Al Jazeera’s Sami al-Hajj reflects on how the years he spent as a prisoner in the US detention camp changed his life.
Lyon, France – For days, the rain had battered the sides of the prison, pattering incessantly on its sheet metal walls. A hurricane was on its way – that much Mourad Benchellali had gathered. But no one had come to get him, and from what he could tell, it seemed unlikely that he or any of his fellow prisoners would be moved.
Staring out from a steel-mesh door, Benchellali struggled to contain his frustration. The number of guards he counted patrolling his cellblock had grown fewer and fewer, and those who remained were wearing survival gear. He remembers hearing rumours that the sea might rise and crash into the prison, as the storm tore closer.
One of the guards left on duty was someone he ordinarily enjoyed talking to: a religious man, well-versed in the Bible. Benchellali himself was the son of an imam, and usually, he appreciated the guard’s gentle presence, his willingness to stop and chat.
But this time, things were different. Benchellali was tense. He didn’t know if the hurricane would strike, or if it would swerve into another part of the Caribbean. Precious little information reached him from the outside world, isolated as he was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“How is it that your lives are important, and ours aren’t?” he remembers calling out to the guard. “Us, we can drown. It’s not a big deal. But you guys? You save your skin.”
The guard, he recalls, replied with his usual fervour: “Don’t worry. God is with you.” The situation, the guard told him, reminded him of Noah, the man chosen by God to survive a world-levelling flood in both Christian and Islamic faiths. “With you, it’s the same. You detainees shouldn’t worry. Even if it rains, even if the water bursts its banks, you will be saved in the end.”
It wasn’t often that Benchellali felt treated like someone worth saving. After all, Guantanamo detainees were supposed to be “the worst of the worst”, a condemnation repeated by several Bush administration officials during the post-9/11 “war on terror“.
Even now, a shadow of suspicion follows Benchellali wherever he goes. Thirteen years have passed since he boarded a plane out of Guantanamo, back to his native France. But the stigma has never faded.
A recurring dream in Guantanamo
Sitting in a train station cafe on a rainy Saturday in Lyon, 36-year-old Benchellali wears the straight face of a man who isn’t prone to outbursts of sentimentality. And yet, looking back, he admits the guard’s words touched him – so much so that years later, “Noah” sprang to mind when it came time to name his only child, a son.
“He’s the most beautiful gift that I could ever have gotten,” Benchellali says, staring into his empty cappuccino cup. He credits his son for giving him the motivation to talk about his past, although sometimes, he gets fed up with being prodded about his story after all these years.
“It tires me out,” Benchellali says in French. He has tried to move on, building a life for himself teaching others how to lay tiles. “I often remind the people I encounter that I’m not just an ex-Guantanamo detainee.”
His dark hair slicked back with gel and his broad shoulders hidden under a brown leather coat, Benchellali looks strikingly unremarkable – just another commuter hunkering down in the cafe, waiting for the storm to end.
All the same, he keeps his eyes low. As he prepares to launch into his story once more, his fingers nervously start to rip and twist the empty sugar packets from his coffee into tiny, feathery ropes. Words like “al-Qaeda” and “bin Laden” invariably earn him glances from surrounding tables.
Benchellali didn’t expect to have the life he has now. During the nights he spent in Guantanamo, he says he kept having the same dream: of a little boy, someone he instinctively recognised as the son he’d have one day. But his fellow inmates tried to let him down gently, warning him not to get too attached to the idea. It was just a dream after all. Guantanamo was their reality.
Prisoner 161: held without charges
When Benchellali first set foot in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre on January 17, 2002, he didn’t know if he would ever leave again. No one told him how long he would stay, or what he was charged with. He didn’t even know he was in Cuba when he arrived.
From that point on, Benchellali was known by the internment serial number 161, a mark of his status as a resident “enemy combatant” – a term used to designate people involved in hostilities against the United States and its allies. Pentagon documents from 2004 identify him as a “member of [al-Qaeda]” with a “commitment to Jihad” and “ties to other global terrorist networks”.
Those are allegations that Benchellali has long denied. He insists he’s not a dangerous man – just a young guy whose naivete led him into trouble. “It’s difficult to explain,” he says. “I knew appearances played against me.”
Like many of Guantanamo’s early detainees, Benchellali never had the chance to present his case at trial. He was a “terrorism” suspect with no means of arguing his innocence – or admitting to his mistakes.
