Almost a decade after his release from Guantanamo Bay, Moazzam Begg followed the news of the murderous attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket in Paris with conflicting emotions. He told me that he condemned the killing of civilians, but also feared a crackdown on civil liberties. And, for him – like for other former terror detainees – Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad had a painful and personal significance.
He described watching as one of two fellow inmates killed was kicked to death at Bagram, a US-run detention facility in Afghanistan where Begg was an inmate between February 2002 and February 2003. After each blow, the man shouted: “Allah!” That only spurred on his tormentors, who found it funny. A US military investigation obtained by the New York Times corroborated Begg’s account, and the CIA torture report published by the US Senate in December showed the extent and brutality of the American “interrogation techniques”.
“It’s something they’d do to us often: they would spit on the Quran and so forth as part of the process of dehumanising us,” Begg told me. “So one could argue that it’s all freedom of speech, and it’s all freedom to insult, but when you couple it up with things like that – and that, in fact, is part of the collective memory of people in the Muslim world – Charlie Hebdo didn’t happen in an isolated state.”
I had first met Begg, who is 46, several months earlier, on a gloomy late-October morning in the West Midlands. It had been three weeks since his release from Belmarsh Prison in London, where he’d been held as a terror suspect since February 2014. For the second time in his life, Begg had been imprisoned for months without being tried. On 1 October, less than a week before his court date, all seven charges against him – including that he had attended a terrorist training camp in Syria and funded terrorism – had been dropped. But his passport, seized from him in 2013, had still not been returned and he could not use his bank accounts.
Begg and his 16-year-old son, Omar, picked me up at the station and drove me to his large mock-Tudor home on a tree-lined street in Solihull. Omar disappeared into the kitchen and returned with two mugs of tea and a Terry’s Chocolate Orange arranged on a flowery plate. His father, a small man with a thick, greying beard and an intense gaze, lowered himself on to a large brown leather sofa. A gas fire burned in the grate, and from the mantelpiece hung a black flag decorated with Arabic calligraphy: “Nothing suspicious,” Begg said, slightly touchily. The banner is often associated with al-Qaeda but has been used by many different Islamic groups over time.
Since his release, he had felt “bewilderment, a sense of being robbed, violation”. “I really understood, when September 11 happened and the whole Guantanamo thing happened. I hated it, I knew it was wrong – but I understood where they were coming from. I can’t understand this [latest detention]. I can only come to one conclusion, and I don’t like this conclusion . . . [it] is just pure, malicious Islamophobia.”
The circumstances surrounding his most recent arrest and release are puzzling. Begg travelled to Syria in 2012 and early 2013, ten months before he was arrested. He says the trip was to investigate the complicity of UK security agencies in the rendition of Islamist dissidents to Syria. He met MI5 before travelling to inform them of his intentions. When the case against him collapsed, the prosecution said this was because it had “recently become aware of relevant material” regarding the case, though they would not discuss the contents of the new intelligence.
Was it, as has been widely reported, information regarding his meetings with MI5, the minutes of which were allegedly not shared with the prosecutors for months? Neither Begg nor the lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who represented him in Guantanamo, thinks so. “The government knew all along that he had been co-operating with the British intelligence services,” said Stafford Smith, who is the founder of the international human rights pressure group Reprieve. “Why it took them seven months for apparently the left hand to tell the right hand what is going on is beyond me, because we told them at the start.” He described Begg’s treatment as a “shocking abuse of government power” and said he was so convinced of Begg’s integrity that he had offered to stand surety for him.
Begg believes the prosecution backed down to avoid the embarrassment of a “not guilty” verdict, particularly after it emerged that his car had been bugged for over a year before his arrest.
Yet does he feel frustrated that, for many people, there is still a question mark hanging over him? “I have been held and questioned by the world’s most powerful security services. And that includes, back in Guantanamo and Bagram [in Afghanistan], the FBI, the CIA, MI5, later the British police and the intelligence services. I don’t think you can get a bigger group of people with more power in the world who have scrutinised me. So I don’t think the question mark’s over me. I think the question mark’s over them.”
Yet Moazzam Begg’s story is a mysterious one. Just who is he and what does he stand for? And how, under the watch of two of the world’s oldest democracies, can an individual be detained, tortured and held in solitary confinement, for months on end, without trial? His is the story of the war on terror – a conflict against an ill-defined, shape-shifting enemy – and its murky rules of engagement.
Begg attended the Jewish King David Primary School, which he described as “wonderful”, adding that because of his schooling: “Despite the world we’re living in, and the Israel/Palestine issue, I didn’t grow up with an inherent hatred of Jews and I can never have that.” He spent his days studying the Torah and evenings learning about the Quran, which didn’t help with his growing “identity crisis”. “Identity was a serious problem – getting beaten up and told, ‘Paki go home!’ and just not being sure whether we’re British, Asian, Pakistani, Muslim,” he said.
Aged 15, he joined a posse on the streets called the Lynx Gang. Its members – mostly second-generation Pakistani immigrants – often fought skinheads and other gangs. Begg’s first arrest came after a brawl outside a pub in which a punk ended up with a nail embedded in his skull. The case was thrown out of court. Begg says he had little interest in Islam or politics at that time but a number of his fellow street fighters later became involved in jihadism. The gang’s leader, Shahid Butt, was arrested in Yemen in 1998 and convicted of planning bomb attacks there.
During his early twenties Begg became more religious and prayed frequently at Birmingham Central Mosque, one of Europe’s largest. A fellow worshipper who asked to remain anonymous described it as a “pretty radical place” and recalled that Hizb ut-
Tahrir, a group that aspires to the creation of an Islamic caliphate, often held talks there after Friday prayers. (The mosque leaders condemned the group in 2003 and have since barred it.) A former cleric at the mosque, Riaz ul-Haq, is a hardliner who has warned against the “evil influence” of non-Muslims and praised martyrdom.
How Begg fitted in to this community is less clear. One person described him as a “well-known jihadi in Birmingham circles”, but Jahan Mahmood, a military historian and expert on fighting radicalisation, said Begg was “non-violent” and ultimately motivated by humanitarian concerns. He did not know Begg very well – though their fathers had been good friends – but added that he was not aware in the 1990s of any “worrying ideology” among congregants.
In 1993, Begg was visiting family in Pakistan when he met members of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party, who invited him to their training camps in Afghanistan. His main motivation for doing so, he insisted to me, was his sense of adventure. In his book, Enemy Combatant (2006), Begg describes this trip as a “life-changing experience” and the point at which he began to consider himself a practising Muslim. “I had met men who seemed to me exemplary, in their faith and self-sacrifice, and seen a world that awed and inspired me,” he wrote. Soon after, he travelled with an aid convoy to Bosnia, where Muslims and Croats were facing ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces, and enlisted with the foreign volunteer army.
Did the second experience radicalise him? “Yes, to an extent,” Begg said. He sometimes speaks so quietly that it is hard to hear him but at other times he seems to spit out each word. “Again, the word ‘radicalise’, to me, is a bit heavy. I don’t know what’s radical about trying to help someone if they’re being raped and tortured in that way.”
As well as such atrocities against Bosnian Muslims, conversations with fellow fighters changed his political outlook. Many of these jihadists had been arrested and tortured in their home countries. “Don’t ever forget,” Begg told me: “al-Qaeda wasn’t created in the mountains of Afghanistan, it was created in the dungeons of Egypt.”
In 1994, while working at the Department of Social Security, he was arrested by police investigating benefit fraud. When they raided his home they found night-vision goggles and a flak jacket. Begg said he needed both items for his charity work in Bosnia. Once again, charges against him were dropped, but his friend Shahid Butt was jailed for 18 months. In 2001, two years after Butt was imprisoned for terrorism in Yemen, police found evidence that Butt’s fraud ring had siphoned benefit funds in the early 1990s to an extremist group called “the Supporters of Shariah”.
Begg first came under the suspicion of the British intelligence agencies in the late 1990s, when he opened the Maktabah al-Ansar, a bookshop in Birmingham which developed a reputation for stocking jihadist literature. One of the books he commissioned was called The Army of Madinah in Kashmir, by Dhiren Barot, who in 2006 pleaded guilty to planning a dirty-bomb attack on London. Begg’s first visit from MI5 came in 1998, when three agents questioned him about a friend who had been arrested on terrorism charges in Dubai. The following year, his home and the bookshop were searched by police. Whether it was due to his taste in books, his choice of friends, perhaps his failed mission to travel to Chechnya to fight – or, indeed, all three factors – he was now a person of interest for the security services.
In 2001 he moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, with his wife and three small children. The 9/11 attacks would not happen for another few months and Afghanistan was under the rule of the Taliban. Begg has said in the past that he wants to live in an Islamic state but he told me his move was motivated by charity. He went to dig wells and planned to build a girls’ school in Kabul. He was convinced that, as a practising Muslim, he would not be prevented from offering girls education in the way that western NGOs had been. “Like everyone else, the Taliban needed time to develop, and that’s one of the things I wanted to do. I wanted to be a conduit, to help these people progress a bit. ”
One of the few certainties about Begg is that he does not underestimate his standing among Islamist groups. The conversation reminded me of his insistence that he could have exerted special influence to help secure the release of Alan Henning, a British hostage of Islamic State and taxi driver from Manchester who was beheaded by IS in October 2014. Yet Begg did indeed build that girls’ school.
The family left Kabul during the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and in the panic and confusion, Begg was separated from his wife and children for several weeks until they were reunited in Islamabad. Two months later, in January 2002, he was taken from his home in the Pakistani capital by plain-clothed men and put in prison. He says he was interrogated by the FBI and MI5 before being transferred to Bagram jail in Parwan Province, Afghanistan, in February 2003, and on from there to Guantanamo Bay. He did not see his family again for three years.
Some of Begg’s files from his time at Guantanamo were released by WikiLeaks. His prisoner report describes him as a “confirmed member of al-Qaeda” who is “associated with a senior al-Qaeda financier”. It said he had admitted to attending several al-Qaeda training camps and had been a trainer at one. He signed a confession saying he was “armed and prepared to fight alongside the Taliban and al-Qaeda against the US”, and that he had “knowingly provided comfort and assistance to al-Qaeda members . . . helped distribute al-Qaeda propaganda and received members for terrorist camps”. Another leaked document listed common cover stories used by al-Qaeda members, including that they were engaged in charity work in Afghanistan.
Clive Stafford Smith, Begg’s lawyer at the time, told me that the WikiLeaks documents were “the worst nonsense that the US military and government could come up with”. He said the “defamatory concoction” was based on the testimony of unreliable “snitches” and confessions extracted through torture. Begg says he was tortured at Bagram, enduring beatings, stress positions and death threats.ome of Begg’s files from his time at Guantanamo were released by WikiLeaks. His prisoner report describes him as a “confirmed member of al-Qaeda” who is “associated with a senior al-Qaeda financier”. It said he had admitted to attending several al-Qaeda training camps and had been a trainer at one. He signed a confession saying he was “armed and prepared to fight alongside the Taliban and al-Qaeda against the US”, and that he had “knowingly provided comfort and assistance to al-Qaeda members . . . helped distribute al-Qaeda propaganda and received members for terrorist camps”. Another leaked document listed common cover stories used by al-Qaeda members, including that they were engaged in charity work in Afghanistan.
I asked him how he coped with that – and with the interrogations and solitary confinement in Guantanamo. He got up to close the door to the sitting room and then said he “didn’t always” and had at times “lost control of reality”. When he was sent to the “psy-ops” (psychological operations) team, one man asked if he had thought of hanging himself with his trousers – an idea Begg says he had not considered “because of [his] faith, and the connotations of what suicide means for Muslims”. “I certainly went to sleep many times praying that I don’t wake up. But that was more to do with my dreams being an escape,” he added.
In January 2005 he was released from Guantanamo and has since then reinvented himself as a human rights activist, combating discrimination against Muslims and speaking out on behalf of terror suspects denied basic freedoms. He has drawn parallels between himself and Nelson Mandela. He toured Britain giving talks, sometimes speaking in the company of his former Guantanamo prison guards, with some of whom he has, remarkably, stayed friends. A leaked US embassy cable in 2010 praised his work in encouraging European countries to accept former Guantanamo detainees. It noted his humour and his lack of ill-will against his captors and concluded, “Mr Begg is doing our work for us.”
In 2009, Begg became director of Cage (formerly Cageprisoners), which describes itself as an “advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the war on terror”. This group had campaigned for his own release and that of other Guantanamo detainees.
Before meeting Begg, I visited Cage’s offices in a side street in Whitechapel, east London, that is populated by Muslim bookshops, religious schools and English language colleges. It is a somewhat opaque organisation – Begg said he did not know the names of its founders. When his accounts were frozen, so were Cage’s. Regardless, the group raised £250,000 in cash at a single fundraising event. By highlighting the way in which the “war on terror” has been used as an excuse to erode civil liberties, Cage has found common ground with rights groups such as Liberty and Amnesty International.
Although Begg was open with me about his contact with al-Qaeda members, he said he has never had any contact with Djamel Beghal, the French-Algerian terror suspect believed to have radicalised two of the three gunmen involved in this past month’s Paris attacks (the men met Beghal in prison in France). But Cage has campaigned about Beghal’s mistreatment in detention in the United Arab Emirates in July 2001 – allegedly he was held with the complicity of French security agents – and has also published an interview with his wife.
“It’s difficult to know what he would have told these guys [the Paris gunmen] if anything at all, but we’re starting to see the effects of how torturing people comes back to haunt you,” Begg said when we spoke on the phone in January.
Towards the end of our meeting, when Begg relaxed a little, he mentioned his close friendship with IRA members and sounded admiring of the group’s armed struggle. Some of his friends, such as Gerry Conlon and Paddy Hill, had their terrorism convictions overturned. Others, however, boast openly about the violence they committed. “They are very proud of it; they are not like us, who are half-hearted at best . . .” Begg said. “I mean, having driven into Glasgow Airport and failed miserably to do anything except kill one of your own!”
He met Bilal Abdulla, one of the two men who attacked Glasgow Airport in June 2007, in prison and he thinks: “As a person, he’s unbelievably warm, kind, gentle, loving, unextreme to the maximum.
“Because he’s an Iraqi and he did it at the height of the Iraq war, it’s understandable – isn’t it?”
“Is it justifiable?” I asked.
“No, it’s not justifiable and he’s the first person to say it,” he said, detailing Abdulla’s opposition to groups such as IS. “These are the voices that I get upset that we will never hear,” he concluded, “because of one mistake they made.”
What about his comparison with the IRA? Are some Muslims fighting a war in the UK? “If we [Britain’s Muslim population] were as angry as people claim us to be, we would have wreaked havoc on the streets of Britain. Everyone accepts, apart from the government, that we have motivation – our co-religionists in Iraq and Afghanistan and Somalia and everywhere are being bombed indiscriminately,” he said.
Earlier, Begg described the UK government as waging “a war on ordinary Muslims who stand up for their rights”.
Have his experiences made him hate the British government? “When a person feels they are being wronged, then of course there are lapses into hatred. I’ve always had my way to deal with that, and that’s to get justice.” Begg is believed to have received up to £1m in compensation following his detention in Guantanamo and is now suing the government again over his latest detention. He says because he cannot seek justice through the normal courts, he wants to do so through “the court of public opinion”.
Before I returned from Solihull to London, Begg asked me to join him and Omar for lunch. Over plates of chicken and rice, father and son plotted future trips across South America. Watching them, I thought of all the missed family dinners over the years and of how Begg still didn’t have a passport. Then I thought of the one moment in our conversation when he had sounded desperate.
“I hope and pray that people are listening. If I’m not making any sense, tell me, for God’s sake. If I sound like a conspiracy theorist, explain it to me,” he said.
Almost immediately, he perked up again.
“I’ll back up whatever I’m saying with evidence, but if you don’t want to listen, if it’s still, ‘No, we want to listen to the government,’ then it’s up to you.”
Sophie McBain is a former assistant editor of the New Statesman.