The Guantánamo Files: the Sri Lanka Guardian interviews Andy Worthington

16.4.08

The Guantanamo FilesSri Lanka Guardian: To introduce you, if anyone asks you, who is Andy Worthington, from which country is he, and what is his role and status, what would you say?

Andy Worthington: I’m a historian and journalist from the UK, living in London, and the author of three books. My latest, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, is the first book to look in detail at the stories of all the men held in Guantánamo. I’ve also just started work as the Communications Officer for Reprieve, the legal action charity founded by Clive Stafford Smith. Reprieve represents 31 Guantánamo prisoners, and also works on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty.

Sri Lanka Guardian: What do you think of the current political and military developments in Sri Lanka as a senior journalist who is dealing with the international media?

Andy Worthington: I’m not qualified to report on the current situation in Sri Lanka, although I sincerely hope that peace will prevail for all the Sri Lankan people.

Sri Lanka Guardian: You have visited Sri Lanka a few years ago as a tourist. What do you think of the people in Sri Lanka and our customs, problems and the solutions we are pursuing?

Andy Worthington: Yes, I visited Sri Lanka about ten years ago. The island is beautiful, and the people charming and welcoming, although I was, of course, saddened by the violence that has torn a hole in the country’s heart.

Sri Lanka Guardian: Well, I would like to change our topic to discuss your current position. We know you are the best writer on some intelligence agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and their dirty tricks. How do you identify terrorism as a concept and the CIA’s perceptions of terrorism and effectiveness in countering it?

Andy Worthington: I’m sure I don’t deserve that first accolade, although I have certainly undertaken research into the workings of the US intelligence agencies. To keep my response succinct, I would say that terrorism — as it relates to al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks — is the work of criminals, that it should not be confused with the precepts of Islam and the beliefs and actions of the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide, and that combating al-Qaeda by declaring a “war” on terrorism has been profoundly misguided.

Sri Lanka Guardian: How do you as a historian exhaustively trace terrorism and its historical development?

Andy Worthington: Essentially, with the help of some extraordinary researchers who have come before me. If we’re talking about Islamist terrorism, it’s important to understand its roots in terms of the radical ideologues who first promoted the idea of violent jihad — and in the modern era that includes pivotal figures like the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. Also of crucial importance is the trajectory from colonization to independence in the Muslim world, the struggle of political Islamists and the manner in which that struggle has largely been superseded by notions of violent jihad, and the role in this development of Egyptian militants and, in some cases, their bloodthirsty radicalization by the Egyptian state (as in the case of Ayman al-Zawahiri, usually described as “number two in al-Qaeda”, but clearly an enormous influence on the radicalization of Osama bin Laden).

Another crucial trajectory concerns Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion in 1979, through the funding of the mujahideen resistance by the United States (via Pakistan, an untrustworthy intermediary, to put it mildly) and Saudi Arabia, the ruinous civil war of the early 1990s and the rise of the Taliban. Two of many books that I would recommend, which have helped me along the way, are Ghost Wars by Steve Coll and Al-Qaeda by Jason Burke.

Sri Lanka Guardian: Could you tell us about current developments in global terrorism since 9/11 in the US and 7/7 in the UK?

Andy Worthington: Again, to keep my response manageable, I’d say that the US response to 9/11 has been misguided and counter-productive in three particular ways: the invasion of Afghanistan seems to have served primarily to push al-Qaeda into the border areas of Pakistan, where they remain; the invasion of Iraq created a whole new country-wide battlefield for al-Qaeda, and could have been dictated from a script prepared by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the processes — at Guantánamo and beyond — of imprisonment without charge or trial, “extraordinary rendition”, torture and secret prisons have been corrosively damaging for the moral standing of the United States.

In the UK, the government paranoia and tough posturing on terrorism has been equally misguided, in particular through the politicians’ unwillingness to equate their involvement in the carnage of Iraq with discontent amongst parts of the Muslim community, and their insistence that they have the right to hold terror suspects either without charge or trial or — when rebuffed by the courts — under control orders that amount to virtual house arrest. Speaking as a British citizen, it’s an absolute disgrace that these kinds of developments are taking place in the UK, and that they’re allowed to proceed virtually unchallenged. Where is the public’s outrage, and why are we almost solely dependant upon judges to combat an increasingly paranoid and authoritarian government?

