Life After Guantánamo: In Morocco, Younous Chekkouri’s Struggle to Rebuild His Life

9.5.18

Younous Chekkouri, photographed by Sudarshan Raghavan for the Washington Post.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

Regular readers will know that I have been following the stories of the prisoners held at Guantánamo for over 12 years, first through the 14 months’ research and writing I did for my book The Guantánamo Files (which, I just found out, I completed exactly eleven years ago today!), and then through the nearly 2,200 articles I have written about Guantánamo over the last eleven years.

One story that leapt out at me while researching The Guantánamo Files was that of Younous Chekkouri (aka Younus Chekhouri), a Moroccan national who, as I discovered through the transcript of a cursory military review of his case, “strenuously denied having had anything to do with Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, whose philosophy he despised” (as I described it in an article in 2016, drawing on an interview with him in February 2016, after his release from Guantánamo in September 2015, that was published by the Associated Press).

The cursory military review was a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT), of which hundreds were conducted in 2004 before a tribunal of military officers who were meant to rubber-stamp the prisoners’ designation, on capture, as “enemy combatants’ who could be detained indefinitely without charge or trial.

As I described Younous Chekkouri’s story in The Guantánamo Files:

The elder brother of Redouane Chekhouri (released in 2004), he said that he spent ten years in Pakistan, Yemen and Syria, studying and undertaking humanitarian work, and arrived in Afghanistan in June 2001 with his Algerian wife. He explained that he then established a guest house in Kabul, which was specifically for young Moroccans, because they were not treated well in Afghanistan, and another house outside the city, which was “especially for people who want to look at the sky and the stars and pray and meditate.” While this explanation was unacceptable to his tribunal, who insisted that both houses were connected with military training, he denied the allegations and made the following statement: “In our religion of Islam, it teaches us to forgive other Muslims … And the fighting between Muslims is forbidden. The fighting between Afghans, between themselves lasted for about 20 years. There was no value and no good came out of that fighting.”

Reinforcing this viewpoint, he said that he was not involved with al-Qaeda, and explained that from 1990 onwards, when he first visited Afghanistan, people told him to stay away from Osama bin Laden. He suggested that bin Laden was a double agent working for the Saudi government, and that when he was “stripped out of his Saudi citizenship and exiled from the kingdom” in 1992, he was “shocked that this would be a new game that the Saudi government would be playing with us.” He then expressed surprise that bin Laden became such an important figure in Sudan, wondering how Sudan could “sacrifice a relationship with the world” for him, and condemned his actions after his return to Afghanistan in 1996, in particular the African embassy bombings – in which “a lot of Muslims were victims” – and the attack on the USS Cole.”

As he stated, “In every meeting that happened, people would say that Osama bin Laden is dangerous… I was one of the people that was telling others that Osama bin Laden is a crazy person and that what he does is bad for Islam. How can he be the only person in the world to say that jihad is fighting Americans? How could he just make that up? We were very honest in what we said against bin Laden. For that reason, we received a lot of threats. But that was not important to us.”

As I also stated in The Guantánamo Files:

Explaining the circumstances of his capture, he said that, after 9/11, a decision was made to close both the houses, and he then went to Jalalabad. Having sent his wife to Pakistan, he planned to follow, but when Jalalabad fell he went into the mountains with some other people, stayed in an Afghan village during Ramadan, and was arrested in a market after crossing the Pakistani border, when “somebody saw me and noticed that I was Arabic. He started talking to me and the police interfered and said you shall come with us, so I went with them to the police station.”

In 2016, I wrote that, in the years that followed my initial research into Younous Chekkouri’s case, nothing deterred me from my opinion that he was a man of peace, and in fact I found out two additional pieces of information that confirmed my initial opinion; firstly, that he “was one of the best-behaved prisoners in Guantánamo,” and secondly, that he was also a Sufi Muslim, “whose form of religion,” as the Associated Press described it, accurately, “is viewed with suspicion by extremist groups like IS and al-Qaida.”

