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Torture and Terrorism: In the Middle East It’s 2011, In America It’s Still 2001

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The gulf between what’s happening on the ground in the Middle East and the way it is perceived by the U.S. intelligence services — as well as the gulf between how critics perceive America’s counterterrorism policies in the Middle East, and how those policies are perceived by U.S. intelligence — were recently exposed in an article in the Wall Street Journal by Julian E. Barnes and Adam Entous, entitled “Upheaval in Mideast Sets Back Terror War.”

“For nearly a decade,” the article explained, “the U.S. has conducted a major cloak-and-missile campaign against al-Qaeda, teaming up with friendly Arab leaders to swap intelligence, interrogate suspects, train commandos or carry out military strikes from Morocco to Iraq…. Now popular movements sweeping the region have knocked some counterterrorism allies from power, and left others too distracted or politically vulnerable to risk open cooperation with the U.S. Intelligence-sharing has already slowed in some areas as the U.S. struggles to identify reliable counterparts in reshuffled governments.”

One official said, “It’s difficult to share information when you don’t know who the players are.”

The article also claimed, “The upheaval has upended U.S. foreign policy in the region, with old friends shaken or gone and the allegiance of emerging leaders uncertain. The effects on counterterrorism efforts are one of the aftershocks that worry the intelligence community the most.”

Barnes and Embus also quoted government officials as telling them that they had “lost track of many former Guantánamo detainees who had been sent home to the Middle East and North Africa,” and that losing track of these former prisoners was “a sign that unrest in the region is disrupting critical terror-fighting relationships America has built up since the Sept. 11 attacks.”

A disturbing perspective

There were problems with these claims that neither journalist picked up on, namely that the claim about “losing track” of former prisoners is, to put it bluntly, a lie, and also that the revolutionary “unrest” that has toppled the regimes of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt can legitimately be viewed not as “disrupting” what U.S. intelligence agencies regard as “critical terror-fighting relationships” but as hugely popular revolutionary movements that have removed from power two hated dictators whose oppression of their people was only possible because they were backed by the United States and other Western countries.

For these home-grown revolutionary movements, the description of their hated dictators as “friendly Arab leaders,” with whom the United States was cosily involved in “swap[ping] intelligence” and “interrogat[ing] suspects,” will, if widely disseminated in the region, only reinforce the notion that America cannot be trusted, because one of the drivers of the revolutionary movement in Egypt was a thorough disgust at how the government’s “emergency powers,” enforced continually throughout Mubarak’s 30 years in power, underpinned an essentially unaccountable regime of torture prisons run by the state security services and secretive courts handing down punitive sentences and laundering information derived through the use of torture, without anything resembling due process. Similar complaints also drove the Tunisian uprising, which lit the spark of revolution throughout the Middle East in the first place.

The tension between America’s perceived security needs and the desires of the people of the Middle East was clearly recognized in the Wall Street Journal article, which noted, “Publicly, the Obama administration has embraced the democratic tide, arguing that political freedoms will diminish the standing of al-Qaeda in the Middle East and beyond,” and quoting Defense Secretary Robert Gates stating that “the pro-democracy protests ‘give the lie’ to al-Qaeda’s message that change is possible only through violence,” and that they “are an extraordinary setback for al-Qaeda.”

This ought to be the key message that America takes from the upheavals sweeping the Middle East, although the Wall Street Journal also noted, “Privately, counterterrorism officials in the U.S. and Europe are watching the sweeping changes with a mixture of alarm and dread,” worried about Yemen, long regarded as a dangerously unstable nation, and also “worried that the level of cooperation from security services in Tunisia and Egypt, longtime partners, will decline as new leaders distance themselves from past abuses.”

It should also be noted that, when Robert Gates referred to the pro-democracy movements giving the lie to al-Qaeda’s message that “change is only possible through violence,” he ought to have reflected that the same message should apply equally to the United States. Such an epiphany seems unlikely, but although this places America in an unusual position with regard to the bigger picture of the upheavals in the region — largely confined to watching as people’s movements take the initiative themselves — on other details, such as claims about the value of America’s relationship with regimes notorious for their use of torture, and the significance of prisoners released from Guantánamo, it is more than possible to refute claims that seek to suggest that the crimes, mistakes and distortions of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” are in any way justified.

