The Mail on Sunday today featured the first interview conducted by Shaker Aamer since his release from Guantánamo six weeks ago, and below are excerpts dealing with his life from 1989 to February 2002, when he arrived at Guantánamo, providing information not previously discussed — in particular, about the circumstances of his visit to Afghanistan and his capture. As someone who campaigned for many years for his release — including in the last year with the We Stand With Shaker campaign I co-founded last November — it is wonderful to hear from him.
Speaking to David Rose, Shaker spoke about his experiences in the US after he left Saudi Arabia, where he was born in 1966, in Medina. From 1989 to 1995, he explained, as Rose noted, that he “lived mostly in Atlanta, in the US state of Georgia, working as a chef in restaurants. In those days he lived a Westernised life: a lover of rock music, he often attended concerts by his favourite bands — including AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne. In this period, in 1990, he responded to a US army recruitment drive for Arabic/English translators during the first Gulf War — which is how he came to find himself working for the US infantry in Saudi.”
“First I was in the south, then at a base in Tabuk, near the Jordanian border,” Shaker said, explaining that he needed security clearance for the job. “Of course I had to be checked. I was right inside the US base. I got to know those guys very well, especially the colonel — his name was Johansen. Later, I used to tell my interrogators: call Colonel Johansen, he will tell you I’m not a terrorist, that I’m a good guy, and that I’m telling you the truth. I’m sure they never did.”
I’m sure they never did either, as the US authorities were notorious for failing to follow up on any request by prisoners to contact people who would vouch for them — as I made clear in February 2008 in a front-page story I wrote for the New York Times with Carlotta Gall about just one of the many men this happened to, Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, an Afghan who had helped to free a number of prominent opponents of the Taliban from jail, but died of cancer at Guantánamo without the authorities ever checking his story, as he repeatedly requested.
In 1996, Shaker moved to London, where he met and married Zinneera, a British citizen. He worked as a translator for law firms dealing with immigration issues. However, as David Rose described it, they “found it impossible to raise enough money to buy a house.”
Shaker said, “We ended up staying with friends or with my father-in-law. For four years, we were basically homeless.” He decided to take Zinneera and their three young children to Saudi Arabia, to start a new life, but had problems getting a visa for his wife. It was then, in July 2001, that Moazzam Begg, a friend who ran a Muslim bookshop, “came up with a plan to set up home in Kabul instead, to do development work in rural Afghanistan,” as David Rose put it. They “planned to set up a school and provide water supplies.”
Shaker said of Afghanistan, “There is a great shortage of wells, so people have to walk miles just to get water. Yet it only costs £200 to make a well for a village of 3,000. That is a beautiful thing.”
Rose asked Shaker why he would go to to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, to which he replied, “Do you think I saw 9/11 coming? Of course not! I was just a guy who had spent the previous five years taking care of his wife and children. It wasn’t that I thought the Taliban had created some perfect society, but I thought that there, we could have a better life, and do some good. At that time, the UAE, Qatar, Pakistan, the Saudis all had embassies in Kabul. There were British businessmen who were setting up a mobile phone company, investing millions; all kinds of business was starting to boom. I had German neighbours, who like me felt the country needed help — but no one took them to Guantánamo, because they were Europeans. Going to Afghanistan does not mean I was a terrorist.”
Shaker then explained that, for a period of just a few weeks, the two families enjoyed living in Afghanistan. “We were living comfortably, in a big house with a garden, because there it is so cheap,” he said. Then 9/11 happened, wose significance, he said, he did not, at first, recognize. But as the US prepared for war, Shaker and his family, like all the foreigners in their neighbourhood — an upmarket part of Kabul — were told to leave.
Shaker said, “The Taliban came to each house and said you have got to get out of here, this is an order.” However, as Shaker explained, they did not know how to leave. By October, when the US-led invasion began, “Afghanistan had become a bloody and confusing war zone,” as David Rose said, but “[t]hey had a car, and took to the road, trying to survive bombing raids and to find a way to Pakistan, staying on the move for a month. Later, Aamer would face claims by interrogators that he took part in the fighting; that he carried a 75lb mortar. All this, he said, is lies — the product of confessions by other prisoners who were tortured” — lies that I partly exposed in an article in early October following the announcement of Shaker’s intended release, entitled, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Truth, Lies and Distortions in the Coverage of Shaker Aamer, Soon to be Freed from Guantánamo.”
