A Former Gitmo Inmate Remembers bin Laden

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AFP / Getty Images

Osama bin Laden, in an image from a video released by the U.S. Department of Defense on May 7, 2011

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in the leading Italian daily La Stampa.

(TUNIS) — Adel Ben Mabrouk has seen the insides of Italian prison cells from Milan in the north to Benevento in the south. He also spent eight years behind the barbed wire of a certain U.S. military prison on the island of Cuba.

Last February, a Milan judge convicted this 40-year-old Tunisian of criminal association with terrorist intent but then freed him from jail, calling the time he'd spent incarcerated at Guantánamo "not democratic" and the conditions "inhumane." Mabrouk is a survivor of Afghanistan, where he was arrested at the end of 2001 for his alleged associations with al-Qaeda.

I met him at his house in Tunisia. By chance, it was Monday, May 2, soon after Osama bin Laden's death had been announced. On the television screen in Mabrouk's living room, France 24's Arabic channel was broadcasting images of the collapsing Twin Towers and bin Laden and the stories of some of his many victims.

Looking at the screen with a strange smile on his face, Mabrouk says, "The Americans ... they are smart and bastards at the same time." He then picks up the remote control and starts looking for the Italian Rai TV channel, in vain. "I love watching Italian soccer. How did Inter of Milan do yesterday? What a team."

I ask him what bin Laden meant for him: Martyr? Madman? Killer?

"He was a respectable man. Even his enemies should recognize that he deserved respect," Mabrouk responds. "He was a man of honor."

After eight years in Guantánamo, Mabrouk was handed over to Italy by U.S. authorities. In 2005, Italian authorities had issued an arrest warrant accusing him of international terrorism, falsification of documents, aiding illegal immigration, theft and drug trafficking.

Following Milan judge Armando Spataro's decision to free him, Mabrouk was expelled from Italy. He now lives in the notorious Zaharouni neighborhood of Tunis, an area that is too dangerous to frequent at night.

Mabrouk splits his time between the local mosque and the garage he runs with his brother. People who pass in front of the garage stop to say hello. They show a sort of respect and admiration for him. Mabrouk's brother, who persuaded him to accept this interview, was also arrested in Afghanistan, accused of terrorism and jailed for seven years in Tunisia.

Prior to his release, Mabrouk spent a total of 10 years in jails. He has been incarcerated in the Italian prisons of Pesaro Asti, Fossombrone, Macomer, Benevento and Milan, as well as in the U.S.-run Guantánamo and Kandahar military prison in Afghanistan.

His tales are related to life in jail. He speaks about the fetters used in Pakistan. "It's like in the times of Christ. They put rings around your ankles which are connected by a bar and another bar across the legs. You have to raise the bar in order to walk," he explains.

Does his body have the signs of all these tortures? "Maybe, but I don't realize it. Perhaps Guantánamo inmates like me are all crazy without knowing it," he says with a dry laugh. "It's only when we are out surrounded by people and we see them looking at us that we realize."

Every now and again, Mabrouk falls into impenetrable silences. He said after the second question, "Look, it's better if I just speak. I don't like to answer questions, because I feel like I am back there. I was interrogated 200 times in Guantánamo, by the CIA, the Italian special forces and those bastards of our Tunisian secret services — Ben Ali's men. I knew all the questions. They were always the same. There were three questions to which I would never reply: What do you think about kamikazes? How did you become a radical Islamist? Have you ever fired a gun?"

On the question of his faith, he denies that radical imams he met during a stint in an Italian jail for drug dealing had an impact on him. "This is bullshit. I just had many things to confess, that's all. It was like to be born again. We Muslims have God inside. Our faith comes from our souls ... I stopped taking drugs, started working as a barber, then as a driver for a company in Cernusco. I had even applied for a regular visa, but there was that old conviction for drug trafficking. Always the same ..."

He finally opens up about Afghanistan and why he went there in February 2001. "It was a place where good Muslims felt at home. I was scared that the Italian authorities would hand me over to Ben Ali, accusing me of being a radical Islamist. [In Afghanistan] I lived in a shelter for foreigners. The Taliban took us in. They gave us a home."

After 9/11, when the Taliban regime fell apart, Mabrouk crossed the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan during the U.S. bombing. There, Pakistani authorities arrested him and 150 other people. "They sold me to the Americans for $5,000 just because Bush needed people to fill up the jails as part of the war on terrorism."

He was jailed in Guantánamo. "Look, in Guantánamo there was a lot of good, not just evil. I would like to write a book about it. The title would be Guantánamo, Between Good and Evil. Yes, there we understood who the Americans really are, and we also understood our faith better. We were from 50 countries, and 80% of us learned the Koran by heart. That is not a prison. It is a war camp where psychologists and psychiatrists are in charge. If you do not have faith, you cannot survive in those conditions. I could tell about some amazing gestures, even from the guardians. In Guantánamo I understood one thing: the human being is good, even there."

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