With a black baseball cap pulled tight over a mop of stringy long hair and a patchy, close-cropped beard, Mehdi-Muhammed Ghezali looked more like a Metallica roadie than a disciple of Ayman al-Zawahiri. He addressed the scrum of reporters in a clipped, heavily accented Swedish and accused the American government of wrongly detaining him for three years and “physically and mentally” torturing him. A book about his experiences was in the works; a documentary crew, cobbling together a film about American human rights abuses, had requested an audience; and his legal team was plotting a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld. It was 2004, and Ghezali was a free man.
In late 2001, Ghezali, a Swedish national, had been detained during the battle at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, handed over to the American military, and sent to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. According to his lawyers, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although he spoke none of the local languages, Ghezali told his captors, in the midst of the Taliban’s retreat into the mountainous hinterlands of Afghanistan, he had crossed that country’s border with Pakistan to study Islam.
After an intense lobbying effort by Swedish prime minister Göran Persson – and a vague promise that the country’s intelligence services would keep a watchful eye on him – Ghezali was delivered to Sweden (on the government’s private Gulfstream jet). The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter noted that Ghezali had achieved “rock star status” upon returning to his homeland, a native victim of America’s rapacious imperialism. And after two-plus years in isolation, the emotionally fragile former prisoner would be happy to discover “that a majority of Swedes were glad that he was home.”
That his story was threaded with head-scratching omissions and inexplicable gaps in chronology – the years in Cuba were, apparently, not enough time to concoct a consistent narrative – seemed to have little effect on his credibility. To his supporters, he was merely a bit player in a larger morality play. But even his most credulous supporters winced when, during a press conference in his hometown of Örebro, Ghezali offered the following opinion of Osama bin Laden: “I don’t know him as a person and therefore can’t pass judgment on him. I don’t believe what the Americans say about him.”
Sweden’s justice minister ruled out prosecuting Ghezali, and the story faded from the public consciousness. But in a country with a significant Muslim minority, it was perhaps inevitable that the foreign ministry would find itself in a similar situation again.
In 2007, the Swedish government interceded on behalf of 17-year-old Safia Benaouda, a Stockholm native and convert to Islam, after she was arrested and jailed by the Ethiopian military, then battling Somali Islamists. Ethiopian officials told Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, that Benaouda had fled Somalia after the defeat of the Islamic Courts Union, on whose behalf she was accused of waging jihad, and had been detained with other fighters after crossing the border into Kenya.
According to the Stockholm-based newspaper Aftonbladet, Swedish diplomats engaged in “discreet meetings with the Pentagon, tribal leaders, and African government officials” to secure her release. Benaouda’s mother, chairman of the Muslim Council of Sweden, wrote that her daughter was questioned by members of the CIA and beaten by guards – accusations amplified by the Associated Press. After her release, Benaouda went further, claiming that she was tortured in custody, a measure “planned and orchestrated by the Americans or other western interrogators.” The claim ensured her permanent victim status in Sweden.
The cases of Ghezali and Benaouda – frequently invoked in the Swedish media as examples of America’s tyrannical war on terror – were unrelated. There was no indication that the two had ever met or that they belonged to the same Scandinavian cell of Islamic militants. But the two innocents abroad, curious students of fundamentalist Islam, would soon find each other.
According to reports in the Swedish media, Ghezali and Benaouda were arrested last week in Pakistan – together, travelling with a multinational group of extremists – having crossed the border from Iran on their way to the al Qaeda stronghold of Waziristan. Pakistani sources claim that the group was carrying $50,000 in cash, maps indicating Western embassies, and – every religion student’s best friend – an explosives belt. One of the suspects, according to a report in the Swedish newspaper Expressen, chewed up the SIM card of his cell phone before he was taken into custody.
That Ghezali and Benaouda had, for a second time, been arrested on terrorism charges provoked little soul-searching from Sweden’s anti-American intelligentsia. Jan Guillou, a bestselling spy novelist and popular pundit, shrugged that Ghezali’s “strong political interest in Islamist activism” is understandable, considering the time he spent in an American “concentration camp.” (It is perhaps worth noting that Guillou’s record of political prognostication is rather unimpressive. He wrote a book in 1977 praising the “stable” regime of Saddam Hussein, arguing that the conditions in the prison at Abu Ghraib surpassed those in Sweden’s notoriously indulgent penal system, and predicting that by 2000 Iraq’s economy would outpace most countries in Western Europe.)
Without irony, Ghezali’s attorney reminded the public that he “has traveled in that region previously, and he has an interest in the region.” Gösta Hultén, author of a sympathetic book about Ghezali, saw his most recent arrest as a case of double jeopardy: “He has already been cleared from these suspicions once.” Those whose suspicions are piqued by a former Guantánamo inmate rearrested in Pakistan with an explosives belt and $50,000 in cash, Hultén believes, can only be motivated by “xenophobia.”
The Swedish government is proceeding with extreme caution, telling reporters that little can be done on behalf of those currently detained in Pakistan. It doesn’t help that a Swedish citizen, Oussama Kassir, was recently sentenced to life in prison by a court in New York, convicted of attempting to set up an al Qaeda training camp in Oregon.
A bit of unsolicited advice for the Obama Justice Department: If the Swedish government demands Kassir’s release, be sure that he serves out his full sentence.