Legacy of 9-11: F.B.I. Using Proxies to Torture Americans Not Charged With Any Crime
When Gulet Mohamed finally returned home  on a chilly Virginia morning in
January, the 19-year-old from Fairfax was wearing the same outfit he had
on when he disappeared
a month earlier  in Kuwait.
Clad in a fleece hat and a gray Real Madrid sweatshirt, the
straggly-bearded, wide-eyed teenager stepped out of arrivals at Dulles
Airport and into a phalanx of television cameras. He wore a bewildered
smile—as if he was still unsure of what had happened to him but was just
grateful it was over.
For more than a year, Mohamed had been living in Kuwait City with an
uncle. On December 20, 2010, according to
legal records  (PDF), he went
to the airport to renew his tourist visa for an additional three
months. The process took longer than usual. From a waiting area, Mohamed
emailed his brother to let him know he’d run into some red tape.
Soon afterward, two men in street clothes came in, blindfolded him,
escorted him out of the airport, and led him into the back of a vehicle.
They drove maybe 15 or 20 minutes. When the men removed his blindfold,
he was in a cell with white walls.
Later, the men—members of Kuwait’s security forces, Mohamed
inferred—marched him to an interrogation room, where they shouted names
at him in Arabic.
“Osama bin Laden! Do you know him?” “Anwar al-Awlaki?”
When he responded “no,” his interrogators slapped him across the
face. As the days passed, Mohamed claims, they beat him with sticks on
the soles of his feet, asked him to choose between torture by
electrocution or power drill, and threatened his family.
Sometimes, Mohamed later told his lawyer, his
captors escorted him, blindfolded, to another part of the facility,
where a man who spoke with an American accent posed specific questions
about his life in the US. He inquired about Mohamed’s siblings by name.
“Don’t you know we know everything about you?” he asked.
Mohamed is one of a growing number of American Muslims who claim
they were captured overseas and questioned in secret at the behest of
the United States, victims of what human rights advocates call “proxy detention ”—or
“rendition-lite.” The latter is a reference to the Bush- and
Clinton-era CIA practice 
of capturing foreign nationals suspected of terrorism and “rendering”
them to countries such as Egypt,
Jordan, or Morocco  (PDF)
for interrogations that often involved torture.
Many of these episodes follow a similar script. A US citizen is
detained, questioned, and sometimes abused in a Middle Eastern or
African country by local security forces. Often his interrogators
possess information that could only have come from US authorities; some
of the detainees say American officials have been present for the
questioning. When the suspect is released from detention, he often
discovers he’s on the no-fly list 
and can’t return home unless he submits to further questioning by FBI
agents. Sometimes he’s denied access to a lawyer during these sessions.
Mohamed. Jacquelyn Martin/AP PhotoIn the past,
the FBI has denied that it asks foreign governments to apprehend
Americans. But, a Mother Jones investigation has found, the
bureau has a long-standing and until now undisclosed program for
facilitating such detentions. Coordinated by elite agents who serve in
terrorism hot spots around the world, the practice enables the
interrogation of American suspects outside the US justice system.
“Their citizenship doesn’t seem to matter to the government,” says Daphne Eviatar ,
a lawyer with Human Rights First. “It raises a question of whether
there’s a whole class of people out there who’ve been denied the right
to return home for the purpose of interrogation in foreign custody.”
Although it’s difficult to say for certain whether the men in this
story—which is based on interviews with law enforcement and intelligence
officials, court documents, transcripts, and other records—are
terrorists, tourists, or something in between, one thing is clear:
Pakistanis, Saudis, and Somalis aren’t the only ones being captured and
questioned on our behalf. Americans are too.
In October 2008, a few days before
Halloween, a 27-year-old Somali American drove a car full of explosives
into a government office in northern Somalia. The bomber’s name was Shirwa Ahmed ,
and he’d grown up in Minneapolis playing basketball and listening to
Ice Cube. Ahmed is widely believed to be the first American suicide bomber  (PDF).
What worries federal authorities is that Ahmed was one of at least 20
young men who left Minnesota between 2007 and 2009 for
Somalia—intending, the FBI believes ,
to join the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group al-Shabaab .
Since then, several more 
of these men are believed to have become suicide bombers —including
one just this past May .
agents told him: “You’re here; your lawyer is not.”
