It’ll all be over one day

James Meek

  • Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantánamo and Back by Moazzam Begg and Victoria Brittain
    Free Press, 395 pp, £18.99, February 2006, ISBN 0 7432 8567 0

When Moazzam Begg was kidnapped by the American government and its Pakistani foederati on 31 January 2002 – ‘kidnapped’ appears to be the appropriate legal term to use of Guantánamo Bay prisoners, none of whom has ever been charged, tried or formally designated a POW – he experienced a curious moment of melodrama. Seized from the house where he was staying in Islamabad and dropped in the back of a 4x4, Begg couldn’t help laughing at the atrocious Pakistani disguise of one of the Americans. A second American then waved a set of handcuffs in front of him. ‘Do you know where I’ve gotten these handcuffs from?’ he said. Begg replied that he didn’t, and the American said: ‘I was given these by the wife of a victim of the September 11 attacks.’ Even though Begg was already cuffed behind his back, the American snapped the second pair of cuffs on him. The American’s prop and scripted line were part of a pattern Begg came across repeatedly while in US custody in Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan, and subsequently in Guantánamo: he was always a character in somebody else’s narrative, and nothing he said or did could alter the part that had been written for him. It was in the names of the cells at Bagram: Lebanon, Somalia, USS Cole, Nairobi, Twin Towers, Pentagon. To Begg, this list referred to an eclectic set of episodes over twenty years which had nothing in common except the deaths of Americans and Muslims, but to whoever wrote them, this was a coherent, tightly linked sequence of outrages demanding revenge. The same pattern was evident in the only piece of news Guantánamo prisoners were officially given by the US authorities: the news that Saddam Hussein had been captured. To Begg, it signified the fall of an apostate tyrant, one of the secular Arab dictators against whom underground Islamicist movements had fought, but to whoever ordered the news to be given out, it signified an American triumph against one of the captains in a mythical, unified, global terrorist army which would have the Guantánamo captives reeling in despair.

There are two things likely to strike anyone from the non-American English-speaking world when they first associate with the US military-intelligence machine. One is its officiousness, a quasi-religious belief in the remissive quality of SOP – Standard Operating Procedure. The other is its tendency continuously and self-consciously to produce itself, in the Hollywood sense of the word. Aim and action are not sufficient. Tasks must be dramatised. A plot has to be storyboarded. Dialogue has to be written in advance. Roles must be imagined, then cast. It was Moazzam Begg’s misfortune that, when the CIA sent out a casting call for villains in 2001, a muddled version of his CV and his name provided his unwitting audition. And like stubborn producers making a cheap exploitation movie, having cast Begg as an international mastermind of evil, his US captors didn’t release him even when they realised they had the wrong man for the part, as if all they needed to fill that space on the credits was a dark-skinned Muslim body.

Begg describes how the Kandahar guards used to refer to his fellow British prisoner Feroz Abbasi as ‘the SAS guy’, although he’d never been in the SAS. This, Begg writes, ‘showed me how much the American mentality was geared to the creation of heroes and anti-heroes, so their enemies had to be the very worst characters possible, but highly trained, committed and effective enemies’. ‘The interrogators were convinced that I was a highly trained assassin,’ he goes on, ‘veteran of the Afghan, Bosnian and Chechen jihads, with a black belt in jujitsu, fluent in eight European and Asian languages, and an Oxford graduate with a degree in artificial intelligence.’

Begg is not these things. He has never killed anyone, doesn’t appear to have fought in any jihad and doesn’t have an Oxford degree. He has a green belt in jujitsu and a blue belt in Taekwondo, acquired in classes in his native Birmingham, and speaks English, Urdu and Arabic, along with some Pashto and a little Bosnian. What the Americans got when they captured him was a small – 5’3’’ – Brummie of Indian Muslim descent, an intellectually curious autodidact, a zealous, pious yet ecumenically-minded Muslim, a devoted husband with three (now four) small children, and a restless traveller, naive yet open-minded, who had not, at the age of 34, completed his spiritual quest.

Begg wasn’t immune to the romantic impulses implicit in the US military’s penchant for Hollywood melodrama. For much of his life, he looked for a good fight – ‘good’ in both senses of the word. As a teenage member of a counter-skinhead, mainly Asian gang in Birmingham called the Lynx, he was drawn to the Anthony Quinn movie about the birth of Islam, The Message, with its portrayal of seventh-century Arabs as noble, chivalrous, thoughtful warriors. Begg denounces terrorism – ‘senseless acts of murder . . . carried out by desperate mujahedin’. But early on in the book, he writes that ‘my favourite film of all time is probably Braveheart,’ and this cinematic ideal of the just war, the virtuous warrior, the martyrdom of an outnumbered hero, kept propelling him to parts of the world where he felt that brave, honest Muslims were standing up to bullies.