“I never said I did nothing wrong. I’ve always said, ‘Yes, it wasn’t a good idea to go to Afghanistan. Yes, I found myself in an [al-Qaeda] training camp’. But what I don’t accept is that they called me a terrorist. That’s not true.”
Although Guantanamo’s detainees have been denounced as “battle-hardened terrorists”, few were ever charged, much less convicted. One high-ranking State Department official went so far as to describe many of the detainees as “victims” of incompetent vetting, imprisoned without solid evidence against them.
“There was no meaningful way to determine whether they were terrorists, Taliban or simply innocent civilians picked up on a very confused battlefield,” the official, Lawrence Wilkerson, said in testimony delivered to the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
The 2011 release of confidential Guantanamo documents, orchestrated by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, revealed prisoners from a range of backgrounds. These included an Al Jazeera cameraman, a taxi driver, and even an 89-year-old Afghan man with symptoms of senile dementia, some of whom were explicitly assessed as “not affiliated with [al-Qaeda] nor as being a Taliban leader”.
Benchellali’s file is not so straightforward. It indicates that prisoner 161 had family ties to “terrorism”; that he admitted to being in an al-Qaeda training camp; and that officials considered him a “high risk” to the US and its allies.
Travelling to Afghanistan at 19
By his own account, Benchellali was a small, skinny 19-year-old when he decided to leave for Afghanistan with a friend. He says his older brother Menad encouraged them to go, saying it would be a great opportunity to learn about Islam.
Benchellali knew Afghanistan was a dangerous country, with warring factions and a steady arms trade. That was kind of the point. Back home in Venissieux, Benchellali considered himself a weakling – and in his rough-and-tumble neighbourhood, it was strength that counted. He saw visiting Afghanistan as a chance to prove himself, once and for all.
So when his brother offered to set them up with fake travel documents and arrange their travel, Benchellali says he ignored his misgivings and accepted. He trusted his brother, and he saw the whole process as an adventure.
Benchellali and his friend first stopped in London for the travel documents, then made their way to Afghanistan, where his brother’s friends awaited them. He says he thought he was going to scale mountains and explore the country. Fighting was the last thing on his mind.
“It wasn’t about jihad. When I left for Afghanistan, I wasn’t angry. I didn’t have any hate,” he says.
But one day, after arriving in Afghanistan, Benchellali and his friend fell into a trap. Their hosts, fellow French speakers, offered to take them on a trip to meet other young Muslims. Instead, Benchellali and his friend found themselves being dropped off at an isolated al-Qaeda training camp. There, Benchellali would come face-to-face with one of the group’s leaders: a tall, bearded man he learned was Osama bin Laden.
Surrounded by desert in an unfamiliar land, Benchellali felt stuck. The camp’s al-Qaeda leaders refused to grant him permission to leave – not until he had finished two months’ worth of military training. It was the summer of 2001. By the time he left, the world would be a different place.
After September 11
The September 11 attacks had triggered a global “war on terror“, and Afghanistan quickly became the subject of a massive bombing campaign. US forces also led a dragnet operation to arrest “terrorism” suspects on the ground – a campaign that allegedly offered bounties in exchange for prisoners.
In the tumult, Benchellali joined a group of men fleeing across the Pakistan border. When they stopped to have tea at a mosque, they ended up being locked inside and taken into custody.
A Department of Defense report – one of 779 files that WikiLeaks obtained and published – offers no specifics as to why Benchellali was transferred from there to Guantanamo, other than that he “possesses intelligence information”.
Ultimately, Benchellali said he wasn’t surprised that US forces detained him in Pakistan. “That they arrested me, I found that normal. I mean, they have the right to ask me about where I went and why I was there. What’s not normal is to send us to Cuba. What’s not normal is to remove all our rights.”
He was 20 years old by the time he arrived in Guantanamo, in January 2002. For the two and a half years, he spent there, Benchellali claims he was subject to insults, isolation and torture, including physical blows, sleep deprivation and sexual violence. All the while, life back home in France moved on without him.
By the time he flew back, the girlfriend he had left behind as a teenager had become someone else’s wife. The family he grew up with would be scattered and broken.
But Benchellali didn’t know all that when he boarded a plane out of Guantanamo in July 2004. He imagined his nightmare was over – that he would step onto the tarmac and into his parents’ arms. It was only later that he discovered his family would never be whole again.
