‘Soldiers around you, kicking, spitting, screaming, swearing’

Moazzam Begg spent two years of his life imprisoned without charge by the US military. He speaks to about life as a detainee of the war on terror

Moazzam Begg
Moazzam Begg spoke at York

Moazzam Begg spent two years of his life imprisoned without charge by the US military. He speaks to Nicky Woolf about life as a detainee of the war on terror

“I opened the door to several people. None of them were identified. None of them asked who I was. They put a gun to my head, pushed me to the forecourt of my house, tied my hands behind my back, tied my legs, put a hood over my head and carried me to their car.”

There is a pause, and Moazzam Begg’s face darkens as he recalls the night in January 2002 when he was “picked up” from his home in Pakistan by the US military and taken to a military holding site. He was then moved to a former Soviet base at Bagram used to house terror suspects designated “Enemy Combatants” in the War on Terror.

After a year at Bagram, he was transported to the high-security facility at Guantanamo Bay, where he spent two more years. He was released and returned to Britain in January 2005. No charges were ever brought against him, and he never faced trial.

I ask him what first went through his head when he opened the door to the soldiers. “Surprise. Shock,” he tells me. “Everything happened so fast. I didn’t say a word, I didn’t actually say one word.” He blinks slowly, then corrects himself: “I saw them going towards the room where my wife and kids were, and I said ‘don’t go in there.’ That’s when they put the hood over my head. I was completely stunned. I didn’t know what to say at all. They didn’t say anything to me either. They just came in, pushed me to the forecourt, put a gun to my head. I saw tasers crackling in the background. I didn’t know who they were… It is extremely frightening when you’re on your knees, hands behind your back, hood over your head. The first thought that comes into your mind is, someone’s going to blow me away.”

Moazzam Begg, who grew up in the Sparkhill suburb of Birmingham, has every right to be angry. But he is strangely calm when retelling the story of his capture. “I was in the car. Somebody lifted my hood and took a photograph, and I could see it was a Caucasian person dressed in a Pakistani style with an Afghani cap, in a way that no Pakistanis, no Afghanis would wear it. He looked funny.”

He laughs, without a trace of bitterness. “I laughed to myself. It was like, ‘look at this guy; he looks like an idiot. He’s not fooling anybody.’ When he spoke, it was evident that he was American. He produced a pair of handcuffs, put them over my – already-handcuffed – hands, and said ‘I was given these by the wife of one of the September 11th victims to catch who did it.’” Begg smiles. “Then, I knew who they were.”

I ask why he was picked up. “The reason I was detained is two-fold,” he tells me. “Firstly, during the 1990s I had made several trips to Bosnia and Herzegovina and openly supported the Muslims there… I believe my MI5 file was built from that point, and was handed over later to the Americans. The second part is much more blatant. The US government dropped leaflets all over southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan offering bounties for people that were handed over. They said that you could earn yourself a complete new life; all you need to do is turn over people that you suspect.”

“Americans don’t know Afghanistan,” he continues. “They don’t know the villages. They don’t know the tribal customs and the rivalries that exist within that feudal society… So when they would do these ‘swoops’ on people, it would be based on local intelligence. This doesn’t take into account that these people sometimes hated one another, there were tribal feuds going on for decades. People would often say ‘this guy is anti-American, give me the reward,’ and hand him over. The overwhelming majority, me included, were handed over extra-judicially like that for a fee, for a bounty.” Begg smiles. “I still don’t know how much they paid for me, but I like to think it was a substantial amount.”

A lot of the time, Begg uses humour as a way of defusing the bleakness of the stories he has to tell. I ask him if this was something he developed as a way of dealing with his incarceration. “There were several situations that were extremely humorous,” he replies, “that sometimes the Americans wouldn’t recognise. They think: ‘These people are detainees; why would they want to laugh? What’s there to laugh about?’”

I ask for an example. “The only noise you hear at Bagram,” he replies, “other than the screams, was when they [the American soldiers] used to put on their own music. When they put on their own music, it was often country and western, because these units were from the southern parts of America.” He grins. “I can’t stand country and western. So, I’d shout out ‘please turn that crap off. We’ll talk, I swear.’” He spreads his arms in an expressive shrug. “And they wouldn’t laugh!”

I ask what the day-to-day routine would be during his incarceration, and his face darkens. “It’s hard to actually think of the daily monotony, because it gets me extremely depressed.”

He continues: “Guantanamo is different to Bagram. In Guantanamo, the cells measure 8 foot by 6 foot. That means that you take one, two, three steps and there’s a wall. And you turn around, one, two and three and there’s a wall again. So if you imagine doing that pacing for a few minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years…” He pauses. “The thing that used to recur in my mind was the word animal. Continually, I used to say animal, animal, animal, animal, animal, because it reminded me of when I used to go to the zoos. You come to a point after you’ve had all those difficult periods where you bang your head against a wall, punch, kick, scream, shout, tell people that you’re innocent – nobody cares – and then you resign yourself to your fate. You become that thing that you said you never would.”

