America's gulag

Stephen Grey uncovers a secret global network of prisons and planes that allows the US to hand over

8 October 2002. Over the Atlantic, at 30,000 feet, on board a Gulfstream jet, Maher Arar looked out through the portholes of the private plane at the clouds beneath and the red glow of dawn. Stretching out on the wide, upholstered leather seat, he glanced across at the large video screen on which was displayed the path of the plane from its departure point near New York, onwards to Washington, DC and then to its final refuelling point at Portland, Maine, before heading across the ocean. A telecommunications engineer in Ottawa, Canada, Maher was used to air travel - but not to such luxury.

His companions - specialists attached to the CIA - were preparing to switch on another in-flight film, an action movie. Maher could think only of what fate lay ahead of him when he reached the country to where the United States was now sending him for interrogation and from where his family had once fled - Syria.

He recalls: "I knew that Syria was a country that tortured its prisoners. I was silent and submissive; just asking myself over and over again: 'How did I end up in this situation? What is going to happen to me now?'"

Maher had been arrested after arriving at New York's JFK Airport at 2pm on 26 September to change planes. He'd been returning home from a holiday in Tunisia. He was accused of membership of Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation and of knowing two other Syrian-Canadians who were said to be terrorists. Maher was baffled; he hardly knew the pair. They both seemed ordinary Muslims like him - hardly extremists.

Though Maher was a Canadian citizen, after interrogation in New York he was told he would be deported to Syria, not his adopted country. It petrified him.

One of the CIA agents, who called himself Mr Khoury, had explained that he, too, was originally from Syria. Unlike Maher, Khoury was wearing a grey lounge suit. Maher was still wearing an orange boiler suit and was shackled with steel handcuffs and chains. During the flight, Khoury lent him a turquoise polo shirt, made in Canada. Maher would be wearing that shirt and nothing else for the next three months. He would be wearing it as his arms, his palms and the soles of his feet were beaten with electric cables.

After the plane landed in Jordan, he was taken by van to a Damascus jail. He was not alone: from the cells around him, he heard the screams of those under torture. One prisoner was from Spain, another from Germany. All had been flown in to help America's war on terrorism.

There was no daylight coming into his cell, just a dim glow through a hole in the reinforced concrete of his ceiling. Maher wanted to pray towards Mecca, but no guard would tell him which direction that was. And anyway, he could bend only one way - forward, towards the metal door. He couldn't keep track of the days, but knew that about once a week he would be brought out to wash himself.

Maher was inside a secret system. His flight was on a jet operated for the CIA by the US's Special Collection Service. It runs a fleet of luxury planes, as well as regular military transports, that has moved thousands of prisoners around the world since 11 September 2001 - much as the CIA-run secret fleet, Air America, did in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the prisoners have gone to Guantanamo, the US interrogation centre at its naval base in Cuba. Hundreds more have been transferred from one Middle Eastern or Asian country to another - countries where the prisoners can be more easily interrogated.

For transfers of low-level prisoners from war zones such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, military cargo planes have been used. But the CIA has tended to favour the Gulfstream and other executive jets for the higher-value prisoners and their transfer to sensitive locations. The operations of this airline - and the prisoners that it transports around the world - have been protected in a shroud of total secrecy.

The airline's operations are embarrassing because they highlight intense co-operation with regimes of countries such as Egypt, Syria and Pakistan, which are criticised for their human rights record. The movements of these planes expose a vast archipelago of prison camps and centres where America can carry out torture by proxy. The operations are illegal, in that they violate the anti-torture convention promoted by George W Bush which prohibits the transfer of suspects abroad for torture.

When Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago, he described a physical chain of island prisons clustered in Soviet Russia's northern seas and in Siberia. But the description was also metaphorical: the archipelago was a cluster of prisons around which swirled the sea of normal society.

Just like Solzhenitsyn's system, the American archipelago operates as a secret network that remains largely unseen by the world. Although a few of the prisons have become well-known - Guantanamo, in Cuba; the CIA interrogation centre at the US airbase in Bagram, just north of Kabul; the airbase on British Diego Garcia - there are others, hidden from view: the floating interrogation centre located on board a US naval vessel in the Indian Ocean; an unknown jail referred to only as Hotel California by the CIA. Of those operated by America's allies, the worst prisons include the Scorpion jail and the Lazoghly Square secret police headquarters in Cairo, and the Far'Falastin interrogation centre in Damascus, Syria.