His brother Menad – the same brother who arranged for him to go to Afghanistan – had been arrested for manufacturing deadly toxins in the family apartment, as part of an alleged plot to attack Russian targets in France on behalf of Chechen separatists.
Several relatives had been detained in connection to Menad’s activities, including Benchellali’s mother, a fact that left him devastated: “It was the worst period of my life,” he says.
Not only was his family in turmoil, but his individual ordeal was far from over too. Benchellali still faced “terrorism” charges in France, and he was sent to the same facility that housed his mother, the Fleury-Merogis prison. As his case, and eventual conviction, drew the media’s attention, he started to receive letters of support – including one from the woman who’d eventually become the mother of his child.
But some of the letters, however well intentioned, put Benchellali ill at ease. He got the feeling that, even among his supporters, he was perceived as a “jihadist”, he says. That suspicion lingered even after a Paris appeals court overturned his “terrorism” conviction.
Becoming an activist
Benchellali wrote a book about his experiences and reinvented himself as an “anti-radicalisation” activist, with the aim of educating others about groups like al-Qaeda. He hopes that, by sharing his story, he can prevent others from falling into the same trap he once did. His message is particularly aimed at youth.
“I tell them, ‘Me, I’m going to tell my story. Afterwards, do with it what you like.’ That’s to say, I’m not going to give you lessons, and I’m not there to say what’s good or bad,” Benchellali explains. “But after that, you can’t say you didn’t know.”
Over the years, Benchellali has been invited to tell his story to school groups, community centres and law enforcement officials as far away as Australia.
But every once in a while, even today, an invitation gets revoked. Benchellali suspects fear is the driving factor – fear that he might be a recidivist in disguise.
“Maybe he’s pretending. Maybe he’s playing a role – I know people think that,” Benchellali says. “I understand that they’re afraid. But I think they’re wrong.”
|Mourad Benchellali takes the tram home in Lyon, France [Allison Griner/Al Jazeera]|
Political value of recidivism data
Benchellali maintains that he never converted to al-Qaeda’s ideology, nor participated in any violence. But of the 714 detainees transferred out of Guantanamo, 121 have, according to a January report by the US Director of National Intelligence, been confirmed as re-engaging “in terrorist or insurgent activities”. An additional 87 detainees are suspected of re-engaging.
But those numbers are misleading, says lawyer Mark Denbeaux, director of the Seton Hall Law School Center for Policy and Research. He is one of the most vocal critics of the bi-yearly report, which tracks recidivism among former detainees.
Denbeaux points out that no evidence is offered to indicate who is reengaging in “terrorist” activities, and in what way. His research has uncovered inconsistencies in past reports – including instances where criticising the US government was counted as a “return to the fight”.
Though Denbeaux dismisses the recidivism reports as fundamentally flawed, he admits the data “has political value in order to try and legitimise torture in Guantanamo”. He sees the reports as an attempt to skew the public’s perception. “Right now, the fight going on is: What should the narrative be for Guantanamo?”
The fight for Guantanamo’s legacy hits close to home for Benchellali. He personally has noticed a shift in how the French public perceives Guantanamo. “Today in France, there are people who call for a French version of Guantanamo,” he says. “That wasn’t the case five, 10 years ago.”
He also worries about US President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to continue using Guantanamo as a prison and “load it up with some bad dudes”.
Trump and Guantanamo’s resurgence in popularity
Currently, Guantanamo’s detainee population has dwindled to 41, but the Trump administration is considering plans to keep Guantanamo open indefinitely. Under one proposal, its cells would be filled with suspects with alleged ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Benchellali fears the move would usher in a renewed era of public acceptance for Guantanamo and its abuses.
“We have rehabituated Americans to the fact that Guantanamo is a good thing,” he says. “The Americans are the biggest power in the world. It’s the model that everyone watches. So if the US tortures, it’s over – everyone will torture.”
Laurel Fletcher, the director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that calls to close or reduce the prison population at Guantanamo were strongest in the late 2000s, in a brief period of “hiatus between episodes of active, violent extremism”.
At the time, the Bush administration had started to reduce the detainee population, and future President Barack Obama was campaigning on a promise to close Guantanamo.
But public anxiety has grown since then. Fletcher points to recent attacks, like the one in Barcelona this past August, as contributing to “a backdrop of perceived terrorist threat”.