Sri Lanka Guardian: Please comment on counter terrorism activities by the United States and the United Kingdom and their effectiveness. Would you do things differently?

Andy Worthington: I think I’ve largely answered this question above. The huge issues that are being ducked by both the US and the UK are that we should be seeking to decrease, rather then increase our violent involvement in the affairs of the Middle East, and that we should not confuse the actions of a small number of criminals with a supposed “Clash of Civilizations.”

Sri Lanka Guardian: Osama bin Laden and his terror movement are said to have been created by the USA in the early 1980s. But now they are the enemies of the USA. First, is it true that the US created al-Qaeda? And can leaders in the United States and United Kingdom ever eliminate al-Qaeda?

Andy Worthington: It’s not strictly true to say that the US created al-Qaeda, although they did pour billions of dollars into Afghanistan in the 1980s to fund the mujahideen resistance to the Soviet Union. As a member of the Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan at this time, Osama bin Laden, and others who went on to form al-Qaeda, were therefore at least indirectly funded by the US, but the most significant side-effect of the US funding for the anti-Soviet fighters was that they — along with the Saudis, who matched US funding, or provided even more — literally swamped this poor country with weapons, to lingering and brutal effect.

The US also stepped back from Afghanistan when the Soviet regime fell and the mujahideen embarked on a brutal civil war, and were also sidelined — in particular by the Pakistanis — when the Taliban, supported by Pakistan, either directly or covertly, rose up to restore order in the mid-1990s. This combination of neglect and of manipulation by Pakistan meant that the military training camp system in Afghanistan, which had initially arisen during the US-funded resistance to the Soviet Union, and of which al-Qaeda was but a small part (from 1996 onwards, after Osama bin Laden returned from a four-year hiatus in the Sudan), was allowed to expand in a largely unchecked manner.

As for whether al-Qaeda can ever be eliminated, I have to return to my observations above about Western foreign policy and the need to regain the moral high ground.

Sri Lanka Guardian: What is the hidden agenda, if any, behind the US War on Terror?

Andy Worthington: Clearly, as Iraq demonstrates, the hidden agenda of the United States is geopolitical influence and the control of oil. Both factors also apply to Afghanistan, of course, but are somewhat muddied by the fact that the US was also involved in the pursuit of al-Qaeda. With Afghanistan in particular, it’s not enough to say simply that the “War on Terror” is a smokescreen for installing a pro-American regime that will cooperate with the construction of a pipeline from the Caucasus to Pakistan. Guantánamo, Bagram and the secret prisons are not just a front; they are, sadly, the fruits of an administration mired in a mix of vengeance, blinkered self-righteousness and the misguided pursuit of “actionable intelligence” through the use of torture.

Sri Lanka Guardian: You have launched an important book on Guantánamo Bay, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. The book reveals how American soldiers have held innocent people like slaves and how they are finishing them off. Please tell us why Americans are playing with human life like this.

Andy Worthington: Bluntly, because they believed their own hype that they were picking up “the worst of the worst” from the battlefield, even though at least 85% of those who ended up in US custody were handed over to US forces by their Afghan or Pakistani allies, at a time when substantial bounty payments for al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects were widespread.

Specifically, as well, the administration, at the highest levels (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld), authorized the use of torture on these poor men, when they failed to produce “actionable intelligence” (for the most part, because they were either innocent men or simple foot soldiers, and had no knowledge to impart), and were also directly responsible for all the other lawless innovations of the last six years: holding prisoners without charge or trial, authorizing the kidnap and “extraordinary rendition” of terror suspects anywhere in the world, and empowering the CIA to run secret prisons or to “render” those kidnapped to third countries, particularly in North Africa, where they could be interrogated by proxy torturers.

Sri Lanka Guardian: Have you visited Guantánamo Bay camp or Abu Ghraib in Iraq? What are the conditions prevailing there?

Andy Worthington: I haven’t. Abu Ghraib, like all the Iraqi prisons, is totally off-limits to all outsiders (except the Red Cross) and visitors to Guantánamo are only allowed to meet the prisoners if they are their legal representatives. For this, you need to be both a lawyer and an American, and I’m neither. As a journalist, I wouldn’t want to be given the military’s PR tour of the prison, although I admire journalists like Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, who has been a persistent and critical visitor to the prison since it opened, and I also appreciate that, as a journalist, the trials at Guantánamo — the Military Commissions, dreamt up in November 2001, and still struggling to establish their legitimacy — are important events to cover.