As it turned out, Begg, who almost joined the British Army in his late teens, wasn’t destined to be a fighter. Not that he lacked courage. Back in Birmingham, in his gang days, he was beaten up by a group of punks and skins after he dived back in, alone, to rescue a fellow Lynx member. In his travels, however, indecisiveness, lack of clarity of purpose, fears for his family and disillusionment with the practical realities of becoming a Muslim William Wallace in somebody else’s war stifled his yearning to be a righteous soldier. During the Bosnian conflict he visited the barracks of the Kateebah mujahedin, the Bosnian foreign legion, but stayed only three weeks and did not fight, although he subsequently made numerous journeys there with aid convoys. He set out to reach Chechnya, via Turkey and Georgia. ‘I was not sure exactly what I wanted to do there, just as in Bosnia,’ he writes. ‘All I knew was that the people were crying out for help, and I felt I had to go. I was ready to help in whatever way I could, fight if I had to, despite my lack of training.’ As he might have expected, the Georgians wouldn’t let him in, and he gave up on the idea, leaving money he’d collected for the Chechens with a Chechen exile in Turkey. It was the same at the camp of Kashmiri militants in Afghanistan he visited in 1993: he hung out there for a while – he doesn’t say how long – and left, inspired by the Kashmiris’ ‘faith and self-sacrifice’ but still without any military training or battle scars. His time in Taliban-controlled Kabul in 2001, where he lived with his family, ended when he fled to Pakistan as the Northern Alliance entered the Afghan capital. Pakistan turned out to be no refuge.

One day in Guantánamo, 20 months after he was taken captive, after he’d been separated from his children, his pregnant wife and his father who’d recently had a heart operation, after he’d been beaten, hooded, shackled, humiliated, heard American interrogators make threats against his family, been subjected to torture by sleep deprivation, been forced to make a false confession after sitting in a room listening to an unknown woman screaming next door, been kept for eight months in solitary confinement in a tiny steel cell with no natural light, witnessed the murder of two prisoners by US guards, and been constantly and repetitively questioned about fantastical crimes for which no evidence existed, Begg received a visit from ‘Martin’, of the Foreign Office.

‘Any complaints?’ Martin asked.

This was not the first time Begg had met Martin. On the first occasion, Begg had been embarrassed at how badly dressed the diplomat was, in his pink shirt and white slacks, compared with his favourite American interrogator, the well turned-out ‘Kim’. With characteristic restraint, Begg describes his relationship with Martin as ‘full of disappointments’.

He could have been describing his relationship with Britain, the land of his birth and the country he thinks of as home. One of the most poignant threads running through this book is Begg’s sense of pride in, and community with, Britain, while Britain fails to stand by him. Even as he is looking into the shamed faces of the British agents who let him down over and over again, he is taking obscure comfort from being with people whose accents and bearing remind him of the place he knows best.

When he was still being held in relatively civilised conditions in Pakistan at the start of his captivity, when he still imagined an imminent release, he was relieved to see two MI5 agents, a man and a woman, simply because they were British, until he realised they weren’t going to help him. He overheard one of his American captors saying on the phone in the corner of the room: ‘We’ve got another one for Kandahar.’ ‘I looked at the woman officer,’ Begg writes, ‘and I had a sudden feeling of complete hopelessness. She looked back at me, and just turned away.’

Begg’s recurring encounters with the Brits are a distilled version of the great, dark cloud of shame which has hung over Britain for four years, the shame which comes of shameful acts committed in a state of subservience to a greater power which is, in itself, shameful. Early on in his time at the brutal US prison camp in Kandahar, Begg got a visit from two MI5 agents, ‘Andrew’ and ‘Matt’. He recognised Andrew; Begg ran an Islamic bookshop in Birmingham in the late 1990s and like many politically active Muslims in England, he was visited at home by MI5. ‘Seeing a British person, I had a feeling of hope, familiarity,’ Begg writes, and adds that he thought: ‘I know this person, he’s been in my house, I’ve even offered him a cup of tea.’ He saw that the agents were powerless to help him, and ashamed of what they were seeing, yet continued to work within the system. ‘Is that really necessary?’ Andrew asked one of the US military policemen when he saw the hood and shackles on Begg. Before leaving, he offered Begg a Mars bar, which Begg refused. Matt said to him: ‘Look, mate, I don’t know what else to say to you, but it’ll all be over one day.’