The transfer to these prisons, unregulated by any law, has become known as "rendition", a term used as an alternative to lawful "extradition". Rendition was invented by Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton's national security adviser, who described it as a "new art form". After 9/11, a trickle of renditions became a flow, and became the foundation of a whole system to tackle world terrorism. J Cofer Black, former head of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre, testified in late 2002 that there were at least 3,000 terrorist prisoners being held worldwide.

Intelligence documents show the scale may be even greater. In the two years following 9/11, the Sudanese intelligence service alone claimed to have sent more than 200 captured prisoners into US custody. Of the terrorist suspects seized by America in the same period, only US citizens such as John Walker Lindh, the Californian found fighting with the Taliban, or those arrested within the US, such as Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of being a would-be hijacker in the 9/11 attack, would make it to court.

Tora Bora, Afghanistan, early December 2001. Up in the foothills of the Spin Ghar mountains on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a British special forces soldier reaches into his pocket to find his tangle of plastic handcuffs. Grabbing his prisoner's arms, he locks them tight around the wrists.

Daylight reveals the detritus of a night fight - four hours of battle that have been the SAS's biggest engagement since

Yemen in 1972. On the churned-up slopes of rough grass and

patches of snow, blankets, personal belongings, empty shell casings and the bodies of 38 Islamic warriors lie abandoned.

Another 22 fighters, the survivors, are kneeling on the ground. The fighters, from across Arabia, from Pakistan and even from Chechnya, are dressed in brown and grey shalwar kameez and thin sandals. Their hands are tied behind their backs, held taut with plasticuffs. Their heads are covered with canvas bags.

These arrests provided the entry point into the American archipelago. Though Britain and other allies would later criticise America's tactics and its treatment of terror prisoners (the British high court would call it "monstrous"), this operation proved how UK soldiers were involved with US activities from the beginning. New sources reveal the extent of the involvement - from Britain's participation in Task Force 11, a special forces group operating from a base code-named K2 in Uzbekistan, to a series of SAS battles in Afghanistan that resulted in the capture of large numbers of prisoners.

As a "combat zone", Afghanistan provided some legal cover for those arrests. But Britain and America also seized many others across the border in Pakistan.

Operating outside the law, the CIA has established snatch squads around the world. They have allowed the arrests of suspects, including Britons, which would be illegal if they took place on home soil. For instance, Wahab al-Rawi, a Briton, was questioned, but never arrested or held by MI5 in the UK. He came to be arrested only following a tip-off from MI5 to the CIA when he visited the Gambia, in West Africa, where legal controls were more lax.

Wahab al-Rawi is Iraqi-born, but a British citizen. He is enormous, and cannot walk too far without running out of breath. "I was fat before the Americans arrested me," he quips.

Wahab sits in a jail cell in the Gambian capital, Banjul, at the headquarters of the country's secret police. His questioner is an American "from the embassy", who, it is pretty clear, works for the CIA. Wahab has been answering questions about his supposed membership of al-Qaeda. He later describes his interrogator thus: "He called himself Mr Lee and was even bigger than me. He was so enormous he had these rolls of fat like breasts."

Wahab, a 38-year-old from Acton, west London, has been in jail for the past four days. He was arrested at the airport when he went to greet his brother, Bisher, coming in on a flight from London. A businessman whose family fled persecution from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he had invested £300,000 after mortgaging his house to back his latest business venture: a mobile factory to process Gambian peanuts. Bisher, who is handy with anything technical, had come out to help fix up the equipment.

Like Canada's Maher Arar, Wahab and Bisher got into trouble after surveillance information was passed to the US by their domestic intelligence agency - in their case, MI5. Both Wahab and Bisher are friends with a Jordanian Islamic preacher in London called Abu Qatada who is accused of having links to terrorists. Abu Qatada is eventually locked up by the British, but there is insufficient (or no) evidence to arrest or hold Wahab or Bisher. Instead, their details are passed on to the US as part of an "intelligence exchange" in the post-11 September world.

"When I asked Lee whether I could see the British consul to protest at my arrest, he laughed," recalls Wahab. "'Why do you think you're here?' he asked me. 'It's your government that tipped us off in the first place.'"

The CIA official was thereby breaching the Vienna Convention, which requires foreign detainees to get access to their nation's consulate.