Younous Chekkouri today

After his release, he was imprisoned for a while by the Moroccan authorities, but in February this year a court finally cleared him of all charges, and two weeks ago, following up on this important development in his case, the Washington Post provided an update on his story, via Sudarsan Raghavan, the Post‘s Cairo Bureau Chief, covering North Africa and Yemen, who met with him in Safi, the “picturesque port city” where he lives, but where, also, “he remains shackled by constant nightmares, flashbacks and insomnia.” As Raghavan explained, “He takes pills for anxiety, and he has yet to find a job. His future remains so uncertain, his past grips him so tightly, that he often feels as if he hasn’t left the prison where he was held for 14 years.”

“I am still in Gitmo,” he told the reporter.

As Raghavan explained, the victims of the US’s “war on terror,” at Guantánamo and elsewhere, “remain tormented by their experience at the hands of their American interrogators, jailers and guards,” according to activists and psychologists who have worked with them. Raghavan added that many also “carry the stigma associated with being incarcerated as alleged terrorists and have difficulty reintegrating into society.”

Katie Taylor, a deputy director of Reprieve, whose Life After Guantánamo project helps resettle former Guantánamo prisoners, said, “It’s well documented that the US was really focused on psychological elements of torture. Because it was so systemized, it has had a long-term impact on many of the men who underwent it.”

As Raghavan explained, although US officials “accused Chekkouri of being a senior al-Qaeda member and co-founder of a Moroccan Islamist militant group,” he “was never formally charged with a crime or faced trial.” In 2010, he was unanimously approved for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, which consisted of representatives of six US security agencies, including the CIA, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security,” although, shamefully, it took another five years before he was actually released.

As Raghavan proceeded to explain, when he arrived back in Morocco “on a US military plane,” the Moroccan authorities imprisoned him, for “allegedly forming an extremist militant group,” and sentenced him to five years in prison. Five months later, however, he was released on bail, and in February this year, as I noted above, “he was acquitted of all charges by a Moroccan appeals court.”

Yet today, as Raghavan described it, he “is struggling to rebuild his life.” As Chekkouri himself put it, “Sometimes, when someone feels he’s incapable, he feels as though he’s nothing.”

Revisiting the story of his capture, Raghavan explained that he “was with his Algerian wife, Abla, in Afghanistan when two hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center towers in New York,” and added, “The couple, who he said had been there looking for work with a foreign aid agency, fled the capital, Kabul, as US forces entered the country to oust the Taliban regime and pursue Osama bin Laden. After the couple crossed into Pakistan, locals captured Chekkouri, taking him for one of the many Arab fighters who had joined al-Qaeda,” and handed him over to US forces.”

Raghavan assessed that it was “impossible to independently verify Chekkouri’s account,’ but noted that Reprieve had “vetted his story,” and, according to Katie Taylor, found that “it was very clear he was an economic migrant” in Afghanistan.

Chekkouri proceeded to explain to Raghavan how he “was taken first to a US detention center in the southern city of Kandahar, where he said his American jailers would strip him naked, place a bag over his head and beat him regularly. Some guards, he added, would also tear pages from his Koran.”

He was sent to Guantánamo five months later, where, he said, “his jailers beat his genitals with their shoes,” which “required him to often ask for new underwear because ‘there was so much pain I felt in my genitalia.’” However, as he put it, “his interrogators would offer him underwear only in exchange for confessing that he was an al-Qaeda militant.”

“That,” Chekkouri said, “his voice at times dipping so low that it was barely audible,” as Raghavan put it, “would make me want to kill myself.”

Predictably, the Department of Defense “did not respond to a request for comment” about Chekkouri’s allegations, but Abdelkrim el Manouzi, the former president of the Medical Association for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, who has treated Chekkouri for his psychological problems, described his claims of torture as being “very credible.” As he said, “I don’t think he will ever forget what happened to him.” Chekkouri continues to receive treatment to try to overcome the damage inflicted on him in US custody.

On meeting Chekkouri, Sudarsan Raghavan described the 50-year old as “[s]lim with brown eyes and a wisp of a beard,” noting how he “wore a puffy tan and orange jacket and a blue baseball cap that made him look younger.”

However, he continued to suffer. As Raghavan described it, “The night before, as usual, had been rough, with him tossing and turning, unable to sleep. He had awakened to pain and difficulty breathing, as he did most mornings.” Chekkouri himself described these symptoms as “the lingering effects … of beatings and other physical mistreatment, and of being kept in frigid conditions to deprive him of sleep.”