“When you have those incidents that are regularly cropping up, I think it activates people’s fear,” Fletcher says. She believes it’s a normal “visceral response” to support strong action in the wake of “terrorist attacks” – and that’s why Guantanamo may be experiencing a resurgence in popularity, despite evidence that its methods fail to make the public safer, she says.
Telling his story to young people
In the classrooms and community centres where he does his outreach work, Benchellali has increasingly heard a startling equivocation from the young people he speaks with. They tell him, more and more, that everyone – from the US to ISIL to Bashar al-Assad – is guilty of “terrorism”. For them, it is simply a tool.
“It’s a real problem when you explain to young people that violence doesn’t change things, and they say, ‘No, it’s the only thing that can cause change’,” he says. He prefers not argue with them. Instead, his strategy is to stick to telling his story, in the hope that his experience can serve as a warning.
But the increasing polarisation has made his task more difficult. When he visited Molenbeek, a Brussels neighbourhood that Western media sometimes calls the “jihadi capital of Europe,” one young student walked out in the middle of his presentation. His friends later told Benchellali that he was a bin Laden supporter who disapproved of Benchellali’s story.
On other occasions, it’s the teachers he meets who don’t want to listen. Benchellali says some of them are convinced that their students’ embrace of Islam is actually a descent into violence and perceived “extremism”.
It’s a frustrating topic to navigate, and Benchellali says he often considers quitting his outreach efforts altogether. In this age of increased tension, he feels discouraged, not least by the treatment he receives in his own country.
Still a ‘suspect’ in his own country
As a former “terrorism” suspect, Benchellali also has to deal with France’s “FIJAIT” system, which requires him to regularly update the government about his whereabouts. Each time his work takes him across an international border – to Switzerland or Belgium, for example – he has to check in with French authorities 15 days beforehand.
“How can I go see young people to talk to them when my own country considers me a suspect?” Benchellali asks. “The prevention work that I do nowadays, because of this supervision order, is difficult to carry out.”
One speaking trip in 2015 even landed him back in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs – a uniform he thought he’d left behind after his Guantanamo days.
Filmmaker Eileen Thalenberg had invited Benchellali to speak with students at several Canadian universities and colleges, as part of her documentary “A Jihadi in the Family”. But when Benchellali was due to meet Thalenberg outside Toronto’s international airport, he never showed up.
Thalenberg says she received a text message from him instead: “They want to ask me a few questions.” Benchellali was stuck at security.
It was around 7pm, and she and Benchellali were scheduled to catch a connecting flight that same day to Montreal. His arrival should have gone smoothly: After all, Thalenberg had checked with Canadian officials to make sure Benchellali would be allowed into the country.
Just to be safe, Thalenberg had taken other precautions too. She had furnished him with invitation letters from the colleges and universities he would visit, and she made sure his flight was routed through Iceland, to avoid passing through US airspace. American law, after all, effectively bars Guantanamo detainees, both past and present, from entering the US.
But her efforts were in vain. At around 1.30am, with their connecting flight long gone, Benchellali texted her to say he’d been arrested. He would later be moved to a maximum security prison, before being placed on a flight back to France.
“I felt so guilty,” Thalenberg said, reflecting on the incident. “I didn’t sleep for three days and three nights.”
She remains astonished at how calm Benchellali was throughout the whole process, never getting angry.
“He was concerned about his little boy, how he wanted to be a good role model for his son,” she said. “It’s the right kind of revenge, not to allow yourself to be completely destroyed.”
Choosing to speak out for his son
Back in France, in the hometown where Benchellali himself grew up, his son is on the cusp of adolescence. He’s 10 years old now, with a deep love for video games and sharing videos on YouTube. It’s enough to make any parent nervous, but Benchellali especially.
His son already knows about his past, but Benchellali still worries about what he might find online – or that he might one day become the target of harassment. It’s with that in mind that Benchellali says he chooses to speak out and shape his own narrative.
“My prevention work, the youth outreach, all that – it’s for him,” he says. “I want to make this Guantanamo experience into something positive, so he won’t be ashamed of it later on.”
A faint smile drifts across his face, as Benchellali toys with the idea that having a son might have been his destiny. Fatherhood not only gave him a way to deal with his past, but also a way to escape it.
With all the anxieties that parenthood has to offer, he allows himself to forget his other worries. In those moments, the weight of his past is lifted. The nightmare is over. And the dream that once seemed so distant has become his reality.