In early November 2001, as David Rose explained, Shaker stated that “they were given shelter in a village near Jalalabad, 50 miles from the border, but the place was insecure.” Shaker said, “It was chaos, and I felt I was being hunted. US planes were not only dropping bombs but leaflets, saying the Arabs are bad people, they want to destroy your country, we don’t have a problem with the Afghani people but we want the foreigners.’ These leaflets, prepared by US PsyOps teams, offered substantial rewards for individuals involved with Al-Qaeda or the Taliban — or those who could be passed off as Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
One day, as David Rose put it, “Shaker left the house where they were staying — without telling his family — to look at a new place of refuge, where he had been promised they would be safer.” However, when he got back to the village, Zinneera and the children had vanished. As Rose stated, “He was told they were being taken to Pakistan in the company of friendly locals, but had no way of knowing if this was true.”
“It was terrible. I didn’t know what to do,” Shaker said, adding that, as well as not knowing how he would see his family again, he also feared for his life. Soon after that, “he was taken prisoner, by a gang led by another village leader, with whom Shaker is still understandable angry. “One day I will go and see that bastard, because I trusted him,” Shaker said, adding, “I gave him my family’s phone numbers in Saudi Arabia, and I said, if you ever go there you can visit my brother, my family will help you.”
This village leader “demanded money, which Aamer no longer had.” As a result, he “presumes that he — like hundreds of those held at Bagram and later Guantánamo — was ‘sold’, for the bounty promised by the US leaflets. The going rate was $5,000. He was taken first to Jalalabad, then Kabul. Finally he was taken by the Americans.”
Speaking about when he first heard American voices, he said, “I was so happy, because before that, I thought I am going to get killed. A chopper came down and landed, and there were five Americans, and I said, wow, that’s it, they’re going to call Britain and find out who I am, and send me back to England.”
Instead, as David Rose described it, he “was taken in the helicopter to Bagram, and when he disembarked, he was herded into a pen and made to sit on the ground.” As Shaker put it, “I am sitting there relaxed, with a smile on my face, because I’ve got to safety, and it’s going to be a matter of days and I’m going to be back again with my wife. That’s when they said, ‘Take your clothes off.’ There were so many people in front of me, females and big hefty guys, people with guns. I said no. One of them had a big, heavy stick, like a pick-axe handle, and he smashed it on the ground right next to me. He said: ‘You have to, or we’ll kill you.’ ‘I was like, s***, this is serious. I took off my underwear and they made me squat, naked. Then they made me walk around. It was just for humiliation. They gave me a thin blue overall and tied my feet and hands together with zip locks and put me in a cage.’”
Bagram was a particularly brutal place in 2002, as David Rose noted, pointing out that “US military coroners later found that two prisoners were beaten to death, and 15 guards were charged with crimes including homicide,” even though most were found not guilty. I wrote about these and other deaths in an article in July 2009, “When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan.”
Speaking further about Bagram, Shaker said, “They used to step on my face, they used to jump on my face with their boots. Imagine in the freezing cold winter, on concrete in the middle of the airport, and young guards are beating you, they beat the hell out of you with their M16s, and jumping on your face and your body with their boots. These guards were doing it as a systematic torture. Every time somebody arrived, they had to beat the s*** out of him, to make him know that if he does anything wrong, if he tries or thinks of running away he will never make it.”
Shaker told Rose that he “was deprived of sleep for days, made to stand with arms outstretched — another US-authorized technique, known as a ‘stress position’. Twice, he said, he was left alone in an interrogation room with a loaded gun on the table.” As he asked, “What do you want me to do with a gun there? Either I take the gun and kill myself, or I take the gun and as soon as I do you put a bullet in my head.”
He also explained that US Marines “had laid a wooden floor in the cages and hangars, which provided insulation from the sub-zero temperatures. But after a few days, they took all the wood out, leaving bare concrete.” Shaker said that he “had no shoes, and developed frostbite.” Pointing at Rose’s black laptop bag, he said, “My feet were darker than this colour. I didn’t think I would survive.” As a result, to this day “he has to wear two layers of thick ‘pressure socks’ to stop his legs and feet filling with fluid and swelling like balloons.”
