WAR ON TERROR

Jihadist ex-combatant in Spain: ‘I am still living in Guantánamo’

EL PAÍS tracked down three former inmates of the US military prison who were taken in by Spanish authorities a decade ago and still have trouble integrating into society

Former Jihadi militiaman Mohammed Basardah shows his residence card in Logroño.
Former Jihadi militiaman Mohammed Basardah shows his residence card in Logroño.

After surviving the hell of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, Walid, Mustafa and Mohammed arrived in Spain a decade ago through an agreement between the Spanish and US authorities that prevents them from returning to their respective countries of origin – Palestine, Afghanistan and Yemen. For the past 10 years, they have lived in a state of limbo, half free and half under surveillance. The Red Cross has been helping them get back on their feet, but integration is not easy.

“I am still living in Guantánamo, even though I am out of there now,” says Mohammed Basardah, who speaks in a park on the outskirts of Logroño (La Rioja) with the help of an Arabic interpreter because, although he understands Spanish, he does not speak it. “Due to the torture, I am deeply distressed and am undergoing psychological treatment. Sometimes I get fits of rage and destroy the apartment.”

A former Jihadi militiaman from Yemen, he is proud to have fought in Afghanistan directly under Al Qaeda leader Bin Laden, whom he claims to have seen in person five or six times. The first time was at an abandoned Soviet base in Kandahar in 2001, but he also saw him at an Al Qaeda training camp in al-Faruq and in the Tora Bora mountains.

Basardah is 47 and a legal resident of Spain, but he does not have a passport. His country refuses to give him one because he has spent 23 years in Saudi Arabia. Since his arrival in Spain, he has been arrested on several occasions for drug trafficking. “I was sentenced to six months and did community service,” he says. “A local police officer in Logroño has it in for me and accuses me of being a drug dealer, but I am a user, not a dealer.”

Due to the torture, I am deeply distressed and am undergoing psychological treatment. Sometimes I get fits of rage and destroy the apartment
Mohammed Basardah, a former Jihadi militiaman from Yemen

When he arrived in Logroño in 2010, Basardah spent several years living in a Red Cross apartment. The Spanish government gives him €450 a month – the same as the other two Guantánamo veterans – maintenance that is financed by the United States. He has since moved to a small town in the region where he lives with his second wife in another Red Cross apartment. “I met a girl who was living in Morocco through a matchmaking website,” he explains. “She had no papers and could not come to Spain. But she put me in touch with a friend of hers who lived in Almería. I went to meet her, we fell in love and got married. She has a residence permit and is working.”

During an hour-long conversation, Basardah tells the story of someone clearly struggling to keep his head above water, but he perks up when he talks about his only child who lives in Yemen. When the boy came to see him shortly after he arrived in Spain – the US vetoed family visits, but Spain looked the other way ­– he was in a motorcycle accident and went home despite threats from extremist Islamic groups. “In Yemen, I only have my son, who is 20 years old. He would like to come to Spain, but, with the war in Yemen, it is complicated,” says Basardah.

Basardah keeps a photo of himself on his cell phone. It shows him in his new home, smiling and wearing traditional Yemeni dress. “This is Spain; this is my home now,” he says in basic Spanish. “A studio apartment: a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen.” His mother, meanwhile, lives in Saudi Arabia. “In 20 years, I have seen my mother twice, for a total of 60 days,” he says in halting Spanish.

There are two Basardahs – the one who is trying to rebuild his life in Spain and the one whose nom de guerre was Yasin, the man who fought under Bin Laden in the 55th Arab Brigade in the mountains of Tora Bora, in Afghanistan, where he specialized in the use of explosives and poison and served as a training technician in Al Qaeda camps.

He was arrested by the Pakistani police in December 2001 as he attempted to cross the border into Pakistan from Afghanistan and handed over to the Americans in Kandahar. His first day in the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, where he joined 251 others, was February 11, 2002, the start of a year and a half in solitary confinement. The Americans classified him as an “invaluable source of intelligence. He has provided a wealth of information, tactical and strategic, about training camps for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters,” according to Guantánamo documents made public by WikiLeaks in early 2011. “They used me to create confrontation with other prisoners,” he says. “I was classified as a spy inside Guantánamo, but it’s not true. It was a lie that I turned informer for food and special treatment. I didn’t collaborate with anyone.”

