Book and Video: Ahmed Errachidi, The Cook Who Became “The General” in Guantánamo

23.9.13

In the busy months in spring, when the prisoners at Guantánamo forced the world to remember their plight by embarking on a prison-wide hunger strike, I was so busy covering developments, reporting the prisoners’ stories, and campaigning for President Obama to take decisive action that I missed a number of other related stories.

In the last few weeks, I’ve revisited some of these stories — of Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian who wants to be tried; of Ahmed Zuhair, a long-term hunger striker, now a free man; and of Abdul Aziz Naji, persecuted after his release in Algeria.

As I continue to catch up on stories I missed, I’m delighted to revisit the story of Ahmed Errachidi, a Moroccan prisoner, released in 2007, whose story has long been close to my heart. In March, Chatto & Windus published Ahmed’s account of his experiences, written with Gillian Slovo and entitled, The General: The Ordinary Man Who Challenged Guantánamo.

As I explained in an article two years ago, when an excerpt from the book was first showcased in Granta:

[In 2006,] when I first began researching the stories of the Guantánamo prisoners in depth, for my book The Guantánamo Files, one of the most distinctive and resonant voices in defense of the prisoners and their trampled rights as human beings was Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the legal action charity Reprieve, whose lawyers represented dozens of prisoners held at Guantánamo.

One of the men represented by Stafford Smith and Reprieve was Ahmed Errachidi, a Moroccan chef who had worked in London for 16 years before his capture in Pakistan, were he had traveled as part of a wild scheme to raise money for an operation that his son needed. What made Ahmed’s story so affecting were three factors: firstly, that he was bipolar, and had suffered horribly in Guantánamo, where his mental health issues had not been taken into account; secondly, that he had been a passionate defender of the prisoners’ rights, and had been persistently punished as result, although he eventually won a concession, when the authorities agreed to no longer refer to prisoners as “packages” when they were moved about the prison; and thirdly, that he had been freed after Stafford Smith proved that, while he was supposed to have been at a training camp in Afghanistan, he was actually cooking in a restaurant on the King’s Road in London.

“The Cook Who Became The General” was the proposed title of a book telling Ahmed’s story, which Clive suggested I should write with him, after I wrote an article that Ahmed picked up on after his release in Morocco in March 2007. This never came about, although I remained in touch with Ahmed, and I sometimes regret that I have been too desk-bound in my Guantánamo work, and missed out on having Ahmed tell me his story while cooking for me at his home in Tangier.

I have still not made it to Tangier to meet Ahmed, although I hope that one day I will. In the meantime, however, to promote Ahmed’s book, Giles Whittell of the Times visited him for a major feature in the Times‘ magazine on Saturday March 16, which I’m cross-posting below, along with a powerful video Ahmed made in Morocco in May, discussing, in particular, the hunger strike, and his fears for a friend he left behind at Guantánamo, who was cleared for release when he was, but was not freed. That man is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, whose release I — and many, many other people — have been seeking and demanding for many years.

I wholeheartedly recommend The General: The Ordinary Man Who Challenged Guantánamo, which can be bought via Amazon in the UK and in the US. You can also listen to Ahmed talking to the BBC on Outlook, on the World Service, in a program that was first broadcast on May 8, 2013.

Prisoner 590 talks to Giles Whittell
The Times, March 16, 2013

Ahmed Errachidi was a chef in a Mayfair hotel. In 2002 he was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. For five years he was shackled, beaten, sprayed, groped, taunted, interrogated. Ahmed was innocent. This is his story.

At one point in the dreadful weeks after 9/11, Ahmed Errachidi allowed himself to think he might be saved by British secret agents. It was a forlorn hope, but he had no other sort to cling to.

Errachidi is a big, proud, fearless man, born in Morocco, fond of London and once a fan of Spurs. He is also a devout, well-travelled Muslim. In early 2002, as US special forces scoured Afghanistan for any trace of al-Qaeda leaders, he was arrested by Pakistani police across the border in the badlands of Waziristan.

How he got there is convoluted enough, but it was only the beginning of his story. Suspected of terrorism, he was sent via a series of jails to an interrogation centre in Lahore. Eventually, he was visited there by two men from the FBI. He imagined they would quickly check his background and arrange for his release. Instead, they transferred him to Kabul. Part of the giant Bagram airbase outside the Afghan capital was by then a US-run internment camp, and it was there that he heard British accents for the first time since leaving London.

