Stephen Grey: When did you realize that the Americans were behind your arrest in Gambia?
Bisher al-Rawi: First, we are dropped from the airport to the Gambian intelligence agency. It was after sunset; it had gotten really dark. We were driving these streets with no lights, as if electricity hadn’t been discovered yet. I was feeling extremely tense and uncomfortable.
The very next day, American personnel came and started speaking with us, asking questions.
Bisher al-Rawi Iraqi citizen, Bisher al-Rawi, has been a resident of the UK since 1994. In November 2002, while traveling from the UK to Gambia with his brother to help set up a peanut-processing factory, al-Rawi was detained at the Gambian airport and handed over to U.S. intelligence officials. He was then rendered to Afghanistan via Egypt, where he spent time at a secret U.S. detention center near Kabul, known as the “Dark Prison,” before being transferred to Bagram airbase and on to Guantanamo Bay. No formal charges were ever made against al- Rawi, who spoke with FRONTLINE/World reporter Stephen Grey after his release earlier this year. In the interview, al-Rawi describes being held inside a prison, where he was kept in total darkness and bombarded with music 24 hours a day. He also describes his treatment in U.S. custody, telling Grey: “Do I consider myself hurt, being tortured? Yes, I consider that…. Definitely there was torture. …Torture is a part of the way they run things.” The interview took place on October 8, 2007, and has been edited for clarity.
Then after about 45 minutes, we arrive at a gate; the gate opens and cars drive in. The following day we realize it is the Gambian intelligence agency building. Each of us was put in separate areas, and I was put in the reception area. I was given a mattress; I had to sleep on the floor. The next morning a big guy comes in -- had quite a bit of fat on him –- and he’s speaking with me in an American accent; he had his partner with him. And from the conversation, you could kind of figure out that he’s American; he’s somebody who’s been around so to speak. Wahab [Bisher’s brother, a UK citizen, who was also detained but released in Gambia] guessed he was CIA.
Who did he say he was?
The characters are very manipulative and not straightforward. It is not like, “This is who I am; we have a problem; we need to investigate this problem.” They were very deceptive. There wasn’t any formality with this whole experience. This wasn’t a textbook experience. At one point, the guy would claim he was a Gambian citizen, he would question me about things I had done in my life, personal questions, my background, ask me about my friends.
They [the interrogators] started throwing the idea that I had gone to Gambia to blow up the American embassy. Why would I go to Gambia to blow up the American embassy? We have an American embassy in Britain! Is that appropriate?
What were they accusing you of?
There wasn’t a real accusation. Not like, “Look Bisher, ‘We think you have done this’ or ‘We think you’re going to do this.” It was really very peculiar, very shadowy. To me and my friends and my brother [who were initially detained with al-Rawi], there wasn’t really an accusation. I think they just wanted to see if there was a benefit to holding us. Will they learn something? Probably the British authorities had some curiosities at that time, and they wanted someone to follow them up. But in terms of actual accusation, there wasn’t that in Gambia, there wasn’t that in Afghanistan or Guantanamo [where al-Rawi was later detained].
What were their methods?
In Gambia, [it was] straightforward. They just come, put on the face they decide to put on that day -- they use different faces and different approaches – [and] sit and have a chat. There was just one formal interrogation in Gambia, whereby I sat with two American officials and two Gambian officials, at a table, [where a] proper procedure was carried out. That was just once in one month.
Did the Gambians say who was running the show?
I think the Gambians made it very clear that, you know, we must follow orders -- the Americans are sort of running the show. They were quite clear, especially with the passing of time. They would say, “Look this has nothing to do with us -- it’s the Americans.” That became more visible with time.
Explain what went on over time and what you came to hear from the Americans about what was going to happen to you.
The Gambians went through stages, [where it] gradually got worse, until we ended up in very small cells, purpose-built for us. Not very often people do things for you, but the Americans had to do things for us. They actually went and built us cells, for each one of us. There were four of us. It started out a bit informal, a bit laidback [but] ended up [with us] in a very small cell with virtually nothing in it except a small mattress -- no toilet, no running water, no nothing.
Did you take the situation seriously at first?
When I was in London watching the news just like anyone else, I used to think that these guys were terrorists. For the life of me, I never connected myself to them. How wrong I was and that in time, I would find myself there. In Gambia, I thought we had a problem with these guys -- the Americans, the British or whoever had concerns. It’s my job to satisfy them that there is no problem; we are just going on in a normal fashion. So that was my approach, although the situation over time began to seem really serious. But there wasn’t an indication until the very end that one was not going to go home, [but] rather somewhere else to Afghanistan.