No threat from former Guantánamo prisoners in Egypt or Tunisia

In the first instance, to thoroughly undermine the claim that the U.S. government is “losing track” of former prisoners — and to demonstrate that this encounter between the Wall Street Journal and U.S. intelligence was therefore something of a propaganda construct — it is only necessary to consider that, in the only countries where “unrest” has toppled dictators — Tunisia and Egypt — only four former Guantánamo prisoners have been released, and none of them are even remotely involved in anything to do with terrorism.

In Egypt, one of the two men is Sami El-Laithi (aka El-Leithi, and spelled Allaithy by the U.S. authorities). Now 55 years old, he had been teaching at the University of Kabul when the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began in October 2001, and, like many hundreds of others, he was seized and sent to Guantánamo after escaping to Pakistan. Unlike any other Guantánamo prisoner, however, El-Laithi was so brutally set upon by guards in Guantánamo one evening that they broke his spine, and he has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. Returned to Egypt on October 1, 2005, he was then held by Egypt’s state security agency at a special prison section in Cairo’s El-Qasr Al-Eini Hospital, and has stated his belief that, had he not been physically handicapped, he would not have been released. Now largely confined to his home village, outside Cairo, he is neither a threat nor an unknown quantity.

Had El-Laithi not been crippled, his thoughts about how he would not have been released from Egyptian custody reflect what happened to Reda Fadel El-Weleli (identified in Guantánamo as Fael Roda Al-Waleeli), the first Egyptian transferred from Guantánamo to Egypt, who arrived in Cairo on July 1, 2003, and subsequently disappeared. In October 2009, Martin Scheinin, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, complained that, after a visit to Egypt in April 2009, he “regrets that the Government of Egypt did not reply to his questions on the fate of … El-Weleli,” although I was later told that U.N. representatives finally succeeded in tracking him down, and that he was a broken figure, and very obviously a threat to nobody, who explained that, after his return from Guantánamo, he had been held and tortured in a secret prison in Egypt for three and a half years.

In Tunisia, the U.S. government also knows the whereabouts of the two men it transferred to Tunisian custody in June 2007, who, it should be noted, had been cleared for release by a military review board convened under President Bush. Until very recently, both were in prison, having been imprisoned after show trials on their return, despite the signing of a “diplomatic assurance” between the U.S. government and President Ben Ali, which purported to guarantee that they would be treated fairly when repatriated.

One of the two, Lotfi Lagha, was freed after his three-year sentence came to an end last year, and the other, Abdallah Hajji, was freed in February this year after the flight of Ben Ali. The eight-year sentence he had been given in 2007 was overturned, amidst the recognition that he had never been involved in any kind of terrorism, and was, instead, a member of Ennahdha, the Islamic opposition group, banned by Ben Ali, whose members were conveniently labeled as terrorists during the “war on terror.” Both men can easily be found in Tunisia, as a former exiled political opponent of the regime, Fathi Messaoudi, explained to me when I met him a few days ago.

Having recently returned to Tunisia for the first time in 20 years, Messaoudi, who was blinded by Ben Ali’s torturers, told me that he met Abdallah Hajji and that, although he relished his freedom, he too was a broken man, and had been haunted, since his imprisonment on his return to Tunisia, by threats that his wife and daughters would be brought before him by the secret police and raped.

Why America’s intelligence services still love arbitrary detention and torture

In addition, another intention regarding the U.S. claims about former prisoners in Tunisia and Egypt appears to be to cast doubts on the security of both countries following their popular revolutions and the flight of their dictators. This, too, is groundless, and is nothing more than scaremongering, because, although there are policing problems in Tunisia, the country is ruled by an interim government that consists primarily of Ben Ali’s former colleagues (in other words, America’s long-standing allies in the region). Similarly, in Egypt, the interim government — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — consists of Mubarak’s former colleagues, even though, in the end, the army’s senior generals chose to seize power themselves rather than entrusting it to Hosni Mubarak’s chosen successor, Omar Suleiman.