Cases like Ahmed’s seem to be on the rise. Between 2002 and 2008, an
average of 12 people per year were indicted on charges relating to
“domestic radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism,”
according to a 2010 report by the RAND Corporation 
(PDF). That number rose to 42 in 2009. For counterterrorism officials,
the face of Islamic terrorism was no longer a Saudi trained in the
mountains of Afghanistan. It was Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter ,
radicalized over the internet, or Faisal Shahzad
, the Pakistani American who
attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square  in May 2010 (PDF). A Senate Foreign
Relations Committee report released in January 2010 warned
that Al Qaeda  (PDF)
“seeks to recruit American citizens to carry out terrorist attacks in
the United States” and singled out Yemen and Somalia as places where
such recruits might travel.
Gulet Mohamed had spent time in both countries—which by itself would
have raised “a lot of flags,” according to a former senior State
Department official familiar with his case. He first visited Yemen in
March 2009, planning to study Arabic and Islam. After a few weeks,
however, he and his mother decided that the country was not safe, and he
made his way to a relatively stable part of northern Somalia to stay
with family. In August 2009 he moved on to Kuwait, where he remained
until his arrest.
After a week of beatings and harsh interrogation, Mohamed was
transferred to a Kuwaiti deportation facility. It was here, he says,
that the FBI showed up. Agents interrogated him repeatedly, asking him
why he had traveled to Somalia and Yemen and whether he knew Shahzad or
Chesser , an American Muslim
charged in July 2010 with aiding al-Shabaab. According to Mohamed,
when he requested a lawyer, one of the agents told him: “You’re here;
your lawyer is not.”
Mohamed was also informed that his name had been placed on the no-fly
list—effectively blocking his return to the US. “Your government is
not letting you back into your country,” one Kuwaiti official told him.
Another said: “Gulet, we have relationships with the Americans. This
interrogation is between you and your government.”
Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, is one of the gems
of the Arabian Peninsula. Even as the country teeters on the brink of
chaos, tourists still visit the ancient hill city to gape at the
intricate rammed-earth houses that compose its crenellated skyline.
One January morning in 2010, Sharif
Mobley  was drinking tea
outside a convenience store bedecked with a Coca-Cola sign when two
white vans screeched to a halt on the dusty street. Eight armed men
dressed in black jumped out. One grabbed Mobley’s jacket, but the
26-year-old—a black belt in tae kwon do—slipped away.
Mobley. Courtesy of the Mobley FamilyHe made it a
couple of steps before two bullets fractured his femur. “I’m an
American!” he yelled as he was dragged away. The men threw him in the
van and sped off.
Mobley, who was in Sanaa with his wife and two young children, had
been advised not to go to Yemen. “It is unstable,” his childhood imam
had warned. But for young Muslims, Sanaa can be irresistible. Lonely
Planet pitches Yemen as “a great place to learn Arabic,” and it is; the
language schools are cheap, good, and plentiful. It has also become a
place for young western Muslims to complete their radicalization—which
is exactly what government officials say Mobley was doing.
After Mobley vanished, his family would not hear anything
authoritative about him for nearly six weeks. But on March 11, 2010,
news broke that an American had been involved in an action-movie-style
escape attempt at al-Jumhori Hospital in Sanaa. It was Mobley.
According to Yemeni officials, Mobley had tricked
his guards  at the
hospital into putting down their guns to join him for prayers. Then he
grabbed one of the weapons, shot two guards—one fatally—and made a
break for it. He didn’t get far before the entire floor was on
lockdown. Yemeni counterterrorism forces—many of which are trained and
funded by the US—descended on the hospital and eventually
After the firefight, information about Mobley’s past poured out in
the press: He had once called an acquaintance who had fought in Iraq a “Muslim
killer ,” and he was
employed as a maintenance worker at several
nuclear power plants —a
fact that inspired much
speculation . By the end of
the week, the
AP reported that ,
according to “US officials,” Mobley had “traveled to Yemen with the
goal of joining” Al Qaeda. Also incriminating was the anonymously
sourced allegation that Mobley had communicated
with Anwar al-Awlaki , the
New Mexico-born Al Qaeda propagandist now
hiding out in Yemen .
Awlaki and Mobley spoke on the phone and corresponded over email a
number of times, Mobley’s defense lawyer, Cori Crider , told Mother Jones, but
about religious and personal matters, not terrorism. She says the two
men met in person once in 2008, more than a year before his arrest.
