Moazzam Begg: We have to negotiate with al-Qa'ida

He spent three years in US custody as an 'enemy combatant' and saw fellow inmates murdered. But retribution is the last thing he seeks

Interview,Paul Rodgers
Sunday 07 October 2007 00:00 BST

The knock came at midnight – it's traditional – but this was not a police raid. The armed men at the door wore no uniforms and said not a word as they forced British aid worker Moazzam Begg to the ground, shackling his arms and legs behind him. Before they pulled a hood over his head, he saw men heading into the rooms where his wife and children slept. Other men carried him to the back of a Jeep. As it drove through the streets of Islamabad, someone lifted his hood long enough for an American to thrust another pair of handcuffs in his face. "I got these from the widow of a 9/11 victim," he snarled, before snapping them on the captive's already cuffed wrists.

Thus began Begg's three years as an "enemy combatant" in the "war on terror". His ordeal included threats, beatings, solitary confinement, humiliation, degradation and advice from a US military psychiatrist on how to commit suicide. He witnessed two of his fellow inmates murdered by guards, was told that he'd be shipped to Egypt for torture, and was led to believe that a woman screaming in agony in the next room was his wife.

It is the sort of treatment that could turn even a moderate man into a radical. I expected him to be spitting venom, full of righteous outrage and resentment. Yet sitting in the front room of his semi-detached house in Birmingham, Begg's strongest emotion is amazement that some of his captors believed he was a terrorist. "I don't agree with the use of violence and the killing of innocent civilians," he says emphatically. Far from seeking revenge, he's contemplating a remarkable peace proposal that could save hundreds of American and British soldiers' lives.

Since he gained his freedom in 2005, Begg has been employed by Cage Prisoners, a group that lobbies for the release of Guantanamo detainees and more than 70 people believed to have "disappeared" into American "ghost" camps. "America denies having them," he says. "Sometimes the US announces that a person they've never had, but who has disappeared for five years, has been sent to Guantanamo."

He also works closely with Amnesty International, and will be helping it to launch a pair of campaigns over the next fortnight. The big one is Amnesty's annual Protect the Human week, which starts on 13 October. "I often speak in places where I'm the only dark face," says Begg. "Whenever I think I'm going to get a hostile audience I'm proved wrong. That gives me hope." He is also supporting the Unsubscribe campaign that starts on Tuesday. It is an attempt to mobilise internet users to opt out of the "war on terror" the same way they would from a junk email list.

I am puzzled that a Muslim who has suffered so much at the hands of the West should have become a champion of its most cherished ideals – civil rights and the rule of law. But Begg sees no contradiction. Similar principles were enshrined in the Koran centuries before King John signed Magna Carta. "The equivalent of habeas corpus is described in verses in the Koran that talk about the individual having the rights to witnesses and evidence and proof," he says.

He's been talking to Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander, now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and it has given him some odd ideas. He wants to write a book detailing his thoughts about for bringing a peaceful end to the "war on terror". It's time, he says, for governments and terrorists to start talking to each other. "That's the way forward," he says, pointing to a speech by the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne. At the Labour Party conference last month, Browne said: "In Afghanistan, at some stage, the Taliban will need to be involved in the peace process because they are not going away." Says Begg: "It may be controversial, but it's part of the reality. The Taliban are not Martians." And if the Taliban, why not al-Qa'ida?

At first glance, the idea that George Bush and Osama bin Laden would ever sit down with each other seems ludicrous. But then, people used to say the same about McGuinness and Ian Paisley. "It's not just about Osama bin Laden," says Begg. "There are many other people that they could have, should have and in some cases have – though they deny it – talked to."

Amid the black and white rhetoric of the "war on terror", Begg inhabits a grey zone. "They say you're either with Bin Laden or you're with Bush, and like the majority of people I'm in between," he says. He is adamant that he is not a terrorist, though he admits that he considered becoming a fighter with the Bosnian forces in the early 1990s. He also says: "I believe in the right of people to resist the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan." For many Britons and Americans, that's enough to make him "one of them" not "one of us". But it doesn't make him a combatant, a terrorist or a member of al-Qa'ida.

Another point against him, in many people's eyes, is that he moved his young family to Kabul to set up a girls' school at the peak of the Taliban's rule. Begg praises the Taliban for trying to rebuild Afghanistan after decades of war, but says: "I don't think they had a clue how to govern the country. I saw them do things that totally turned the population against them."

His ability to see shades of good and bad in this polarised world extends to his American jailers. "I would be happy to call some of them friends," he says. One female soldier gave him sweets after discovering that the prisoners had not been fed on Eid ul-Fitr, the feast day at the end of Ramadan. Such fraternising with the enemy is a serious offence under US military law. Another, a redneck Vietnam veteran, some of whose comrades had been tortured, was disgusted that his country was now stooping to the same depths.

Perhaps his even-handed perspective is due to his ecumenical upbringing. The son of a Muslim banker turned businessman, Begg attended a Jewish primary school. Later, his father became involved with an Englishwoman who introduced him to Christmas. When he was 14 he was in a gang to fight racist skinheads. It wasn't until his teens that he rediscovered the religion that would inspire him, and lead him into so much misery.

After his capture, Begg was taken from Islamabad to Kandahar, dragged through the mud, strip-searched and dumped in a cell made of razor wire and furnished with a blanket and a bucket. The cell was inside a converted barn with a round-the-clock light and sound show. His identity was stripped away and he was left with just a number: 558.

From there he was moved to an abandoned Russian factory at Bagram air base, where a guard gave him a copy of Catch-22, stamped with the words "Approved by the US Forces". It was an apt gift: like Joseph Heller's hero, Yossarian, Begg was caught in a dilemma. The Americans argued that if he was guilty of aiding al-Qa'ida, he belonged in prison; to his jailers, the mere fact that he was in custody meant that he must be guilty of aiding al-Qa'ida.

When he was told he would be taken to Guantanamo, Begg relished the idea. "People said you got hot meals there," he says. More importantly, they said, you got lawyers. It took another 20 months, but thanks to those lawyers, Begg – who had been slated to be the first prisoner to appear before one of the camp's "kangaroo courts" – instead became the first to be released.

If this is a terrorist, he does a good job of hiding it. And those who still believe the Catch-22 reasoning have done a poor job of backing their allegations. Begg's life has been dissected, yet no substantial evidence against him has been produced.

Take, for example, the photocopy of a money transfer order – allegedly found in an al-Qa'ida camp in Afghanistan – that is said to have triggered his abduction. Neither Begg and his lawyers nor any court has seen this document. Supposedly it refers to a transfer between branches of a bank in London and Karachi, but the account number, date and amount are secret. Nor has anyone put forward a plausible theory for why this copy should turn up in a camp in Afghanistan. Says Begg: "There were no banks."

Perhaps the most pernicious example of the Catch-22 allegations is that he was, in 2000, arrested under Britain's counter-terrorism laws during a raid on his bookshop in Birmingham. He was released without charge. To his critics, this implies that the intelligence services were already suspicious of him, adding weight to the allegations that landed him in Guantanamo. A simpler interpretation is that his persecution had already begun, at home, in Britain.

Further viewin: The film 'Rendition', is released on 19 October

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