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Moazzam Begg Is Officially, Allegedly a Terrorist — Again

The former Guantánamo detainee and celebrated activist was arrested in the UK last week and charged with aiding jihadists in Syria.
March 4, 2014, 5:10pm
Image via AFP/Getty Images

In the summer of 2012, former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg organized a series of five fundraising dinners in the United Kingdom to raise awareness about the ongoing worldwide detention of Muslims. Called Prayer of the Prisoner, the events were sponsored by the advocacy organization CagePrisoners (now known as Cage), where Begg had worked as outreach director since his release from Guantánamo in 2005.

The events were well attended and raised money for Cage, which according to its website is committed to "documenting the abuse of due process and the erosion of the rule of law in the context of the War on Terror." But in an August 16 column posted on the Cage's website, Begg admitted that he'd had difficulty focusing. "It was hard to get into the mood of delivering speeches and conducting auctions … my mind was elsewhere," he wrote. "Less than two years ago I could never have believed, with the record of mutual intelligence co-operation the UK and US had between these countries that visiting Libya, Tunisia and Egypt would have ever been possible for me. Even less of a prospect was visiting Syria…. [But] when the revolutions began in the Arab world … I decided to take this opportunity created by the 'Arab Spring' to travel once again, this time to Syria."

Begg traveled there twice in 2012 to, he said, undertake an investigation into the UK's role in the rendition and torture of terrorism suspects.

As he wrote in the column, "I stayed with a group of pious, well-educated, relatively young and very hospitable fighters."

***

Last week, more than a year and a half after that column appeared, British police arrested Begg, claiming that he engaged in terrorism-related offenses — including a visit to a terrorist training camp — connected with those Syria trips. Begg was formally charged with the equivalent of material support for terrorism. Also charged with Begg was a 44-year-old woman from Birmingham, England named Gerrie Tahari. Begg and Tahari have both denied the charges, and today UK authorities announced that their next appearance is scheduled for March 14.

Shaun Edwards, the head of investigations for West Midlands Police Counterterrorism Unit, said at the time that the arrest of Begg, Thari, and two other unnamed individuals were "connected … pre-planned, and intelligence-led."

Two US intelligence sources knowledgeable about Begg's case — they spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to discuss what the US has learned from British intelligence officials — said that Begg's participation in fundraising projects for Syria over the past year had been under scrutiny by British intelligence, which suspects the money has been funneled to al Qaeda–backed fighters in Syria. UK law enforcement and intelligence sources would not comment to VICE News about the charges, but for the past year, they have cracked down hard on several charity organizations, particularly one known as Aid Convoy, asserting that the groups are supported by jihadists and are fronts for extremists.

Begg's trips to the Middle East were never kept secret from UK intelligence, or from anyone else. He wrote extensively about his travels and his meetings with resistance fighters in Syria. Moreover, he met with members of MI5 in the presence of his lawyer in October 2012 and discussed those trips, which did not then appear to be of concern to MI5.

Nevertheless, Richard Barrett, the senior director of special projects at the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies, said the UK's actions against Begg may very well be justified.

"The UK and most other European countries are worried about their nationals and residents going to Syria to fight, especially if and when they come back," Barrett told VICE News. "It is not that they are all radicals when they leave for Syria, but how the experience of being there may effect them and what sort of network they may join. Some may return horrified and revolted by the violence and squalor of war, others may be recruited to a terrorist agenda. Clearly [the UK] think — as the US military did before he went to Guantánamo — that there might be more to [Begg's] activities than he claimed."

What Begg claimed to be doing was compiling evidence suggesting that the UK was complicit in the torture of British citizens in Syria. "I travelled to Syria without incident," Begg wrote last December. "I spent much time accumulating testimony and information for a report on the situation of the current prisoners as well as the accounts of those who had been detained and tortured in the past."

Many of Begg's supporters believe he was arrested because of what he was about to expose.

***

Since his release from Guantánamo nearly a decade ago, Begg has traveled the world speaking about the detention facility. He wrote Enemy Combatant, a book about his confinement; he appeared in a half-dozen documentaries, including the Academy Award–winning Taxi to the Dark Side; and he penned an op-ed column for the Washington Post about the death of Osama bin Laden.

