Bisher Al-Rawi's terrifying journey from public-school to Camp Delta

They were two ex-public school adventurers who set off for Africa with a sure-fire business plan. But the trip would end with an MI5 sting, incarceration, torture and a one-way trip to Camp Delta in Cuba. In this exclusive report, Robert Verkaik uncovers the full, shocking story of the Al-Rawi brothers
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The Independent Online

Motorists rushing home along the Brentford section of the M4 flyover in March 2001 could hardly believe their eyes. First one, then two more figures, appeared beside the inside lane, clambered over the crash barrier on to the hard shoulder and began hauling up their ropes. The three men's exhilarated expressions provided convincing evidence that the world of extreme sports now included the scaling of motorway flyovers.

But at least one driver, caught up in the afternoon rush-hour traffic, found this act of motorway mountaineering so worrying he called the emergency services. A police squad car called to the scene arrived too late to apprehend the men. It is easy to imagine the strained syntax and pejorative vocabulary used by the local constabulary to record what the witness described. The officers' report was passed through the chain of command, ending up in the hands of Special Branch who forwarded it to Britain's homeland security service, MI5.

Six months later, al-Qa'ida carried out three devastating attacks on the twin towers of New York's World Trade Centre and the US military headquarters at the Pentagon in Washington DC. The incidents of 9/11 created panic in the heart of both the British intelligence and security services who now believed that Islamic extremist groups might be planning attack on a similar horrifying scale in London.

Osama bin Laden's terrorist spectacular also triggered a fundamental revision of all intelligence relating to extremist activity in Britain gathered over the past few years. Included in this review was the traffic police's recent report of three men scaling a raised section of the M4 before escaping in a waiting vehicle. For the jittery security chiefs leading MI5's counter-terrorism offensive, this report was suddenly given a sinister new significance. Could this have been a scouting mission for a future al-Qa'ida terrorist attack on a British motorway?

The speculation proved to be groundless. But for one of the three extreme sport enthusiasts on the M4 six months earlier, the police report triggered a chain of events that would lead to his arrest, torture and eventual transfer to Guantanamo Bay.

Bisher Al- Rawi, 38, has not seen his family for three and half years. He was arrested with his brother, (omega) Wahab, 40, during a business visit to Gambia in November 2002, held by the Gambian authorities and then interrogated for a month by the US security services. Bisher, a British-educated man who attended a top public school, was sent in shackles to a cage in Guantanamo Bay. Wahab knows the only reason he did not join his brother in the US naval base in Cuba was that, thanks to a quirk of legal fate, he could call himself a British citizen, while his brother could only claim British residency.

But the Al-Rawi family believe there is more to this tale of two brothers than meets the eye. Documents obtained by their lawyers show that Bisher and Wahab had been set up by MI5 before being handed over to the Americans.

Bisher and Wahab Al-Rawi disagree about almost everything. Growing up in Iraq in the 1970s, the brothers fought for their father's affection. Bisher, the younger of the two, was a promising schoolboy athlete, while Wahab, who had been injured in a shooting accident, tried to impress his father with his understanding of international affairs.

But in the early 1980s, Mr Al-Rawi senior, an Iraqi businessman, attracted the suspicion of Saddam Hussein and was arrested on trumped-up charges of having links to an off-shore investment fund, an offence under the former Iraqi regime. He was held by Saddam's secret police for 18 months before he was freed on the orders of an Iraqi judge.

Upon his release, the family made plans to escape Baghdad for London. Careful not to arouse more suspicion, the Al-Rawi boys and their sister were spirited out of the country. Wahab, who retains a slight Iraqi accent is a short, portly, middle-aged man. He says he regards himself as a "modern Muslim" who likes a drink and a cigarette but still finds time to pray.

He spoke to The Independent on Sunday in an upstairs room of a pub in Fleet Street: "We liked Britain because we had been coming here since we were boys to study English at summer schools. It was the most obvious place to seek sanctuary."

Their father then sent the boys to a Cambridge college where they took their GCSEs. For a rich Iraqi refugee whose only knowledge of Britain had been gleaned from state-controlled television, Oxford and Cambridge were the natural first choices for the education of young gentlemen.

In Cambridge, they enjoyed the same sort of pastimes as other teenagers. They both partied and mixed with the opposite sex. And while Bisher played football, tennis and rugby, Wahab developed an interest in fixing up old cars.

But the brothers found living together placed a strain on their fraternal relationship. "We used to fight, like lots of brothers do - you know, jostling to be the one in charge. We are very different people. He is a great sporting fanatic and I'm a couch potato. He loves making things, while I prefer making money."