He was not in good shape. He had spent six weeks being shackled, beaten and malnourished as his life ran out of control and the world around him descended into war. To make matters worse he was, his doctors said, bipolar, although the diagnosis would in the end help him.

Errachidi was told the British voices belonged to officers from MI5. “When I heard them coming, I thought, ‘My torture is over. My pain is over, because now I’m going to deal with someone who is civilised,’” he says. “I had one foot in freedom.”

In fact, the British were no help at all. They questioned him, gave no indication as to whether they believed him, and said in any case their hands were tied. Bagram was to all intents and purposes America.

And so the interrogations continued. Errachidi was moved to Kandahar, where he says his guards once spent a day removing his leg irons with bolt cutters and hacksaws. By the end he was sitting in a pool of his own blood. From Kandahar he was flown to Guantánamo Bay (26 hours on the floor of a troop transport) and there he spent five and a half years – beaten, sprayed, groped, taunted, interrogated and deprived of sleep so routinely that the monotony became almost as unbearable as the abuse.

Four of those years were spent in punishment blocks, in solitary confinement.

“How do I know?” he asks. “I counted out the year or so that I was not in isolation.”

Some of what Errachidi endured at America’s naval base on the southeast tip of Cuba will be familiar to connoisseurs of the “enhanced interrogation”, or torture, that the Bush Administration encouraged there. Some has not been reported until now. What makes his story unique is his response: he got mad, and almost got even. He became Guantánamo’s de facto guerrilla commander, sustained by small victories against the prison regime and fuelled in his search for bigger ones by a deep and boundless anger.

When detainees were forced to wear shirts they did not like, Errachidi persuaded them to rip them up. When their Korans were abused and prayer times interrupted, he led a series of rebellions to ensure they were respected. When things got desperate in 2006, and prisoners living with mounds of their own faeces were brought food by guards in full biological warfare suits and respirators, he daubed the words “YOU CRIMINALS” on his cell wall in his own blood.

Errachidi was in the first wave of prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo after 9/11, presented to their guards as the “worst of the worst” – men trained to kill and die and supposedly taught not to feel pain. Because of his influence over his fellow inmates, Errachidi was assumed to be senior al-Qaeda. He was nicknamed “the General”.

A secret 2004 memo from the camp commander to the Pentagon’s Southern Command headquarters in Miami was the closest thing US officials ever issued to a rap sheet for prisoner 590. It said he had “known affiliations with several Islamist extremist groups, to include a direct association with the leader of the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group as well as other contacts with known members of al-Qaeda”. He had travelled to Afghanistan, the memo continued, “to participate in jihad against the US”. Another document stated that in July 2001 he had received weapons training and bomb-making classes at the al-Farouq Training Camp, knew how to conduct suicide attacks on airliners with smuggled flammable liquids and had issued a fatwa authorising prisoner suicides.

Despite all this, the force of Errachidi’s rage still mystified his captors. One camp commander, Colonel Mike Bumgarner, risked his career by negotiating with the General, hoping to restore order in return for quality-of-life concessions. The deal didn’t hold, and at the end of his tour of duty Bumgarner was left scratching his head. What was it about this man that he had failed to grasp? The answer was simple. Errachidi was angry because he was innocent. In five and a half years, not a shred of evidence of terrorist activity or links to terrorists was produced against him. The allegations on the two official memos in his Guantánamo file were invented. Ahmed Errachidi was not al-Qaeda. He was a cook. He was not even a cook for jihadists, but for paying customers at a string of restaurants, some of them quite swanky, in London, his adopted home, where he had worked for 17 years.

In the summer of 2001, when he was supposed to be learning bomb-making in the mountains outside Kandahar, he was working shifts at the Westbury hotel in Mayfair. It would have been easy to check – by phone or even on foot. The Westbury is on New Bond Street, three blocks from the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. But no one bothered. No one, that is, except Clive Stafford Smith, the British-born human-rights lawyer. He met Errachidi in 2004, contacted the hotel and verified the story, whereupon the case against the General began to fall apart.

Six years on from his release, Errachidi has written a memoir. It took him two years to decide to write it and one to get it finished, and it is his first full account of his lost years as a suspected enemy combatant. It takes the reader step by step down through the multilevel hell on Earth created to dismantle al-Qaeda, and it will force anyone still on the fence about Guantánamo Bay to reassess not only what the camp says about America, but also the supposedly just war that filled it.

