As the New Year approached, Khaled el-Masri was coming close to the end of his tether. Soon it would be 2004: another year of financial problems for his family and arguments with his wife. A German born in Kuwait to Lebanese parents, the independent car dealer was living in Neu-Ulm, a suburb of Ulm on the Danube River between Stuttgart and Munich, and business wasn’t going well. Needing to clear his head, el-Masri walked into a travel agency and booked the cheapest vacation he could. For 120 euros, or 155 bucks, he got a bus ticket to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. It wasn’t exactly Disney World, but it would do. “I knew that Macedonia is half Oriental, half Western,“ says el-Masri, 43, wearing a pair of glasses that helps soften his formidable appearance. “So I thought I’d give it a try.“
On New Year’s Eve, he’d been riding for about 20 hours when he awoke from a nap with a jolt. The bus had arrived at the Serbian-Macedonian border, and the driver was collecting passports for Customs. When he returned from meeting with the police, the driver told el-Masri that the officials wanted a word with him. After answering a few standard questions—provoked, he guessed, by his novelty as a Muslim tourist—he climbed back on board, and the bus crossed the border. Ten minutes into Macedonia, el-Masri asked the bus driver to return his passport. The driver said he didn’t have it, so he had to swing the bus back to the border and drop el-Masri off. That moment marked the beginning of the nightmare that has ruined el-Masri’s life. It also set in motion a process that could dismantle a once-secret program that has been a cornerstone of the CIA’s prosecution of America’s war on terror—and bring its architects before a U.S. judge.
With his passport still missing and his bus now gone, el-Masri sat for three hours in a border station, ignored by officers who muttered hesitantly into telephones. And then, abruptly, he says, they transported him to a hotel in a city he assumed was Skopje. “We went straight up to a room, pulled the curtains—and that was me for three weeks,“ el-Masri says.
He was already scared, but the true horror was just beginning. Because a border official believed he had a false passport and violent intentions, el-Masri had become a terror suspect. He would be whisked first to Baghdad and then, unimaginably, to a secret CIA-controlled prison in Afghanistan, where, he says, he was to endure months of abuse and isolation.
El-Masri had fallen prey to extraordinary rendition, the shadowy U.S. program that involves seizing and detaining any person it considers to be of interest, anywhere in the world, sometimes without the explicit permission of the host nation. Once snatched, the suspect is often “rendered“ to a third nation—such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, or Afghanistan—and held indefinitely for questioning, torture, or worse.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the Bush administration was engaged in a frenzied hunt for anyone connected to terrorism, the program seemed to be getting results. But soon it became clear that it was mostly producing unreliable intelligence. And as details emerge about this global extradition network, whose detention facilities President Bush acknowledged for the first time last September, the CIA is increasingly finding itself on the defensive. Last November, the staff members of the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus met with el-Masri; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), acting on his behalf, is hoping to bring a case to U.S. courts. But more significantly, several key allies that initially supported extraordinary rendition—almost always in secret—have turned against the CIA. On January 31, German prosecutors ordered the arrest of more than a dozen suspected CIA agents in connection with el-Masri’s ordeal.
For nearly two years, el-Masri has been recounting his experience of those five hellish months in detention, waiting patiently for the political winds to shift. And his efforts finally seem to be paying off. Sitting in his lawyer’s cramped office in Ulm, a block from the courthouse, el-Masri takes a sip of coffee, then stares down at the cup in his heavy hands. “It’s time for answers,“ he says. “The people who have been through this need others to admit that they exist, and to admit what happened to them. They at least deserve that.“
Renditions have occurred at least since the eighties. Their original purpose was to apprehend indicted criminals and suspects under warrant outside the U.S. and deliver them to American or foreign courts. But the function of the practice changed drastically after 9/11. Bob Baer, a former CIA officer and winner of the prestigious Career Intelligence Medal, says, “The president and the vice president went to the CIA after 9/11 and said, So what do we do about this?’“
The CIA responded by immediately quadrupling the staff of its Counterterrorist Center (CTC) to 1,200, including new case officers, paramilitaries, analysts, and psychologists. And the scope of rendition was reportedly broadened to apply to anyone the CIA deemed a link to terrorists. The suspects could then be sent to countries where information could be gathered through brutal methods disavowed by the U.S. Under extraordinary rendition, the CIA could supply the questions and the captors could provide the answers—but what happened in between was murky. “The whole idea is plausible deniability,“ Baer says. “But for the Bush administration to say they didn’t know these people were going to be tortured when they sent them to places like Syria and Egypt is an out-and-out lie.“
