The dark prisoners: Inside the CIA’s torture programme
Despite US admissions that it tortured people after 9/11, little has been heard from the victims themselves.
“There is a proverb that a human being is stronger than a stone and more tender than a flower.” – Habib Rahman, brother of Gul Rahman (Prisoner #24) who died in CIA custody
Just days after the 9/11 attacks, US President George W Bush authorised the CIA to begin covertly detaining people it suspected of being terrorists. Within the year, Department of Justice lawyers provided the first set of memos that would draw a legal line between so-called “enhanced interrogation” and torture. Up to that point, secret imprisonment was considered a violation of human rights.
While I was starving, near freezing, naked and cut off from my family, my torturers would keep me awake for days…. From all the beatings, I learned that sleep meant pain.
Ammar al-Baluchi, victim of the CIA torture programme
CIA black sites were set up all over the world, and suspected terrorists were rendered, detained and subjected to brutal abuses: sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, auditory overload, rectal rehydration, waterboarding and stress positions, as well as other forms of treatment designed to humiliate and degrade.
The torture years continued for nearly a decade until, in 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order putting an end to the practice.
In December 2014, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) released what is now known as the “Torture Report”, the 500-page executive summary of a roughly 6,700-page still-classified investigation. The abridged version was declassified despite fierce objections from the CIA, some Republicans and even the White House.
It revealed that the programme was not only more brutal than the CIA had let on for years, but also ineffective – suggesting that the agency had wilfully misrepresented its tactics’ usefulness to policymakers and the public. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, a Democratic senator from California who has supported the agency in the past, concluded that: “Under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured.”
To this day, only one individual has been jailed in connection with the CIA’s torture programme: John Kiriakou, a former analyst and case officer-turned-whistleblower, who was the first person to confirm the agency’s use of waterboarding in 2007.
No survivor of the CIAs torture programme has had a day in a US court: claims have been repeatedly shut down by invoking state secrecy and immunity doctrines.
In the first year of his presidency, Obama said: “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”
Still, survivors continue to seek accountability. ACLU lawyers are pursuing a case on behalf of three former CIA detainees, including Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, the family of Gul Rahman, and Suleiman Abdullah Salim. The case targets James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, the two psychologists contracted by the CIA to design and implement the agency’s torture programme.
While officials may prefer to close the book on that dark period in America’s history, for the CIA’s victims, the effects of their experiences live on in their bodies and minds. Within the Torture Report was an official list of 119 names belonging to men who had been detained and interrogated in secret prisons.
The list is a window into the breadth of the programme. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Rendition Project, which has compiled some of the most extensive reporting on the individual cases to date, would-be CIA prisoners were picked up from more than 20 countries, with nearly 60 nations identified as being complicit in the rendition and/or detention of these prisoners.
Although detained as suspected terrorists, many of these men were never charged with crimes by the US. Many were picked up on the basis of thin or faulty intelligence; a few entered the programme because of mistaken identity. According to the SSCI review, 26 individuals did not meet the CIA’s own standards for detention.
A photo taken from a book assembled to commemorate the life of Gul Rahman, the only man known to have died in the CIA’s torture programme [Courtesy Dr. Ghairat Baheer]
Inside the Dark Prison
Although the locations of the CIA’s prisons have never been officially confirmed, more than half of the 119 CIA detainees are thought to have passed through a black site believed to be near the international airport in the Afghan capital Kabul.
It is widely believed to be the same prison that the Senate Investigation code-named “Detention Site Cobalt”. The men who had been detained there knew it as the Dark Prison. According to the Senate investigation, one CIA official described the place as a “dungeon” and considered the prison itself an “enhanced interrogation technique”.
Fault Lines sent several questions regarding “Cobalt” to the CIA. One, on behalf of a family whose loved one died in custody there more than 14 years ago, was simply, “Where is his body?”
In response a CIA spokesperson referred Fault Lines to documents on the CIA website, and sent back a statement that read, in part, “…the programme had shortcomings and the Agency made mistakes. CIA has owned up to these mistakes, learned from them, and taken numerous corrective actions over the years.”