Raghavan also described how Chekkouri “lives an isolated life, mostly in the apartment he shares with relatives above an alley in a working-class neighborhood,” adding that he “seldom discusses his experience in Guantánamo with family members or neighbors,” because he “fears he won’t be able to control his emotions. Whenever he hears about Guantánamo or sees images, he gets flashbacks.”

“One recurrent image,” as Raghavan described it, “is that of an American woman who called herself Ana,” who “interrogated him for five years, threatening to have him hanged.” As Chekkouri put it, “Until now, I still see her in my nightmares.”

Chekkouri travels to Casablanca, 130 miles north of Safi, for psychiatric treatment once a month. He explained that “some of his friends also are victims of torture who also receive care at the center,” and “counts six other Moroccan ex-Guantánamo inmates among them.”

Abdelkrim el Manouz, the doctor, said, “Most of them are still suffering today.” He also explained how, when Chekkouri first arrived at the center in 2015, “he was grappling with severe anxiety, depression and fear of the future.” Today, he “still suffers from insomnia, nightmares and other malaise, but his condition is ‘no longer as bad as it was.’”

However, “overcoming the psychological and physical scars of Guantanamo ‘can only happen if Younous has the social requirements that will allow him to get back and participate in society,’” Manouzi said, adding, “He needs to work.”

Work, however, is hard to come by for a former Guantánamo prisoner. Chekkouri explained that, even when he was freed from prison in Morocco, “he was under constant surveillance by Morocco’s intelligence and security services.”

His lawyer, Khalid Idrissi, said, “He could not lead a normal life after being let out of jail. He was always living under the pressure that he could be arrested at any moment.”

Making matters worse, his wife Abla divorced him. As Raghavan put it, “She told Chekkouri that he had changed while at Guantánamo, that he was no longer the man she once loved.”

“It was,” Raghavan noted, “a devastating blow.” At Guantánamo, Chekkouri had coped with his imprisonment “by writing love letters to Abla,” in which, as he told the reporter, “he often discussed an imaginary daughter, hoping this would earn some sympathy from his jailers, who read all his correspondence. He called the girl Fatima Zahra.”

Today, as Raghavan noted, Chekkouri “still does not have a job. He considered becoming a clothes trader, but he does not have money to launch a business. After spending much of his adult life in prisons, he has a thin résumé. And his time in Guantánamo is also not a selling point to prospective employers.”

However, a year ago, he remarried, and in January, a month before his acquittal, “he got more reason for hope,” when “[h]is wife gave birth to a daughter,” who he named Fatima Zahra.

Chekkouri told Raghavan that, “when she’s old enough, he will speak to her about his imprisonment,” and will tell her that “they tried to kill my humanity, to kill my heart, but the opposite happened.”

I wish this gentle man the best of luck in healing the wounds of Guantánamo through loving his daughter, and through the love of his wife. I very much hope it all works out for him.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following up on a recent Washington Post story, in which reporter Sudarshan Raghavan met former Guantanamo prisoner Younous Chekkouri in Morocco, where he is struggling to rebuild his life after 13 years in Guantanamo, and three and a half years of persecution in his homeland. He was finally cleared by an appeals court in February, and has a new-born baby daughter, but he still finds it hard to escape the taint of Guantanamo that haunts all former prisoners, and to overcome the mental scars of his long detention and the brutal treatment he received. I first came across Younous’s story while researching my book ‘The Guantanamo Files’ 12 years ago, and was struck by the way in which he insisted that, when he was in Afghanistan, where he had traveled to seek a new life, he told everyone “that Osama bin Laden is a crazy person and that what he does is bad for Islam.” I wish this gentle Sufi a peaceful and happy future with his new daughter and wife. He deserves it.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Yes – I’m not surprised that Younous Chekkouri’s and others wrongly imprisoned in the hell-hole called Guantanamo struggle to rebuild their lives – outrageous what was done to these men. I so hope they are receiving some help. …… and those responsible who did such horrific crimes against humanity, account for their decisions in court.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    We shall see, Lindis. At least Younous is able to receive some psychiatric help, and has former prisoners who are friends. I got to understand through the British prisoners how strong the bond was between them, because, of course, being an ex-Guantanamo prisoner is to have been part of a very exclusive club that few others can really understand. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for former prisoners with no support network – those resettled in third countries with no other former prisoners and/or no Muslim community.
    As for accountability, we still seem to be a long way from it. Let’s see first if the Senate manages not to confirm the nomination as CIA director of Gina Haspel, who is completely unfit for the role – and particularly for the message it sends to the world – because of her management of a CIA “black site” in Thailand in 2002, and her destruction, in contravention of a court order, of videotapes docketing the torture of prisoners.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Luk. Much appreciated. Good to hear from you, my friend!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Geraldine Grunow wrote:

    Thank you for your patient perseverance in publicizing these terrible cases.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Geraldine. Thanks, as always, for your support.

