Did Americans Know About Torture at Africa’s ‘Guantanamo’?

The U.S. is investigating Amnesty International allegations of torture at a Cameroon base where U.S. forces support ops against Boko Haram. Are the Americans complicit?

Robert Piedra/US Marine Corps

IKOM, Nigeria—Ordinary people in Cameroon, if they know anything about the main camp of their country’s Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR) at Salak airbase near the borders of Nigeria and Chad, understand that it’s a center of counterterrorism operations against Boko Haram.

They may also know that soldiers from the United States and France are part of those operations, and some are based there. But for a number of terror suspects who’ve been held at the remote facility for months, or even years, as one told The Daily Beast, this is Africa’s “Guantanamo.”

Last month, Amnesty International issued a devastating report: “Cameroon’s Secret Torture Chambers,” documenting the cases of 101 people subjected to horrific torture at Salak and other sites in Cameroon. It called for an investigation by the governments of the United States and France, whose soldiers often were in close proximity to the buildings where torture allegedly took place. Thus far there are not specific allegations that Americans took part directly in torture sessions. The question, for now, is how much they know about what’s been going on.

The Americans say they have taken notice of the allegations, but without conclusive results.

“We are aware of the 2017 Amnesty International report alleging illegal detentions and abuse of prisoners by Cameroonian soldiers and are currently reviewing its contents,” Samantha Reho, a spokesperson for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), told The Daily Beast. “U.S. Africa Command has ordered that an inquiry be conducted into these allegations.

“DoD [Department of Defense] policy directs that military members or others accompanying the DoD component will report any possible, suspected, or alleged violation of the law of war for which there is credible information during the conduct of operations,” Reho said. “These reports are required to be made promptly to the chain of command in the most expeditious means possible.”

Reho said AFRICOM “has not received any reports from U.S. forces of human rights abuses by Cameroonian forces to this date,” and is trying to determine “what reported information, if any, AFRICOM was aware of prior to this allegation.”

In the meantime, The Daily Beast has been following up on the Amnesty charges.

“It is much better to be dead than to be alive in Salak,” Bana, as we’ll call a 17-year-old former detainee, told The Daily Beast. “You are beaten every single day until you tell them what they want to hear, or you die from the torture.”

Torture techniques allegedly used in the facility are similar to the harsh interrogation tactics U.S. officials used on suspected al Qaeda jihadists after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Victims in Salak are subjected to punishments like extreme stress positions and waterboarding.

“‘Welcome to Guantanamo’ was the first thing the [Cameroonian] soldiers in Salak said to us as we arrived there,” said Bana, who was picked up in nearby Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s northernmost province, on a day soldiers carried out mass arrests.

More than 50 victims held at the Salak base have told Amnesty International they were accused of supporting Boko Haram and were brutally tortured by security forces who had no evidence against them.

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“They asked me to tell them if I knew members of Boko Haram,” a prisoner was quoted by Amnesty as saying. “That’s when the guard tied my hands and feet behind my back and started to beat me with an electric cable while throwing water on me at the same time.”

The BIR rapid reaction force was originally created in 2001 by the Cameroonian government to combat criminal gangs taking hostages for ransom and attacking passenger vehicles on its eastern border with the Central African Republic and its northern border with Chad and Nigeria. But the army unit, which was later deployed to fight Boko Haram, began to stray from its original mission—allegedly committing a series of human rights abuses, and angering many rights groups in the process.

Based on new revelations, it may have been carrying out some of its atrocities right in front of American officials.

Detainees said they saw and heard American officials in uniform at the time they were held on site. Images released by Amnesty also show American soldiers and civilian contractors involved in a number of activities at the military base.

“The Americans are aware of every single thing happening in Salak,” a senior Cameroonian Army official told The Daily Beast privately. “We have an understanding to share information with the American troops working there, and to give them full access to our facilities.”

The U.S. military has been heavily involved in a number of activities at the Salak base in the last two and a half years—about the same period many of the reported abuses at the site were carried out.