Initial news accounts mirrored the official version of the incident,
reporting that Mobley had been captured in early March—when in reality
he’d been in custody for six weeks. According to a
notarized letter  to
Crider from two top officials at the police hospital in Sanaa, Mobley
was “admitted to the hospital on the 26th of January to the 10th of
February 2010 post gun shot with a femur fracture. The surgical therapy
was done by one of our orthopedic surgeons on the 26th of January.
After treatment the patient was discharged and handed back to the
National Security of the Republic of Yemen.”
repeatedly, threatening his family and telling him he would be raped
in a Yemeni prison if he didn’t cooperate.
According to legal
documents  prepared
by Crider , Mobley had been
visited by two American agents, “Matt from FBI and Khan from [the
Pentagon],” while chained to his bed in a secure wing of the hospital.
Matt looked “kind of like Matt Damon,” and Khan was a “heavyset person
of South Asian, possibly Pakistani, descent,” Mobley told Crider. When
Mobley asked for a lawyer, the agents told him that he was not under
formal arrest and would not be read his rights. Mobley claims Matt and
Khan questioned him repeatedly over the next several weeks,
threatening his family and telling him he would be raped in a Yemeni
prison if he didn’t cooperate. Some of their questions focused on
Awlaki. Eventually, according to the documents, Mobley was transferred
to a Yemeni prison—but not before his catheter was removed so roughly
that he started bleeding profusely from his penis.
In prison, Mobley told Crider, he was beaten and dragged down stairs
before eventually blacking out on a metal slab while the blood from
his penis soaked through the front of his prison garment. He was later
taken to a second hospital, where, he said, Matt and Khan returned to
interrogate him at least once more. Eventually, he tried to escape.
“Imagine for a minute you were shot and held in secret for weeks on
end, beaten up, threatened with rape, and told that your wife and two
babies would face the same fate you had,” Crider says. “Most of us in
that situation would go to extraordinary lengths to protect our
Mobley, like Mohamed, has never been charged with any crime under US
law. Yemeni officials told the AP that he hadn’t even been on their
list of “wanted militants.” But as of this writing, he’s still in
prison in Yemen, awaiting trial for allegedly killing a guard during
his escape attempt.
Prior to the 1993 bombing of the
World Trade Center, the FBI didn’t maintain much of a foreign
presence. But in the years since, the bureau has increasingly relied
on its network of legal attaches, or Legats—elite FBI agents stationed
at US embassies and charged with forming counterterrorism alliances
with local law enforcement and intelligence services.
Between 1993 and 2001, the FBI more than doubled the
number of Legat offices 
from 20 to 45 (PDF), opening new bureaus in Egypt, Israel, Jordan,
Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Another 14
have opened  since 9/11
(PDF). The FBI
refers to Legats  as “the
foundation” of its “international program” and says they are
“essential” to preventing terrorist attacks. Among their main duties,
according to the congressional testimony of one former FBI official, is
“coordinating requests for FBI or host-country assistance overseas.”
foreign security service to detain an American terrorism suspect and
passing along questions for interrogators.
This could mean something as routine as setting up meetings between
FBI honchos and foreign intelligence officials. But according to
current and former FBI officials familiar with the process, sometimes
it also entails encouraging a foreign security service to detain an
American terrorism suspect and passing along questions for
interrogators. According to bureau sources, top FBI, Justice
Department, and sometimes even White House officials must authorize
such requests before they’re passed on to the Legat in the country
where the suspect is traveling.
In a statement
to Mother Jones ,
the FBI stopped short of admitting that it has requested the detention
of American terrorist suspects. The bureau acknowledged, however,
that information it has “elected to share” with “foreign law
enforcement services” has “at times” resulted in the “detainment of an
individual.” It also said FBI agents have occasionally “been afforded
the opportunity to interview or witness an interview” with detainees
abroad. The bureau maintains that FBI agents have “acted in accordance
with established FBI policy and guidelines” in these cases. The
bureau declined to comment on specific cases.
“America since the fall of the Berlin Wall has
been eager to find proxies to do our dirty work,” says Michael
Scheuer , the ex-head of
the CIA’s Osama bin
Laden unit  and the
author of a recent biography of the late Al Qaeda leader. “We’ve been
lucky to find Jordans and Egypts that were willing to do that—not
just to help us, but also because the people we were aiming at were
the people they were also aiming at.”
In theory, an FBI official says, foreign security forces are told
that US citizens detained as part of this program are not to be harmed.
