In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, the Washington Post ran a four-part series by men and women who had their “lives shattered and transformed by” the terror master. One of the contributors was especially curious: former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg.
I have written about Begg on a number of occasions before, so what follows will not be new for some readers. But apparently it will be new for the Post’s editors, who don’t seem to mind giving over their pages to a jihadist.
Here are five reasons the Post should have thought twice before giving Moazzam Begg space to comment.
Reason #1: Moazzam Begg and his organization, Cageprisoners, have proselytized on behalf of al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki and spread jihadist propaganda.
To give you a sense of what Begg and Cageprisoners are all about, the organization’s web site currently features a “purely fictional” account entitled, “Breaking News: Barack Obama Is Dead.” This twisted feature includes a doctored photo of President Obama, who is called an “American War Criminal,” disfigured by gunfire. Thus, while the rest of the world is celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, Cageprisoners is pining – as a joke, they’d surely tell you!- for the death of America’s president.
This is not terribly surprising.
As Alexander Hitchens of the Centre for Social Cohesion in the UK has thoroughly documented (PDF) previously, Begg and Cageprisoners have a longstanding relationship with al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki. Cageprisoners lobbied to free Awlaki from Yemeni custody after he was detained in 2006, broadcast a live message from Awlaki during a fundraising event, reproduced Awlaki’s propaganda on its web site, and published friendly interviews with him. Begg conducted these interviews with fawning questions for the al Qaeda imam. The effect of Cageprisoners’ work was to spread Awlaki’s hateful and dangerous message in the UK – which Awlaki has repeatedly targeted as a recruiting ground.
The disgusting presidential death fantasy and relationship with Awlaki are just some of the ways Cageprisoners has worked to spread anti-American, pro-jihadist propaganda. The group’s web site contains everything from denunciations of the drone campaign in northern Pakistan, to spreading disinformation in the service of al Qaeda operatives. And Begg once agreed to be the poster boy for a first-person shooter video game in which players would be able to blast their way out Guantanamo, killing virtual American soldiers in the process.
Reason #2: Moazzam Begg’s own book confirms he is a jihadist.
In 2006, along with former Guardian journalist Victoria Brittain, Begg coauthored a supposedly autobiographical account of his life entitled, Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. The book is, as one would expect, entirely self-serving. Begg tries to downplay his nefarious activities to the greatest extent possible (denying any substantive ties to al Qaeda or the Taliban) while portraying his American captors in the worst possible light.
But even in this highly selective and deceptive account, Begg’s belief in violent jihad shines through. For instance, Begg writes:
Linguistically, jihad means ‘struggle’, the word that some scholars had attempted to confine its meaning to. They said that it was restricted only to the struggle within, the nafs, the inner self. Whilst that was partly true, I learned that throughout history – from the time of the Prophet, and the first Caliphates – up until modern times, the majority of Muslims (and the non-Muslims they used it on) always understood jihad as warfare.
As if to emphasize his point, Begg explains that the most popular book sold at the bookstore he ran in the UK was Abdullah Azzam’s Defence of the Muslim Lands. Azzam was a spiritual mentor to Osama bin Laden and influenced countless Muslims on their path to jihad.
A close read of Begg’s book also reveals that he (quite suspiciously) “visited the front line between the Taliban and Northern Alliance,” supposedly praised known al Qaeda commander Ibn Khattab as a “hero in the Muslim world” during an interrogation, trained at camps run by Jamaat-e-Islami (a Pakistani party that is known for both its extremism and its ties to al Qaeda), and was a “close friend” of Shaker Aamer.
In the UK and elsewhere, Aamer himself has built up quite a following. But American officials have refused to release him from Guantanamo because they have concluded that he was a “close associate” of Osama bin Laden who served al Qaeda in a variety of capacities. What, then, are we to make of Begg’s admission that Aamer “lived with me for a time in Kabul”?
The point is not to deduce guilt by association but instead to illustrate that by Begg’s own account he consorted with a constellation of nefarious actors (more than those listed here) and has extremist beliefs. There are more observations in this vein to be drawn from his book, which includes a forward written by the Washington Post’s own David Ignatius. The Post has consistently been unable to identify Begg as a jihadist with a disturbing past.
Reason #3: The Department of Justice’s investigation failed to substantiate Begg’s claims of torture, and found that his damning confession at Gitmo was voluntarily given.