Errachidi condemns 9/11, but also the sledgehammer response. “If the US Army had gone into [Afghanistan] to look for bin Laden and al-Qaeda, or even the Taleban for that matter, I’d have been in favour,” he writes. “But I didn’t think and still don’t think they had a right to bomb civilians from the air… You can’t terrorise 29 million people and claim you are fighting terrorism.” (Estimates of the civilian death toll in the first four months of the war in Afghanistan range from 1,000 directly killed by air strikes to 20,000 when refugee deaths from disease and hunger are included.)

Errachidi writes and talks as someone who put himself under that bombardment and paid dearly. He has survived with a hard-boiled take on the morality of fighting terrorism – “To me, killing people with a car bomb or an F-16 is the same thing” – and a belief that he needs to tell the world what has really been happening in Guantánamo Bay before it loses focus and moves on. Why should we care? He’s a cook with a Moroccan high-school education. The broad outlines of the abuse of prisoners and due process at Guantánamo are already known. And as President Obama has found, shutting the place down – given the risk that detainees sent home will be tortured (again) – is easier said than done.

For what it’s worth, Errachidi says that risk is wildly exaggerated. He calls it “the big lie, the old song”. Furthermore, Obama’s failure to keep his promise to shut Guantánamo creates the prospect of indefinite detention without trial on US-controlled territory, which would be a monstrous hypocrisy and a systematic denial of justice even if every inmate there were guilty of crimes against humanity. As it is, according to the available evidence, the vast majority are not. Errachidi is a case in point. That the camp is still open six years after his release makes his story more urgent, not less.

“This is me coming out of my shell,” he says, as we look for a patch of sun against which to take his picture in the steep backstreets of Tangier, where he was born and raised and where he now owns a thriving café above the port. His publisher would like him to come out of his country, not just his shell, to talk more widely about what he has written, but he can’t – he has no passport. The Moroccan government has refused to issue one since his release, but he believes the US is trying to muzzle him and blames Washington “for using the Moroccans as a jailer”. (The US Embassy in Rabat declined to comment.)

He hates being reminded he is now a prisoner in his own country. But the reminder comes anyway, the day after we first meet. He wants to show us the Atlantic coast, both for another picture and because it is magnificent. So we drive there in his 4×4, through Tangier’s salubrious western suburbs and past discreet walled compounds, ending at a famous lookout point above Hercules’ Cave.

Some Interior Ministry officials have got there first. They’re wearing dark glasses and long black overcoats as if supplied by central casting. They ask for permits. Without the right papers, a photo session is out of the question. Errachidi assumes they’ve been following us and boils over. After a brief shouting match we leave, reversing at high speed. He holds the steering wheel with one hand and his iPhone in the other, taking pictures of the goons and reminding them that he funds their Toyota Land Cruiser with his taxes.

It takes him a while to calm down. Further up the coast we stop and he sits, fuming.

“This is how I get when I get angry,” he says. “When I’m provoked, I feel as if I’m back in Guantánamo.”

He was taken there because of a disastrous overlap of world history and his own.

From his café in central Tangier, the view of Europe is extraordinary. Seven miles away across the Strait of Gibraltar lie Spain, the Rock and opportunity. Dozens of bodies of Africans who set out to swim to a better life are washed up on Tangier’s beaches every year, but in 1985 the 18-year-old Errachidi knew better. He acquired his first passport and a Spanish tourist visa, and took the ferry.

At large in Europe, he headed first for Chesterfield, where he had a standing invitation from a couple he’d once shown around Tangier. He gravitated to London and felt oddly at home. “I even liked it when it was dark and rainy and I couldn’t catch the vaguest glimpse of the sun,” he writes. He found it easy to get on with Brits. He learnt the language, learnt to cook and learnt the fine art of extracting visa extensions from the Home Office.

By 2001 he had a wife and children in Tangier, but his work was still in London. It was a complex life, made more so by a nervous breakdown when his father died, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and a running battle over his immigration status. Worse than any of these was a heart defect detected in his infant son, Imran.

Errachidi had friends in London, mainly from the mosques he attended in Finsbury Park and Regent’s Park. But he was feeling a long way from where he was most needed.

Then the twin towers were attacked. He watched “with disbelief and horror” in a North London café as they fell. Soon afterwards, he was told that Imran would need expensive surgery to fix his heart. “In the run-up to that news I was already thinking of starting my own business,” he says. “When the news came it was like a light going on: time to go, time to do it.”

He knew that if he left Britain he might not be allowed to return, but Britain, for once, was not part of his plans. Pakistan was.