One late evening, a gentleman -- and I use the word with some reservation -- came to me and told me after a reasonable conversation, “You are going to be taken to Afghanistan.” It wasn’t my approach to be confrontational -- they’ll just hurt you more and more -- so I didn’t ask why or say I haven’t done anything.
And what was your reaction?
My reaction was just like everything else. I’ll just sit quietly [and] take it. When he leaves, you can take it whatever way you want -- when he leaves you can cry or whatever.
Were you surprised?
Surprised or shocked rather. I’ve always been asked by British intelligence people or friends or whatever, “Have you been to Afghanistan? Why haven’t you been to Afghanistan?” [It was] something that one had to do -- go to Afghanistan. At least I didn’t have to pay for it… I mean you leave home, you go to Gambia to set up a business -- everything is genuine -- really there’s nothing peculiar about what you are doing. From that sort of mindset, how can you tell yourself, “Gosh I’m going to Afghanistan?” You can’t think like this.
You were then taken from your cell, which they’d built for you. Can you describe how that happened?
It was a very difficult evening. Lee [an American interrogator who had identified himself by this name] had mentioned that I was going to Afghanistan, and one of the Gambian guards said, “This is your last night.” The thought of getting killed or thrown away somewhere was on my mind. Then, at one stage, the door opened [and] there were quite a few of them -- Americans and Gambians – [and] they just said, “It’s time.” [I thought] “It’s time for what? Dying?” They weren’t shooting at me so I thought I’m not going to die just yet. They started cuffing me, hooded my head, shackled my feet -- that was my first experience in all my life of that. Then we were put in a car with a hood on our heads; you can’t really breathe properly. You just have to take it -- you really want to scream. You can’t scream. [Then] we were driven to the airport.
What happened at the airport?
At the airport, I could not see or hear properly. I could just hear the sounds of the aircraft, the jet engine. You are in a frozen state. Your emotions are like frozen on a cold, cold day. You are just confused. You don’t know what is happening, what is going to happen. But it’s quiet. Everybody was quiet, that’s the thing. You can’t ask questions. It’s futile to ask why is this happening. You are not going to get a reasonable answer. So I sat on a bench, with the hood on top of me, and waited and waited and waited. After a long wait, when the shackles and cuffs were really hurting, two Gambian guards started escorting me; we moved a few feet, [then] they let go of me. And all of a sudden, two, I assume big guys, I couldn’t see, of course, held me very hard [and] started dragging me. I thought, “Gosh, these are the Americans” [behaving] in a very uncivilized, unnecessary and uncalled for way. You know, it’s not as if I was struggling or causing problems or anything. They just used this very aggressive way of handling me. They took me into a room prepared, basically an empty room. They stripped me, cut off my clothes; they just did their stuff, which I don’t feel comfortable going into, but not very pleasant, not very nice -- very, very humiliating [and] intrusive. And they went through the procedure. Then in the same very forceful way they put me into the aircraft.
What happened after they took you onto the airplane?
On the aircraft, I was put on a stretcher. I can’t see anything; I can’t hear; my ears are blocked. But you just sort of get a feel of things. I was put on a stretcher similar to an ambulance, probably. I was really tied to it, very, very hard -- so hard I can’t actually move. I was lying down restrained from feet, torso, chest. To say that it was extremely uncomfortable is an extreme understatement. It was a once-in–a-lifetime experience, which I don’t wish to go through and I don’t wish for anyone else to go through. Being that I was on my back, one can only sit in a certain posture, it was getting very, very painful. Physically, I can’t move. I asked to go to the toilet, [but] they ignored me. Jamil a friend of Bisher's also detained asked for water. He was ignored. [We were] just sitting there or laying there, just waiting.
And you knew you were going to Afghanistan?
I was told I was going to Afghanistan; there wasn’t a ticket with “Bisher al-Rawi to Afghanistan.” I was in a lot of pain. I was counting the seconds, counting one-second, two-second, just hoping it’s going to be over soon. Then I started realizing the aircraft is actually landing. You get your ears blocked. I thought, “Gosh! I hope this is it; I need to go to the toilet.” I just needed to move a little bit. Then the aircraft started to land, and I thought, “Now they’re going to take us out of the aircraft -- now, now, now.” They didn’t. You know, it was a relatively short wait and then the aircraft flew again. I thought that this is a halfway stage, where they are refuelling. Later on, I learned that that place was Egypt -- that the aircraft I was on went from Gambia [to] Egypt, then to Kabul.
Tell us what happened when you arrived in Afghanistan?