But, the official acknowledges, foreign security forces are sometimes
overzealous. Torture isn’t the point, though, the source
explains—fear is. Throwing a guy from suburban Virginia into a Middle
Eastern jail cell might shake loose information that wouldn’t come
out in an FBI interrogation room in Washington, DC.
Whether the information is accurate
is another matter. Weeks after being interviewed by FBI agents in
the United Arab Emirates in 2008, Naji
Hamdan , a naturalized US
citizen who had run an auto-parts business in California, was
abruptly arrested by the country’s security forces. Over a period of
three weeks, he was repeatedly
beaten  and questioned
(PDF). “If you don’t confess, I swear to God I’m going to bring your
wife to this room, and you’ll see what we do to her,” the lead
interrogator vowed at one point. During one interrogation, Hamdan
says, an American was present. “I’ve lived enough in the US to
recognize the accent of the person when he talks,” he says. “I had no
doubt that the person who was talking to me was a Caucasian American.”
Hamdan’s interrogators kicked him in the side until he passed out.
When he came to, the “American” spoke: “You better do what these
people want, or they’ll fuck you up.”
they’ll fuck you up.”
Hamdan eventually confessed to being a member of a variety of
terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, and spent another 11 months in
prison before the UAE deported him to Lebanon. He later said his
confession was fiction—after weeks of torture, he’d told his
interrogators whatever they wanted to hear. The FBI, for its part,
extensively investigated Hamdan’s activities in the US. He was never
charged with a crime.
“From some of the other proxy detentions, it’s clear that the
government has got it flat wrong about which individuals pose a threat,”
says the ACLU’s Michael Kaufman, who’s on Hamdan’s legal team. “It
wouldn’t be surprising if Naji was one of those horrible, horrible
Along with the cases of Hamdan, Mobley, and Mohamed, there are others
that show indications of US involvement. Yusuf
Wehelie , another
19-year-old Virginian, claims he was detained and beaten by Egyptian
security forces in May 2010 after the FBI questioned him and his older
brother Yahya at a hotel in Cairo. The Egyptians who beat and
interrogated Wehelie “stated over and over that they worked for the
United States government, and that they were questioning me at the
request of the United States government,” he later said. The Egyptian
interrogators asked Wehelie “the same questions that the American FBI
agents had been asking.” Some focused on Mobley. After Wehelie was
allowed to return home, his brother was forced to remain in Cairo for
two more months. Yusuf later
told a reporter  he was
interviewed by the FBI 10 times and submitted to a polygraph test
before he was permitted to return home. (The Wehelies, through their
lawyer, declined to comment.)
In 2007, Kenyan authorities arrested Amir Meshal, of New Jersey, and
New Hampshire-raised Daniel Maldonado 
after they sought refuge in Kenya when Ethiopia invaded Somalia and
displaced its Islamist government. (Both men claim they went to
Somalia, which was comparatively stable before the Ethiopian invasion,
only for the experience of living in an Islamic country.) Maldonado
has since taken a plea deal and is serving a
10-year sentence  for
receiving training from Al Qaeda. But Meshal has not been charged with a
crime. Backed by the ACLU, he
is suing the government 
(PDF), claiming that FBI agents violated his rights by interrogating
him in a series of African prisons without access to a lawyer.
out there that are being tortured like I was.”
Human rights advocates believe many more Americans may have been
subjected to proxy detention but have not come forward for fear of
retaliation or prosecution; some may still be secretly imprisoned. As
Gulet Mohamed declared when he arrived back in the US: “There are still
probably other people out there that are being tortured like I was.
My voice has been heard, but their voices are not being heard.”
During his detention in Kuwait, one of Mohamed’s fellow prisoners had
given him access to a smuggled cell phone. He called his family, who
contacted a lawyer; eventually Mohamed used the phone to describe
his plight to the New
York Times‘ Mark Mazzetti .
The story made headlines, embarrassing the Obama administration and
raising questions about its track record on civil liberties and human
rights. An irate US Embassy official later visited Mohamed’s cell
with a highlighted copy of the Times story. “You didn’t
cooperate with the FBI,” he said, according to Mohamed. “That is why
you didn’t leave. You went public. We need to calm this down.”
At a press conference when Mohamed finally did return home, his
lawyer, Gadeir Abbas, addressed the scrum of reporters. “What’s great
about being an American citizen traveling abroad is that you have the
full power and privilege of the most powerful country in the world at
your back,” he said. “But in this situation, it doesn’t look like
Gulet had those powers and privileges that are routinely granted to
other American citizens.”
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