At this point, his movements became, in retrospect, a series of red flags for intelligence analysts: fighting-age Moroccan male who attends radical North London mosques heads to Pakistan weeks after 9/11. Crosses into Afghanistan as refugees pour out. Picked up in northern Waziristan as hunt for Osama bin Laden moves there from Tora Bora.

It might have helped that his explanation fell into the category of stuff you can’t make up. But it didn’t help. People with the power to free or detain him simply did not believe him.

His account goes like this: on leaving London for the last time, Errachidi went first to Morocco to see his family. Then he flew to Islamabad in search of silver jewellery to bring back in his suitcase and start selling. (He’d opted for silver from Pakistan over silk from China or Turkey, but had also considered getting into washing-up liquid and rabbits; there is a decent market in Morocco for rabbit meat.)

In Islamabad, he spent some of his time scoping out the local silver markets but much of it watching CNN and BBC World News in his rented room, and crying. “What they were showing on TV was just catastrophic. All the channels, they were doing a lot on all these refugees, all these children crying, facing death, fleeing their homes.”

He realised this misery was unfolding a few hours’ drive away across the Afghan border and, he says, resolved to go and help. He claims he went out of simple fellow feeling and because of his distress over his son – rather than despite it. “I had my pain, my problems,” he says. “I desperately wanted to get away from them.”

For dozens of interrogators, this defied credulity. Readers may share their doubts, and even Stafford Smith concedes the story makes sense to some only in the light of Errachidi’s bipolar disorder. Nonetheless, it is his story. It has never changed, and after seven hours in his charming, outraged company, I could only conclude it was the truth.

To get to Kabul he took taxis when he could and walked when he had to, sometimes at night. There, he says, he saw collateral damage up close: sometimes the survivors of extended families ripped apart by bombs from the sky, sometimes just warm limbs. He spent 25 days cooking for a refugee convoy travelling from Kabul to Kandahar. At one point, a grateful boy proffered a double handful of walnuts, and it all seemed worth it.

Strolling along Tangier’s main beach at dusk more than a decade later, he says he often thought of that boy’s hands when looking at his own, in handcuffs in Guantánamo.

Camp rules required prisoners to push their hands through a hole in their cell doors, wrists together, to be cuffed before leaving for exercise or being moved to another cell. New detachments of guards would often tremble with fear when first forced into close proximity with inmates for this sort of chore. But most would quickly lose that fear, and then it was the prisoners’ turn to be afraid.

The first wave, almost all of whom have now been released, were guinea pigs in a long-running experiment in how to control and extract information from supposedly hardened terrorists without blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions.

A young Russian, also arrested in Pakistan and taken to Guantánamo, told The New York Times after his release: “In Russia, they beat you up; they break you straightaway. But the Americans had their own way, which is to make you go mad over a period of time. Every day they thought of new ways to make you feel worse.”

Errachidi experienced them all, sometimes all at once. He lists some: extreme cold; food and sleep deprivation; pepper spray; continuous loud noise from industrial vacuum cleaners and strimmers placed near the cells; strong-smelling liquid sprayed over the cells’ all-metal surfaces that brought on headaches, vomiting and dizziness. In principle, guards were not supposed to beat up inmates. In practice, he says beatings by special units on the pretext of maintaining order were routine.

“In the middle of all this we were like zombies,” he says. “Then this woman soldier would come with a piece of chocolate and make me watch, and she would start moving her body and slowly eating it.” His reaction was fear rather than arousal – “The fear that you are not dealing with a human being. To think that the human being in front of you has no mercy is more frightening than losing your freedom.”

Some guards did not conform to type. Errachidi remembers one, a Vietnam vet, who stood out as older, calmer and more obliging than the others. Another, Terry Holdbrooks, sought out prisoner 590 for conversations about Islam and converted while on the base. He told an interviewer later that when his fellow guards found out they promised to “skull-f*** the Taleban” out of him.

“But most of them were KKK,” Errachidi says, using the term loosely. “They were immune when they saw us in pain. There was a lot of yee-hah and jumping for joy when they saw us screaming.”

It is now nine years since the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq first exposed this sort of behaviour by US soldiers; and nine years also since the US Supreme Court first resisted White House efforts to create at Guantánamo what one Bush Administration official called “the legal equivalent of outer space”. Even so, it would be another two years before Stafford Smith managed to persuade US officials that Errachidi was not worth detaining any longer.