In his Washington Post op-ed, Begg writes: “Bin Laden did not incarcerate, torture, abuse and violate my body and dignity. He was in fact fighting the people who were doing this to me.” But there is no evidence that the Americans treated Begg in this manner either.
The Officer of the Inspector General at the DOJ investigated Begg’s claims of abuse at Guantanamo and found no evidence to back up his allegations. You can download a PDF copy of the OIG’s report here. Begg has tried to use fictitious torture claims to explain away a damning confession he signed while held at Guantanamo. The confession was taken by FBI agents and criminal investigators – not the government-types who used coercive measures to extract intelligence from a small subset of detainees.
As the OIG report makes clear, several DOD investigations into Begg’s torture and abuse claims failed to find a shred of evidence to back up his tale. For example, on page 268 of the report we read:
According to an undated letter from the United States Principal Undersecretary of Defense to the British Embassy, the Department of Defense (DOD) conducted three investigations of Begg’s allegations of abuse and found no evidence to substantiate his claims.
Similarly, the OIG (see p. 276 of the report) “concluded that the evidence did not support the allegation that [FBI agents] coerced Begg into signing the statement.” The statement in question is Begg’s confession.
And what did Begg confess to, precisely? The full confession has not been released to the public. But on p. 275 of the OIG’s report we learn:
The OIG reviewed a copy of Begg’s signed statement dated February 13, 2003. The statement is eight single-spaced pages, signed by Begg, Bell, Harrelson, [note: Bell and Harrelson are the pseudonyms used for two FBI agents] and two DOD Criminal Investigative Division agents. Begg’s signed statement indicates, among other things, that Begg sympathized with the cause of al-Qaeda, attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and England so that he could assist in waging global jihad against enemies of Islam, including Russia and India; associated with and assisted several prominent terrorists and supporters of terrorists and discussed potential terrorist acts with them; recruited young operatives for the global jihad; and provided financial support for terrorist training camps.
Far from being coerced into a phony confession, U.S. officials found Begg to be quite helpful. The OIG’s report reads (p. 268): “Many of the witnesses interviewed by the Army investigators said that Begg cooperated with military interrogators by assisting with translations, that Begg received comforts such as reading and writing materials, and that Begg never complained about mistreatment while he was at Bagram.”
The OIG also noted that Begg’s confession “itself with the additions and deletions initialed by Begg support its voluntariness.” In other words, Begg modified his confession so that it was more accurate, and then initialed his changes so that it was clear Begg himself made the modifications.
Reason #4: A recently leaked assessment of Begg prepared at Gitmo shows that military authorities recommended he remain in American custody.
A November 11, 2003 assessment prepared at Guantanamo describes Begg as an “Al-Qaida facilitator” and a “confirmed member of Al-Qaida.” U.S. authorities alleged in the document that Begg admittedly trained at terrorist training camps (which is consistent with his book and his signed confession) and “was also an instructor at [the] Derunta training camp, another Al-Qaida supported terrorist camp.” The document also notes that Begg “has been associated with a senior Al-Qaida financier, as well as other key suspects currently under investigation by US authorities.”
Previously declassified documents contain similar allegations.
Reason #5: Amnesty International, which has partnered with Begg to demonize Guantanamo, endured a crisis when one of its top officials objected to the relationship.
The picture of Begg that accompanies his Washington Post column shows him speaking in front of an Amnesty International banner at press conference in February 2010. The irony here is rich. Amnesty International was engulfed in a crisis the previous month, when news that a high-ranking Amnesty official objected to the relationship reached the press.
Gita Saghal, head of Amnesty’s gender unit, reportedly issued a dissent: “To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.” Prominent supporters of Amnesty International, including Salman Rushdie, objected as well.
Despite all of this evidence, and much more, the Washington Post decided to run Moazzam Begg’s op-ed on the death of Osama bin Laden. It is a rambling piece that Begg ends this way:
The vast majority of Muslims did not agree with bin Laden’s targeting of civilians. Yet many will remember him as the man who made the United States tremble — prompting it to unleash a war on terror in Muslim lands and thus strengthen al-Qaeda as a global idea, instead of an organization whose numbers could once be counted.
Thus, the Post’s jihadist op-ed contributor blames America while taunting that bin Laden “made the United States tremble.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.