CHAPTER 4 :
Who Were Those Rendered by Aero Contractors?
Who were the 49 detainees harmed by North Carolina’s involvement in the U.S. rendition and torture program? This chapter provides an overview of the 48 men and one woman identified as having been transported by Aero Contractors to CIA “black sites,” Department of Defense-operated facilities, or into foreign custody for interrogation and torture. More detailed information on 37 of those abducted, including the legal issues that pertain to each case, is available in the University of North Carolina School of Law Human Rights Policy Lab report, Extraordinary Rendition and Victim Torture Narratives (2017). 400
The overview provided below and the longer narratives on the detainees were created using information in the public domain, and reflect the collective efforts of journalists, lawyers, former CIA operatives, and the detainees themselves. The chapter also draws on the investigative efforts and compilation work of the Rendition Project, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and Amnesty International.
Some of individuals extraordinarily rendered by the CIA have received national and international attention in major publications such as The Guardian (UK), The Intercept, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the BBC, and Harper’s Magazine. But publicly available information is scarce for many other detainees, some of whom disappeared while in CIA custody.
Since the full SSCI “Torture Report” remains classified, it is impossible to provide a complete account of the detainees’ lives pre-abduction, their treatment during rendition and detention, their later lives, or their current situations. The SSCI report also does not address those transferred to foreign custody. Nonetheless, the available information allows considerable insight into what these 49 human beings experienced when they were caught up in the CIA’s RDI program and rendered by Aero Contractors.
Overview of detainees
Detainees rendered by North Carolina-based planes and personnel ranged widely in age and occupation. The youngest, Hassan bin Attash, was a 16-year-old student when CIA agents abducted him; the eldest, Saifullah Abdullah Paracha, has been detained without trial since 2003 and is now 70 years old. Fatima Boudchar, the only woman, was pregnant during her abduction.401 The group of individuals had diverse backgrounds – commercial, academic, military, and civil society. Among them were philanthropists, businessmen, community leaders, soldiers, rice merchants, students, and teachers. Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian with legal residency in Australia, described himself as a waiter, delivery boy, and salesman, “selling everything from Scotch whiskey to ladders” in various countries in Europe and the Middle East.402
The 49 detainees were citizens of 16 countries, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen. Two held dual citizenship: one in Ethiopia and the United Kingdom, and the other in Kuwait and Germany. Citizenship is unknown in six cases.403
In many cases, targeted individuals were kidnapped in their home countries. Others were seized when traveling abroad or through coordinated secret arrangements made between the United States and foreign governments. As discussed further in Chapter 1, The Rendition Project has tracked 32 Aero Contractors circuits linked to 69 individual renditions (Aero transported some detainees more than once).404 Eighteen detainees were seized in Pakistan, the most frequent country of abduction, by either Pakistanis or CIA Rendition Teams.405 Other countries of abduction were Djibouti, Egypt, The Gambia, Georgia, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Macedonia, Mauritania, Malawi, Morocco, Senegal, Sweden, Tanzania, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.
Some of the 49 prisoners rendered by Aero are suspected of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, the USS Cole bombing, or other terrorist acts. The CIA classifies as “High Value Detainees” Khaled Sheik Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Hassan Dourad, Abd Al Rahim Al-Nashiri, Mustafa Al Hawsawi, Ammar Al-Baluchi (born Ali Abdul Aziz Ali), and Abu Zubaydah. Six of the eight are being prosecuted by military commissions. Most of the 49, however, were never charged with a crime. These include Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a well-educated engineer with a wide social network, and Abou ElKassim Britel, a scholar and translator of Islamic religious material.406 The only thing all detainees had in common was their Muslim identity.