In the meantime, Mike Bumgarner’s efforts to find common ground with his prisoners failed. The place became, in prisoner 590’s words, a war zone. He was accused of inciting hunger strikes and suicide attempts – falsely, he says – and was placed in a punishment block for what he describes as 23 straight days of torture. To protest their innocence rather than merely their conditions, prisoners started defecating on their cell floors instead of in their buckets for up to ten days at a time.

In June 2006, three inmates, two Saudis and a Yemeni, hanged themselves in their cells.

At no point, Errachidi says, did any of his dozens of interrogators take seriously his claims of innocence. “They were told to get ‘actionable intelligence’, not show that the US had made a gross error,” says Stafford Smith. “Most interrogators were simply trying to confirm things that others had said, most of which were false. Such are the fruits of coercion.”

Stafford Smith says Errachidi’s bipolar diagnosis was vital for winning back his freedom. Without it, his decisions to travel to Pakistan and then Afghanistan at such a dangerous time were not deemed explicable.

Looking back, does he consider those decisions rational? “I was as normal as I am talking to you now,” he says. “What affected my decisions was the health of my son. The news that he would need an operation was a catastrophe.”

He makes two further points: for a Muslim with a Moroccan passport and no European work visa but a compelling need to start a business, Pakistan was not a crazy place to go, even in late 2001. It was one of few sensible options open to him. As for his one-man mercy mission to Afghanistan, he wonders why he should believe the US Army went there partly to relieve suffering if US soldiers refuse to believe that he, as a Muslim, might want to do the same.

By 2006, Bumgarner had given up on Errachidi and allowed his name to go on a list of inmates eligible for release. Actual release did not come for another year, and when it did, it was abrupt. “Five and a half years, then, ‘You’re free to go,’” he says, still sounding amazed. “No explanation, no apology, nothing.” Just a kit bag containing some cheap clothing and toiletries. But freedom came with a bonus: his son, Imran, had recovered without surgery and was now a healthy six-year-old at primary school.

Errachidi still sees orange prison suits in his nightmares, but he is a survivor. Besides his café, he owns a chicken restaurant up the hill. Some of the Brits who fly in on Ryanair have probably been there. If not, they should. It’s good, and its owner is a generous host. He believes George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld should stand trial for what has happened at Guantánamo. He is furious with Obama for leaving it open and resents Hillary Clinton’s lectures on human rights over the past four years. Otherwise, he bears no grudges: “I can distinguish between people and their leaders,” he says, a man of the world itching for his horizons to expand again. “If I had a visa, I’d take my kids to Disneyland tomorrow.”

‘The soldier sprayed hot gas into our faces’: An extract from The General: The Ordinary Man Who Challenged Guantánamo, dealing with one night when the emergency reaction force stormed the cells

When I first got to Guantánamo, protests tended to be reactive and spontaneous, and running underneath them there was an air of hopelessness: few of us felt we had any way of stopping the things that were done to us. The longer I was there, the more convinced I became of the need to change that sense of powerlessness.

Since Korans were not allowed in punishment [cells], the soldiers were supposed to call the chaplain or the interpreter to collect the Koran and keep it safe until the prisoner had served his term of punishment. But on one awful night, the soldiers broke their own rules and began to use force to remove Korans from prisoners arriving in punishment block India.

We started banging on the doors and shouting. The soldiers took no notice. So, in order to demean them in the same way that they were demeaning us, one of the prisoners started shouting out the name of Osama bin Laden. All the prisoners took up the chant, “Osama bin Laden, Osama bin Laden.’’ I joined in. It was very scary at first.

Our shouts enraged the soldiers. They wanted to take something from us but we had so little: in the end, they could only demand that we give up our towels. We refused and continued to taunt them. So they sent for an emergency reaction force (ERF) to storm our cells.

ERFs were made up of five or six soldiers wielding shields and wearing black protective clothing over their military uniforms as well as helmets. This gear was designed not only to protect them but also to cast fear: their appearance was much more terrifying than any normal human figure. When they were ready to attack a prisoner in his cell they’d form a human train, the soldier at the front wielding the large shield, the kind riot police use, like a fat tube cut in half lengthways. The cell door would be opened, another soldier would spray a hot gas known as OC (oleoresin capsicum) spray into the prisoner’s face, causing excruciating pain to eyes, skin and throat as well as choking the prisoner and making him collapse. Once the prisoner was on the ground, the other soldiers would rush in and beat him.