Sri Lanka Guardian: Pakistan, Afghanistan and some pro-USA countries have been giving their support to capturing al-Qaeda suspects. In Pakistan hundreds of youths have been disappeared. Some have been arrested and handed over to the CIA/FBI without proper investigations, according to some independent analysts. Could you let us know the contributory countries to the catastrophe in Guantánamo Bay? Asian countries?

Andy Worthington: As you correctly point out, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have been involved in these processes, although it should be noted that in Afghanistan this was down to the actions of individual warlords, whereas in Pakistan, as President Musharraf admitted in his autobiography in 2006, the government received millions of dollars for handing over hundreds of terror suspects.

What we also need to remember is that, after 9/11, the US administration put pressure on almost every country on earth to provide assistance in the pursuit of terrorists. European countries complied, if not by assisting in the direct apprehension of suspects (as was sometimes the case), then in facilitating — or turning a blind eye — to the passage of “extraordinary rendition” planes through their airspace. Other countries were leaned on — or volunteered — for deeper involvement. Thailand and Indonesia were involved in kidnapping and rendition, for example, and for a while the Thais also allowed — or tolerated — the existence of a secret CIA prison in their country, as the Poles and Romanians apparently did later.

This is too big a topic to cover here in any depth, but your readers will probably be interested to know that the prisoners in Guantánamo were captured in 17 different countries, and that some, like those captured in the Gambia and Zambia, were some considerable distance from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Sri Lanka Guardian: It seems to us that Americans truly believe that they are fighting for freedom and democracy and cannot see what they end up doing. What is the mechanism behind this? Surely they are not brainwashed with books like yours freely available to them?

Andy Worthington: Well, that’s very kind of you to say so, but the simple truth is that millions of Americans believe what the President tells them, and that many of those involved in prosecuting the “War on Terror” — in the government, and in the military — also believe the hype that the illegal prisons are full of “the worst of the worst.” It’s still the after-effect of 9/11. The truth, which can only be perceived when you step back from these assertions, is that you can’t legitimately describe people as dangerous terrorists when they haven’t actually been through any valid screening process, and have been denied any legitimate manner in which they can question the basis of their detention. It’s as simple as that. You have to follow internationally acceptable methods of establishing guilt; you can’t just trust the President to say so, without having to provide any evidence, which is essentially the deplorable situation that still prevails.

Sri Lanka Guardian: How is flawed American public opinion on matters like this different from public opinion in closed countries like, say, China or North Korea?

Andy Worthington: Oh, I’d have to say that it’s very different. People complain that the right-wing controls too much of the media in the United States, and it’s certainly true that some media proprietors have a shockingly wide and baleful influence. People also complain that there are few good newspapers in the US either, but the truth is that some extraordinarily important stories about the conduct of the “War on Terror” have been broken by journalists at newspapers including the Washington Post and the New York Times, and it’s also apparent, of course, that there is a thriving alternative world of news that exists on the internet in the US, unlike, to use your example, China and North Korea.

Sri Lanka Guardian: Regarding Iran, it is now conceded that the US deposed the elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh in 1952 and imposed the Shah. Many believe that it is this natural anger within Iran that led to the growth of extremism in Iran. It is also said that, however flawed, it is the most democratic of Islamic countries. And yet the US is allied with nearly all oppressive Islamic countries while always berating Iran. How does this happen with the American polity being democratic and the public having access to a wide variety of opinions?

Andy Worthington: Just because people have access, or potential access to information doesn’t mean that they exercise that choice. You’re right to point out the history of US-Iranian relations, but the default position, since 1979, has been that Iran and the United States are enemies. Similarly, citizens of all Western countries, not just the US, have to delve beyond the received positions on, for example, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to begin to make sense of how the world really is.

Sri Lanka Guardian: According to your article Horror at Guantánamo, one of the terror suspects at Guantánamo is infected with the AIDS virus. Unfortunately, it is now evident that he was never involved with terrorism. That is, he is innocent. Why is America capturing innocent people outside America without proper investigations?