Their sister, Usama, who has three children and lives in west London with their mother, says that although Bisher and Wahab were close, they often fought. "They love each other ," she says. "But after a few days together, the cracks start to show."

When the brothers returned to London their competitiveness meant that they couldn't even work in the same fast food restaurant. "I worked in Wimpy so Bisher had to work in Macdonalds," recalls Wahab.

In the end, their father decided to separate them, sending Bisher to Millfield School in Somerset and Wahab to Concord College in Shropshire, where they studied their A-levels. Later, they went to separate universities; Wahab to Salford where he studied mechanical engineering and Bisher to University College London where he read material engineering.

But despite showing early promise, neither brother managed to complete their degrees. The lure of London's West End social life and their rich father's unconditional indulgence of his two sons made it hard for Bisher and Wahab to concentrate on their student lives.

Both the boys were now living fairly aimless lives, unable to focus on any particular career. In less than three years, the brothers were living back in the family home in Kensington, central London.

"Bisher used to hang out in London sports clubs and mix with those types," says Wahab. "But in all the time that I knew my brother, I never saw him touch alcohol or heard him curse once.

"Bisher threw himself into sports; he did everything that was a bit dangerous. He loved parachuting and climbing. For money, he ended up working as a motorcycle courier. I concentrated on developing my commercial interests."

Wahab's first business venture was importing fruit and veg from Egypt and Jordan. He then worked as an estate agent and then in a friend's business finding accommodation for American students, before becoming a property developer in the 1990s.

By 2001, Bisher and Wahab had come to the attention of the British security services. The brothers had got to know Abu Qatada, an Islamic cleric who MI5 believe has links to Osama bin Laden and acts as a fundraiser for terrorist groups.

The brothers had first met him during prayers at the same mosque the Al-Rawis worshipped at in London and later came to rely on him as an authority on Islamic law. But after 9/11, Islamic extremists such as Qatada had become key terrorist (omega) suspects and anyone who came into contact with Qatada was considered a potential security risk.

Bisher, who followed Islamic doctrine more closely than his brother, became of interest to MI5. In written statements given to his lawyer, Bisher has since claimed two British security officers made contact with him and asked him to give information on Qatada, who was later arrested by anti-terrorist officers and is now being held in Belmarsh high-security prison in London.

Bisher's relationship with the British security services lasted several years, during which time he has told his lawyers that he was "helpful" and provided information that might assist in the "peaceful" arrest of Qatada. His American lawyer, George Mickum, says that Bisher acted as a go-between by carrying questions and answers between MI5 and Qatada and also provided translation during negotiations between the two parties.

Wahab says: "Look, I didn't know this at the time, but it's now clear that Bisher was helping MI5. He didn't mention it to me even in Gambia. But there was no reason for him to tell me because we both knew Abu Qatada."

It was Wahab's business interests that brought the two brothers to Gambia in November 2002. Indeed, Wahab had gone to see Abu Qatada just before he flew to Gambia.

"I needed to know whether, under Islamic law, it was allowed for partners in a firm to be paid wages [in the new company]. He told me it wasn't permitted and so I thanked him and left."

Wahab's business plan was to set up a mobile peanut oil-processing factory in Gambia. "I had done the feasibility study and it was all ready to go. I had my team and we brought Bisher in on the deal towards the end. I didn't think we really needed him but the others said his practical skills would be useful so I asked him to join us. It was a great business idea because it meant that African countries would no longer have to ship the peanuts to Europe to get the oil made. "

But right from the start there were signs that their enterprise was not going to be straightforward. On the day of his departure flight, Wahab was detained at London City Airport by two men who described themselves as airport security officers.

"They said they wanted to talk about my visit to Gambia. I was taken into a room and asked questions about the trip. Why was I going? Who was I going with and who was I meeting?"

But the men also wanted to learn more about Abu Qatada. The security officers, who by now Wahab had become convinced were working for MI5, pressed him on his link with Qatada.

"They asked me if I would help them, if I would work for them. I told them that it was against my principles. A few hours later, they finally agreed to let me go and eventually, after rescheduling my flight, I arrived in Banjul airport."

Four days after Wahab had arrived in Gambia, he went to the airport to meet his brother and the other two members of the team, Jamil el-Banna, another British resident and Abd el Ganudi, a British citizen. Mr el-Banna and Mr el Ganudi, who were to manage the factory once it was up and running, are old friends of the Al-Rawi family. They came to London fleeing persecution in the Middle East and met each other through refugee contacts in London's Arab community.