They used different methods for these beatings. Some would press as hard as they could on the soft point behind our ears. Some would lift our heads off the ground before smashing them down on the metal floor. Some would twist our fingers back hard enough to break them. And all the time they were doing this they’d be shouting, “Do not resist, do not move,” even though by this point it was impossible to do either. They also filmed these attacks, telling us this was to “ensure the safety of the prisoner”, which was laughable given the damage they were doing. Afterwards they’d use the medical kit they had brought with them to staunch the bleeding, bruising and bone fractures they’d inflicted on us. But before this first aid was applied, our hands and feet would be shackled from behind as we lay face down on the floor; they’d put our faces over the toilet.

Such attacks would last for about 15 minutes and then, after administering the first aid, they’d remove the shackles and then, holding on to each other, would slowly withdraw from the cell in a line, the last soldier remaining to restrain the prisoner until he was finally pulled from the prisoner’s body with such force that they’d all end up falling backwards. Then the cell door would be slammed shut. And all the time other prisoners could see what was happening through gaps around the door hatches, although we weren’t in a position to do anything other than bear witness and find ways to express our rage. We’d call to each other, beating on the doors and walls of our cells to show that we prisoners were as one.

The ERF attacked prisoners one by one. That night in India these attacks were repeated at least 20 times. They had started in Mishal’s cell [Mishal al-Harbi, who suffered brain damage as a result of the attack]. I could hear him yelling and I could hear the sounds of them beating him. Through the small gaps in the edges of the food slots in our doors, some of the prisoners saw them bringing Mishal out on a stretcher. They also saw blood.

The situation escalated. By now we were all yelling into the exhaust pipes at the back of our cells, because if we shouted there, other blocks might hear. Mishal was taken to hospital, but our night didn’t end there. They began to beat us, cell by cell.

© Ahmed Errachidi and Gillian Slovo 2013. Extracted from The General: The Ordinary Man Who Challenged Guantánamo, published by Chatto & Windus.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Kate Luce wrote:

    Thank you Andy Worthington I’m always game for a great non-fiction book. :-)

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I am happy to oblige, Kate. I hope as many people as possible read Ahmed’s account. It really is very powerful. I was also delighted to note that Mark Haddon, the author of the best-selling novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” provided a review of the book. He wrote: “A revelation. People need to read this book.”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Sharing. Thank you

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Pauline. I’m glad you saw this, as I knew it would interest you. I find it absolutely appalling that Ahmed wasn’t able to travel anywhere to publicise his book, because the Moroccan government won’t give him a passport.

  5. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy.

    Is everything below the video a reprint from Giles?

    It characterizes Colonel Bumgartner as “courageous”. If I am not mistaken, Bumgartner was the warden at the time the first three men to have acknowledged to have died in custody died, on June 10, 2006. If I am not mistaken, then it was Bumgartner who Scott Horton hinted was the leader of the crew who murdered those three men.

    At the time of the deaths there were four journalists on the base — the admirable Carol Rosenberg, another journalist with world experience, and a photographer and local reporter from the local paper of his home-town — there to do a puff-piece profile of Bumgartner. It has been so long. I think think that profile was published, and I think I may have read it.

    Anyhow, my impression of Bumgartner was that he was completely out of his depth. The prisoner council is something that I gather is routine in genuine POW camps. Shaker Aamer was also on the short-lived prisoner council — but it doesn’t seem to have prevented Bumgartner from torturing him.

    In the US military officers generally don’t stay at a specific rank for too many years. There are promotions boards that make (annual?) recommendations for who should be promoted. So most Colonels, like Bumgartner, know when a command is there last command. To keep the officer pyramid a shallow one, most Colonels aren’t promoted to General. Bumgartner knew being Warden of Guantanamo was his last command.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi arcticredriver,
    Yes, the article is posted below the video.
    You make some interesting points, as ever, although I don’t recall that Scott Horton suggested that Bumgarner was involved in the shadowy organisation responsible for torturing prisoners (CIA? JSOC?), which, whether by accident or design, ended up with three dead men in June 2006. Bumgarner was portrayed as covering up the true story of the deaths, and there was also a weird situation whereby he himself later came under scrutiny from the authorities, which has never been satisfactorily explained to me.
    Scott Horton’s article about the deaths is here: http://harpers.org/archive/2010/03/the-guantanamo-suicides/
    This is what I wrote about the deaths, and Bumgarner’s role:

    Horton adds that when Col. Mike Bumgarner, the warden at Guantánamo, held a meeting the following morning, “the news had circulated through Camp America that three prisoners had committed suicide by swallowing rags.”