Arriving in Afghanistan, the restraints were removed from where I was on the stretcher-like bed. And again we were dragged out. Taken down the stairs, thrown, like sacks of potatoes, or rice; this is the closest thing I could tell you for you to understand. Literally lifted and thrown in a vehicle, I think it was a van-like vehicle. Then we were driven on a bit of a rough road. It was a short trip, [for] myself and Jamil that is. We were taken out of the vehicle, again very forcefully and thrown somewhere. Our hands were cuffed to the back so we can’t move or do anything. We were thrown on the ground or lain down. I thought, “The beating, this is where it’s going to start.” You live with this for a while. Nobody has beaten me up yet, but you don’t move, you don’t breathe. You are just very still, holding the position you are in, wondering what is going to happen to you next. And I thought, “Gosh! Maybe nothing is going to happen to me yet. So I started just feeling my surroundings with my hands. Later, somebody removed the hood, the ear defenders and the cuffs and left me in the shackles. That was [in] the dark prison. Somebody asked me, “Are there lice in the dark prison?” And I said, “You know the dark prison is completely dark” -- or it was when I was there – “you can’t see the end of your nose.” [For] the duration of the dark prison, I had shackles on. I just took it as it came.
At the time you wouldn’t know it was the dark prison. How were you treated there?
The situation was very difficult. I can’t overstress this. One has seen movies, now imagine your worst movie and this is a scene from it. It was very cold. Because of the stress you were under you didn’t quite realize it was cold. But after a while, gosh I’m very, very cold, shivering cold. You really haven’t got much to cover yourself with. They took off the hood and just left you there. Not like they told you, “You’re going to be here; we’re going to do this to you or that do you. Do you have a problem? Are you injured?” You have a sack of potatoes. You throw it somewhere. You couldn’t care less about it.
What was the cell like?
I had a very interesting experience with the cell. As I said earlier, I was really cold, shivering cold. I just sat in one corner and that was the duration of my first few days. One day, I thought I would slightly venture out. So I got up and I started walking as I thought maybe that would get me warm. I started walking and just feeling this cell. And I thought that maybe the cell isn’t that small. And before I finished the thought, my face slammed into the wall. The width of the cell, you could touch it easily with both hands.
This prison run by the Americans, who were the guards running it?
I think defining who the guards are is not defining who runs it. It wasn’t Afghani people flying the aircraft, it wasn’t Afghani people who sort of shackled me and did whatever they did to me. It was Americans. [The] dark prison was run by the Americans; overseen by the Americans. But the small pity jobs [were] given to the Afghanis.
What sort of human contact did you have?
There wasn’t any real contact, but in the dark prison, you had some sort of odd voices -- not music -- playing on speakers. You had people coming to check you were alive -- not OK, but alive. You’re moving, you’re OK, that’s it. They’ll bang on the door; you’re asleep; you jump and that’s it. That’s good enough. They’ll just go away. They’ll come and give you food -- maybe every two to three days; maybe once a day. They’ll just open the door and hand it over to you. They’ll give you water once every couple of days as well. There isn’t any conversation. Nobody says anything to you; you couldn’t say anything. Everything is sort of by sign. It’s a very cold place temperature-wise and people-wise, as well.
Did anyone tell you why you were there and what you were accused of?
I’ll be very honest with you, nobody told me why from day one. In Gambia nobody told me why. In the dark prison, nobody told me why. Nobody told me why in Guantanamo, and I left, and I still don’t really know why. We agreed in the end that “why” is not a question you ask, Bisher. And “why” is not an answer we’re going to give.
What did it sound like?
There was music running, not like music-music but odd voices, with someone really professional, who was a psychiatrist or somebody who was a nutter that did it. [It] makes you uncomfortable in a strange sort of way. I can’t really describe. Something that’s on all the time, except for a few short seconds when the tape turns over. That was really the overwhelming sound….
They were playing this at a loud volume?
Yes, a very loud volume. Those few seconds when the tape is changing to the other side, somebody may call [out to] somebody. I think I heard a couple of people calling. I thought maybe Jamil was calling me. Then the voice just goes, and the music comes. It’s a very peculiar feeling -- the sort of sounds that give you nightmares.
They were trying to disorient you?
You don’t have to work very hard to disorient people. They achieved that from minute one.
They weren’t asking any questions?
No. Neither me nor Jamil were ever interrogated in the dark prison.
What happened after that?
Unfortunately, in the dark prison, we were not issued with any watches or calendars, so I really do not know. It felt [like] forever. Me and Jamil discussed this, and we think it was probably for a couple of weeks. You can’t tell anything from anything. There wasn’t any consistency. If they gave us one meal a day, then 10 meals, you would know it’s 10 days, but the food thing and water and everything, it was extremely inconsistent.
What happened at the end?