Photo courtesy: Ian Davidson / Alamy Stock Photo
The experiences of Fatima Boudchar, summarized from the University of North Carolina School of Law report on Extraordinary Rendition and Torture Victim Narratives:
Fatima Boudchar (also spelled Bouchar), the only woman in the group, was four-and-a-half months pregnant when she and her husband, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, an anti-Gaddafi activist, were abducted in Bangkok and rendered to Libya in March 2004.417 Boudchar, a Moroccan citizen, had married Belhadj the previous year. Shortly after Boudchar became pregnant, they suspected they were being monitored by the Libyan government and decided to seek asylum in the UK by traveling from their home in China to Malaysia and submitting themselves to immigration authorities there.418 On March 7, 2004, Malaysia authorities put Boudchar and her husband on a standard commercial flight bound for London with a stop in Bangkok.419
On landing in Bangkok, they were taken to a U.S.-run detention facility and immediately separated.420 Although her abductors knew she was pregnant, they chained her to the wall by her wrist and ankle and struck her in the abdomen.421 Barely able to sit or lie down on the floor, she experienced great pain, compounded by temperature extremes and a lack of food.422 She was kept under constant surveillance through a camera in her cell, where guards would burst in each time she moved.423
After several days she was wrapped from head to toe in tape and brought back to the airport.424 There, the tape was cut from her body but left on her eyes425 In preparation for the 17-hour rendition flight to Libya that followed, her clothes were cut off and someone pressed a finger painfully into her belly button. She received an injection and was re-taped to a stretcher from her feet to her neck.426 Her head was also re-taped, this time with one eye open, and she was left that way for the entire flight, a condition she describes as excruciating. Unaware of her husband’s whereabouts or where she would be sent,427 she only realized they were both being rendered upon arrival, when she heard him “grunting” with pain.428 Throughout this ordeal she was terrified that, as a result of the abuse, she would lose her baby.429
On arrival in Tripoli, Boudchar was brought to Tajoura prison and kept blindfolded and bound for several more hours. Within four days, her interrogations began, twice per day for two to three hours at a time.430 A prison doctor told her that she and the baby were very weak and that her womb was too dry to allow the baby proper movement and development. She was finally released on June 21, 2004, but not permitted to leave the country. Three weeks later, on July 14, she gave birth to her son, Abderrahim, who weighed 4 pounds (1.8 kg).431 To put this in context, an average baby at birth weighs about 7.5 pounds (3.5kg) .
There were several cases of mistaken identity among the 49. Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen, was seized in Macedonia and rendered to Afghanistan because he had the same name as a known terrorism suspect.407 Laid Saidi “was subjected to ice water baths and 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation before being released because the C.I.A. discovered he was not the person he was believed to be.”408
Photo courtesy: Getty Images
In a case of mistaken identity, Khaled El-Masri was extraordinarily rendered by the Kinston-based N313P aircraft to the notorious ‘Salt Pit’ CIA “black site” in Afghanistan.409 During his rendition, he was hooded, diapered, and secured in a spread-eagle position, where he then received two injections that caused him to lose consciousness. Detained without explanation or charge, El-Masri embarked on a hunger strike to protest his conditions. Thirty-seven days into his hunger strike, having lost over 60 pounds, El-Masri was force-fed liquid through his nose.
After 5 months in secret detention, during which his family had no idea of his whereabouts, El-Masri was abandoned in an Albanian forest.
Life following his disappearance and CIA detention has been extremely difficult for Khaled El-Masri. He has received no apology, explanation or compensation from the U.S, or Germany, where he was a legal resident.410 His ordeal resulted in severe psychological trauma, and he now lives apart from his family and is unemployed. In its recent decision on his case against Macedonia for assisting the CIA in his rendition and detention, the European Court of Human Rights awarded Mr. El-Masri EUR 60,000.411
Jamil el-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi were businessmen, snatched in The Gambia on a trip to check up on a peanut oil factory they were establishing there.412 They were not released until five years later, even though no charges were filed against them. El-Banna still suffers from suicidal tendencies, PTSD, and severe depression.413
Photo courtesy: JTF-GTMO Detainee Assessment
Photo courtesy: Andy Worthington http://www.andyworthington.co.uk
Regardless of actual guilt or innocence, none of the 49 was ever afforded due process, and those still detained in Guantánamo seem unlikely to receive it. Saifullah Paracha, a Pakistani with U.S. residency, is accused of “offering to use his business to help Al Qaeda smuggle weapons into the US.”414 Imprisoned since 2003, he has never been charged with a crime.415 Nor has he been able to obtain appropriate medical care for his diabetes, heart condition, and other medical conditions.419 He does not trust the doctors in Guantánamo and resists the protocol of being treated while shackled.
EXPERIENCE DURING RENDITION
Testimonies about abductions and transports disclose painful experiences that were not only the prelude to secret detention, violent interrogation, and torture. Abduction and rendition were also terrifying and degrading in and of themselves, amounting to psychological torture. The violent and abusive nature of extraordinary renditions is examined in further detail in Chapter 5 of this report.
EXPERIENCE IN CAPTIVITY
Detainees were rendered by Aero Contractors to countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Guantánamo Bay (Cuba), Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Poland,
Romania, and Thailand.432 Actual periods of custody range from a few months to 16 years and counting. Given that they are not advised of why or how long they will be held, detainees experience “prolonged” detention as “indefinite.”
Most were detained, at some point, at one of the four “black sites” in Afghanistan, including at the infamous site known as the Salt Pit or the Dark Prison.433 The Salt Pit was among the most brutal CIA secret prisons.434 Other frequently used prisons for Aero-related detainees were in Pakistan, where at least six detainees were kept for indeterminate periods, and in Morocco, where at least eight detainees were held.