As was noted before Mubarak’s fall, if there was to be meaningful change in Egypt, it could not involve Suleiman, the former spy chief who not only symbolized the brutality of Egypt’s police state to its own citizens, but was also central to the key role played by Egypt as a partner in the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” personally overseeing the brutal torture of terror suspects seized by the CIA, including the Australian Mamdouh Habib, the Pakistani scholar Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni, and the Libyan Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the emir of a training camp in Afghanistan. Under torture — almost certainly at Suleiman’s hands — al-Libi falsely confessed that Saddam Hussein had met two al-Qaeda operatives to discuss obtaining chemical and biological weapons, a tortured lie that, although retracted by al-Libi (who was later returned to Libya and a suspicious death by “suicide” in 2009), was used by the Bush administration to justify its illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell was persuaded to use it in a key presentation to the United Nations the month before.

Even so, positive perceptions of Omar Suleiman and Hosni Mubarak are at the heart of the U.S. intelligence officials’ complaints about the changing political landscape in the Middle East. “Obviously, our most important relationship over the last decade has been Egypt,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal. “And clearly that is in line for significant change. We won’t re-create the relationship we had with Mubarak.”

Examining the importance of that relationship, the article proceeded to mention how, “Before this year’s revolts, the secret police in authoritarian countries like Egypt and Tunisia had far more leeway than the U.S. and its European allies to hold detainees indefinitely and use interrogation methods widely regarded by human-rights groups as torture to try to extract information,” and that the Egyptian government also “secretly held and interrogated Islamist militants who had been captured by the CIA and the U.S. military under a practice known as rendition, widely condemned by human-rights groups.”

The discomforting reality is that the United States and at least some of its Western allies enjoyed the fact that, under Hosni Mubarak, prisoners could be kidnapped anywhere in the world and rendered to Egypt, where they could be detained indefinitely and tortured — and it is, to be honest, rather disturbing to be hearing U.S. officials stating so openly, in 2011, how they wish that torture was still something they could use.

Why there is no threat from former Guantánamo prisoners in Libya or Yemen

With the U.S. intelligence services’ love of torture exposed, and the misinformation about former prisoners in Tunisia and Egypt debunked, it is clear that the central premises of the Wall Street Journal article — that former Guantánamo prisoners, unmonitored, are on the loose in the Middle East, and that the governments responsible for monitoring them have either been toppled or are too distracted by their own revolutionary movements — do not stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

Moreover, looking at countries other than Tunisia and Egypt, similar problems can be perceived. The article, for example, also specifically mentioned Libya and Yemen. “The flow of information from Libya, Yemen and other governments in the region about the whereabouts and activities of the former Guantánamo detainees, along with other Islamists released from local prisons, has slowed or even stopped,” officials told the Wall Street Journal, adding that “they fear that former detainees will re-join al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups.”

Again, on close inspection, what is portrayed as a problem engendered by the revolutionary movements spreading across the Middle East, and also as one on a significant scale, is easily dismissed when the facts are introduced. In Libya, for example, where, rather terrifyingly, the counterterrorism relationship between the United States and Gaddafi, another blatant torturer, was described by a senior U.S. official as “especially productive,” only two former Guantánamo prisoners have been released, and as I explained in a recent article, “Deranged Gaddafi Blames Ex-Guantánamo Prisoners for Unrest in Libya, Even Though Only One Ex-Prisoner Has Been Released,” one of these men is still imprisoned in Tripoli, and the other, freed last summer, is verifiably not involved in any al-Qaeda activities. Nor, outside of wild claims by Colonel Gaddafi, has there been any serious suggestion that al-Qaeda, as such, is involved in the Libyan people’s uprising against their hated dictator, which, as elsewhere, is led primarily by young people rather than religious organizations, and supported by trade unionists and intellectuals.

