I was moved to Charlie block soon after I received the messages from my family. After a month there, a new team of investigators – wearing civilian clothes – took over my interrogations. Their style was kinder, they said they were from British intelligence.
They asked me about people I didn’t know, some of whom they said I had met in Britain when I was there.
“I’ve never visited Britain,” I replied.
Then they asked me who I met while I was working in Kandahar, if they were British. A stream of questions, including questions about my in-laws in Azerbaijan.
One of them introduced himself as an Arab-American living in London. His name was Dr Fadi, he had a doctorate in media studies, and had come especially to meet me. He said his purpose wasn’t interrogation but to talk about Al Jazeera. He asked a lot of questions, including: “How did Al Jazeera succeed? How did they get to where they are now?”
I told him: “Al Jazeera succeeded for three reasons.
“Firstly, it began with trained staff. Most of them had worked for BBC Arabic service and had long experience working in media. Secondly, they had everything they needed to help them produce their reports. Thirdly, and most importantly, the channel came upon a groundswell of strong moral support and found a space of free expression in which it flourished.”
“You know,” I said, “every channel is governed by red lines it cannot cross, Al Jazeera had none of those red lines, it enjoyed full journalistic professionalism and applied it to its news coverage. It became the most important source of verified news for tens of millions around the world. It added a new style to media in the Middle East, forcing people out of the cycle of official media clichés. It focused on the demands of viewers, and covered news that was other organisations didn’t consider important enough.”
I added “Al Jazeera was one of the first regional channels to cover conflicts such as the second Gulf war and Afghan war. The viewer felt its distinctive presence, and Al Jazeera surpassed Western media, becoming an indispensable source.”
We talked for a while, and he ended by saying: “We could say that Al Jazeera put Qatar on the map. One thing I can tell you,” he continued, “is that when you leave, you will find that Al Jazeera has spawned many channels in its image.” Then he left.
Shortly after this meeting, they called me again for interrogation and took me to a special place, by Guantánamo standards. It was a room with seats, a television, and a table covered with newspapers and magazines. On the wall were pictures of Mecca and Medina, a prayer mat and a large copy of the Quran. It was a room that – at first blush – was arranged for any purpose other than interrogation.
I sat, and soon a man in his fifties came in. He was of middling height with flowing, greying hair, a light tan and clean-shaven face. His movements were gentle, his voice quiet, overall he looked quite smart and kind, and resembled the Egyptian actor Omar al-Hariri a bit.
This was Stephen Rodrigues, a seasoned Cuban-American intelligence agent.
In the 1980s, he worked in West Germany, debriefing defectors from East Germany during the Cold War. He turned them and sent them back as spies to East Germany and other Soviet Bloc countries.
Overall, it was a nice meeting. He began with flattery: “I met Dr Fadi, and he said 345 is open-minded. I came to you, not for an interrogation,” he said, “I’m going to make you an offer, but before that, think about this: In a man’s life there are opportunities for luck and wealth. If you miss them, your life is that much harder and less successful. In the raging seas we’re sailing in now, if we don’t grasp the opportunities the tide brings, we will lose all.
“You have a great opportunity ahead of you,” he said, “it can change your life, an opportunity for you to do work that will change the course of your life, your family’s as well. Think about what I said until we meet next week.”
He gave me the magazines that were in the room. There was a copy of alSharq al-Awsat newspaper and some Egyptian magazines that had been published in the past two weeks. I hadn’t read or heard the news for so long, so I grabbed them eagerly, flicking through quickly, scanning headlines. I was in an indescribable state. I wanted to quench my thirst for news and to share it with the other prisoners.
I returned to my cell, where I lived with some Arabs, including Abu Abdullah al-Kuwaiti and others. The Brothers asked me what had happened, noting that I was still bemused by what had happened. I asked for a minute to catch my breath, then recounted as much as I could of what had happened. I told them the news I had read, and they were as happy as I was to hear fresh news of the world.
A week later I met Rodrigues again and he was more frank: “Sami, we want you to work with us.”
“Who is ‘us’?” I said.
