‘Gloves come off’ in US fight against terror




By Mark Huband, Security correspondent

Financial Times, 28 May 2003

It is the most widely-quoted statement issued during Algeria’s ten-year civil war between Islamic extremists and the military-backed government: “Fear must change sides.”

To the Algerian army, the statement by the country’s former prime minister Redha Malek appeared as a green light to use the terrorist tactics of the radical Islamic groups, whose resort to violence in 1992 unleashed a war which has now left more than 100,000 dead.

Last December, while on a visit to the Algerian capital, William Burns, US assistant secretary of state, announced that the US was finalizing the sale of military equipment to Algeria to fight terrorism. “Algeria counts itself among the nations that has suffered most from terrorism. We have much to learn from it,” Mr Burns said.

His comments were made amid growing concern over the methods now allegedly being used by the US and its allies in the Arab world and elsewhere to confront al-Qaeda.

Concern has centred on the treatment of prisoners, the methods used during the interrogation of suspects, the denial of legal representation, and incommunicado detention. The urgency of rooting out terrorist cells, and the “rendering” by the US of suspects to countries that are identified in US human rights reports as users of torture, have intensified concerns among human rights organisations, lawyers and politicians.

As Cofer Black, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA and now its head at the State Department, told Congress: “There was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11, the gloves come off.”

The treatment of detainees has fallen into sharper focus since a US army pathologist at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan recorded verdicts of “homicide” for two men, both Afghans, who died in US custody in December. While a further investigation into the deaths is now taking place, the pathologist’s report said the two died after suffering from “blunt force injuries”.

Meanwhile, the purpose of transferring detainees to Arab states, according to a senior western intelligence officer, is to both facilitate interrogation by officials from the same cultural and linguistic backgrounds as the detainees, while also allowing “methods with which we would not feel comfortable” to be used to extract information.

The whereabouts of many of the 3,000 alleged al-Qaeda operatives President George W. Bush said in January had been arrested by the US since the 11 September 2001 attacks, meanwhile remains a mystery. The identities of many have also remained secret, and their access to lawyers has been prevented, except for a handful who have gone on trial. Those detained have been left in a legal limbo by being identified as “unlawful enemy combatants” with few clear rights.

“The government has structured a legal regime that doesn’t allow anyone to hear the detainees,” said Joseph Margulies, a Minneapolis lawyer representing four detainees – though they are unaware of it – now being held at Camp Delta in the US military base of Guantánamo Bay on Cuba.

The 675 prisoners now being held at Guantánamo Bay are in the “legal equivalent of outer space”, according to one US official. The zone is leased from Cuba and is therefore outside US sovereign territory, which means neither the US courts – nor any other court – has jurisdiction over foreign nationals held there.

The names of only 40 of those being held have leaked out, while a mere 16 have legal representation – though they do not know it as their lawyers have been barred from meeting them. Several lawyers say that up to 20 of the inmates, who have two fifteen-minute periods out of their cells each week, have attempted suicide.

Its use of the law has led to criticism of the Bush administration: “There’s a real estate lawyer from Texas deciding on policy on the Geneva conventions,” said an expert on international law at Oxford university.

But for a growing number of lawyers, legal experts, specialists on terrorism, as well as intelligence officers and law enforcement officials, the treatment of so-called “unlawful enemy combatants” in the global war on terror, also risks creating new threats, by intensifying the enmity with which al-Qaeda and the potential radicals it attracts view the US and its allies.

“The unusual nature of this armed conflict is what in the government’s estimation entitles it to behave differently vis-a-vis the laws of war. But it should be just the opposite,” said Mr Margulies. “The way the US is prosecuting this war increases the risk of innocent civilians being scooped up into it. That underscores why we have to have some process to distinguish those who are innocent and those who are not,” he said, saying that in his view as many as 30 per cent of those being held at Guantánamo Bay are probably innocent.

Studies of Islamic extremism in Egypt during the 1980s made by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leading Egyptian sociologist, revealed a direct link between the violence committed against Islamist militants in prison, and their future extremism.

Film footage of the trials of Islamists found guilty of involvement in the assassination of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, also provides stark evidence of the direct links between them and al-Qaeda. While other prisoners reveal the scars of their torture – whose authenticity was confirmed in medical reports and later led to legal action being taken against several interrogators – a key figure whose testimony was filmed during the trial stands out. He is Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy.

Mr al-Zawahiri details to the camera the torture that was used to extract his confession, then says: “Where is freedom? Where is human rights? Where is justice? Where is justice? We will never forget. We will never forget.”

He kept his word. Twenty years later he was at Osama bin Laden’s side at al-Qaeda’s Afghan base, as they heard the news that the suicide hijackers they had sent to the US had struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.