Detainee testimony and reports by the SSCI and other investigative bodies reveal that while being held in U.S. or foreign custody, detainees experienced a wide range of extreme abuses. These include blindfolding, hooding, forced nudity (both alone and in front of other detainees), being held in a pitch-black cell without indication of time or day, physical assault, exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, exposure to painfully loud music, cigarette burns, being suspended by arms bound behind one’s back, having to maintain stress positions for prolonged periods of time, being shackled naked for consecutive days, simulated drowning and other mock executions, threats of rape, rectal “feeding” and other forms of rape and sexual assault, including genital manipulation.435
Mamdouh Habib, who was detained in Pakistan, Egypt, two “black sites” in Afghanistan, and finally Guantánamo Bay, describes being “sexually humiliated by a female interrogator who reached under her skirt and threw what appeared to be blood in his face.”436 He also endured psychological abuse at the naval base when, on several occasions, he was forced to look at photographs of his wife’s face superimposed on images of nude women next to Osama bin Laden.439
Photo courtesy: the family of Abu Zubaydah
Abu Zubaydah was the first CIA detainee to be subjected to waterboarding.438
After his initial capture in Pakistan, where he suffered gunshot wounds, he was rendered to various “black sites,” including those in Thailand, Poland, Guantánamo (twice), and Lithuania. In CIA custody, he was subjected to temperature extremes, insufficient food, and extensive isolation as well as being waterboarded 83 times.439
Current CIA Director Gina Haspel was once in charge at the “black site” in Thailand where Abu Zubaydah was tortured.440 Haspel’s tenure there is believed to have begun after he was tortured; however, her reported leadership coincides with the torture of other detainees, including Aero rendition victim Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.441
Of the Aero-linked detainees, 23 have been released, and 14 remain in either U.S. or foreign detention (13 at Guantánamo Bay and one in Israel). The status of eight is unknown,442 including two rendered to the Palestine Branch in Damascus, under the control of Assad’s intelligence forces and well-known as the worst secret prison in Syria.
Six of the 13 men still in detention at Guantánamo have been charged under the U.S. Military Commission System. Several detainees handed to other governments have had trials in courts in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Algeria, although the legitimacy of some of those trials is dubious. For example, Ahmed Agiza was found guilty of terrorism-related charges in a military tribunal in Egypt that lasted no more than six hours and denied him the opportunity to call his own witnesses or appeal the ruling.443 Swedish authorities conceded this was an unfair trial and, in 2012, granted him permanent residency.4444 Four years after CIA agents abducted Abdel Hakim Belhadj in Thailand in 2004, he was given a 15-minute trial in Libya, after which he was detained for two more years.445
Four of the 49 detainees are dead. One, Ibn Sheikh Al-Libi, died in detention in Libya in 2009 under opaque circumstances: Libyan authorities claim he committed suicide, while other reports suggest he died from untreated tuberculosis.446 Another, Omar al-Faruq, was killed in Baghdad in 2006, more than a year after escaping from a CIA “black site” in Afghanistan.447 Hassan Ghul was killed by a targeted U.S. drone strike in October 2012 in Pakistan, six years after his release.448 Mohammed Bashmilah died in Yemen in June 2016.449 None of them received any form of apology from the U.S government for their wrongful capture and torture before they died. To date, neither the U.S. government nor its partners have acknowledged to their families – such as Al-Libi’s widow and small child, or Bashmilah’s widow – the irregular abduction, detention without charge or trial, and torture. Nor have the U.S government and private companies such as Aero Contractors, Ltd. provided the families with any form of financial compensation or other redress.
Of those released, only seven are known to have received compensation, all by RDI partner governments (the U.K., Sweden, and Australia) and apparently in significant part to avoid lawsuits and the accompanying document discovery. For example, Mamdouh Habib received an out-of-court settlement from the Australian government.450 In May 2018 – nearly 14 years after their renditions – Fatima Boudchar and Abdel Hakim Belhadj received an apology from the U.K. government for its role in their ordeals.451 The Swedish government has compensated Ahmed Agiza and Mohamed el-Zery.452
Detainees rendered on Aero-operated planes varied in background, education, profession, socio-economic status, citizenship, and place of residency. The one thing they had in common was that they were all Muslim. And they were transported across a network of prisons and “black sites” that one detainee referred to as “the endless world tour I was forcibly taking.”453 The overview of detainees’ backgrounds and experiences provided above reveals the global scope of the CIA program and Aero’s flight circuits. Regardless of age or gender, detainees experienced terror and abuse during abduction, extralegal transportation, and secret detention.
Download a PDF with current information on all 49 detainees.