Across the world, the involvement of the CIA in the arrest of suspects, typically bypassing local laws, has become routine. After Bosnia's civil war, which killed more than 200,000 people, the US and Europe worked hard to instil the idea that disputes should be solved through legal channels. But the CIA disregarded the new Bosnian supreme court and took four suspects away for questioning. In Malawi, which receives British and US development aid to foster the growth of a legal system, a local court was ignored when the CIA snatched four al-Qaeda suspects last year. The men were released after interrogation.

Rendition arrests probably began in earnest in Tirana, Albania, in July 1998 when a team of CIA operatives ran an operation with Albania's secret police. They tracked down and tailed a group of five Egyptian Islamist militants, foiling their plan to destroy the US embassy with a truck bomb. They were captured together and taken to police headquarters where, as the CIA waited outside, they were physically tortured. They were then bundled into an unmarked US Gulfstream jet waiting at the airport and flown to Cairo.

After being handed over to the Egyptian government, Ahmed Osman Saleh was suspended from the ceiling and given electric shocks; he was later hanged after a trial in absentia. Mohamed Hassan Tita was hung by his wrists and given electric shocks to his feet and back. Shawki Attiya was given electric shocks to his genitals, suspended by his limbs and made to stand for hours in filthy water up to his knees. Ahmad Ibrahim al-Naggar was kept in a room with water up to his knees for 35 days; had electric shocks to his nipples and penis; and was hanged without trial in February 2000.

15 December 2002, downtown Damascus, Syria. In a bustling street, taxis are honking their horns. Pedestrians hurry by. They hurry because no one on this road likes to linger too long. The office building beside the road - with its tinted windows - has a certain reputation. It is the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, foreign intelligence.

Elsewhere in the city, the atmosphere is relaxed today. The president, the young London-educated former eye doctor Bashar al-Assad, is back in London with his British wife, Asma (or "Emma", as she used to call herself), on a state visit to see Tony Blair and the Queen.

The previous night, al-Assad has been at the Lord Mayor's Banquet, where business leaders and politicians toasted Syria's commitment to peace and reform. Blair welcomes al-Assad with lunch at Downing Street and the Syrian president enthuses about "the warm personal relations I enjoy with Mr Blair".

Maher Arar has no access to radio or television to hear news of the rapprochement between the two countries. He is still in his cell, barely wider than his torso and about two inches longer than his height.

As Blair sits down to chat to al-Assad about progress on the war on the terror and the need to support the US/UK plan to invade Iraq, Arar is reaching the end of his tether. For days he has endured beatings, constant questioning and demands that he confess. He is, in fact, ready to confess to anything. He signs a false statement saying that he went for training in Afghanistan. But what he cannot do - because he knows nothing - is provide useful information that the Syrians can pass back to US intelligence.

In the depths of Far'Falastin jail, one floor below the Falastin road, Arar has no contact with other prisoners. All he can hear, during the ten months of his imprisonment, is the sound of them screaming.

In the beginning, the jailers take him upstairs regularly to be questioned and beaten. Before sessions he is placed in a waiting room where he gets to hear the torture of other prisoners. They call out: "Allah-u-allah" - "God, oh God," they cry. Once he hears the sound of someone's head being slammed repeatedly against the metal interrogation table . . .

The former CIA agent Bob Baer, who worked covertly for the US across the Middle East until the mid-1990s, describes how each Middle Eastern country has a purpose in the archipelago. He says: "If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear - never to see them again - you send them to Egypt."

Cairo, 2003. Each night before sunset, a flotilla of feluccas is untied from jetties in the city centre and sails up against the current on a cool Nile breeze. The boats, filled with tourists, move silently in the calm water. As it grows dark, the tourists may notice a handful of floodlit watchtowers and the silhouettes of guards standing on their turrets, shouldering rifles. Just yards from where they are enjoying the stunning sunset, perhaps discussing their plans for a tour nearby at the Great Pyramids of Giza, is the entrance to what for many is a version of hell.

Behind the walls and watchtowers that announce Torah prison is an inner complex, a 320-cell annexe shaped like the letter "H", known as el-Aqrab, or the Scorpion. Some of America's most secret prisoners are held in solitary confinement here. And here, too - for years - some of the most infamous names in Islamist extremism have been held, from the Cairo-born doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, who became Osama Bin Laden's right-hand man, to Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual extremist who defined the philosophy that has inspired two generations of Islamist terrorists. Many argue that Torah's harsh conditions have helped to breed this extremism.

