x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Decade of Fear: taking stock of what was lost on the warpath

From the twisted metal of 9/11 to the catastrophic missteps in the "war on terror", Michelle Shephard has produced an intensely personal account of 10 years of reporting.

An Afghan man displays some of the used bullets at the scene where Sabar Lal Melma, a former Guantanamo detainee, was allegedly killed in a NATO and Afghan forces raid in Jalalabad, Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. AP Photo
An Afghan man displays some of the used bullets at the scene where Sabar Lal Melma, a former Guantanamo detainee, was allegedly killed in a NATO and Afghan forces raid in Jalalabad, Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. AP Photo

One evening late last year, Michelle Shephard, the national security correspondent of the Toronto Star, found herself on a "Spy Cruise" of the Caribbean, being given a one-on-one explanation by Porter Goss, the former head of the CIA, of just what the "waterboarding" 183 times of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda's number three, really meant.

This was not, however, a Christopher Hitchens-style personal immersion in the controversial interrogation technique, which simulates drowning so closely that Hitchens lasted only around 10 seconds before signalling he could endure no more. No wonder President Barack Obama called the procedure torture soon after taking office in 2009. To Goss, however, who was appointed as head of the CIA under the Bush administration, it was "effective" - and clearly no big deal.

"Do you know what 183 means?" Goss asked Shephard, who recalls how he then used a jar of bar nuts to demonstrate. "Out plopped an almond. 'One'. A cashew. 'Two'. Peanut. 'Three'. It looked so benign when crossing the Atlantic."

Thus begins Shephard's account of 10 years of reporting since 9/11, a decade that took her from the twisted metal and ash of the World Trade Center hours after the attack to being shot at in Yemen, receiving unique pearls of wisdom about the superiority of the hereafter from an ex-Inter-Services Intelligence operative in Pakistan - "This life is like a toilet. It's a necessity. You have to use it but you want to get out very fast" - forging special bonds with a fragile child (and a tortoise) in Somalia, and to chronicling the absurdities and barbarities of Guantanamo Bay.

Many books and semi-academic treatises have been written on the narratives of the extremist movements, on the evolution of Al Qaeda and on the ill-fated campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Shephard's book is refreshingly different.

It is an intensely personal series of pictures and stories, sometimes concerning those whose importance needs little elaboration - bin Laden's chauffeur, or the schoolteacher who became president of Somalia - but even more movingly about people of whom most of the wider world would never hear: Cindy Barkway, a Canadian whose husband died in 9/11; Ismail Abdulle, a young boy condemned to a double amputation by the al Shahbab militia; and, for me, most poignant of all, Abdel Salem al Hila, snatched in autumn 2002 from the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo and flown first to Bagram Base in Afghanistan and then to Guantanamo Bay. The US accused al Hila of being a member of Al Qaeda. Human Rights Watch called his case a "reverse rendition" and the detainee himself, a prominent businessman and tribal leader in Yemen, vehemently denied any such involvement.

"I will not be considered an enemy to anybody," Shephard quotes him saying to a military panel in Guantanamo in 2004. "I hate fighting from the bottom of my heart. This is not because I'm here today; this is a fact. I want to let you know that I am a father. Even though I am not important in the American people's eyes because I am a prisoner, I am very important to myself. My kids and wife think that I am important, as do my mother and family. I hope that you consider that. I have already spent 28 months. I am in prison without any reason."

Since then, Abdel Salem al Hila's mother has died and his two boys were killed by a grenade. He has never been tried and remains in custody.

Although Shephard's experiences are varied and jump from country to country (she also emphasises their connections to Canada in a way that will feel novel to anyone not used to taking in their current affairs from the perspective of that country), several themes about the catastrophic and counter-productive missteps in the "war on terror" run throughout. As the opening of her book suggests, one is the fatuity, not to mention the illegality, of torture. Shephard makes her case convincingly with a handful of examples.