Andy Worthington: This is Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan who is married to an Afghan woman and ran a shop in Jalalabad at the time of the US-led invasion in October 2001. The US administration denies that he has been infected with AIDS, and it may be that he was told this as an act of cruelty by one of the staff at Guantánamo, but what’s beyond doubt is that he has hepatitis B and tuberculosis, and that neither illness has been treated adequately, presumably because he has refused to cooperate with the interrogators by admitting that he was a terrorist.

His story is actually typical of many of the prisoners at Guantánamo, in that he was captured by bounty hunters and sold to the United States at the time when the system of bounty payments was prevalent, and that therefore it was presumed, from the moment that he was transferred to US custody, that he was a terrorist. Again, the problem is that there has been no adequate screening process to determine whether or not this is actually the case. All Arabs in US custody in Afghanistan were automatically sent to Guantánamo, and the screening in Guantánamo — involving military tribunals — was also inadequate, because the tribunals either relied on generic evidence that would not stand up in a court of law, or on secret evidence, which was often based on confessions made by the prisoners themselves, or by other prisoners, often under duress (or worse).

The difference between the point of view you express — that the US is “capturing innocent people outside America without proper investigations” — and the point of view of the US administration is that, as far as the administration is concerned, every confession, however it is derived, is valid, whereas you — and myself, for that matter — are appalled that the entire process stems from the presumption of guilt, rather than the presumption of innocence. Again, if people like Mr. al-Ghizzawi had been captured on a battlefield, we might be having a different conversation, but the fact is that the majority of these men — including Mr. al-Ghizzawi — were not, and it is therefore imperative, as it has been for over six years now, that they be allowed to challenge the basis of their detention in a meaningful manner.

Sri Lanka Guardian: If that incident had happened in a poor country we would see lots of human rights organizations and the international media blaming the country. But now these same organizations are indefinitely silent. How do you explain their contradictory thinking and activism?

Andy Worthington: Basically, I don’t agree that human rights organizations or the media have been silent. My organization, Reprieve, is just one of many Western organizations involved in human rights and the law — including the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights First, The American Civil Liberties Union and scores of legal firms in the US — who have been challenging Guantánamo and the conduct of the “War on Terror” since the outset, and although some parts of the media — in the States, especially — were rather slow to pick up on the injustices that have been perpetrated over the last six years, they too — with the exceptions of the administration’s right-wing cheerleaders, of course — have been deeply committed to discovering the truth about what has been done in their name for many years now.

Sri Lanka Guardian: What are your future hopes as an author and journalist?

Andy Worthington: Basically to keep on exposing the truth about this most shameful of US administrations, and to stick with the story until the whole disgraceful edifice — from Guantánamo to the secret prisons — has been dismantled, and the United States returns to the rule of law. I hope that my book, my work as a journalist, and my work at Reprieve all contribute to the process.

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). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

This interview was originally published in the Sri Lanka Guardian.

2 Responses

  1. Raju says...

    This is exellent interview. Thanks Andy and Nilantha.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    A reader called Jim sent the following message:

    This should probably be a comment on your latest blog entry rather than an e-mail, but I’ll try to keep it brief. As an American who’s gone from outrage to despair at the lack of opposition in this country to the Guantánamo Bay prison, I’m grateful for the work you’ve done in writing “The Guantánamo Files”, which I’m currently reading. (I’ve convinced my local library to buy the book, so hopefully other people in my community will be educated by it, although I suspect that even if most people in the US knew the details of what our troops are doing at Gitmo, they would still support it — leaving it to people in other countries, like you, to oppose the prison.)

    However, I was a bit dismayed that in your interview with the Sri Lanka Guardian, you did not mention Israel as a factor in the US government’s definition of terrorism, in the agenda behind the “war on terror,” or in the US’s continuing hostility toward Iran. Normally, omission or denial of the role the US’s allegiance to Israel plays in these issues is a blow to the credibility of journalists who are otherwise critical of the US’s policy in the Middle East; even if I were comfortable saying that about you, though, that wouldn’t diminish the importance of “The Guantánamo Files” or the other work you’ve done on behalf of the Gitmo detainees. Thank you for your time.

    As I explained to Jim in a reply, I believe that I did address his concerns — albeit a little obliquely — when I mentioned how “citizens of all Western countries, not just the US, have to delve beyond the received positions on, for example, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to begin to make sense of how the world really is.”

    And I was, of course, grateful for the rest of Jim’s comments …

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