“We are the American intelligence services.”
“I will not work with intelligence services,” I said.
“Intelligence work isn’t like what you see in films,” he said. “We want you to work with us in exchange for American citizenship for you, your wife and your son. You’ll have a large house, a car and savings in American banks. We’re not talking about one or two million; it can go up to twenty million, depending on how hard you work. If you bring valuable intelligence, your bank account will increase. We’ll train you, when you leave you’ll be a journalist of the highest calibre. We’ll prepare a book for you to publish too. We’ll make you a distinguished personality who wins global prizes. We’ll realise all your aspirations and dreams in no time.”
“How would this work?” I asked him.
“That’s easy,” he said. “You’ll get your job back at Al Jazeera when you leave here. Then when you’re asked, for example, to interview Muammar Gaddafi, you’d describe to us the location, security precautions, his movements, expressions, and observations on what you see. If al-Qaeda contacts you to do an interview, look around where the interview is happening; describe the room and manner of those you meet, their thoughts and behavior. “We wouldn’t need you to tell us your movements, we can plant devices in your body to follow you, and we can hear the conversation around you. We’d want reports from you on what the devices can’t see. We’ll train you to memories numbers, to describe people and ways to win their trust. We’ll organised a lot of training for you, and when you’re back, there will be people in Qatar and in Al Jazeera to help you, you won’t be alone. There are large financial incentives, and you’ll be happy, you’ll get what others haven’t been able to after long years of hard work.”
“Fine,” I said. “You want me to work against Al-Qaeda and against those you mentioned.”
“Yes,” he said. “But in a diplomatic way.”
“I fear Allah,” I said, “and He is my witness: No Muslim is to cast their eye towards the sins of Muslims, and I am certain whoever does this work will quit the circle of Islam, lose his religion and his world.”
In Guantánamo, my interactions with Americans taught me to talk to people according to their mentality. Americans are materialistic, like their life. If I said: “this isn’t permitted in my religion,” they wouldn’t care because they’re distanced from religion, it means nothing to them. The same was true of most of the soldiers and interrogators we met. Materialistic people who spoke to the prisoners using their logic only.
I continued, “I went to Afghanistan to cover the war. But what you’re asking me to do is extremely dangerous.I would make money, but I would lose my soul, and I have one soul; if I lose it there’s no point in money. I fear for my safety and my family’s.”
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “We here in America will protect you.”
“Excuse me,” I told him. “If America was as great a nation as you say it is, why ask someone weak like me? How would you protect me, if you can’t protect yourselves without me?”
He was silent for a minute then said: “That’s right. Right now we aren’t able to do everything, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless. We have a lot of power, but we’re in a war with a wide open front. We’re fighting ghosts, not armies. We have to use people to help us in this war. That’s why we’re asking for your help.”
“I am not convinced,” I said. “I’m hoping to get out of here and to live a quiet life with my family, a life without threats or instability.”
“You agreeing to work with us,” he said, “gets you out sooner. You haven’t done anything that would make us take you to trial, there’s no justification for us keeping you here.” He added: “But, there’s no law that allows anyone to leave, even in a case like yours. If you put your hand in ours, we can push for a political decision for you to return to your family.”
“Good,” I said. “Let me think about it.”
He gave me new magazines and said: “If you want anything, we can arrange it for you. Any place you want to be transferred to, anything you want …”
“Don’t move me,” I said. “I just want time to read these magazines here.”
“I’ll give you an hour to read,” he said, “and I’ll bring you more magazines and newspapers next week when we meet. But think hard about this matter.”
I returned to my cell, hoping to sit and think, but my neighbors wanted to know about the interrogation. I told them everything was fine, not wanting to talk right away because I knew we were being monitored. I later told my Sudanese neighbor, Hammad, in whispers between our cells. I was able to give him a decent enough idea about what happened, that I had refused to work with them, and wouldn’t change my mind, although the way I phrased my reply gave me some flexibility and credibility with them. Hammad said trying to manipulate the American would not end well, and after talking to him and seeking religious guidance, I decided to be clear. A week later, they came and took me to the same room. Rodriguez returned, smiling, bearing newspapers and magazines.