Extraordinary rendition seemed to have found its justification within a year of 9/11, when Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda figure who had been rendered to Egypt, offered evidence of Iraq’s support for al-Qaeda. Al-Libi’s account was to become a major element in Bush’s rationale for invading Iraq the following year. But ultimately, his account proved false. “He has recanted everything he said,“ Baer says. “It was gained under torture, and it was what they wanted him to say. But it was good enough for the American press.“ And it was good enough to advance the practice of extraordinary rendition, which was soon bolstered by a new global network of participating airports and a fleet of U.S. planes operated by private aviation companies. The Bush administration unfailingly denied rumors about this network, and it never strayed from its core message: The U.S. does not torture. The result, according to Vince Cannistraro, a former chief of counterterrorism operations and analysis at the CIA, was a morally bankrupt program. “There was no oversight,“ he says. “People were making decisions that should have been blocked immediately.“
For the first three weeks of 2004, Khaled el-Masri says, he sat in the locked hotel room in Macedonia, frantic about his family and his job, and struggled to answer a battery of incomprehensible questions about al-Qaeda, training camps, and his allegedly forged passport. “They tried everything,“ he says. “One time, they said there was a man in the corridor who had seen me in a terrorist training camp. I said, Okay, bring him in.’ They never did.“ The CIA’s local office alerted its superiors in the CTC—“The Skopje station really wanted a scalp,“ one CIA officer told the Washington Post in 2005—and the director of the CTC’s al-Qaeda unit reportedly ordered el-Masri into extraordinary rendition based on a hunch, without any evidence of terrorist ties. (El-Masri’s name, common in the Muslim world, closely resembles that of a terrorist loosely connected with the 9/11 attacks, Khaled al-Masri.) The CIA made the decision, Baer concludes, “because they were imbeciles.“
And that’s how el-Masri began his real initiation into terror. On January 24, 2004, he says, he was taken from the hotel, blindfolded, and led to a building near an airstrip, where he was beaten and stripped naked. He was then dressed in a diaper and a jumpsuit, injected with sedatives, and put aboard a plane, he says—an account consistent with the widely reported modus operandi of the Rendition Group, the CTC department responsible for the program.
Flight logs show that a Boeing 737 with call sign N313P, originating in Washington, D.C., arrived in Skopje on January 23. Trevor Paglen, an expert on rendition flights and a co-author of Torture Taxi, says, “That plane was operated by a company called Aero Contractors. They’re a charter company based in North Carolina that works pretty much exclusively for the CIA.“ The next day, the plane left Skopje for Baghdad.
After Iraq, the plane landed once again, and the hooded el-Masri was finally led off: groggy, scared, with no idea of who his captors were. He was taken indoors, and the hood was removed. He found himself in a filthy prison cell. El-Masri is widely believed to have been imprisoned in the “Salt Pit,“ an isolated CIA interrogation center in Afghanistan. On the wall, he could make out Arabic script. “Amongst the words,“ he says, “I saw Kabul.“
But before he could make any sense of his squalid environment, el-Masri says, “men in masks came and took me to a room where a man with a Lebanese accent questioned me. I asked him why I was there, and he said, This is a country where there is no law. We could bury you, and no one would know.’“ For three nights, he says, the interrogator questioned him about a mosque in Ulm and other mysterious topics before giving up in frustration.
El-Masri’s lack of information did not let him off the hook. Whenever the Afghan guards were distracted, he says, he furtively contacted his fellow prisoners through whispers or notes written on toilet paper. The others alerted him about another prison nearby. “They said it had torture chambers, darkness cells, and cells where they play you loud music,“ he says. “They had been tortured by Americans. My neighbor was from Tanzania, and he was damaged badly, in his body and his mind. He told me he had been picked up because he had the phone number of a terrorist suspect.“
For the next four months, el-Masri says, he lived alone in a tiny cell, surviving on dirty water and “disgusting“ food. He was questioned exclusively by Americans: the prison director, the psychologist, masked men. “They questioned me about Ulm,“ he says. “People had said there were radicals at the mosque in Ulm, but I couldn’t tell them anything they didn’t know. From then on, they never accused me of anything.“
As it became clear that there was no evidence linking him to al-Qaeda and that his passport was genuine, el-Masri says, the prison director admitted to him that he shouldn’t be there and promised to try to secure his release through Washington. But as the weeks wore on, el-Masri realized his detention continued because his captors didn’t know what to do with him. And seeing inmates returning from the nearby prison as broken men, he says, he began to fear he would end up like them—or, even worse, shipped to Guantánamo Bay or shot. “I went on a hunger strike to try and force my release,“ he says, “so they pushed a tube down my nose and force-fed me.“
In May, el-Masri says, a German man arrived at the prison. (El-Masri’s lawyer identifies the visitor as a senior member of the German federal police.) “He said I wouldn’t be going straight to Germany—that the Americans don’t want anyone to know I was here,“ el-Masri says. “He asked if I would go to the authorities or the press, and I said, I just want to go home.’ He told me, You’re intelligent enough to know what I mean.’ It was a threat.“
Without warning, on May 28, el-Masri was blindfolded and led to a plane. Stowed beside him were his returned possessions. And among them, he found his missing passport.