“But for me,” he continues, “it was almost an empowering process. I said, how can I possibly benefit from this situation? I’m in a room, in a cell. I can’t see light, I’ve got nobody to speak to other than American guards. I’ve got no communication with the outside world. I’ve got very little to read other than the Qur’an and few books. I made lists of everything I ever wanted to do or have done in my life,” he continues. “Lists of every country in the world, lists of every capital city in the world, the periodic table of the elements… and I wrote lots and lots of poetry, all with the tiny pen that they gave me, which had to be no more than 2 inches long, as anything longer could be used as a weapon. A lot of the detainees didn’t have pens like I did. Some of these detainees scratched out their poems in polystyrene cups with their fingernails.”

To my surprise, rather than hatred, Begg seems to harbour a kind of fondness for some of his captors. “They did make a difference,” he tells me, “because some of them were decent ordinary people. National Guardsmen, reservists, people who didn’t really want to be soldiers, but they’ve been activated into full-time duty… A lot of those guys were students who had joined the army so that their college fees would get paid. In a sense I became the confidant of these guys, and vice versa. I remember on one occasion an American soldier, only a young guy, broke down in tears because his wife had left him. Those sort of things, those sort of communications took place quite regularly. It’s bizarre to think of it, because one’s a jailed Enemy Combatant, the other’s his jailor. One’s in orange, and one’s in khaki.”
“The guards in Bagram,” he says when I ask how this compared to where he had been before, “consisted of full-time active units. The difference was the marines, the badass hardcore tough marines. Their attitudes were completely different.”

“You weren’t allowed to walk or talk or to get up or to do anything without permission,” he continues. “If you did, if you refused to follow orders, you were taken to an isolation part at the front of the cell, and your hands were tied above your head with a chain, like so,” Begg spreads his arms above his head, “and they were tied so tight that you’d have to be on your tiptoes, so if you relaxed a little bit then all the weight would make the chains cut into your wrists.”

I ask him what it was like when he finally got to go home, and am taken by surprise when he laughs. “That was so funny. We were put on this coach with blackened-out windows, we were shackled, just in case we escaped on the way to freedom, and there were about 40 American military policemen on the coach with us, for security. When we arrived the British had come to recieve us, but the padlock key had been forgotten by the American soldiers. Which was so funny, because then they started swearing at each other, it was brilliant. So then one of the soldiers came along with this huge pair of wire-cutters, and snapped off every padlock. That was it. When I was handed over to British custody there were no handcuffs, no attitude, there was nothing at all. They brought me newspapers, magazines and crisps and chocolates and things I hadn’t seen for ages.” He pauses. “It was all very British.”

A tremor in Begg’s voice betrays his emotion. “The next morning I went to my lawyer’s house, and that’s where my father and my lawyer and my wife and my kids were waiting for me.” Begg pauses, seeming lost in reverie for so long I think he’s finished. Just before I ask another question he speaks again, and his tone is subdued, saddened, almost apologetic. “Um. It wasn’t that emotional for me.”
“It is now, when I’m talking about it,” he hastily adds, “but it wasn’t at the time. I had steeled myself during those years, to keep sane. My tears had dried up. I think that the hardest thing for me was the children. The eldest daughter, she was 6 at the time, now she was close to 10. I had been able to pick her up in the air and throw her and catch her when I saw her last, and I couldn’t do that any more. She was too big.”

Begg thinks the mindset, and the actions, of the War on Terror have done much more harm than good. “The argument [that the US use] is that because this is an amorphous enemy, the rules have to change.” he says. “Imagine this Afghani guy, this villager. He has this beard, and this long hair and so forth, because that’s part of his tradition and his religion. When a person is brought into detention, the process they have to go through is that you are taken and dragged through the mud with your hands tied behind your back. Your clothes are ripped off with a knife, there is a whole circle of soldiers around you taking photographs, kicking, spitting, screaming, shouting, swearing, dogs… it’s known as the ‘shock of capture’.”

“So then he eventually gets released,” he continues. “He goes back to the extended family, and the extended family is what makes up a clan, and the clan makes up a tribe and the tribe makes up the nation. That’s Afghanistan. So when he goes back he tells not just his extended family but the whole nation. Six years after victory was declared in Afghanistan they’re telling us that that the Taliban is on the rise. Simple answer is: It’s not just the Taliban any more.”

Begg’s logic is chilling. I ask him what he thinks should happen next. “A lot of it is about exerting pressure. It’s about attrition, it’s about working at the seams and dragging it down.”

Since his incarceration, Begg has committed his life to campaigning to end the practice of detention without trial that took so much from him. “The existence of Guantanamo today is untenable. I do think that they will close it. But the problem will still remain about the ghost detention sites and the secret detention sites.” He looks at me plaintively. “How do you get to uncover that sort of stuff?”