His advocacy and outspokenness did not go unnoticed by intelligence officials. In 2009, the New America Foundation analyzed the government's "recidivism" rate of former Guantánamo prisoners who had "returned to the fight." Begg's memoir, his appearance in a 2006 PBS special in which he described the abuse he suffered at the hands of the US military in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, and his critical analysis of US foreign policy meant that he met the criteria to be considered an "anti-American propaganda" recidivist in the eyes of the US government, according to study.

In the many talks he gave, however, the 45-year-old father of four did not present himself as a bitter Guantánamo prisoner seeking revenge for the three years he was imprisoned. Rather, he was, as NBC News described in a 2012 profile, "soft-spoken" and "gentle mannered."

It's how Begg won over Guantánamo attorneys and guards, as well as human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and the American Civil Liberties Union. (These organizations, however, have remained silent since Begg's arrest and did not respond to VICE News's requests for comment.)

[Update: Wells Dixon, an attorney with the CCR, told VICE News that CCR lawyers have signed a statement posted on Cage's website supporting Begg.]

Begg also caught the eye of at least one US diplomat, as evidenced by a January 2010 State Department cable leaked to Wikileaks titled "To Hell and Back: Gitmo Ex-Detainee Stumps in Luxembourg." In it, Cynthia Stroum, the former US Ambassador to Luxembourg, wrote that, "Mr Begg is doing our work for us and his articulate, reasoned presentation makes for a convincing argument. It is ironic that after four years of imprisonment and alleged torture Moazzam Begg is delivering the same demarche to GOL [the government of Luxembourg] as we are: please consider accepting GTMO detainees for resettlement."

Begg appeals for donations to help people in Syria. The UK believes those people were terrorists.

Begg's own time at Guantánamo had a significant effect on his life, but it also had a profound effect upon others at the base. Even his captors.

"I can confidently say that without his patience, reason, and respect, I would not have found Islam," former Guantánamo guard Terry Holdbrooks told VICE News. He went on to describe Begg as a "voice of reason" at the prison. "A day on the block with Moazzam was a day that I knew would be calm and educational," Holdbrooks said. "Moazzam was an intermediary for us guards when it came to interaction with detainees. If we were to encounter an issue on the block with a particular detainee or group of detainees, Moazzam would always volunteer to help de-escalate the situation before someone was hurt."

In 2011, Begg and Philip Zimbardo, the professor of psychology best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, teamed up to organize a discussion in Dubai on the "nature of good, evil, justice, and forgiveness." Holdbrooks and Begg shared the stage, discussing their guard-prisoner relationship, which Zimbardo analyzed for audiences.

Begg also stayed in touch with a former Guantánamo guard named Albert Melise, who told VICE News that "Mo" taught him how to play chess at the prison. Melise reconnected with Begg several years later, and spoke often with Begg via Skype. Melise had a standing invitation to stay at Begg's home if he ever visited London.

Holdbrooks and Melise say they believe Begg is innocent. There is no word on whether Begg is playing chess with his guards in the UK.

***

For all the accolades Begg has garnered, he remains a polarizing figure. His critics include author Salman Rushdie, who took Amnesty International to task for suspending the head of its Gender Unit, Gita Sahgal, after she spoke out against her organization's support for Begg, whom she called, "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban."

Begg's critics characterize him as a dangerous terrorist who is selective when discussing his personal story. In 2006, shortly after Enemy Combatant was published, Bush administration officials took the extraordinary step of declassifying intelligence about Begg and providing it to the New York Times in an effort to discredit him. However, as the Times reported, the information "offered almost nothing to corroborate such assertions other than excerpts they read from the FBI statements" in which Begg admitted to engaging in jihad and attending training camps in Afghanistan. He had moved with his family to Afghanistan in July 2001 — Begg freely admits this — and US officials say Begg was preparing to fight US forces before he fled into the Tora Bora mountains. Begg denied that he made such admissions to the FBI, but said he did "sign some documents" because "he feared for his life."

In his 2011 memoir The Black Banners, former FBI special agent Ali Soufan said he had been tracking Begg since late 1999. He claimed that Begg had close ties to former CIA captive Abu Zubaydah, helped raise funds for the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan where Zubaydah worked and Begg allegedly trained in the 1990s, and assisted in writing a terrorist manual called the Encyclopedia of Jihad. Soufan — he was traveling and unable to respond to requests for comment for this story — wrote that he passed this information to MI5 years before the 9/11 attacks.

