendition,” and, as flight logs confirm, was flown from Islamabad to Rabat, Morocco on July 21, 2002. What happened next — 18 months of torture at the hands of the American’s proxy torturers in Morocco, who regularly cut his penis with a razor blade — has already been documented in excruciating detail, when the notes that Clive Stafford Smith compiled during a three-day interview with Binyam at Guantánamo in early 2005 were passed by the Pentagon’s military censors and published in the Guardian in August 2005. As Rose described it, Binyam did not want to talk about his experiences. “Shuddering,” he wrote, “he says the details of what he endured in Morocco are such that he cannot bring himself to relate them again.”
However, drawing on the documents disclosed to Binyam during his US court case, Rose was able to add new details of MI5’s involvement with his interrogations, which is even more shocking than the British intelligence services’ complicity in his treatment in Pakistan. The outline of this story is not new, as Binyam has explained it before, and it was something that, after his judicial review in the UK High Court last summer, the judges — Lord Justice Thomas and Mr. Justice Lloyd Jones — regarded as providing conclusive evidence that the relationship of the British intelligence services to their American counterparts “went far beyond that of a bystander or witness to the alleged wrongdoing,” but it has never been revealed in such detail in public before.
Rose noted that a document from late September 2002 explained, “The Service received a report from the US of an interview of Mr. Mohamed,” and that soon after, on September 30, “MI5 held a case conference about him with their American colleagues at MI5’s London headquarters.” This was followed, on November 5, by what Rose called “the strongest evidence to emerge of British collusion in Mohamed’s illegal ‘rendition’ and torture, in the form of a telegram from MI5 to the CIA.”
Entitled, “Request for further Detainee questioning,” the telegram stated, “This information has been communicated in confidence to the recipient government and shall not be released without the agreement of the British government. We would be grateful if the following can be passed to Binyam Mohamed.” Although much of the subsequent message was redacted, Rose explained that it included a request for his interrogators to “show him and ask him questions about a ‘photobook recently sent over,’” and added, “We would be grateful if the following could be put to Binyam Mohamed, in addition to the questioning above. Does Mohamed know [two lines redacted]? What was the man’s name? How does Mohamed know him? Can Mohamed describe him? Where did they meet? Where was the man from? Who facilitated his travel from the UK? Where did this man go? What were his intentions? We would appreciate the opportunity to pose further questions, dependent on answers given to the above.”
Six days later, on November 11, a telegram entitled, “update request,” which was otherwise heavily redacted, stated, “We note that we have also requested that briefs be put to Binyam Mohamed and would appreciate a guide from you as to the likely timescale for these too. We fully appreciate that this can be a long-winded process, but the urgent nature of these enquiries will be obvious to you.”
In his interview with Rose, Binyam said that he remembered “very clearly” when information fed to his torturers by MI5 first appeared. “They started bringing British files to the interrogations — thick binders, some of them containing sheaves of photos of people who lived in London and places there like mosques,” he explained. “It was obvious the British were feeding them questions about people in London. When I realized that the British were co-operating with the people torturing me, I felt completely naked. It was when they started asking the questions supplied by the British that my situation worsened. They sold me out.”
Understandably unable to resist the effects of the torture, Binyam proceeded to confess to whatever wild theories were put to him by his torturers. “They had fed me enough through their questions for me to make up what they wanted to hear,” he said. “I confessed to it all. There was the plot to build a dirty nuclear bomb, and another to blow up apartments in New York with their gas pipes.” As Rose noted, “This — supposedly the brainchild of the 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — always sounded improbable: it was never quite clear how gas pipes might become weapons.”
Binyam added, “I said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had given me a false passport after I was stopped the first time in Karachi and that I had met Osama bin Laden 30 times. None of it was true. The British could have stopped the torture because they knew I had tried to use the same passport at Karachi both times. That should have told them that what I was saying under torture wasn’t true. But so far as I know, they did nothing.”
The “Dark Prison”
In January 2004, as has long been established, Binyam was rendered to Afghanistan, to the CIA’s “Dark Prison” near Kabul, where dozens of prisoners who ended up in Guantánamo — and countless more, whose whereabouts are still unknown — were subjected to the fruits of the Bush administration’s decision to bring torture “in-house,” which officially began just after Binyam had been rendered to Morocco, when the notorious “Torture Memos” were issued, which purported to redefine torture so that the government could do without the services of proxy torturers like the Moroccans who had brutalized Binyam for 18 months.
Binyam explained that, on arrival at Kabul, the US agents he met there “responded with horror” to his injuries. “When I got to Kabul,” he said, “a female agent started taking close-up pictures of my genitals. She was shocked. When they removed my diaper she could see blood was still oozing from the cuts on my penis. For the first two weeks they had me on antibiotics and they took pictures of my genitals every day. They told me, ‘This is not for us. It’s for Washington.’ They wanted to be sure it was healing.”
Speaking of the five months that he spent in the “Dark Prison,” which I have previously described as a medieval torture dungeon with the addition of ear-splittingly loud music and noise, which was pumped into the cells 24 hours a day, Binyam stated that these were the worst days of his captivity.
“That was when I came close to insanity,” he said. “It seems like a miracle my brain is still intact.” After confirming that all of the prisoners’ time was spent in pitch darkness, except for during interrogations, and when the guards brought food by torchlight, he said, “The toilet in the cell was a bucket. Without light, you either find the bucket or you go on your bed.”