With this in mind, it is noticeable that the Wall Street Journal’s commentary on the Guantánamo prisoners repatriated to Libya was nothing more than a succession of errors. “In Libya, the U.S. has been completely cut off,” the article claimed, citing an Obama administration official stating, “It’s dead with Gaddafi. We don’t know the status of the people [the returned prisoners].” The article then falsely claimed that both men had been returned in 2006, when one was returned in October 2007, and although it was correctly stated that, since their return, “U.S. officials have paid multiple visits to the men in Libyan prisons,” it was, again, mistaken to suggest that, “once the uprising in Libya boiled over into a full-blown rebellion and the U.S. called for Col. Moammar Gaddafi to step down, American officials lost track of the two men,” because, as indicated above, one remains in prison, and the other can easily be traced, and is very clearly no threat to anyone — as the Americans realized when they released him in 2007.

Similarly, in Yemen, the explicit claims made in the article that “U.S. and European officials are increasingly concerned that former Guantánamo detainees are no longer under much, if any, government surveillance” is, fundamentally, nothing more than unjustifiable scaremongering. The authorities may well be concerned because they have, according to the article, “detected an uptick in activity by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” with a senior counterterrorism official claiming that “the group is ‘very actively’ plotting new strikes against the U.S. during the lull in American and Yemeni counterterrorism operations” caused by the revolutionary upheavals in Yemen in the last two months.

However, this has nothing to do with the prisoners released from Guantánamo. According to U.S. intelligence, a handful of Saudi ex-prisoners released by President Bush have been involved in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but only one Yemeni ex-prisoner — Hani Abdo Shaalan, released in June 2007 and apparently killed by Yemeni security forces in December 2009.

To get the Yemeni story in perspective, only 23 Yemeni prisoners have ever been released from Guantánamo, and in the last 15 months, just one Yemeni — Mohammed Hassan Odaini, a student seized by mistake while visiting other students in a university dormitory in Pakistan, who won his habeas corpus petition — has been freed.

Of the other 89 Yemenis still held in Guantánamo, 58 were cleared for release by President Obama’s interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which reviewed all the Guantánamo cases throughout 2009, but they are still held because of an ongoing and open-ended moratorium on releasing any Yemenis, which was announced by President Obama in January 2010, after it was claimed that the failed plane bomber on Christmas Day 2009, the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen.

Of the prisoners returned to Yemen, it is not actually difficult to establish that the overwhelming majority of them can be located easily, and are trying, with varying degrees of success, to rebuild their shattered lives. I recently, for example, spoke to David Remes, the attorney for several of the released prisoners, who told me about his recent meetings with them on a visit to Yemen, and updated me about their working lives, their hopes and aspirations, and their families.

Behind the headline-grabbing fears, this is the norm for Yemenis returned from Guantánamo, and the biggest problem Yemen causes to the United States, when it comes to Guantánamo, is not those who have been released, but those who have not, because clearing men for release, and then not releasing them because of the perceived threat of terrorism from Yemen in general, tars the entire Yemeni population as terrorist sympathizers, and is, essentially, “guilt by nationality,” which is a deep insult to the Yemeni people, and a guaranteed basis for ill-feeling. In addition, as I have been explaining all year, it makes those held into political prisoners, no longer held because of any just or judicial process, but because of the whims of an unaccountable government.

If the United States should draw one obvious lesson from what is happening throughout the Middle East, it ought to be that it is time for the paranoia and state-sanctioned violence of the “war on terror” to be brought to an end. After all, Islamist militants have been conspicuously absent during the upheavals, which have been led primarily by young people, and the Islamic groups who have appeared have shown themselves willing to take part in the democratic process.

Nearly ten years after the 9/11 attacks, there is now an historic opportunity for the United States to recognize that it is time to move on from a decade dominated by the lawlessness and brutality of al-Qaeda, and the lawlessness and brutality with which America responded, and to learn a lesson from the revolutionaries of the Middle East — that living in hope is far better than living in fear.

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    Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and serves as policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.