Soufan's allegations are essentially identical to the charges British authorities have leveled against Begg.

Begg did not write about Zubaydah or the Khaldan camp in his memoir, and he has consistently maintained that he never met Zubaydah. However, according to Zubaydah's lengthy detainee assessment brief given to Wikileaks, Begg told his interrogators that Zubaydah "provided false passports and identification, and arranged transportation for people from safe houses in Karachi to Afghanistan."

Begg, who was one of the first Guantánamo prisoners George W. Bush selected for prosecution before a military tribunal, has said intelligence he provided his captors was unreliable because it was extracted from him while he was being tortured. But Zubaydah acknowledged his job was akin to a travel agent in his own diaries, and Begg could only have known this about Zubaydah if he had firsthand knowledge. In 1998, Begg moved his family from the UK to Peshawar, Pakistan, where Zubaydah was living (Begg had dual citizenship).

Despite all of this, Begg claims he did not know Zubaydah. Zubaydah, on the other hand, appears to have a different impression. In September 2010, he sent Begg a letter from Guantánamo, written on "Prisoner of War" stationary provided by the Army. Begg posted this letter on CagePrisoners, along with commentary, under the headline, "Torture missive from Guantánamo: Abu Zubaydah's letter of pain and strength." The post was then immediately deleted without explanation. Though not previously reported by the media, the post was picked up by an Islamic forum where it remains, along with the original CagePrisoners URL intact.

"Cageprisoners can reveal details of a letter recently sent by Guantánamo prisoner Zain al-Abideen ibn Muhammed, commonly known as Abu Zubaydah, to Moazzam Begg," the post begins. In the letter, Zubaydah addressed Begg as "the respected and honourable and hospitable brother" and urged Begg and "all the other brothers" to continue to fight US "injustice and oppression."

***

Two months after he received the letter from Zubaydah, Begg and other former British Guantánamo prisoners entered into a confidential settlement with the British government over its alleged complicity in his torture and detention. The settlement paved the way for an official government inquiry into the role played by British intelligence in the rendition, torture, and detention of more than two-dozen British citizens.

Begg continued to conduct his own investigations and planned to produce reports pertaining to the torture and rendition of Muslim men. In a column Begg wrote in 2012, he said part of the reason he traveled to Syria was to trace the whereabouts of a young Syrian man named Noor Al Deen, who was captured in Faisalabad, Pakistan during the same March 2002 raid that netted Abu Zubaydah.

Deen, who was 19 years old at the time of his capture, disappeared soon after. News reports indicated the CIA rendered him to Morocco and then to Syria, where he was likely tortured. Begg was determined to find him.

"My investigations in Syria have just begun and I intend to uncover much more about the unholy alliances created through the network of international antiterrorism renditons [sic] and torture, but if recent history has taught us anything, especially in the UK, it is that whatever we may have done in the name of supposed 'national security' — like being complicit in the abuse of basic human rights of minorities — it may well come back to haunt us," Begg wrote.

Before his arrest last week, British authorities confiscated Begg's passport at Heathrow Airport as he returned to the UK following a trip to South Africa. The move came one week after the government inquiry into the rendition and torture of British citizens concluded that the UK government was complicit.

Begg wrote that the inquiry, along with his own ongoing personal investigations, was the real motivation for the UK taking his passport.

"Following the uprisings of the 'Arab spring' I was able to make several visits to the Arab world and follow up cases of rendition, including the shocking case of a man whose tortured false testimony was used as a justification by both the US and UK to invade Iraq," he wrote on CagePrisoners.

That man was Libyan national Ibn al Sheikh al-Libi, the emir of the Khaldan camp in Afghanistan where Zubaydah worked and Begg, according to former FBI special agent Ali Soufan, trained. Al-Libi, whose statements about the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda were gained via torture and then used to help justify the 2003 US invasion, was rendered to Egypt by the CIA, where he was imprisoned and tortured. He was transferred to Libya in 2006. In 2009, al-Libi was found dead in his Libyan jail cell, having reportedly hung himself.

A day or so before his arrest, Begg posted a cryptic message on his Facebook page before it was scrubbed:

"Sometimes knowing too much can be a curse."