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Moazzam Begg: ‘the powerful want to change our way of life’

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Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Moazzam Begg spoke to Pete Jackson about the attacks on rights in Britain after the police "terror" raid in Forest Gate
Issue 2006
Moazzam Begg

Moazzam Begg

When I saw the two brothers who were arrested in the raid in Forest Gate, east London, Mohammed Abdul Kahar and Abul Koyair, speaking on the TV last week it was shocking and scary.

I know what it’s like to have someone smash their way into your house and put a gun to your head. It is one step away from being shot. I felt very strongly on a personal level, but also more generally about the role of the police.

They have a job to do and there is terrorism, but what I can’t understand is the sheer numbers of police involved.

Mohammed Abdul Kahar is shot in his own house with no explanation. And to top it all, the brothers are slandered in the press and the Sun says they had £38,000 in their house. I don’t see what that has to do with protecting the public.

I remember after the 7 July London bombings Tony Blair said the government wouldn’t allow terrorists to change our way of life. But it seems to me the war on terror has allowed the people in power to change our way of life.

They have closed mosques and we now have a police shoot to kill policy. They’ve signed treaties with countries like Algeria, which has such a bad reputation that people from there get political asylum in Britain.


These treaties allow Britain to deport people back there. Why give them asylum if it’s now safe to send them back? There is a general demonisation going on.

The government proposed an extension to 90 days in detention for terrorist suspects and it got 28. It used to be three days and then 14.

This tells me that our civil liberties are being eroded.

In the light of what is being told to us, it’s difficult to trust the people in power.

One of the issues in this country is the demonisation of Muslims. But although the Muslim community is being demonised, we aren’t the first. The Irish communities were also demonised in the 1970s and 1980s.

The IRA’s bombing campaign was much bigger than anything that’s happening today. We saw internment and oppression by the security forces. In the end it didn’t make any difference.

The IRA couldn’t win and neither could the British government. They had to negotiate. We can’t buy into the rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists and refusing dialogue. The government is closing the door on peace.

The Stop the War movement is, in part, defining what Britishness is for me.


One of the guards in Guantanamo who volunteered for two tours of Vietnam – so he’s no tree hugger – told me that people in Britain had demonstrated in their millions.

It came as a huge breath of fresh air, especially after my experiences of the British government and intelligence services. I thought nobody in Britain cared except my family and friends.

When I heard about people taking part in the demonstrations in their masses I started to redefine how I thought.

Since I’ve returned to Britain I have found there has been an alliance of Muslims and non-Muslims based on justice which is preventing the proliferation of war.

My experience has been very positive. It’s easier to say now that I am British and Muslim.

Many of the people who have marched have no alternative to being British. They speak from the side that is vociferous in opposition to the war and detention. Growing up I’d always wanted to support the underdog.

Britain has never been the underdog but there is a notion in Britain to take sides against the bully. As long as that side manifests itself I’m happy to be British.

I think the government has been duplicitous and immoral in how it has worked with its US partners in crime in this war on terror.

I try to maintain that Britain has not been as bad as the US but Blair follows the US – right or wrong – in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Britain has the experience of colonisation, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s back again. It seems it’s neo-colonialism – only this time dominated by the US.

People in the rest of the world are not buying it. Only two decades ago Afghanistan was dominated by one world superpower, the Soviet Union. Now it is occupied by the other superpower, with Britain playing little brother.

There was a time in my youth when I thought of joining the British army. That thought was gone by the 1991 Gulf War. But I dread to think what would have happened if I had done it and been sent to the war and had to deal with the conflicts I would have faced.

New book exposes the horror of Guantanamo and the US’s worldwide system of abuse

I was kidnapped on 31 January 2002 in Islamabad, Pakistan. My family had fled Afghanistan after the US had bombed the area where we were helping to build a girls’ school and digging wells.

The “highlights” of my incarceration included being interrogated by MI5 agents and having knowledge of the deaths of two detainees in Bagram in Afghanistan.

I then had two years in Guantanamo Bay in solitary confinement. They wanted to fast track me though the military commission. That would mean a US military lawyer appointed for me, no witnesses, a panel of three adjudicators, no access to an appeal and it could include execution.

They wanted to fast track me because I spoke fluent English so there would be no complicated translation process. I had made it clear I intended to tell anybody I could about the deaths of the detainees.

They didn’t want me in the general population in Guantanamo, as it would be detrimental to them as I speak several languages and would be able to disseminate information.

Other highlights included conversations with the guards. These were a surprise to both sides. We would be in a tiny room with one of the guards for several hours.

Many of them found that the detainees weren’t savage killers and murderers and we weren’t bent on the destruction of the American way of life.

I made friends with several of the guards and got snippets of information from them. This included the beginning of the war on Iraq and news of the prisoner abuses in Abu Ghraib. This was weird to hear because it was being committed by Guantanamo’s sister units.

I couldn’t help but think of my own treatment – being kicked punched and beaten. The abuse was a mirror of that in Abu Ghraib.

I could tell it was all part of a system.

I started penning skeleton notes of my book, Enemy Combatant, while I was in solitary confinement. At first I was considering what Americans would think and wanted my guards to read it.

The subtitle of the book here in Britain is “A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back”. I’ve tried to reach out and talk about what its like to be a captive and to be a British Muslim. Several of us are struggling with what it is to be British and Muslim.

I wanted to look at what it is like to be a captive of the US’s war on terror from the inside and still try to be fair to all the prisoners, interrogators and soldiers. It is difficult, but I wanted to try to be just and fair without detracting from the harm done.

Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back by Moazzam Begg and Victoria Brittain (£18.99) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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