One day, I don’t know if it’s day or night, they opened the door and started the procedure of shackling me, putting my hands behind my back and tying me. The shackles were already there; they just sort of played around with them. They dragged us out -- myself, Jamil and a few other people. I think I was the first one. I was thrown in the van. Somebody else was thrown on top of me. I think that person was Jamil. A few seconds passed, and then somebody just came and beat us up. By the way, the record of that is with the military. A photo was taken in Bagram later on; it’s actually documented. We were roughed up. A few more people were thrown on top of us. The van drove, and I could hear the sounds of helicopter blades. We were put into the helicopter. That was the handover from whoever was running the dark prison, [the] CIA, to the military -- going from the vehicle to the helicopter. The helicopter was military; the vehicle was not. We were put on seats, and then landed in what we learned later [to be] Bagram Air Base.
What was the questioning like at Bagram?
We stayed in Bagram for two months [and] the treatment was different. Each stage, there is a marked difference -- whether it was Gambia or [the] Dark Prison or Bagram, or later on Guantanamo. How they treated us [was] not very nicely. There were a lot of interrogations -- almost daily interrogations, [and] toward the end less so. They used sleep deprivation. For anyone who thinks it’s an easy thing, don’t sleep for a couple of days and see what happens to you. You can’t see straight or think straight. It’s a very difficult thing. They threaten you. They use all sorts of ways of getting to you, hurting you, scarring you psychologically or otherwise -- things like that.
Do you think this was torture?
Torture has different definitions for different people. The people who treated us the way we did would love to say, “Gosh, we really did not torture them.” But do I consider myself hurt, being tortured? Yes, I consider that. Now, to what extent? That could be open to interpretation. Definitely there was torture. I think I’m lucky, given that I’m from the UK; there’s people fighting for me. They were a bit careful not to make it show and long lasting. But generally torture is a part of the way they run things.
It’s not just physical methods of torture, but psychological?
I think the psychological effect of this experience, in my opinion, far outweighs the physical. I think physical you can just overcome. Physical you can live with. Psychological you live with all your life.
What’s your impression of the effect of all these interrogations on those you have met at Guantanamo?
If you speak with doctors and psychiatrists and psychological doctors from Guantanamo, they will tell you that the amount of pain and hurt and scarring [from] the experiences [are] very well documented by the authorities. Things are very difficult. People are very, very hurt….
Overall, how do you feel about the way you’ve been treated by the Americans?
I think the way I have been and [the way] everyone else has been treated in Guantanamo is a despicable way. It’s absolutely unnecessary. They degraded people, hurt people, tortured people, dehumanized people. All of that I truly believe was unnecessary and uncalled for. And the effects of this on people were great.
You were taken through this system, called rendition -- taken on these planes to Afghanistan. How do you feel about that process?
I spent most of my adult life in the UK. One had always assumed if one had done anything, there would be due process -- one would be arrested, charged, [and] if there’s a problem, you’ll go through a certain procedure. But the experience I have gone through and many others [have gone through] – I am very lucky I am here speaking to you today. Many others we haven’t heard of and we probably will not hear of [those] who have gone through this procedure. They have no one fighting for them -- at least nobody visibly fighting for them. There’s nothing that could be done for them.
Did you meet anyone else at Guantanamo who had been through these CIA places?
Oh, yeah! The CIA has been really spending taxpayers money like nothing -- going all over the place, getting people from all over the place, definitely [in an] improper way, without going through any proper procedure -- whether in that country or the U.S. I’ve met a few people in Guantanamo who have been through this all over the world.
What’s been the effect on people of being treated this way?
The personal effects are clear and we’ve discussed this, but the credibility of the U.S. government -- and the U.S. as a country -- is in the dirt, really. [It is] supposedly a world leader that was preaching to everybody how we should all behave. They’ve behaved in an extremely shocking way.
You mentioned how you were treated, sleep deprivation, disorientation. Does this kind of procedure make people talk?
Part of this is sort of funny. At some stage they started asking me about things that I thought were trivial, [but] if I knew the answer I would give it to them. They started pushing me, and I said, “Really, really, I don’t remember.” And they just had their go at me. A long time later, in Guantanamo, I said, “Gosh, now I remember I made a mistake.” [It was] something very trivial, I had forgotten. If you beat somebody or torture them, and they have forgotten, you’re not going to get them [to]…. If somebody is going to say something they are going to say it. There’s a limit to the amount someone can say or is going to remember. And the more stress you put on people, the more they start making up stories. And at one stage, I said, “Look, whatever it is you want me to say, just tell me, give it to me, and I will say it, I’m very happy to say it.” After a while, you just want to say anything.