As Rose explained, “The risk of infection was serious,” but, as Shaker said, “they didn’t give me antibiotics, not even paracetamol. Then they moved me out, they said I had to walk to another building. I felt like my feet were going to blow up. Pain, pain, pain. I had to walk because otherwise, I will get beaten.”
He also pointed out that he was “doused with iced water.” As he said, “They have a raku, you know, an Afghan hat, and they fill it with freezing cold water and then they stick it on your head. You are soaked, from your head to your legs, and you are freezing.”
Because of this, he said that “although he had initially denied any involvement with terrorism, he was soon ready to agree to anything.” He added that “he cannot remember exactly what he said, because by this time he was hallucinating, and his memory is hazy.” However, he remembered that on one occasion he said, “You know the Second World War? Do you know what’s behind it? I am. I am behind the Second World War.”
He added, “I’d already told the truth, that I was not a terrorist, but he [the interrogator] wouldn’t accept it. So that’s what I said. They torture you for the torture itself, regardless of what you tell them. People don’t understand, they were not looking for anything, they were looking for a black sheep, a scapegoat.”
It was at Bagram, where he was known as detainee 005, that, “just before 11pm on January 7, 2002,” he “dared to hope,” when a guard told him that Tony Blair was arriving that night. As Rose put it, “He believed if someone in Blair’s entourage saw his desperate condition, they would help him. They could reassure the Americans he was no terrorist.” However, although he “met three British plain-clothed officials who he believed to have arrived on Blair’s flight,” they were not there to help him, even though he “had lost weight, had frostbitten feet, and bore bruises from repeated beatings.”
Shaker said, “The first British guy said his name was John; he said he knew about me from London. He told me openly he was from MI5, and that he had a file on me. But the first thing he said when he saw me was, ‘Shaker, you look like a ghost.’ With the torture, with the beating, I didn’t even know what I looked like. I hadn’t seen my face in months.”
However, “‘John’ did nothing to assist him. Worse, later in the course of the British officers’ visit, Aamer said, one of John’s colleagues was present in an interrogation room when he was subjected to the torture known as ‘walling’ — having his head smashed against a wall while he sat shackled in a chair. The Americans called this an ‘enhanced interrogation technique’, and though it was never approved for use by British officers, it had been authorised by the Bush administration.”
Shaker added that, inside the interrogation room, “They were shooting questions without listening to answers. ‘You did this or that, why did you do that, where did you go.’ “They were accusing me of fighting with Bin Laden in the battle of Tora Bora; of being in charge of weapons stores; of being a terrorist recruiter – though I’d only been in Afghanistan for a few weeks. I start to try to talk but everybody is just shouting and screaming around me. Then suddenly I feel it — douff — this American guy grabs me by the head, and he slams it backwards against the wall. In my mind I think I must try to save my head so I tried to bring it forwards, but as soon as I do he grabs it again and bashes it: douff, then back again, douff, douff, douff.”
Shaker said that he didn’t completely lose consciousness, but “I was completely disorientated. So I sat like this, dizzy and disorientated, my eyes shut, and the guards moved me back to the cage.” The British officer who saw this, he said, had a “posh English accent, a very white guy with blond hair,” but he “did nothing to object or intervene.” The article added that further details of “alleged complicity by UK personnel in [his] ill-treatment” cannot currently be published, because of Shaker’s current lawsuit against the British government.
Three weeks after the British visit, Shaker “was flown to another US base at Kandahar, where the abuse continued, and then, after a further fortnight, he was put on the third detainee flight to Guantánamo. As he said, “My number was five at Bagram, 449 in Kandahar and 239 in Guantánamo.”
Describing what Shaker had said about the journey to Guantánamo, David Rose stated, “The seemingly endless journey, spent shackled, dressed in orange overalls and an adult nappy, blindfolded and unable to hear through ear defenders, was horrific.” He also noted, “Before it started, he had been forced to shower, naked again in front of soldiers with vicious dogs. He had his beard and head forcibly shaved, and had been sprayed all over with insecticide.” As he said, “I just accepted everything. What could I do? I knew if I said something, I was going to get bashed.”
Nevertheless, as he told Rose, he “felt optimistic.” As he said, “After so much fear and torture, I thought that when we got to Guantánamo, that would be the end of it.”
The next 5,000 days, however, would prove how wrong that assessment was.
See more — about Shaker’s experiences in Guantánamo, and his reunion his family and his efforts to readjust to civilian life in the UK — in an article to follow.