The remains of the detainee were not mentioned.
The layout of the Dark Prison, as former CIA detainee Mohamed Ahmed al-Shoreiya Ben Soud recalls it [Courtesy of Mohamed Ahmed al-Shoreiya Ben Soud]
Are the torture years over?
Despite the disclosures of the Torture Report, the individuals who were detained have not been approached by the Senate for their testimony.
Today it happened to us; tomorrow it’ll happen to someone else… Maybe in the future the American government will consider some segment of the population as threats and it will torture them as well.
Mohamed Ahmed al-Shoreiya Ben Soud, former Dark Prison detainee
In the course of making The Dark Prison, Fault Lines spoke with 14 prisoners in almost a dozen countries, some of whom had never spoken to the media before – but all of whom had spent time in “Cobalt”.
Many were too traumatised, angry or afraid to speak on record, others were in countries Fault Lines could not access for security reasons.
Throughout this year’s presidential campaign, candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have repeatedly called for techniques used during the US’s torture years to be reintroduced in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, which is also known as ISIS.
In response to the attacks in Brussels, Belgium, Trump said on the Today show, “If they could expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding.”
Mohamed Ahmed al-Shoreiya Ben Soud, one of the men who spoke to Fault Lines about his experience in the CIA’s programme, doesn’t think the torture years are officially over.
“Today it happened to us; tomorrow it’ll happen to someone else,” he said. “Maybe in the future the American government will consider some segment of the population as threats and it will torture them as well.”
Ben Soud’s story, as well as those of four other men, appear below – told, where possible, in their own words.
MEET THE DARK PRISONERS
Prisoner #52: Mohamed Ahmed al-Shoreiya Ben Soud
Mohamed Ahmed al-Shoreiya Ben Soud was detained in April 2003 [Singeli Agnew / Al Jazeera]
Mohamed Ahmed al-Shoreiya Ben Soud’s detention began in April 2003. He was captured outside the house he lived in with his wife and daughter in Peshawar. Khalid al-Sharif, who was staying with Ben Soud, was detained with him.
Both men were native Libyans and were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a movement formed in the 1990s in external opposition to the authoritarian rule of Muammar Gaddafi. The US State Department labelled LIFG a terrorist group in 2004.
Ben Soud was in US custody for roughly 16 months after which he was released to the Libyans. He remained in jail in Libya for nearly seven years and was released in 2011.
In a series of interviews with Fault Lines, Ben Soud described what it was like in the Dark Prison – and also shared drawings of his memories of how the facility was laid out.
Fault Lines: How did you learn whose custody you were in?
Mohamed Ahmed al-Shoreiya Ben Soud: In my first interrogation shortly after having entered, I was brought in naked and stood there in the interrogation room. They removed the bag over my head. I found a female interrogator with the American intelligence saying to me in the harshest tone as she banged on the table, “You are now a prisoner of the United States of America. You now have no rights since the events of 9/11.”
Can you remember what the prison looked like?
The prison was basically a warehouse with a high ceiling. It was divided into two sections. One section consisted of interrogation rooms. Another section contained cells where prisoners were held.
Could you see into any of the other cells?
No, you couldn’t see anything. There was an opening that was about 10cm by 30cm below the door. That’s it. It was only for ventilation. There were metal bars through the opening. Perhaps they thought you could escape through the 10cm-by-30cm opening.
The entire building was dark. Inside the room it was dark. There was no light. When they would enter the cell, they would use a headlamp or a flashlight. I would not have known what the room looked like but for the flashlights they used. I would see what’s right next to me. Otherwise you learn by feeling. You figure out what you’re eating through feeling it. This is rice.
The music was miserable and filled the place. It was rock music, ugly and horrific.
What do you remember about the cell?
There was nothing in it. Just a small mattress. Everything else was a regular floor. What stood out to me was the bathroom that we would use, which was a bucket. We would remove the lid, and the smell would fill the room.