Begg met Andrew again several months later in Bagram. He tried to shame him. Andrew told him that Britain would never take part in torture. Begg pointed out that he had been tortured. ‘If President Bush decides that I never go back home again, that’s completely acceptable to you?’ Begg asked. ‘If that’s his decision we can do nothing about it,’ Andrew replied. ‘He’s in charge.’ Even after this, Begg says that he ‘rather liked’ the urbane, Arab-speaking, left-leaning Andrew. ‘The fact that he was British helped me maintain the illusion that MI5 was on my side.’

After his release and return to Britain, on 25 January 2005, there was a protracted leavetaking with MI5, which still continues. ‘MI5 were no different in Birmingham in 2005 than they had been all those other times we had met,’ he writes. ‘They wanted something from me, but they didn’t know what it was. I had nothing to give them.’ He says he has read Foreign Office letters to his father ‘that maintain the Americans denied access to UK officials in Afghanistan’, and yet, he adds, ‘I was interrogated by British intelligence in these very places – places where people, in the same situation as me, were tortured to death . . . These are the lessons of Nuremberg. You cannot simply be present . . . and escape your own role.’

MI5 Matt visited Begg in Guantánamo and left him a gift, a book by Jeremy Paxman called The English: A Portrait of a People. Begg read it five times, partly because he was trying to work out if Matt was accusing him of treason, and partly because he was fascinated by Paxman’s characterisation of the English as a people who backed the underdog. Begg wrestled with his identity. He backed the underdog. Did that mean he was genuinely British? But what if Britain, like America, was a country which romanticised the underdog, but behaved like the overdog? Was his sense of underdogdom a Muslim thing, rather than a British thing?

Begg confounds Norman Tebbit’s test of Englishness by backing the Pakistan cricket team when it plays in England, but the English team when it plays in Pakistan. On his release, he took his family on outings to Warwick Castle, Sherwood Forest and Snowdonia. ‘From the days of Bosnia and Chechnya,’ he writes, ‘it was crystal clear to me that Britain was a special place where Muslims from all over the world were able to come and speak out.’ At one point in Kandahar, he was allowed to mix with other prisoners after five weeks in isolation. He recalls: ‘I found myself telling them about England’s green fields and villages with a nostalgia that surprised me – I hadn’t ever lived in an English village.’

Like so many middle-class, post-imperial Britons, white as well as Asian or black, Begg’s upbringing was a deracinated one, at the mercy of conflicting cultures, beliefs and histories. On his census form, his father, Azmat, wrote ‘Mongol’ on the ethnicity line, on the basis that the family, Muslims from India, were descended, via Afghanistan, from the tribes of the khan. The family were also Mujahirs, the name given in Pakistan to Muslims who fled there from other parts of the former India after Partition. Begg’s ancestors had been in Britain’s Army of India; they had fought for Britain in both world wars, and one had been a POW in Europe.

Begg went to a Jewish primary school. He took part in plays celebrating Jewish history, recited Hebrew prayers on stage with a kippah on his head, wore a blazer decorated with the Star of David and, after school, went to classes on the Koran. After his mother died of cancer Begg spent some time being looked after by his father’s non-Muslim girlfriend, Josephine, who introduced him to Christmas stockings, Christmas pudding with silver sixpences, flower collecting and watercress. Azmat Begg, a lover of Shaw and Shakespeare, would often take his children to Stratford. One FBI interrogator, hearing Begg’s English accent in Kandahar, mentioned casually that he’d visited Stratford, as if the prisoner he was saying this to was not standing naked in front of him, shivering with cold, having just had his clothes slashed off with a blade, soldiers screaming abuse at him and taking pictures, before shackling and forcibly shaving him.

It may have been a yearning for coherence amid these conflicting signals that drove Begg to embrace Islamic religious practice so intensely. From the evidence in the book, it’s not clear. He is not a mystic; he doesn’t enter into the religious transports which move writing into a realm the secular cannot reach. When he speaks of his most intense Islamic feeling, there could be an explanation other than a sense of divine presence. He was moved to tears in Medina on his first pilgrimage; considered himself a practising Muslim after the visit to the mujahedin camp in Afghanistan; experienced joy at his first communal Ramadan in Guantánamo after a year and a half of solitude. He describes these moments in terms of happiness at belonging to a Muslim community of many peoples, and of pleasure at the beauty of their common prayer and ritual, rather than in terms of ecstatic encounters with God.

There is quite a lot which is not clear in Enemy Combatant, which was the result of a collaboration between Begg – who at one point describes the Taliban as having made ‘modest progress’ in ‘upholding pure, old-style Islamic virtues’ – and Victoria Brittain, a writer and journalist who has written with powerful effect against Guantánamo and is also an activist with the left-wing party Respect, which supports equality for women, abortion and gay rights. Poor editing and haste, rather than evasiveness, may well be the reason for some of the more confusing parts of the narrative.