Escorted on a convoluted and protracted journey, el-Masri was eventually deposited onto a country lane in Albania, where he walked away from a team of masked men, dreading a bullet in his back. Instead, waiting Albanian soldiers escorted him to the airport in Tirana and put him on a flight to Frankfurt. At Customs at Frankfurt International, a disoriented el-Masri stumbled over the final hurdle: “When I arrived at the counter, the officer looked first at my passport, then at me, and asked, Haven’t you got a current picture?’“
Fear and malnutrition in prison had stripped 40 pounds from el-Masri’s body. “The picture is new,“ he replied. “It’s just me looking so old.“
El-Masri slept with a knife under his pillow on his first night back in Neu-Ulm. His apartment was empty; his wife and children, he learned the following day, had assumed they’d been abandoned and moved to Lebanon. El-Masri, wary of the agent’s threat, told his acquaintances only that he’d been in prison. But after a week, his family had returned to Germany and he’d reached out to an Ulm lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic.
“I didn’t believe him at first,“ Gnjidic says. “But he kept giving more and more information. There was too much detail for it to be untrue.“ Gnjidic notified the authorities, and the German police acted quickly—at first. Their tests of el-Masri’s hair verified that he’d been in central Asia and that he’d undertaken a hunger strike. They questioned passengers on the bus to Skopje, who confirmed that he’d been seized—and revealed that they’d been ordered to keep quiet. But then progress on the investigation slowed, and Gnjidic sensed political pressure coming from within the German government, and possibly from Washington.
By the time Gnjidic presented el-Masri’s case to the ACLU in June 2005, several cases of extraordinary rendition were emerging in the media. A Syrian-born Canadian software engineer, Maher Arar, was reported to have been intercepted by Immigration officials at New York’s JFK International Airport in September 2002; more than a year later, he had returned to Canada, saying he’d been sent to Syria, where he was held without charge and tortured. A cleric named Abu Omar, an exiled Egyptian dissident in his forties, was reported to have been plucked off a Milan street in February 2003; a year later, he had managed to contact friends back in Italy, saying he’d been tortured in Egypt.
In 2005, Gnjidic and the ACLU sued parties including George Tenet, the now-former CIA director, and the companies they said had arranged for el-Masri’s transportation, including Aero Contractors. The CIA got the suit dismissed, invoking the privilege of protecting state secrets. But U.S. allies who had once felt compelled to assist with rendition are pushing back. Italian prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for 26 Americans, largely CIA operatives, in the Abu Omar case. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper last October asked that the U.S. “come clean with its version of events“ in the Maher Arar case, a festering scandal that forced the commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to resign in December. On January 26, Canada awarded Arar, now 36, a $9.75 million settlement, and Harper issued a formal apology. Five days later, Germany issued arrest warrants for 13 suspected CIA agents on charges of kidnapping and inflicting bodily harm on el-Masri.
The program of extraordinary rendition has virtually collapsed, according to Bob Baer and Vince Cannistraro, the former CIA operatives. The United States’ Arab partners are disinclined to continue participating, Baer says: “Now that we turned Saddam Hussein over to a Shia lynch mob, they’re not in the mood to cooperate on the counterterrorism stuff.“ And as new cases continue to emerge, the opposition is growing stronger. “For now,“ says Baer, “I think it’s individual CIA officers who will take the hit, and maybe Tenet. After that, who knows?“ In the U.S., the ACLU appealed the el-Masri case’s dismissal last November in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. A decision is expected imminently. If the case proceeds, the entire process of extraordinary rendition, and the officials making decisions about it, could be publicly scrutinized for the benefit of an American jury. “We hope we’ll get this case to full trial eventually,“ says Steven Watt, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Human Rights Program. “If we do, what could come out would be astonishing to the American people.“
Tonight Khaled el-Masri sits in an Italian restaurant in Ulm, where he has received a warm welcome from the staff, and he ruminates on the disintegration of his life. The nightmares don’t come as frequently these days, he allows, but he’s unemployed and friendless. He finds it hard to trust anyone anymore: He’s always wondering why he’s being asked a question and who’s doing the asking. In parliamentary hearings last November, Germany acknowledged el-Masri’s innocence. But the acknowledgment came too late for him. The past three years have made a difficult life nearly unbearable, as his common concerns about money and family were eclipsed by a horror that few could imagine.
“Some people say I’m courageous, but others say I’m a bad man,“ he says. “There have been so many rumors—that I’m a terrorist, that I took hush money, even that I was involved in the Madrid bombings—that people don’t know how to treat me. I only ever want to be alone. I get so angry all the time. If I’m watching the news, about Guantánamo or Afghanistan, I know what it’s like to be cut off from the world—no lawyer, nothing.“
El-Masri wants to think of his case as one among many that need to be exposed. Yet his thoughts continually drift back to his detention, and to the damaged Tanzanian prisoner he last saw huddled in a corner of his squalid cell. “I was the only one that could keep him calm,“ he says. “He was no use to them anymore. And he wasn’t from Europe like me.“ El-Masri considers this. “I think he must be dead now.“
And it’s that notion that finally summons an anger el-Masri struggles to control. His knuckles tighten around his cutlery, and his breathing becomes labored. He smiles weakly and pushes himself from the table, padding out of the restaurant and standing in the darkness outside. A cigarette briefly illuminates his face, and he turns away, hunched against the winter chill. The rise and fall of el-Masri’s shoulders grows shallower as his breathing steadies, and for now, his fury passes.