The area around the cells would be filled with mice. When they would give you the food, you would see a small amount of it left. The rest was eaten by the mice.
Mohamed Ahmed al-Shoreiya Ben Soud’s drawing of the cell he lived in for a year in the Dark Prison [Courtesy of Mohamed Ahmed al-Shoreiya Ben Soud]
You can still picture it exactly?
Yes, exactly. I lived in this cell for an entire year. I memorised its details and still remember them now. Its measurements, how it looks, the writings I wrote on the wall. These details are carved in my mind.
This ring, which was hung up from the ceiling, we were hung from it, in different positions. We suffered from it a lot. We would be hung for long periods and we would be in tiring and exhausting positions. The prisoner would sleep while his hands and feet hung from the ring. The guard would pass by here and use his flashlight to see that you were awake and not asleep.
The first five months that we spent in this room, we did not take a shower. We did not touch water unless we were being tortured. Our hair was not cut. Our fingernails looked scary. Five months without any care or attention. After five months, on September 3, 2003, they allowed us to cut our nails, to use the bathroom, to wash ourselves, once a week. They started to cut our hair. This was a very difficult time. Everything, every section of this room, tells a story of great suffering.
The water that we used to use to drink, wash and use for the bathroom was two small bottles. Each bottle was 1.5 litres. Three litres a day you would drink, wash your face, that was it. They would not give us clean water, but a metal jug filled with dirty water.
Can you tell us more about how they used the ring?
My left leg was broken. When they would put us in this stress position, they would tie my two hands to my right leg. Right now I have to lean on my left side so that I can have some relief. Even now, if I sit on my left leg, even for a little while, I immediately don’t have any feeling in it. Even if I walk for a little bit, I still feel pain.
They could do anything – hit, kill… anything. Because there were no human rights, no humanity, no principles, no ethics…. No one was holding them accountable or supervising them.
Mohamed Ahmed al-Shoreiya Ben Soud, former Dark Prison detainee
We’ve heard about a smaller room where prisoners were occasionally taken.
Did you see it?
It was a cell. Or rather, it was a grave.
There was a rod that hung from the highest ceiling. It was all covered in blood. They would hang the prisoner’s hands from the ceiling, with this rod. So the prisoner’s toes would barely touch the floor.
I was hung from this place for a day and a half, and my leg was broken. The blood went down to my leg so it got swollen. It was frightening. For a day and a half, I did not drink water or use the bathroom or pray. I was naked.
The entire time we were in this place, the most dangerous thing I was thinking of was that they had no red lines.They could do anything – hit, kill, they could do anything. Because there were no human rights, no humanity, no principles, no ethics.
This is what was scary about this place. There were no limits, there were no standards as far as how these people would act. No one was holding them accountable or supervising them.
What do you think they were trying to achieve with this treatment?
I think that the lone intention was to break our spirits as prisoners, to break our will so we would reach a point of personal deterioration and lose hope for everything.
One of the sleep-deprivation tactics used as part of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation programme involved suspending prisoners by their hands from a metal bar near the ceiling of a cell so that their feet barely touched the ground [Courtesy of Mohamed Ahmed al Shoreiya Ben Soud]
Prisoner #37: Ghairat Baheer
Ghairat Baheer was arrested in his home in Islamabad in October 2002 [Singeli Agnew/ Al Jazeera]
In the 1980s, Dr Ghairat Baheer was a political ally of the United States. He was a senior member of Hizb-e-Islami, an armed, counter-insurgent group within the Afghan mujahideen that drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan and was supported by the CIA.
In the decade following the Soviet withdrawal, Baheer was part of official channels between Afghanistan and other countries, including Australia and Pakistan.
Things changed after the 9/11 attacks. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hizb-e-Islami and Baheer’s father-in-law, opposed the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
Baheer brought Fault Lines to a quiet neighbourhood of Islamabad where he was arrested in his home on October 29, 2002. Walking through the deserted residence brought back many difficult memories for the 53-year-old doctor and politician.
