By Ian Cobain
When the US and its allies went to war in Afghanistan in 2001, it was inevitable that a small number of those captured on the battlefield would be British. For more than a decade, MI5 had been aware that British Muslims had been travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan in what it saw as a form of jihadi tourism that posed no threat to the UK. All that changed after 9/11.
Among the Britons who were picked up in the wake of the attacks was a man called Jamal al-Harith. Born Ronald Fiddler in Manchester in 1966, Harith had converted to Islam in his 20s and travelled widely in the Muslim world before arriving in Afghanistan. After 9/11, he had been imprisoned by the Taliban, who suspected him of being a British spy. At one point he and several other prisoners were forced to share their large cell with a horse that had offended a local Taliban leader in some ill-defined way. A British journalist found Harith languishing in the prison in January 2002 and alerted British diplomats in Kabul, believing they would arrange his repatriation. Instead, they arranged for him to be detained by US forces, who took him straight to an interrogation centre at Kandahar.
Harith then spent two years at Guantánamo, being kicked, punched, slapped, shackled in painful positions, subjected to extreme temperatures and deprived of sleep. He was refused adequate water supplies and fed on food with date markings 10 or 12 years old. On one occasion, he says, he was chained and severely beaten for refusing an injection. He estimates he was interrogated about 80 times, usually by Americans but sometimes by British intelligence officers.
Nine months after his release, Harith issued a statement in which he said he was still in pain as a result of the beatings he received before interrogation. “The irony is that when I was first told in Afghanistan that I would be in the custody of the Americans, I was relieved. I thought that I would then be properly dealt with and returned home without much delay.”
A number of US Department of Defense documents leaked several years later showed that, like other men who were rounded up and taken to Guantánamo, Harith was there not because he was thought to be dangerous, but because the information he possessed was considered useful. Harith’s file shows that he was sent to Guantánamo “because he was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics”. Eighteen months later, the camp authorities had satisfied themselves that he had no connection with the Taliban or al-Qaida, but decided against releasing him because his “timeline has not been fully established” and because British diplomats who had seen him in Kandahar had found him to be “cocky and evasive”.
In all, nine British nationals were sent to the maximum-security prison at Guantánamo, along with at least nine former British residents. All were incarcerated for years, and from the moment they arrived they suffered beatings, threats and sleep deprivation. All were interrogated by MI5 officers and some also by MI6. When Harith was eventually released, along with three men from the West Midlands known as the Tipton Three, a man called Martin from the Foreign Office was waiting for them as they boarded the plane home. “Can you,” he asked, “make sure you say you were treated properly?”
Martin’s boss, foreign secretary Jack Straw, was particularly concerned that the wider world should never learn of the extent to which the British government had become involved in the torture of its own citizens at Guantánamo. In December 2005, the full truth about British complicity in rendition and torture was still such a deeply buried official secret that Jack Straw felt able to reassure MPs on the Commons foreign affairs committee about the allegations starting to surface in the media. “Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories,” he said, “and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States… there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition.”
Two days after 9/11, during a meeting of President Bush’s closest advisers, his head of counter-terrorism, Cofer Black, declared the country’s enemies must be left with “flies walking across their eyeballs”. Unlike its allies – the UK, France, Spain and Israel – the US had little experience of serious terrorist attacks on its own territory. Bush turned to his Department of Defense and found it had no cogent, off-the-shelf plan for a response. The CIA, on the other hand, did have something in its arsenal: it had the rendition programme.
Since 1987, the CIA had been quietly apprehending terrorists and “rendering” them to the US for prosecution, without any regard for lawful extradition processes. In 1995, President Bill Clinton – apparently with the full encouragement of his vice-president, Al Gore – agreed that a number of terrorists could be taken to a third country, including countries known to use torture, a process that would come to be known as extraordinary rendition.
Within five days of 9/11, Black had drawn up plans for the CIA’s response. It would entail a vast expansion of the rendition programme. Hundreds of al-Qaida suspects would be tracked down and abducted from their homes and hiding places in 80 different countries. The agency would decide who was to be killed and who was to be kept alive in a network of secret prisons, outside the US, where they would be systematically tormented until every one of their secrets had been delivered up.
The evening before Bush signed off the plans, Black and a handful of other senior CIA officers went to the British embassy in Washington, where they told senior British intelligence officers what was about to happen. At the end of Black’s three-hour presentation, his opposite number at MI6, Mark Allen, commented drily that it all sounded “rather blood-curdling”. Allen also expressed concern that once the Americans had “hammered the mercury in Afghanistan”, al-Qaida would simply scatter across south Asia and the Middle East, destabilising entire regions. One of the CIA officers at the meeting, Tyler Drumheller, could see that while the British appeared laid-back, “it was clear they were worried, and not without reason”. According to one account, even Black joked that one day they might all be prosecuted.
Shortly afterwards, Allen departed for London, where Tony Blair and Jack Straw were waiting to be briefed on the Americans’ plans. The CIA’s closest ally had been put on notice: the British could never honestly claim that they did not know what was about to unfold.
At the end of September 2001, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1373, which required member states to do more to assist the US and each other in eliminating international terrorism. On 2 October, Nato members met at the organisation’s headquarters in Brussels and agreed they should invoke article five of the North Atlantic Treaty, under which an attack on one member is to be regarded as an attack on all. At a second meeting two days later, the US representatives presented a number of specific requests, all of which were granted. Eight of those requests have since been made public. They included enhanced intelligence sharing, taking “necessary measures to increase security” and granting blanket over-flight clearances for the US and other allies’ aircraft for military flights engaged in counter-terrorism operations. Nato has since admitted that a number of other requests were granted; all of them remain secret.
Over the next few years, men were rendered not only from the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, but from Kenya, Pakistan, Indonesia, Somalia, Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, Gambia, Zambia, Thailand and the US itself. The US was running a global kidnapping programme on the basis of Black’s plan and the agreements reached at the Nato meeting. Some prisoners were dispatched to Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan and Syria, or to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, and an unknown number were sent to secret prisons that the CIA operated in Thailand, Poland, Lithuania and Romania. Wherever they ended up, they had one thing in common: they were going to be tortured.
Quietly, Britain pledged logistics support for the rendition programme, which resulted in the CIA’s Gulfstream V and other jets becoming frequent visitors to British airports en route to the agency’s secret prisons. Over the next four years, a 26-strong flight of rendition aircraft operated by the CIA used UK airports at least 210 times. Dozens of private executive jets chartered by the agency were also regular visitors to the UK.