It’s unfortunate, for instance, that we learn details about Begg’s (entirely inoffensive) teenage flying lessons and the small amounts of money he sent to Kashmiri militant groups only when he’s being interrogated about them, rather than when they actually happened. Nor is Begg’s vague description of his presence in and flight from Afghanistan in 2001 entirely representative of the situation in that deeply divided country at the time. He describes Kabul, immediately post-Taliban, as being ‘too dangerous for foreigners’, whereas in fact the coming of the Northern Alliance made Kabul very dangerous for foreigners of Pakistani or Arab origin, like Begg, but quite safe for white foreigners. In the south of the country, where Begg was, it was the other way round, until the Americans turned their attention there.

If the US or Britain had the slightest evidence that Begg had committed a crime, he wouldn’t have been freed. They didn’t. His treatment would have been shameful had he been guilty of something; the fact that he was innocent, rationally or not, makes his three-year incarceration still more unpleasant. The US and Britain have until recently held fast to the basic principles of justice: that everyone is innocent unless proven guilty, that anyone arrested has a right to know what he is accused of or must be released, that anyone accused can be convicted only after defending himself before a jury, and that punishment will not begin until conviction. The Guantánamo prison camp, like other overseas prisons run by the US, violates each of these principles.

The F22, an advanced US fighter plane now coming into service even though it is redundant in the war on terror, costs $338 million per aircraft. For the same money, the US could put more than five thousand soldiers, intelligence agents or military police through a four-year college course in Islamic studies, with Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Uzbek or one of the other languages of the communities from which actual and suspected terrorists are emerging. The imbalance between the effort put into military training and hardware by the US government, and the effort put into enabling soldiers and agents to understand the people they encounter in hot zones abroad, is painfully exposed in Begg’s book, as is the chaotic, amateurish and aimless nature of the interrogations.

For weeks in Bagram, Begg was subjected to particularly brutal treatment: he was kept in isolation for a month, deprived of sleep for two days, shackled, hooded, beaten and told he was being sent to Egypt for torture – all because investigators had found a picture of the pope on his laptop. Begg pointed out that whenever a computer views a web page, it stores the pictures automatically in a folder, whether you want it to or not, and he’d probably read a news story online about the pope. He kept explaining this, and nobody listened. ‘If anything happens to the pope, and I find out that you were involved, I swear I’ll break every finger in your hands,’ one interrogator told him.

Begg recalls a conversation with one guard, a born-again Southern Baptist, who told him that he found it hard treating the prisoners so badly. ‘I convince myself each day that you guys are all subhuman – agents of the devil – so that I can do my job. Otherwise I’d have to treat you like humans, and we don’t do this to people where I come from.’

Begg had some of his worst experiences in Bagram. He was told of his son’s birth in a one-sentence message from the ICRC. He saw a young Afghan prisoner killed by guards, one of whom he knew well, when the prisoner tried to escape. He saw an old, crookbacked man in his nineties shuffle into captivity; the guards refused to give him his hearing aid, saying it was a security hazard. He saw a prisoner, number 421, made to stand for days without sleep and then, when he collapsed, suspended by shackles from a door-frame and, when he slumped unconscious, savagely beaten. Begg believes that this prisoner, whom he never saw again, was killed not long afterwards. The only interviews in which Begg gave US interrogators useful information seem to have been those in which he was questioned as a witness to the US killing of prisoners.

The most extraordinary thing about Begg’s book is the almost complete absence of bitterness. Time after time, he steps back when he might be expected to be angry, and shows compassion towards his captors when he might be expected to show hatred. There are cruel guards, and there are friendly guards, and guards who are friendly and cruel. There are harsh interrogators and generous interrogators, and not always, Begg believes, because they are playing good cop/bad cop. Not to make light of it, but Begg managed to meet and make friends with an awful lot of women. He took enjoyment in the education gap between him and his captors, who were often bored and curious. There was Kim, the ‘pleasant’ interrogator, who didn’t mind his being unshackled in front of her, and Jennifer, the Republican Goth guard from Alabama, who drew psychedelic drawings while talking to Begg about cooking snails or Bleak House, and Stephanie, the reservist from Ohio with whom Begg discussed Walden and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

These were rare moments in a dull, frightening, isolated existence. Begg’s account is dense with remembered moments, yet perhaps the truest representation of his experience would be a Sisyphean book whose pages you are condemned to keep turning, even though page after page is blank. The worst torture was not knowing if he would ever be released, and not having any influence on those who would decide. Begg is free; 490 men are still held prisoner in Guantánamo Bay.