“It was two in the morning. They were pressing that bell at my house. My eldest daughter was suffering from hepatitis A and had a pretty severe fever, and I was awake sitting with her. I came out and opened the gate. I think more than 30 people entered. They had guns and pistols. They said: “We’re going to search the house.”
Interrogation was another torture…. If you’re not cooperating, they will put you in a long box, like a coffin, and they will close the door on you. There is no oxygen. It’s completely closed. Stones are put on your top. You feel as if you’re dying.
Ghairat Baheer, former Dark Prison detainee
They tied my hands and ankles, put goggles [over my eyes], mufflers over my ears and put a hood on me. I could not breathe. There was a chain from my ankles to my waist. It was very difficult to walk. They were punching me and pushing me backwards and forwards.
My wife was in the house and my five daughters and two sons. The eldest daughter at the time was in grade 11, and the youngest was a six-month-old baby. I didn’t say goodbye, there was no opportunity given.
This was the last time I saw my family for six years.
I was a peaceful man. I was a politician. During the jihad period, everyone participated in armed struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Even in that time, I remained on the political side of the Afghan struggle. After 9/11, I was vocal in my opposition to America’s policy towards Afghanistan and the region.
Americans believe in freedom of speech. I was not doing anything related to any kind of militancy. There was no link between me and the Taliban. There was no link between me and al-Qaeda.
I was shifted to Kabul. The facility as a whole was dark. The Americans working there were using torches in order to see. It had three loudspeakers – they were on 24 hours, with a very huge voice, Michael Jackson or some other stuff. You could not hear anything else. They would not let you sleep. Once in a month they used to change the cassette. So in this period of two or three or four minutes, we could feel some kind of calmness.
At one stage I almost reached a breaking point. I was in that Dark Prison. I had a very high fever, I had a very severe stomach problem. I was starving to death, almost. I was beaten very badly. The room was very cold. An American guard was passing, and I told him I’m sick, please take me to the doctor. He hit me with his torch. I became unconscious. The waste bucket also dropped on the floor, so the room was very messy and smelly. Then they took me to the interrogation.
Interrogation was another torture. You are locked to the wall. They will not let you sit down. Two people will be punching you. If you’re not cooperating, they will put you in a long box, like a coffin, and they will close the door on you. There is no oxygen. It’s completely closed. Stones are put on your top. You feel as if you’re dying.
I was not expecting that I would survive or that one day I would be a normal human being living with my family.
My release was extraordinary. I was brought from prison to the palace, and I was the guest of Afghan President [Hamid] Karzai for at least one week. I then met my family members and one of my daughters who is now finally at medical college. Her name is Tiaba.
I was asking, “Where’s Tiaba?” She was standing in front of me. She says, “I’m Tiaba.” I said, “Is that you? You have grown up.”
Dr Ghairat Baheer with Fault Lines correspondent Sebastian Walker outside Baheer’s home in Islamabad where he was arrested in 2002 [Singeli Agnew / Al Jazeera]
Prisoner #24: Gul Rahman
Gul Rahman was arrested in 2002 [Al Jazeera]
Ghairat Baheer was not taken into custody alone. When security forces came to arrest him in October 2002, his driver, two security guards and a former employee named Gul Rahman were also taken into custody. Rahman was in Islamabad for an appointment with an asthma specialist and had planned to spend the night with the Baheer family before returning home.
Rahman would become Prisoner #24 in the CIA’s programme. His interrogation included “rough takedown” – where interrogators bum-rushed a prisoner in his cell, stripped him naked, placed a hood over his head and assaulted him – and “cold water dousing”.
He is the only CIA prisoner acknowledged by the agency as having died as a result of his treatment.
The SSCI report cites an internal CIA review of Rahman’s death, which determined he most likely died of hypothermia. He was “short-chained” to a wall, with his hands and feet bound closely together, and left half naked in the Dark Prison where temperatures dipped to near freezing.