A fifth British member of the group, Abrahim the sales director who was another of Wahab's friends from the mosque, got cold feet about the trip and left his colleagues at the airport citing a stomach bug. But Wahab thinks he had been shaken up by his own run-in with the security services. Three days earlier, the three men had been arrested at Gatwick airport when they first attempted to fly to Gambia to meet Wahab. They were taken to Paddington Green police station in west London on suspicion of carrying an explosive device which turned out to be a battery charger purchased from Dixons. But their homes were searched by anti-terrorist officers. Later, they were all released and allowed to fly out to Gambia.

Unbeknown to any of the British men was the fact that the security services had already made contact with their counterparts in Gambia and at the American embassy in Banjul. Secret telegrams, which have only recently been released by the British government, confirm that MI5 asked the Gambians to keep a careful watch on the business party. To support this request, the British sent intelligence reports that had been gathered on the men over the last year. These included the sighting of Bisher on the M4 in March 2001.

On 11 November, MI5 used diplomatic channels to send a telegram to Banjul saying: "Bishr [sic] AL-RAWI is an Iraqi Islamist extremist who is a member of the ABU Qatada's close circle of associates. He has previously come to our attention for his financial activities in connection with Abu ANAS [which MI5 claims is the name used by Jamil el-Banna]. Bishr's [sic] enthusiasm for extreme sports has often brought him to the attention of the police. For example, he was seen driving away from the M4 flyover at Brentford in March 2001, which he and two other individuals had been seen climbing. He is also a qualified diver, a keen dinghy sailor and parachutist."

The case against Jamil el-Banna is that he has had contacts with men believed to be Islamic extremist terrorists and that he was going to use funds to support terrorism in Britain. Like (omega) Bisher, he knew Qatada, and was on hand to drive the cleric's family away when he was arrested by police in October 2002.

He is also wanted by the Spanish government, which is seeking his extradition from Guantanamo as part of their investigation into al-Qai'da activities in Spain. Mr el-Banna, who has a wife and five children waiting for him in London, has told his lawyers he can prove he is not the man the Spanish are looking for and that he is the victim of a case of mistaken identity.

But the MI5 investigators who stopped the men at Gatwick now believed they had uncovered other incriminating items. Further telegrams sent to Gambia included reference to a more alarming find at the Al-Rawi home in London - an unspecified "document" relating to RPG-7 rocket launchers. During the search at the airport, MI5 had also found items in the men's rucksack including a quick-hardening rubber cement, small shovel, solder and solder iron, circuit board and rechargeable batteries which MI5 claimed confirmed their suspicion that the men were all "involved in terrorist activity".

But the men's lawyers say that everything turned up in these searches was to be used for the business venture in Gambia. The "document" for the RPGs is not something they can comment on because they have never been allowed to see it. Wahab says he has no idea what the "document" might be and the fact that MI5 don't give any more detail, saying whether it was an instruction manual or just a picture of a RPG, means it can't be of any significance. "If this was all so conclusive why didn't they just arrest us - why let us leave the country?" asks Wahab.

As Wahab approached his brother at Banjul airport he realised there was a problem with immigration. The Gambian officials had confiscated his brother's passports and he and his two friends were taken into an airport interview room.

"They began by saying there was an irregularity with their visas. But it became clear that it was more than that because they took us to the headquarters of the Gambian and National Intelligence Agency in Banjul. We were questioned by Gambians for a few hours before being moved to another room where two US officers took over," recalls Wahab.

"They said they were from the US embassy and wanted to ask us some questions. But, I'm afraid, I lost my temper and demanded to see the British High Commissioner and a lawyer. They said it was much too late for that."

For the next three to four days the four men, two British citizens and two British residents, were moved around the building from room to room, alternately questioned by the Americans and the Gambians.

Wahab says: "I agreed to answer the Gambian questions but refused to answer any of the Americans'. I was scared but didn't know why I should co-operate."

Four days after Wahab had met Bisher at the airport, they were taken from the Gambian and National Intelligence Agency HQ to a secret location in the Banjul suburbs. It was here that Bisher begged his brother to co-operate with the Americans telling him "we have nothing to hide."

"We were all in the house," remembers Wahab, "and during a break from interrogations, Bisher told me to stop being difficult and answer the questions so we could be sent back home. So I agreed to tell them all about the business we were planning and why we were in Gambia. I kept thinking as soon as the rest of the business crates arrived with the tools to start the work that the Americans would know we weren't terrorists."

Mr el Janudi and Wahab were separated from the other two and taken back to interrogation suites in the NIA building where the Americans began repeating their questions.

"After I had answered their questions about the trip they started accusing me of coming to Gambia to start a training camp for a terrorist campaign against American targets. It was at this point that I withdrew my co-operation because the questioning was getting ridiculous. Once again, I demanded to see someone from the British High Commission. This was when they said 'Who do you do think ordered your arrest in the first place? They don't want to talk to you.' Now it was clear that we had been set up by Britain - our own country."