“InshaAllah,” he said, “you have come to a decision.”
“Yes,” I said. “I have come to a decision.”
“And what is it?” he said.
“I have decided not to work with you,” I said. “Firstly, I fear for my family and myself. And secondly, honestly, what you do doesn’t fit with my principles.”
“With regards to your fear,” he said, “I told you we’d protect you, that you wouldn’t be on your own, you would be working with all of America and would know how powerful it is. There are those who are ready to protect you and your family. If you come to America to live, we wouldn’t turn you away, although we don’t encourage it as it may expose you. You can live in Doha, and we’ll protect you there. We have colleagues there now, hidden.”
He continued: “Now, your principles, don’t think this is a James Bond film where you kill people or have adventures. We are like diplomats, striving to find ways to prevent killings and major crimes. To avoid killing anyone – which we don’t do, except when forced as a last resort – we stop evil before it happens.”
“Do you remember Martin?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “Martin, the British intelligence officer you met.”
I laughed: “No, I’m not talking about interrogators; I’m talking about Martin Luther King. You killed him even though he was as democratic as you and called for justice and equality. But his politics didn’t accord with yours, so you had him killed. I would never participate in something like that.”
“We didn’t kill King,” he said. “We caught the killer and he was judged and sent to prison. This is what the CIA does, work to catch the bad guys. We have two missions: The first to stop crimes before they happen, and the second to pursue and prosecute bad guys who committed crimes. Martin Luther King was murdered by a racist and intelligence officers captured him, this counts in our favour!”
“Be that as it may,” I said, “I don’t want to work with you. I will talk to you, as a friend not an interrogator. Can we not we talk as friends?”
“Of course,” he said.
“So, my friend,” I said, “ I want to ask you something. If you had a family – a wife and child who love you – and you were offered work like this, work you’d never done before, and knew without a doubt it would endanger you and those people, would you agree? Honestly?”
“Honestly,” he said, “I would refuse.”
“Thank you for your honesty,” I said, “See? I can only refuse your offer.”
He shook his head: “Let’s look at this another way. You’re in Guantánamo, you’re innocent, but the US sees those in Guantánamo as bad guys. No way you’re getting out of here soon unless you agree to work with us. If you did, in a matter of days you’d return to your family. Why no agree so you can leave?
When you get out, you can say you’ve changed your mind. Why don’t you do that?”
I laughed and told him: “I do want to get out of here, I pray for that every day.
The question is: if I accept your offer, I leave then say: ‘I’ve changed my mind and don’t want to be a journalist, I want to live and work in a small village in Sudan that is of no interest to you’, what would you do?”
He said: “Honestly, we would detain you and put you back in prison.”
“Why?” I asked him.
“Because you can’t leave here,” he said, “unless you sign an employment contract, which has clauses where if you deliver, you’re rewarded. If you mess up, you’re punished. The least punishment is putting you back in jail, but this time it will be legal, based on your contract.”
“So, I would have achieved nothing? Left an illegitimate prison only to return to a legal one because of this contract? In here, I have some sympathizers, but nobody would be on my side in the second scenario. No, my life would be miserable and dishonorable. I wouldn’t be able to return to my country even if the US released me. I don’t want to play with fire, when I leave this place, I will be completely free. I won’t be bound to your administration or any other.
That’s is my decision, and I will accept everything that results.”
He nodded and said: “After I read your file and listened to the interrogations, your situation compelled me and I wanted to help. But I respect your opinion.
I hope you’ll reconsider, and if you change your mind, ask to meet with me. I can’t give you my name, just say you want to meet with the person with whom you had a special meeting. If I’m here, I’ll meet with you. If I’m not here, I’ll send you someone to meet with you. And let me assure you that you’d really like cooperating with us.”
With that, he left. I asked him for the magazines he had, and he gave them to me reluctantly. After a few minutes, a soldier came and took me before I had a chance to read anything. They returned me to my cell, and I went gladly, a great weight dissipated from my shoulders.