    He also states:

    According to independent interviews with soldiers who witnessed the speech, Bumgarner told his audience that “you all know” three prisoners in the Alpha Block at Camp 1 committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death … But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells. It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report. He reminded the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were being monitored.

    Despite being “on-message,” Bumgarner let slip to two visiting reporters from a US provincial newspaper — the only ones who were not immediately hustled off the base — that each of the men who had died “had a ball of cloth in their mouth either for choking or muffling their voices.” As punishment for straying off the script, Bumgarner was soon suspended, and had his office searched by the FBI.

  7. arcticredriver says...

    No, but I thought Horton suggested Bumgardner led attempts to “dry-board” the three dead men — and Shaker Aamer. Dry-boarding, like water-boarding, started the subject down the terrifying path to death by asphyxiation. It accomplished this by stuffing the subject’s throat with rags. However, when the subject was on the brink of death, with waterboarding you just remove the source of the water filling their lungs, comparatively easy when compared with removing the rags from the dying man’s throat — when he might already be going through convulsions.

    I would class this “dry-boarding” as a torture technique, one even more dangerous one than water-boarding.

    We know there were occasions where waterboarding had been officially authorized. We don’t know of any occasions where “dry-boarding” was officially authorized. Bumgartner had just had an “uprising” in camp 4 — the camp for “compliant” captives. If I read Scott Horton’s piece properly, Bumgartner’s interrogations were not official intelligence gathering, that were ostensibly intended to keep the USA safe. Rather they were rogue police actions, intended for him to preserve his own professional reputation. How could the “compliant” captives have plotted an uprising without detection, behind his back? This was professionally highly embarrassing. I think we can assume he was under pressure to answer his superiors as to whether any more uprisings were in the works.

  8. arcticredriver says...

    With regard to officially authorizing waterboarding, or other extended techniques — I read something, somewhere, maybe even in a novel that predated 9-11 — that explained the reason you should never authorize torture, or even abusive treatment, even for exceptional circumstances. Where-ever I read it, it explained that junior personnel need honourable leadership to set a good example. It explained that when highly emotionally charged men, particularly young men full of youthful hormones, learn that these techniques had been used, then GIs, eager for “payback”, could be counted on following those examples, without official authorization.

    Note how we know that the easily implemented and easily hidden and deniable “frequent flyer” sleep deprivation program remained in use long after official authorization for it had been removed, or had been removed.

    Since the programs were secret the GIs unofficially following the example may end up following the examples they heard about without ever learning the original usage of the technique were for specific cases, and had required Rumsfeld’s personal authorization.

    Returning again to the mystery of Ibrahim Zeidan’s 2004 testimony, that some interrogators had shown their interrogation subjects Abu Zubaydah while he was actually being tortured. The existence of the recordings of Abu Zubaydah’s torture sessions was supposed to be so secret the CIA didn’t even tell the Congressional Intelligence Oversight Committees. So how did junior Military interrogators learn of how Abu Zubaydah was tortured when it was so highly secret it had to be withheld from Congress? There is no reasonable explanation for this. Not only did Military interrogators learn of a CIA secret, but they somehow got access to these highly, highly secret recordings. How the heck did that happen?

    I think we have to wonder whether there is a brotherhood among the USA’s Torture Corps, without regard to which organization they work for, and, in spite of any training they had about keeping secrets. In spite of any secrecy oaths they had to sign, when they got together, they bragged. They bragged about the “payback” they got for 9-11.

