Pursuant to this, it has been widely reported that he organised a series of lectures under the title ‘War on Terror’ and that the speakers invited give an indication to the radically Islamic nature of Umar. They included renowned lawyers like Sir Geoffrey Bindman, Phil Shiner, MP George Galloway, my colleague Asim Qureshi, journalist Victoria Brittain and me. A rudimentary investigation would have uncovered that Abdulmuttalab was not the actual organiser of these lectures – he was not even present.
I have received incessant media enquiries over the past two weeks asking if I knew or remembered Abdulmuttalab. Some articles in the press have suggested that Abdulmuttalab even came under my tutelage, so I became deeply troubled: how could I have forgotten I knew this individual when the media insist I must have known him? I have spoken at over 500 events since my return from Guantanamo, including UCL where I have addressed events organised by Amnesty International, as well as by the Islamic society. But the person who did organise the ‘War on Terror Week’, Qasim Rafiq – who I do remember and is a bona fide friend of Abdulmuttalab’s, told me that I would not have known him because he didn’t attend any of the lectures. Had Abdulmuttalab attended one of the Cageprisoners’ lectures he’d have learned that we deal in campaigning and legal briefs, not the other sort.
There is another person I keep getting calls from the media about: the US-Yemeni Imam, Anwar al-Awlaki. Cageprisoners campaigned for Anwar when he was detained without trial in Yemen in 2006. Although I knew nothing of Awlaki before my return from Guantanamo it was evident that he commanded a large following and great respect amongst many Muslims of all persuasions in the UK and elsewhere. Shortly after his release I managed to obtain an exclusive telephone interview with him, in which I asked him about his time in prison. One of the things he told me was that he had been interrogated by US government agents and, when I probed him about any abuses or torture he might have suffered at their hands or behest he said he’d rather not talk about that. Interviewing Awlaki was important on many levels for Cageprisoners, not least because he was a prisoner held in the Middle East at the behest of the US. This was noted even by Human Rights Watch who also sought our assistance in trying to secure an interview with him, as well as several western media outlets. After his release, I am told, Anwar’s position on issues pertaining to US foreign policy had started to become more hostile. Cageprisoners went on to invite Awlaki to deliver audio-recorded addresses at two of our annual dinners, speaking solely on the issue of prisoners’ rights as prisoners and their families would find solace in hearing from a scholar who was a former prisoner and could relate to their experience
A cursory look at Awlaki’s pre-incarceration lectures would clearly show just why he became so popular. He was not a radical ‘preacher of hate’ by any stretch of the imagination. Whilst teaching Islamic principles in an erudite and articulate way – he neither shied away from talking about the Islamic concept of jihad (in military terms) nor from condemning the September 11 attacks and terrorism in general. Although the last thing Awlaki said to me was if I could get help him find a copy of a book by a convicted terrorist: Nelson Mandela (Long Walk to Freedom) I wonder if its terribly surprising if an Imam who once condemned the attacks on the World Trade Centre as unIslamic acts, after suffering abuse I know only too well US agents to be capable of, now allegedly lauds the Fort Hood shootings deeds of heroism? Of course, as usual, what’s missing in all the discussion about Awlaki is Awlaki. Other than a defunct blogsite and allegations by US and Yemeni officials that he’s behind it all there isn’t a great deal to go on. Nonetheless, Cageprisoners never has and never will support the ideology of killing innocent civilians, whether by suicide bombers or B52s, whether that’s authorised by Awlaki or by Obama. Neither will we be forced into determining a person’s guilt outside a recognised court of law. That is one of the reasons I joined Cageprisoners.
The other reason I joined this organisation is that it has ardently campaigned against rendition, detention without trial, enforced disappearance, torture and criminalisation of communities since the War on Terror began. We have done so with the assistance and support of leading human rights organisations, lawyers, politicians and ordinary people. In fact, the ability to mobilise the latter, which includes hitherto badgered communities, is where our real strength lies and, this is evidently what has irked some of our adversaries. In the latest tradition of attacking all persons Muslim - especially ‘uppity’ ones who stand up for their rights – the vitriol is particularly disconcerting. One report relayed to me directly cited a UK lawyer – yes, a lawyer –who works for a very reputable firm, who after storming in to the launch of our report that highlighted detention without trial in the UK, Detention Immorality, wants to ‘destroy Cageprisoners.’ Indeed, much of the hatred-preaching espoused recently against Cageprisoners – and many other Muslim organisations – can be traced back to this individual’s Islam-hating blogsite: Harry’s Place.
But the antipathy goes a lot further. A US news report declaring Cageprisoners and I as ‘al-Qaeda’s Trojan Horse’ made some astonishing and libellous allegations earlier this week, even quoting the director of the Joint Intelligence Group at Guantanamo as saying, "[Begg] is doing more good for al Qaeda as a British poster boy than he would ever do carrying an AK-47." Conveniently omitting the fact that I’m a ‘British poster boy’ because of what they did – in addition to the inference that my shooting skills are worse than my spoken ones – renders this assertion disingenuous. Further, it sits in sharp contrast that Cageprisoners has organised several unprecedented communications and tours in the UK with former US soldiers and interrogators who served in Guantanamo – bringing them together with former prisoners. Hardly from al-Qaeda’s arsenal of modus operandi I would have thought? Perhaps it’s the voice of reason and hope that frightens our antagonists the most.
A day before the underpants plot was hatched, like Umar, I too was returning from Africa – Darfur in Sudan to be exact – where I had spent a week surveying the refugee camps and had met with former Guantanamo prisoners, including Sami al-Hajj, the former al-Jazeera cameraman and human rights campaigner. Last year, together with Binyam Mohamed and others we launched the Guantanamo Justice Centre together. Sami and I also addressed an audience of thousands last year in Malaysia, along with survivors of Abu Ghraib, at a War Crimes conference alongside former UN weapons inspectors who resigned over the scandals in Iraq. But each time I return to the UK, I have been detained by the Borders Agency and questioned by police. Each time I am asked if I had travelled abroad to pursue my claim against the British authorities (where the government has cited secret evidence as a defence against prosecution – in a civil case – for the first time in English legal history). I have made official complaints about this direct attempt to interfere in an ongoing legal case but, as Umar Farouk’s charred underpants undergo the meticulous investigations they rightly deserve, it is clear that everyone will be subjected to similar and invidious intrusions of their privacy, especially those deemed to be Muslim, let alone the ones who were once held at Guantanamo Bay
Nearly half of the men still held in Guantanamo include 91 Yemenis – more than forty of whom have been cleared for release and transfer by the US administration. With the focus on Yemen as the next theatre of the de facto ‘War on Terror’, the ordeal of innocent men will undoubtedly be prolonged despite the US President’s assertion that his administration would work to persuade Muslims around the world that ‘al-Qaeda's policies and aims were bankrupt and produced only misery’. Whilst that may be true for some, after eight years of inhumane treatment and imprisonment without trial, that’s precisely what the prisoners say about their experience of the US in the secret prisons, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, the ‘gulag of our times’.