When the FBI agent Ali Soufan questioned bin Laden's former chief bodyguard, Abu Jandal, just after 9/11, the agent won his trust by working out that he was diabetic and offering him sugar-free biscuits. Jandal, Soufan later told a Senate committee, gave him "a treasure trove of highly significant, actionable intelligence ... and identified many terrorists who were later successfully apprehended". The interrogation "was done completely by the book, including advising him of his rights". Contrast that with the treatment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that Porter Goss claimed was so productive. The use on him of "enhanced interrogation techniques", wrote Senator John McCain earlier this year, "produced false and misleading information ... According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee ... was obtained through standard, non-coercive means".

Shephard also illustrates the tragically unintended consequences of the US reaction to 9/11, with particular reference to two young men who became radicalised by what they saw as a demonisation of Muslims in general. Fahim Ahmad, found guilty last year for a 2006 plot to detonate truck bombs in Toronto and storm Canada's parliament in Ottawa, had assimilated well after moving to Canada from Afghanistan at the age of 10. But he "struggled with the backlash towards Muslims after 9/11. His family had never been particularly devout, but now he found himself defined by his religion. Taunts from other kids started to sting ... He grew disdainful of his secular parents and sought father figures at the mosque instead."

Fahim simplistically looked for those with "the longest beards and largest turbans", as he took this "as a sign of knowledge and devotion". Then, fatally, he was drawn into extremist websites and became unrecognisable from the girls-and-soccer-loving teenager he had once been.

Anwar al Awlaki may be infamous now for inspiring the Fort Hood shootings by the US army officer Nidal Malik Hasan, and the attempted underpants bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, but he too had also once been different. He "used to love everything about America", his father Nasser al Awlaki tells Shephard in Yemen. "He was in every bit an all-American boy. Then things changed his perceptions ..."

To understand is not necessarily to forgive. Shephard may be a self-declared leftie and is admirably keen to see events from all sides, but she is no pushover. She does not let Ahmad and al Awlaki off the hook, just as she also writes: "There were indeed terrorists in Guantanamo. There were mass murderers who celebrated 9/11 and people I hope are never released ... Not everyone was a wrongly captured goat farmer." It is just that she is very properly aware of how US actions were viewed around the rest of the world - the kind of actions that no American could question without his or her patriotism being called into question but which nevertheless have had dangerous and inflammatory effects quite at odds with their stated purpose.

Take the drone strikes on the Pakistan-Afghan border, for instance. "By the 10-year anniversary of 9/11," Shephard points out, the attacks in Pakistan alone "may have killed as many as those who died on September 11, 2001". Given that most of those deaths will have been what are referred to by that obscene euphemism, "collateral damage", how popular does anyone think that makes the US, compared with, say, the Pakistani Taliban, in the region?

Shephard is a master of popular journalistic storytelling and has a gift for vivid phrase-making: "Even after 9/11, the risk of being struck by lightning was greater than in a terrorist attack. But we had heard F-16s soar across Manhattan, and that was the thunder that made us shudder." This helps her bring light to a series of very dark stories, even to the blackest - Guantanamo Bay - which she captures with a few well-chosen vignettes.

In that camp, purposefully placed beyond the reach of American law, language was grotesquely perverted. It wasn't a prison, but a "detention centre". The inhabitants were not subject to interrogations but "reservations". Similarly, when inmates were strapped to chairs and tubes inserted through their noses down to their stomachs, they were not being force-fed but "enterally fed". The prison nurse tells Shephard that when this happened, the inmates' favourite flavour was butter pecan. "How do they taste it? Apparently when they later burp."

Shephard's book is up to date with the death of Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring, but she eschews grand conclusions or analysis. Instead she brings out the patches of colour in struggles and wars that already have their own armies of historians, but in whose tomes the personal is too easily lost under the weight of the grand narrative. "I am very important to myself," is a sentence that will long remain with me, and one whose unidiomatic English serves only to make it all the more heart-rending. Of course Abdel Salem al Hila is important to himself. Shephard's achievement is to remind the reader that so should he be to all of us.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.