He added, “There were loudspeakers in the cell, pumping out what felt like about 160 watts, a deafening volume, non-stop, 24 hours a day. They played the same CD for a month, The Eminem Show. It’s got about 20 songs on it and when it was finished it went back to the beginning and started again. While that was happening, a lot of the time, for hour after hour, they had me shackled. Sometimes it was in a standing position, with my wrists chained to the top of the door frame. Sometimes they were chained in the middle, at waist level, and sometimes they were chained at the bottom, on the floor. The longest was when they chained me for eight days on end, in a position that meant I couldn’t stand straight nor sit. I couldn’t sleep. I had no idea whether it was day or night. You got a shower once a week, with your arms chained above you, stripped naked, in the dark, with someone else washing you. The water was salty and afterwards you felt dirtier than when you went in. It wasn’t a shower for washing: it was for humiliation.”
He also said that the food was dirty, so that he was often sick and “The weight just dropped off me,” and added, “The floor was made of cement dust. Whatever movement you made, the air would be full of cement and I started getting breathing problems. My bed was a thin mattress on the floor, surrounded by that dust.”
Binyam also said that, in the “Dark Prison,” as Rose put it, “the thrust of his interrogations had changed,” and that, “Since he made his fantastical confession, the Americans wanted him to become a prosecution witness” in the Military Commission trial system at Guantánamo, to testify against the alleged al-Qaeda leaders — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah — whose supposed involvement in the spectral “dirty bomb” plot had been pivotal to much of his torture in Morocco, where, as he has previously reported, he was, essentially, trained in what to say. In his statement to Clive Stafford Smith, he explained that, between the savage beatings and the razor cuts to his penis, his torturers “would tell me what to say,” and added that even towards the end of his time in Morocco, they were still “training me what to say,” and one of them told him, “We’re going to change your brain.”
Rose added that later, when Binyam was in Guantánamo, discussing with a fellow prisoner the time that both of them had spent at the “Dark Prison,” the unique horrors of the place were fully revealed to him. “They had just opened Oscar Block, a new Guantánamo punishment wing, and he’d been in it,” Binyam said. “I was worried — I wanted to know what it was like. He told me, ‘Binyam, it’s not even a twentieth as bad as Kabul. A hundred nights in Oscar Block is the equivalent of one night in the dark prison.’”
After being moved to the US prison at Bagram airbase, where he spent another four months, Binyam arrived at Guantánamo — on a flight with nine other prisoners who had been subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture — in September 2004. There, he said, the focus of the interrogations changed again. “They said they were worried I would tell the court that I had only confessed through torture. They said now they needed me to say it freely,” he explained. The answer was to interrogate him again, without the use of torture. “We called them the clean team,” he said. “They wanted to say they had got this stuff from a clean interrogation.” A year ago, the Washington Post reported that “clean teams” of FBI agents had been sent to re-interrogate Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other 13 “high-value detainees” transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006, but until now it had not been publicly revealed that the programme had been more extensive, and had also included other victims of “extraordinary rendition” and torture.
Binyam did not apparently talk much about his experiences at Guantánamo, but he did explain, as his lawyers — and, in particular, his military defense attorney, Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley — have stated over the last two months, that the change of government in the US had made no difference to the conditions at Guantánamo. “Since the election it’s got harsher,” he said. “The guards would say, yes, this place is going to close down, but it was like they wanted to take their last revenge.”
Describing the activities of the Emergency Reaction Force, the team of armoured guards who punish even the most minor infractions of the rules with extreme violence, and who are responsible for the “forced cell extractions” of hunger strikers who do not wish to be force-fed, Binyam explained that they were “being used more often,” and described how he had suffered at their hands when he refused to have his fingerprints taken, which, as Rose noted, “despite all the torture, had unaccountably not been taken before.” He added that Binyam explained that “he feared they might use them to frame him.”
“They nearly broke my back,” Binyam said. “The guy on top was twisting me one way, the guys on my legs the other. They marched me out of the cell to the fingerprint room, still cuffed. I clenched my fists behind me so they couldn’t take prints, so they tried to take them by force. The guy at my head sticks his fingers up my nose and wrenches my head back, jerking it around by the nostrils. Then he put his fingers in my eyes. It felt as if he was trying to gouge them out. Another guy was punching my ribs and another was squeezing my testicles. Finally I couldn’t take it any more. I let them take the prints.”
As the interview came to an end, and Rose noted, significantly, “Last October, before the election, all charges against him were dropped, [as] even the Americans had come to realize there was no ‘dirty bomb’ plot,” Binyam explained how difficult his last two months in Guantánamo were, and why he decided, as a result, to embark on a hunger strike. “I kept being told, you’ll be free in ten days, and they would pass, and then I’d be told another ten days, and still it wasn’t for real,” he said.
In conclusion, he explained, as Rose put it, that he was “determined” to stay in Britain. ”It’s the only place I can call home,” he said. “I want to live a normal life, to find a wife, get married, have a family, a job. Meanwhile, I’ll do whatever I can to get the other innocent prisoners out of Guantánamo.”
NOTE: Binyam Mohamed received no payment for his interview. Instead, the Mail on Sunday will be making a donation to the Helen Bamber Foundation, which cares for the victims of torture.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK).