Privacy SOS

GITMO 10 years on: who is a terrorist?

The following guest blog was written by Ayesha Kazmi, an independent journalist and researcher with the UK-based human rights organization Cageprisoners.

In 2010, the director of Cageprisoners, former Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, hired me to work on a project he had been formulating for about a years’ time: How the UK’s anti-terrorism laws affect wider British society. I have been working with Moazzam as my boss for 18 months now.

Contrary to what the right wing American websites will attempt to tell you about the organization, Cageprisoners is in fact a London based non-governmental organization (NGO) and a human rights group. Its purpose is to raise awareness of the plight of political prisoners of the War on Terrorism in various prisons, including Bagram, and the infamous Guantanamo Bay, who have been stripped of both their habeas corpus and due process rights.

Cageprisoners frequently features in the UK media – and rarely is its coverage positive. Rather, it is habitually portrayed as a group of hard core Salafi Muslims who are soft on terrorism. Senior researcher Asim Qureshi has employed and closely works with other British former detainees at various capacities, Feroz Ali Abbasi, Tarek Dergoul, and Omar Deghayes, to name a few. The organization’s sympathy for current and released political prisoners and their families has frequently seen it characterized as a “front for Al-Qaeda” and its employees, “jihadists”.

I would like to take this opportunity, on the 10-year anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, to clarify a few things about some of the people who have come into my life since I began my job.

I do not fear my colleagues – a group of Muslim men who were labeled by the US as Al-Qaeda, picked up in remote areas of Pakistan or Afghanistan, thrown into prison at Guantanamo Bay detention centre, based entirely on secret evidence, without trial. These men have never since been charged with a single act of terrorism.

As a result of their harrowing experiences – being sold for a bounty, then handed over to the United States, imprisoned in detention centers without due process and tortured – every single one of these gentlemen has dedicated their lives to promoting justice according to the international human rights standard.

Moazzam, Feroz, Omar, and Tariq, these supposed “Islamic extremists” and “Al-Qaeda sympathizers”, fast became important figures in my life. In the last year and a half, as I got to know them at work, I had the very fortunate opportunity to get to know some fine people; people, whom, to this day, I hold in high esteem.

When I joined the Cageprioners team, I was going through my own set of personal trials. In spite of all of their hardships, every single of these men bent over backwards to support me in my difficult moments. On days I struggled most, Moazzam would take me out to lunch to grab a bowl of chicken noodles at a small restaurant located around the corner from our London office and he would comfort me. Feroz after office hours made me mugs of tea, and we’d go through the stash of snacks at the office and talk.

My colleagues, these former Guantanamo Bay detainees, the supposed “jihadists,” have been a backbone of support for the Cageprisoners team.  They have shown me friendship. Contrary to the contemporary hysteria against pious Muslim men, they have never terrorized me, they have never intimidated me, or threatened me, and never did they ever attempt to push any form of extreme ideology onto me. To even think of them in this context is entirely absurd.

These men are not the first I have personally known to have been categorized by the US as Al-Qaeda then imprisoned. Being a native of Boston, Massachusetts, I have also crossed paths with both Tarek Mehanna and Aafia Siddiqui. I therefore consider myself well positioned to ask the all-important question: are these really the people that define what the terrorist threat to the United States looks like?

Most disconcerting is the current frenzy over the Al-Qaeda threat on Capitol Hill embodied in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Thanks to the demonization of people like Moazzam Begg, Feroz Ali Abbasi, Tariq Dergoul, and Omar Deghayes as “terrorists” and the illusionary and arbitrary characterization of the “terrorist threat,” American citizens are now facing a very serious problem: the possibility that they too could experience military trials and indefinite detention without constitutionally-guaranteed due process. 

No wonder countless Americans have been in a state of alarm since President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on the eve of the New Year. Instead of being shut down, Guantanamo Bay has been made permanent, and in the years ahead, the tyranny it represents may become a defining feature of American life.

Ayesha Kazmi is a researcher at Cageprisoners. She blogs at AmericanPaki. You can follow her on Twitter.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.