  8. Tom says...

    I wish him well in his healing process. There is no cure for PTSD. This means that he’ll always have to keep his guard up in many ways. If he doesn’t, in many cases the pain comes back and is too much to bear. Some at that point kill themselves. It’s always there.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your comments, Tom. Good to hear from you.

  10. Anna says...

    Thank’s Andy, it’s very important to keep the world informed of the fate of ‘freed’ prisoners, who never will be really free for as long as they live. Divorce from the person whose memory probably was instrumental in keeping them psychologically alive during their ordeal, is no wonder. Both suffered tremendously, but in different ways and I suppose that neither really is capable of truly understanding the other’s ordeal. Any couple that has been separated for many years must struggle to rediscover the path to each other, let alone after such an experience.
    And there’s infuriatingly little we can practically do about it, is there, as politics won’t let them move to a country where they could be reunited with their loved ones (those who ended up in third countries), nor allow us to
    even invite them for a holiday, let alone offer them employment if we had such an opportunity.

    And now the looming horror of Bloody Gina, who was oh so careful to condemn not torture itself, but only that poor CIA with no experience in interrogations (and torture …) had been tasked with something it had not been properly prepared for and therefore could not be blamed for either. After all – according to her cleverly twisted logic – it had all been ‘legal’, as if she did not know that the ‘legal’ justifications for torture had been prepared on behest of the CIA itself. And the overwhelming majority of the senators who were supposed to question her, know so little about those subjects, that they could not grill her properly.
    Feinstein’s performance was a disgrace, Harris was brilliant.

    Only bright speck these days was the formal UK government apology to Abdel Hakim Belhadj and his family. What a lesson in humanity and dignity from this umptiest innocent ‘terror suspect’.
    May must have had a fit when she had to sign it with her name.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna. Good to hear from you. I was very sad to hear about the end of Younous’s marriage, because of th love he expressed for her throughout his time in Guantanamo. I do hope his daughter brings him joy. I’m sure she will, but I hope it is enough to truly help him deal with the effects of his long ordeal in US custody.
    As for Gina Haspel, I couldn’t bear to watch the confirmation hearing, but I understand that few lawmakers understood its significance. However, the letter to Belhaj – and Fatima Boundchar – was a rather wonderful antidote.
    I wrote about both stories here: https://www.closeguantanamo.org/Articles/289-Torture-on-Trial-in-the-U.S.-Senate-as-the-U.K.-Government-Unreservedly-Apologizes-for-Its-Role-in-Libyan-Rendition
    Cross-posting here later today!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Shahela Begum wrote:

    What a heartbreaking story … but I’m glad he’s out and living the rest of his days free with whatever quality of life the US has left him. Disgusting to think about the actions of our government against those who are innocent. Even if someone were to be guilty, this is not the way you treat a fellow human being. We’re living in scary times, especially now with so many of the wrong people heading the secret services. Thanks for sharing his story Andy.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Very well said, Shahela. No one should be treated like this, but there is something particularly brutal about the way in which horrendous mistakes were made, innocent people were swept up,and yet no one in authority seems to care. Perhaps we’re simply seeing another aspect of the blunt truth about war – that it is civilians who suffer the most. We need to stop electing people who treat war as anything other than the last resort, because they all end up slaughtering civilians and justifying their deranged bloodlust through bland platitudes about the necessity of war, and shedding crocodile tears about the collateral damage.
    I’m very pleased to have shared this story, Shahela, but I’m grateful to the Washington Post and Sudarshan Raghavan, who is their Cairo Bureau Chief, for having picked up on Younous’s story in the first place: https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/sudarsan-raghavan/

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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