Rahman died only weeks after he was detained, but it would be years before his family would learn of his death. That was thanks to Kathy Gannon and Adam Goldman’s reporting for the Associated Press in 2010. Rahman’s relatives said they weren’t able to believe the story until the Senate report confirmed it.
The Rahman family lives in the Shamshato refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar. The camp is usually off-limits to journalists, but Fault Lines was able to enter it and speak to members of the Rahman family with the help of Baheer.
Habib Rahman, Gul Rahman’s brother:
Habib Rahman, Gul Rahman’s brother, wants to know what led to his sibling’s arrest [Singeli Agnew/ Al Jazeera]
“If I were to tell you the memories I have about my brother, they would never end. I wish you had the time to stay with me for a night and I could understand your language, so that I could tell you what kind of a personality he had.
I never saw or heard anything from him that made me disappointed in him. He was nice to everyone. He was very special and very caring.
After he was arrested, I made a lot of effort to find a channel to contact the Americans. I would spend two or three months at a time in Kabul, but no one would listen to me. The Americans denied to us that they were holding him. We thought he was with the Pakistanis, and that he was alive.
They should have told us the truth. They should have given us his body.
Now we are asking: Why was it kept a secret? What had Gul Rahman done? The important thing for us is that the persons involved in this crime receive punishment. I wish that they are dealt with in accordance to the law, that justice is done.”
Hajira, Gul Rahman’s eldest daughter:
“Americans themselves always speak out on human rights. If they want to implement them, then this is the time. Why did these criminals kill my father in this manner? Why did they put him in such a cold place? What proof did they have for what they did to my father?
Even now they should give us his body. They should find it. Those who did this injustice to my father know where it is. They should give us his body so we can bury it according to Islamic culture.”
Obaidullah, Gul Rahman’s nephew:
“I read the [Senate] report. It was a bit of a shock to think how the human mind could arrange this kind of interrogation. I was crying because of my uncle. That was the first time that we understood the Americans had used these methods to intimidate him.
The psychologist – I think he’s responsible for all these things that were done. He is the one who was leading the interrogation process. He was a psychologist, not an official CIA man. He was controlling, ordering and doing all those cruelty techniques to my uncle.
If I had a chance to speak with the Americans, I would ask them, are you human? I don’t think that a human would do these things, this cruelty.
My uncle died in 20 days. Our family waited 14 years with no information.”
Morwary, Gul Rahman’s mother:
Rahman’s mother asked that the body of her deceased son be delivered to his family [Singeli Agnew / Al Jazeera]
“Since that year and until now, my body is on fire. How can one forget her child? Our grief is the same every night. It has never changed.
What crime did my son commit? If he had committed a crime, you could have detained him for 10, 20 years or maybe a lifetime. But at least tell us what his crime was. There was no trial for him. He has died, and we don’t even have his body.
I only say this: Did he commit such a big crime that you hid his bones from us?
Prisoner #55: Ammar al-Baluchi
Ammar al-Baluchi is the nephew of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [Singeli Agnew / Al Jazeera]
Ammar al-Baluchi is the nephew of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He is accused of transferring money to the hijackers. A citizen of Pakistan, he was captured there in 2003 and spent his first days in CIA custody at the Dark Prison.
He is portrayed in the opening scenes of the controversial movie Zero Dark Thirty as a detainee who the CIA says provided useful information under torture. The agency has cited his case to justify its use of enhanced interrogation techniques, but the Senate investigation refuted the claim.
Baluchi was one of 36 CIA detainees who were then sent on to Guantanamo. Until recently, even the memories of these detainees were considered classified information by the US government. According to Baluchi’s attorney, James Connell, since the release of the Senate investigation summary, that designation has slowly started to change.
Fault Lines sent a list of questions to Baluchi focusing specifically on the enhanced interrogation techniques he experienced in US custody. He answered some of them in his own handwriting; others were retyped during a government classification review process. (Some were either not answered or did not pass the classification review process.) Below is a portion of that Q&A, which constitutes the first time Baluchi has communicated directly with the media.