The two men were moved again to another house in Banjul where the interrogation and conditions of their detention became much more frightening.

"We were hooded and handcuffed, placed in a Landcruiser and then taken to this new house and put in solitary confinement. The toilet was a bucket, the windows were blacked out and the lights were left on all the time so we didn't know if it was day or night. I could smell the stench of urine everywhere."

Wahab remembers: "The big American, who called himself Mr Lee, became more and more threatening. He said if I didn't help him, he would let the guards rape me. I was scared, but didn't want him to see that, so I said 'maybe I'd like it.' He laughed, this seemed to amuse him. But he soon got back to the threats again, telling me I was all alone and he could do anything he wanted to me. I was dead as far as the world was concerned."

I few days later, Wahab was reunited with his brother and Jamil, who had been injured in a fight with one of the guards.

"I heard them both being marched into the house. Bisher was shouting to us, he must have known we were here too. He kept saying: 'Don't trust them they will try to trick you, don't trust them.' It was the last time I heard my brother's voice."

After two more weeks of interrogation, Mr Lee came to see Wahab. First of all, he apologised for the injuries to Jamil. Then he gave me a ticket and my passport and said I would be going home. I asked him if I could have some time with my brother. He went away and came back with a letter written in Bisher's handwriting. He said something like: 'We are co-operating with the US and you shouldn't worry. God-willing it will be alright.' I was driven in shackles to the airport. They told me not to make a fuss in Gambia because this wouldn't be good for me. If I had a complaint, they said, I should wait until I got back to Britain."

On his return Wahab, in shock and ill-health, booked into a west London hotel. A few days later, he contacted his family and Amnesty International to alert them to his brother's fate. Mr el Janudi, who could also claim British citizenship, had arrived in Britain a day earlier. The four men had been held in Gambia for 28 days, the maximum under national rules for detention.

A few months later, Wahab's sister received a letter from the Red Cross which, for the first time, confirmed what the family had long feared. Bisher had been taken to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and then flown to Guantanamo Bay.

Wahab knows that if it wasn't for the fact that he decided to press ahead with his application for British nationality in 1991, he too would be sitting in a cell in Camp Delta.

"My brother just didn't bother about such things [nationality papers]. He felt safe in this country and could see the need for having a joint nationality. He said he might one day want to return to Iraq and he knew that under Saddam's regime it was an offence to change your nationality."

Wahab has since received letters written by Bisher during his confinement in Guantanamo Bay. In them, Bisher teases his brother for not getting married and tells him "how nice" it is for the US to pay for his holiday in the "sunshine state" in Cuba.

It has been three and a half years since Wahab last saw his brother and he has had plenty of time to reflect. "I know now my brother had a relationship with MI5. He didn't tell me about it but it's clear from the documents I have seen that my brother was helping MI5 investigate Abu Qatada. Something happened to break that relationship, perhaps after Qatada was arrested Bisher became no more use to them or perhaps Bisher wanted to get out of the relationship, I don't know. What I do know is that he is a devout Muslim who loved this country," says Wahab.

"I just want to know what we've done. We adopted this country as our own, and look what has happened."

Pressure on the British government to intervene in Bisher's case is starting to pay off. After the family went to the High Court in London last month to challenge the Government on its refusal to help the men, the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw agreed to make representations to his American counterparts on behalf of Bisher. To allow Bisher to return to his London home, rather than his native Iraq, the Foreign Office must grant him a new visa and reactivate his right to residency in Britain. Wahab fears for his brother's health and hopes that this latest breakthrough has not come too late.

"I know that he is having a rough time there because he has become a Good Samaritan to other prisoners by helping them with legal cases and putting them in touch with lawyers. The Americans haven't liked this and he has been punished for it."

The full story behind Britain's role in the arrest of four British businessmen who went to Gambia to set up a peanut-processing plant may never ever be known. MI5 will not comment on the extent of their relationship with Bisher or how much they were involved in his detention in Guantanamo Bay. At Bisher's first hearing before a Guantanamo military tribunal the British government refused to confirm MI5's relationship with the British man. Only when Bisher is safely reunited with his brother and family can these questions begin to be answered.

In his last letter to his family, Bisher has spared his mother's feelings by avoiding any reference to the descriptions of torture which he so vividly gave to his lawyer.

"I am writing to you from the seaside resort at Guantanamo Bay. After winning first prize in a competition, I was whisked to this nice resort with all expenses paid... Everybody is very nice, the neighbours are very well-mannered, the food is first-class, plenty of sun and pebbles (no sand, I'm afraid) - your son Bisher. PS: Please renew my insurance (motorbike) policy"