Basardah complains that he can’t find work because he doesn’t speak Spanish. The Red Cross has given him courses to learn the language and found him temporary contracts as a farm laborer picking grapes and as a mechanic, but he has not managed to hold down a job. In confidence, the police acknowledge that he is causing problems and that even his so-called “guardians” have had to intervene to stop him from being sent to jail. He himself acknowledges that he has attempted suicide on several occasions since arriving in Spain, though he is now able to contemplate the future.

Of the three Guantánamo veterans, the one who appears most keen to take advantage of his second chance is Mustafa Sohail Bahazada, from Afghanistan. Since he arrived in Spain, he has made a home for himself in Málaga, first in a Red Cross apartment, then subsequently with his wife, a Romanian national, in an apartment of their own.

“He’s a smart guy,” says a police source. “He wants to have freedom of movement, but he knows that if he returns to Afghanistan he would be in danger. He has family members who are refugees living in various European countries under false identities. He is obsessed with being allowed to travel, but that is not possible.”

A few years ago he tried to go to Romania to meet his wife’s family but the Romanian intelligence services did not allow him to board the plane. At the police station inside Málaga airport, they still recall Mustafa’s fit of anger when he was told he would not be able to fly.

In 2002, he was working for DynCorp in Camp Serenity in Kabul as a translator, driver and administrator. DynCorp is one of the biggest military companies in the world. American authorities accused Mustafa of spying for Al Qaeda, the Taliban militia and the Afghan intelligence service (NDS), according to WikiLeaks. He was accused of gathering information to attack the residence of Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai in 2002 and the American Embassy in Kabul.

The first of the three former prisoners to land at Torrejón de Ardoz airfield was the Palestinian Walid Hijazi. It was February 24, 2010, and the Red Cross team who gave him his first check-ups immediately detected mental illness. He was subsequently sent to the Cantabria city of Torrelavega, where he was treated during his first few months at Valdecilla hospital’s mental health unit. EL PAÍS managed to talk to him just months after he arrived, when he told the newspaper, “I’m fine but this takes time, I need time.”

He has no life. An animal lives better than he does. He doesn’t enjoy anything
Hicham, the president of La Inmobiliaria’s Islamic social center

Ten years on, Hijazi is still far from being integrated into Spanish society. He continues to live in a Red Cross apartment that he shares with other refugees and political asylum seekers. Recently, his trips out have been rare and limited to the local halal butcher and the mosque in La Inmobiliaria neighborhood, where there is a large, mostly Moroccan immigrant population.

Hijazi tries to blend in with a degree of success – very few locals know about his past. Hicham, the president of the city’s Islamic social center, is among those who do. “It is as if he has no memory,” he observes. “He is not aware of what he is saying. Sometimes you hear him talking to himself. He has no life. An animal lives better than he does. He doesn’t enjoy anything.”

According to a source from the upper echelons of police intelligence, Walid Hijazi, aka Abu Asim, “was already mentally challenged when Al Qaeda recruited him during a pilgrimage to Mecca. He fit the profile of the suicide bomber, who would be trained to blow himself up.”

But before this happened, Walid’s mission was interrupted by a grenade thrown by a colleague at the Khowst training camp in Afghanistan, according to Guantánamo documents. He was sent to a hospital in Pakistan, but was arrested and handed over to the US army. He entered Guantánamo in December 2001.

“He’s not aggressive,” says Hicham. “On the contrary, he’s like a child. He’s very reserved and doesn’t participate in prayer. I asked him once to participate, but he refused. He has only been here once since the start of the [coronavirus] pandemic, without a mask. He was told about it and he hasn’t come back since.”

About 40 people are currently still detained at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay on the island of Cuba. Only nine of them have been convicted of crimes, while the other 31 have been languishing there without trial for more than 18 years. A total of 779 people, including 15 minors, have been held in Guantánamo cells since 2002, according to data from Reprieve, an NGO working against the death penalty and torture. One of its projects is monitoring former Guantánamo prisoners around the world, lobbying for a legal status that will allow them to achieve personal and economic independence in their host country.

The Red Cross, the Spanish Interior Ministry and the US Embassy in Madrid all refused to make statements about the Guantánamo veterans. In the police intelligence services, an officer is in charge of keeping an eye on them, a task he performs diligently. Reprieve therapists and psychologists know that the challenge of integrating these three marked men back into society is a tough one. “I would like to go to Germany so that I can work and be a normal person,” says Basardah. “I like car mechanics. Here, in a small town, there are no opportunities.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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