When I met Rafiq Al Hami in Tunis in January 2012, he was a traumatized man, who I assumed was trying to rebuild his life. Quiet and pensive, with a wry smile, he looked much older than 43. Eight years at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, five of which were spent in solitary confinement, had taken their toll.
By October 2015, Rafiq Al Hami would be dead, killed fighting for Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria.
Back in Tunis, he told me how he suffered different types of torture almost every day at the hands of his American captors. His punishments ranged from the air being cut off to his cell, to a copy of the Quran being thrown down his toilet. Like many detainees, he was accused of being a member of Al Qaeda.
Throughout, Al Hami maintained that he had been in Afghanistan and then Pakistan to learn more about Islam. After spending eight years at Guantanamo, he was cleared for transfer in 2009 and sent to Slovakia, where he spent a number of difficult years living in poor conditions.
After the Tunisian revolution in 2011, Al Hami was allowed to return home a free man. Al Hami told me that he had “never expected it to happen this way. It feels so good.” Any sense of initial optimism faded quickly. Within a year of speaking with me, Al Hami had disappeared. In 2013, for reasons his family may never understand, he left his Tunisian family, his new wife, his electronics shop and house to join an armed group in Syria. By October 2015 Rafiq had been killed. His family heard the news when they received the anonymous phone call familiar to the families of many of the dead of Syria and Iraq, “He is dead,” the voice, said, the line cut before they could ask any questions. Today, his family believe he had joined the armed group Jabhat Al-Nusra, rather than Jihadist rivals ISIS, (Daesh). Before he left Tunisia, Al Hami spoke to his brother, Mourad. Even now, Mourad struggles to understand his brother’s reasons for leaving, recounting his final few words, “’The show must go on’, something was luring him away. Something only he knew about. It was in his head, this journey or show that had to continue.”
Al Hami’s journey to the battle fields of Syria started in 1969. Born into an average middle class Tunisian family, his brother Mourad said they had never been connected to religious “conservatism, or terrorism.”
Mourad and his sister are lawyers. Al Hami worked as a carpenter before he travelled to Germany in 1995. His brother says he left Tunisia because he wanted a better life. Before he went to Germany he was “a regular Tunisian, he didn’t even pray,” Mourad said. In Germany, Rafik worked in the restaurant business for four years before moving to Pakistan to study with the missionary organization, Jamaat-al-Tablighi.
Then, the events of September 11th 2001, changed everything. A few months after the attacks, Al Hami was arrested in Iran and transferred to US custody in a deal that is still unexplained. His brother Mourad thinks Al Hami “was sold along with someone else to the Americans by Iranians, like a business deal.”
Al Hami’s detention remained an official secret until his name appeared upon a 2015 US Senate report, confirming that he was subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” unauthorized by CIA headquarters.
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Though officially unacknowledged, Al Hami’s detention was real enough for him. In 2009, he filed a law suit against the US government alleging that he had been held in three CIA dark sites during December 2001, where “his presence and his existence were unknown to everyone except his United States’ detainers”.
Al Hami told a tribunal, “I was threatened. I was left out all night in the cold … I spent two months with no water, no shoes, in darkness and in the cold. There was darkness and loud music for two months. I was not allowed to pray … These things are documented. You have them.” The lawsuit also alleged that Al Hami’s interrogators had sprayed pepper spray on his hemorrhoids, causing extreme pain.
A 2011, Wikileaks files suggests why Al Hami was imprisoned for so long by the Americans. In October 2004, a review board was told that he was recruited by a man called “Lutfi,” who, according to analysts, may have been a member of the “Hamburg cell that planned and executed September 11th attacks,” linking Al Hami directly with the largest single terror attack in US history. During interrogation in February 2003, Al Hami admitted that he had received training at the well-known military camp, Khalden in Afghanistan, for ten days. During a later combatant’s status review in September 2004, Al Hami retracted is earlier statement, saying that it had been obtained under torture.
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Al Hami’s family are certain that what happened to him in these dark medieval prisons changed him. They maintain he was not harassed by Tunisian police, and that the security forces had very little contact with Al Hami after he returned to Tunisia. “Whether somebody told him about Syria or not, he was mentally ready to go back even on the religious level,” Mourad said. “If he had not gone to Syria, he would have gone some other place.”
Al Hami treatment upon his return in 2011 was very different to his predecessors during the era of former Tunisian President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali. In 2007, two former Tunisian Guantanamo Bay detainees were tortured by security forces. Under the previous regime, even praying or having a beard could lead to arrest. While popular suspicions of the threat posed by former Guantanamo detainees are widespread, the figures for so-called “re offenders”, is tiny. According to the office of the Director of National Intelligence five percent of all Guantanamo prisoners released since Obama took office have “re-engaged in militant activities”, with an additional 8 percent suspected of doing so. There were 21 percent confirmed cases and 14 percent suspected cases during the Bush administration.
Wells Dixon is a Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where he specializes in challenging unlawful detentions at the Guantanamo prison. He says the DNI uses a pretty “low threshold of what constitutes suspected terrorist activity.”. He says the only link between Guantanamo and Daesh is that “Guantanamo’s continued existence is a propaganda windfall for groups such as ISIS.” He adds that the prison acts like a “recruitment tool, it is a symbol of US torture as well as Islamophobia.” Dixon believes that President Obama was committed to closing Guantanamo and “has all the legal authority” to do so. “Whether he can achieve it, that’s another matter.”
There are many reasons why Tunisians are joining groups such as Daesh in Iraq, Syria and Libya. For some it is financial, for others it is ideological. We know very little about Al Hami’s time in Syria, there is no footprint on social media and his family say there were just a few phone calls to his mother to tell her that he was alive. Rafik Raak is a Tunisian lawyer who represents fighters who have returned to Tunisia, “It is very hard to find Tunisian fighters. It’s a war. You don’t know who is alive and who is dead until the war is over. It is an impossible mission.”
Rafiq Al Hami may not have been a member of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and the evidence suggests he was innocent when he was arrested and tortured by his captors. However, by 2013 he had joined a group linked to Al Qaeda in Syria. His experiences of Guantanamo Bay probably contributed to his decision, but it also seems like this was a man who felt a deep sense of injustice about the situation in Syria. Ultimately, he quickly gave up on the post Arab Spring Tunisia and his first taste of freedom in so many years, knowing that he would probably never return alive.
Nazanine Moshiri is a Freelance journalist and Security expert based in Tunis. @nazaninemoshiri