    How did the highly secret recording of Abu Zubaydah’s torture shift from CIA hands to Military hands? I think we have to wonder whether there aren’t secret torture-porn exchange rings that include closet sadists within the CIA, within the US military, and within extra-governmental organizations like Blackwater, CACI and the others. Charles Graner, the guy who maintained the galleries of torture-porn that eventually became public at Abu Ghraib seems to have been a genuine sadist, rather than a poor ordinary individual turned into a sadist when the US detention policy turned into an ad-hoc Milgram Experiment. He willingly shared his galleries with the eventual whistleblower, and I think we have to assume he was very willing to trade his torture-porn for torture-porn acquired by other closet sadists.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    I dont recall that anyone suggested Bumgarner was involved in the torture involving “Camp No,” arcticredriver, which was operated by persons unknown – or, at least, unknown to almost everybody. I don’t think the warden’s job was high enough up the chain for him to be involved in that kind of dark operation. That said, he was the man in charge on the ground at a difficult period in the prison’s history, in the run-up to the deaths and following an incident in Camp 4 in April or May 2006, where an alleged riot was put down with force, and then the entire prison was put under lockdown, so I think it’s fair to say that it was a brutal place, on an everyday basis, during that period.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    I have no idea whether you’re right about US personnel sharing information about torture, arcticredriver, but it seems likely, at least at some level.
    The main problem, however, as you allude to, is what happens when soldiers – men trained to obey orders – are told that there are no orders, or that the Geneva Conventions don’t count, and prisoners need to be made to “have a bad night” prior to interrogation. That opens the door to torture and abuse, whether specifically directed or not. Moreover, as you also allude to, the manner in which the news that the rules requiring the humane treatment of prisoners were no longer in place spread through the military and the intelligence agencies is something that I recall at least one well-placed individual describing as being inevitable once Rumsfeld and Cheney and Addington and Yoo and others set the torture ball rolling. If I can remember who, I’ll post a reference!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Message just in from Ahmed Errachidi: “Dear Andy, Thanks as always for your vital contribution towards my book and towards giving the voice to the voiceless.” Very proud.
    Just a reminder that Ahmed’s book is widely available. If you’re avoiding Amazon, you can buy it directly from the publishers, Chatto & Windus, in the UK: http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/9780701187224
    I also found it on Super Book Deals in the US: http://www.superbookdeals.com/cgi-bin/moreinfo.cgi?item=19028872&bisac=

  12. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy. I suspect “Camp Strawberry Fields”, the unnamed compound where Abdurahman Khadr was trained by the CIA for his Bosnia mission, “Camp No” and “Camp Platinum/Camp Seven”, are all the same compound. Abdurahman training for his Bosnian mission happened after the CIA sent the Camp Strawberry Fields captives back to other black sites. And Abdurahman had already been back in Canada for some time when the three men died on June 10, 2006.

    When I read Scott Horton’s article I assumed that Bumgarner hid his unauthorized torture by using the mothballed CIA facility — which is about 500 metres outside of the main camp fence.

    I’ll re-read Horton later tonight.

    I think a common kind of verbal order given during the war on terror is “I don’t care how you do it — just get it done! I think this is a tacit promise from the order giver to the order receipient — meaning “I will provide cover for you, to prevent any meaningful inquiry into your actions here, just provide cover for me, if I have to answer questions at an inquiry, and don’t tell me if you break the rules.”

    We have had very junior GIs decide they were entitled to torture captives. There was a very small fire-base, staffed by less than a dozen special forces soldiers, commanded by a Warrant Officer, and NCO. This NCO captured a dozen militia soldiers who answered to Pacha Khan Zadran. He tortured them, on his own authority, and one died. The PKZ militiaman had been severely beaten, but his cause of death was freezing to death. He had been soaked with water, and then bound outside on a cold night.

    WRT to Camp Platinum the NYTimes is reporting that the DoD is not going to get the $49 million it asked to renovate it. $49 million? That would have been $3 million per captive. I am sure that Majid Khan, and some other members of the 14 “high value detainees” could be trusted to go straight, if released, if they were given a $1 million annuity — saving the US taxpayers $2 million dollars.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. Your supposition about the camps may be correct, but it’s a sign of the obsessive secrecy at Guantanamo – and the horrors that it hides – that we don’t even know the whereabouts of various facilities that have existed there in the last 12 years.
    The death you’re talking about was, I believe, that of Gul Rahman, suspected of involvement with the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, not Pacha Khan Zadran (who was an ally of the US at the time, only later to be found to be profoundly untrustworthy), and the facility was the Salt Pit, run by the CIA, which later became known as a torture facility. The terrible story of how this man froze to death was admirably covered in a major AP report in March 2010: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/36071994/ns/us_news-security#.UkPZPChOjS8
    The Salt Pit was more than a small fire-base, but the “I will provide cover for you” argument certainly applied in the case of the commander whose orders led directly to Rahman’s death, as he was not prosecuted.

  14. Abdu says...

    How it is possible to get this book in Saudi Arabia or India. As I watching closely how the state terrorism victimize innocent people through out the world using state machinery behind the hypocritical painted fox war on terror.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Abdu,
    Retailers in the UK might send it to other countries, or you could by it as an e-book – that’s definitely an option on the Random House website (the publishers): http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/9780701187224

  16. Abdul says...

    Thanks Andy for your response
    I will check accordingly..
    Thanks

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Abdul. The e-book looks like a good option, I must say!

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