In 2015, a U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion appeared to be beefing up fortifications at the camp, according to a report by The Intercept. In the same period, the U.S. Defense Department made arrangements for Insitu, a subsidiary of the defense giant Boeing, to supply Cameroon’s military with six ScanEagle surveillance drones worth $9.3 million. Since then, more than $100 million has been given to Cameroon in security assistance in addition to training assistance for its security forces.

The U.S. government in 2013 incorporated the BIR into the annual Silent Warrior exercise, where its soldiers were taught the finer points of urban warfare by American officials, a report by Washington-based Security Assistance Monitor, notes. Two years later, the Defense Department allocated $15.9 million to the unit to support its fight against Boko Haram, and deployed some 300 U.S. troops to Cameroon, many of whom were assigned to Salak (PDF).

Last year, the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon, Michael Hoza, in praising the BIR, compared the character of the unit with that of the United States military.

“In their training, conduct, and leadership, the BIR exhibited all of the values we expect in our own armed forces,” said Hoza, who added in an article published by Council of American Ambassadors that the controversial unit showed “professionalism, protection of the civilian population, and respect for human rights.”

Maybe Hoza hasn’t read anything at all concerning the BIR since he became ambassador to Cameroon in 2014. Basic research would have shown him that U.S. agencies have in the last decade documented human rights abuses carried out by the BIR. Since 2010, every report released by the Department of State has cited cases of abuses and killings carried out by the BIR. Yet, the diplomat has been silent on these violations, just as officials at the U.S. embassy in Yaoundé have been quiet since the Amnesty report was released on July 20.

A number of detainees told Amnesty International that from inside their detention cells, they could see English-speaking white men—including some in military uniform—involved in various activities at Salak, most of which were mundane, but also close by.

“I saw them jogging in the early morning, from the back window of my cell,” said a former detainee, who was held between March and June 2016. “I also saw them standing or talking from the front window of the cell—the window that faced the garage.”

Amnesty International photographic and video evidence obtained for it by Forensic Architecture, clearly shows the regular presence of U.S. personnel in numerous locations across the base, including making use of a makeshift gym and a trailer converted into an office.

The human rights organization said tenders in December 2013 show the U.S. military was seeking internet services at the base for its personnel, and showed continued delivery of fuel in April 2017.

Another former detainee told Amnesty that on many occasions in Salak, he saw white men he thinks are Americans and “heard them talking in English.” Some of them, he said, wore plain clothes, while the others were in uniform that appeared like “camouflage clothing, green and beige.”

“Everyone said they were Americans and we knew American soldiers stocked material in Salak,” the victim said. “I saw them running from the back window of my cell, especially in the morning, as well as standing in front of our cell, just where the garage was.”

Torturing Boko Haram suspects for the purpose of getting information about the group is a system commonly used by security agencies in West and Central Africa involved in the fight against the jihadis. Many such cases have been documented in the past, including in Cameroon. And most in the Amnesty report came under the Obama administration, which was publicly and vehemently opposed to torture.

But what happens now?

President Donald Trump has, at a minimum, given the nod to the use of torture to extract confessions from terror suspects. As The Daily Beast reported in January, newly appointed CIA Director Mike Pompeo appeared to leave open the door to waterboarding as an interrogation technique. Then-national security adviser Mike Flynn said that he “would probably OK enhanced interrogation techniques within certain limits” if the country was in “grave danger from a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction.”

Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions—when he served as a Republican senator from Alabama—voted against a 2015 amendment introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that barred all American officials from waterboarding or any other interrogation technique not explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Army Field Manual. (Sessions said in his confirmation hearing that he would enforce that law.)

Whatever is determined about the complicity of U.S. soldiers in the brutality at Salak, the question is what happens next.

Many on Team Trump may think the kind torture alleged in Salak is exactly what Cameroon and its allies—including the U.S.—need in order to break Boko Haram.