But the Scorpion annexe is something else again. No outsider knows who is being held within its walls. Since its construction was completed in 1993, no visitor - no family member, no lawyer - has been allowed inside. The Scorpion is where some of the secret prisoners of the war on terror are being held and interrogated.

Former prisoners describe "welcome parties", where soldiers line up to "welcome" new detainees and prisoners with batons, electric shocks and beatings. There are also "search parties", accompanied by humiliating practices such as intimate searches, shaving of hair and beatings. And there are also "farewell parties", when the detainee is beaten by jailers before leaving prison.

There are whispers of another secret prison, newly built, which is also being used for holding al-Qaeda suspects: in Upper Nile, near Aswan.

Egyptian officials speak proudly of what they are doing to help the war on terror. It is the latest phase in a long line of covert US co-operation with the Egyptian government stretching back many years. Egypt still receives about $2bn a year in aid from America, of which $1.3 bn is military aid.

Nowadays, the co-operation is geared towards helping Egypt ward off Islamist extremism, and also to escape criticism for its many repressive measures.

Normally, all prisoners of Britain, the US and its allies would have the protection of the law of habeas corpus. But US federal judges have argued that enemy aliens do not have these rights and that it is not for the courts to interfere with the military in prosecuting a war by second-guessing whom it chooses to detain and interrogate.

After 9/11 Congress authorised the American president to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organisations or persons [whom] he determines planned, authorised, committed or aided" those attacks. It further recognised presidential authority to decide on any other actions "to respond to, deter or prevent acts of international terrorism".

Counter-terrorism Centre, CIA headquarters, Langley, Virginia. 6 November 2002.

If the colour picture were not so fuzzy, it would be damned impressive. An eye in the sky at 10,000 feet shows live pictures of a convoy of cars moving down a desert highway 12,000 miles away. The picture is being captured by an unmanned Predator spy plane and conveyed by satellite from the Hadramaut region of Yemen.

Though it is 4am at the Counter-terrorism Centre, the little operations control booth is crowded, as it always is these days. The technology all around is top-of-the-range: the product of billions of dollars of spending.

At the back of the room stand the CIA's lawyers - always present when life-or-death decisions are to be made. But they have already signed up to what will happen next.

At the centre of the screen are some black cross-hairs. They are already locked on to the car in front. It only remains for Cofer Black, the long-time head of the Counter-terrorism Centre, to give the order. A key turns, a button is pressed, and the aptly named "hellfire" missile streaks home. An explosion fills the screen - the camera unshaken on the Predator plane from whose wing the missile has been launched.

The target that night is a wanted terrorist named Abu Ali, aka Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi. A few hours later, when his death is confirmed, the agents celebrate their success. However, bystanders are also killed, including a US citizen named Kamal Derwish, from Buffalo, New York State.

Assassination of America's enemies seemed a clever tactic after 9/11. The CIA's political masters ordered it to kill terrorist leaders when it was possible to do so with minimum "collateral damage". It was a return to the bad old days of the Phoenix programme (the documented assassination of thousands by the CIA in Vietnam) and Nicaragua (laying mines in harbours in the 1980s and training "contras").

But it often went wrong.

Throughout the new archipelago, the penalty for involvement in Islamist extremism is frequently death or a life sentence. Trials are usually conducted by a military tribunal, and appeals for clemency to be considered only by the US president.

In Uzbekistan, a maverick British ambassador, Craig Murray, was put on sick leave after he publicly exposed human rights abuses, including execution of Islamist dissidents by boiling alive. Uzbekistan is one of Britain's and America's closest allies in central Asia because it has provided bases that have enabled operations into Afghanistan. The US is settling in for a long-term presence in return for tolerating human-rights abuses.

In the post-9/11 debate on tactics and policy there has been very little effort to address the roots of terrorism. Rather like the cowboy song - "Don't try to understand 'em/Just rope, throw and brand 'em" - Bush's response to the crisis has been too focused on military retaliation.

The military has defended the use of terror tactics. A former US army colonel, Alex Sands, declared: "The whole point of using special operations is to fight terror with terror. Our guys are trained to do the things that traditionally the other guys have done: kidnap, hijack, infiltrate."

Yet as the world gains glimpses of George W Bush's archipelago, revulsion at the Americans' modus operandi - and support for the suspects they deliver into the torturers' hands - will grow. Rope, throw and brand 'em may no longer prove a suitable containment policy.