Fault Lines: Can you describe how water was used during your “interrogations?”
Fault Lines: How was sleep deprivation used during interrogations, and what effect did it have on you?
Fault Lines: What was the single worst experience you had while being interrogated by the CIA?
Fault Lines: Is there anything you would like to say to the designers of the CIA programme or your interrogators?
Prisoner #24: Jamil El-Banna
Jamil El Banna says he was kidnapped by Gambian intelligence officers and handed over to Americans [Al Jazeera]
In 2002, during a business trip to Gambia, Jamil El Banna says he was kidnapped by Gambian intelligence officers and handed over to Americans. He would soon end up on the floor of a private plane to Kabul with his legs and hands bound.
El Banna had told his wife he had be in Gambia for two to three weeks. He wasn’t able to speak to her again for more than four years. According to the CIA torture report, el Banna (or number 36) was in the Dark Prison for six or seven days.
He disputes this, claiming he was there between three weeks and a month before being transferred to a military prison in Bagram, 50km north of Kabul. Three and a half months after his initial detainment, he would be taken to Guantanamo Bay.
During his interview with Fault Lines last summer in London, he noted that the sound of an airplane passing over reminded him of his five years in captivity.
Fault Lines: You remember your experiences when you hear the noise of a plane?
El Banna: I always remember them. I’d never forget. They were very tough times. I try to forget, but I can’t. The horrible moments, the insults, the torture. There are some things I have forgotten.
In the report on the CIA torture programme, it says you were put in a “stress position” while in the Dark Prison. Can you describe what it was?
What is meant by “stress position” is that they tie your arms to a metal bar, so you’re half-standing. So neither standing nor sitting, practically bent over. You can’t move at all. You’re stuck. There are placeholder holes in the wall. They tie you up like this for days. Then they bring it down and tie you like this. And then they lower it further.
My back probably can’t straighten itself any more. It’s angled a bit. So imagine being in this position for three or four days. And then they’d tie you to the ground and you wouldn’t be able to stand up or move at all. Of course you’re hands are tied up. You’re abdomen is tied up. Your feet are tied up, and then you’re tied to the wall. This is the torture that is called “stress position”.
They just left me for a whole month. I would scream at the top of my lungs because of how painful it was. At that moment, I preferred death, and not to be tortured in this manner.
You’ve gone through this horrific ordeal. How does it affect your life today?
Of course my memory, I’ve lost it. I’ve lost the ability to focus and to remember. I could put this phone down here and then forget where I put it. Previously my memory was excellent. My wife tells me my memory is gone. She’s the one who tells me these things.
I also have night terrors. My wife knows this best. I wake up scared, lost and sweating. In those moments, I’m remembering those situations.
My back is in pain. I can’t stand for more than 10 minutes. I’m taking pills. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I get extremely worried. I have prescription sleeping pills so I can sleep.
Can you estimate how long will it take before you can put that experience behind you?
I don’t think that’ll happen. I’m going to stay like this. I’m going to remember everything and what I’ve lost. My brothers are gone. My mother is gone. [Editor’s note: All died while El Banna was in custody.] Those losses have shattered my heart. They’ve had a vast impact on me. How could I have a normal life? I can’t.
Do you think you were a different person than you were before?
Of course. When I entered Guantanamo, I was in my 40s. I had dark hair and a dark beard. When I left, all my hair was white.
Do you ever get depressed? Have there been any other psychological impacts?
If I get depressed, I take a pill and I feel better. I have a report on my case written by top doctors that’s about 200 pages on my psychological situation.
How often do you talk about your experiences with family and friends?
I don’t talk about it typically. This is the first time I talked about it to anyone. I get depressed when I talk about it. I get dizzy. I don’t like to talk about it.
Former CIA detainee Jamil El Banna demonstrates a so-called “stress position” used during interrogations for correspondent Sebastian Walker and Sami al-Hajj, an ex-Guantanamo detainee who is now a journalist for Al Jazeera.