It’s hard not to be suspicious of British Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg, the subject of a new documentary, The Confession, which revolves around an in-depth interview about his life before, during, and after the two years he spent in extrajudicial detention in Guantánamo Bay.
Begg was held without trial at the Cuban facility after he was taken from a house he was living in with his wife and two kids in Pakistan in 2002, following the failed U.S. attempt to capture Osama bin Laden in late 2001.
The U.S. suspected him of being an “enemy combatant” and having links to terrorism but, in common with many other men detained in overseas U.S. facilities as part of the war on terror, he was never formally charged or accused due to the extrajudicial nature of the process.
He has since his release become a vocal critic of the U.S. and U.K. governments’ “wars” on terrorism, speaking extensively at universities, through the media, and now through this compelling but uneven film.
He has attracted notoriety as a director of the Muslim rights pressure group Cage (in 2015, Cage’s research director Asim Qureshi described ISIS executioner Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi as a “beautiful young man” and appeared to blame the British security service for the fact that he had become radicalized).
But this documentary starts with Begg’s early days: He was born in 1968 and grew up in the British city of Birmingham, the son of a bank manager, but as a teenager he became increasingly interested in fundamentalist Islam.
He traveled to Bosnia as part of an aid convoy in 1994 and describes in the film how he perceived the war there to be an attack on Muslims, and was inspired by the army of foreign Muslim fighters—Mujahedeen—who flocked to the country to take up arms on behalf of their Muslim brothers.
The film does not tackle Begg about a 1998 trip to Pakistan reported in other media. Married, with two small children, he moved his family for a brief spell to Peshawar, Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan.
Interviewer and director Ashish Ghadiali instead focuses on his activities when he came back to the U.K. in 1998 and started a fundamentalist Islamic bookshop in Birmingham selling books and videos featuring radical Islamic clerics.
The shop put him firmly on the security services’ radar—it was raided by police and he was visited by a shadowy British spy named “Andrew,” but the authorities were never able to prove that Begg was doing anything illegal or make a charge stick.
In 2001, Begg moved his family again—to Kabul.
“I didn’t join the Taliban,” he says in the film, “I lived under them.”
And, all in all, he seems to have been quite amenable to the experience of living in a fundamentalist Muslim theocracy, and his wife, Sally, says that she liked it too, because she could walk around Kabul in her traditional Islamic clothing without people calling her a “ninja” and telling her to go home like they did back in Birmingham.
Begg labors the point that the Western media distorted the reality of life under the Taliban. There were schools for girls, he says, by way of example.
But then he undoes himself by casually mentioning that one day he came across four men hanging from cranes in the center of town.
He says they had been killed, “ironically,” for terrorism, but further details of the incident are not furnished—however, the sight prompted him to worry in a generalized kind of way about what kind of “legal process” the victims might have received (the implication being, not much of one).
It’s this kind of vacillation between two narratives that makes Begg weak as his own witness. He seems to be saying, “Oh, the Taliban weren’t as bad as the Western media made out. They had schools for girls! But I do think they did possibly execute people without a fair trial.”
After the 9/11 reprisal bombings in October 2001, Begg and his family relocated from Kabul to the safer town of Logar, but Begg returned to Kabul, to collect, he said, valuables and possessions from his house there.
He tries to cast this as a one-off visit, but director and interviewer Ghadiali knows his stuff, and challenges Begg; Begg then admits that he went back week after week on what he now describes as essential shopping trips to get supplies.
The Americans have alleged, more simply, that Begg was a Taliban fighter, and that’s why he was in Kabul.
And certainly the American narrative looks credible when you consider what Begg claims happened next—he says he got into a vehicle with “some Pakistani guys” who he thought were going to Logar, but they end up dropping him in some unnamed mountains.
“Tora Bora,” interjects Ghadiali.
Begg—who claims he never met bin Laden and did not even know the mountains were called Tora Bora—eventually made it to Pakistan and reunited with his family by walking along goat paths for three days.
Once there, they holed up in a friend’s house in Islamabad.
He says he thought his nightmare was over, but it was just beginning. A knock on the door in the dead of night came in January 2002. He was seized by the CIA and transported to a prison camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Bagram Air Base in Iraq (where “Andrew” makes another appearance), before being finally deposited in Guantánamo.
Whatever one thinks of the veracity of Begg’s protestations of innocence up to this point, the indictment of the U.S.’s treatment of captives in secret prisons and in Guantanamo Bay that his story reveals is utterly shocking.
He says he was threatened that his throat would be cut for praying in Arabic on a transport plane. His clothes were cut off him with a knife while he was hooded and shackled. He implies that he was raped. He claims to have witnessed murders by U.S. troops. He claims he was forced to sign two false confessions.
The film makes a strong argument that the torture Begg endured during his extrajudicial detention negates completely the credibility of his confessions.
When Begg makes the claim that similar confessions by other detainees—later served up by Colin Powell and George W. Bush to the United Nations as justification for the invasion of Iraq, affirming the individuals signing them were helping Saddam Hussein develop weapons of mass destruction—were obtained in similar circumstances, it is hard to disbelieve him.
Begg says Bagram and Kandahar were worse than Guantánamo, where he says he was kept in a 6-by-8-foot cage for almost two years.
Begg was released relatively early on due to his British citizenship and was greeted by a police officer with a packet of crisps and a copy of The Sun tabloid newspaper when he boarded an RAF transport plane home.
He was arrested again on landing, but this time there was a difference—he was asked if he’d like to make a phone call. The contrast between the British justice system and the American extrajudicial processes could not be clearer.
Begg claims not to be angry or vengeful but, when he got his passport back, he started traveling again, and in 2012, he appeared in Syria, where he was accused of running a training camp for militia fighters.
Bizarrely, Begg pitches his efforts there as a harm-mitigation exercise because the inexperienced fighters, fired up with an excess of “zeal,” were accidentally “shooting each other” or “shooting themselves in the foot.”
The security services saw things differently and thought he was very much running a training camp, and in 2014 he was once again arrested and questioned on suspicion of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas.
He was held in a British prison for eight months—and then the case was dropped. He now lives in an affluent area of Birmingham in a house he paid for out of a settlement awarded to him by the U.K. government for the time he spent in Guantánamo. Begg sued the British government, claiming Britain had been complicit in his extrajudicial detention, and in November 2010 he received an undisclosed compensation payment.
Begg may be right when he says the case against him was never going to succeed and was inspired solely by a vindictive agenda.
And few would be surprised to learn, as Begg claims, that many of his fellow detainees, when they did finally get out, were heavily involved in the foundation of ISIS.
Without the horrors of Baghram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantánamo, Begg says, we would have fewer Jihadi Johns and ISIS fighters in the world.
The viewer may or may not think he’s right.
But we’ve all seen the pictures of the horrific acts of depravity inflicted by U.S. forces on those “fighters” suspected of terrorism at places like Abu Ghraib, and listening to Begg’s calm, precise delivery is to be reminded that those victims were real people.
It grates when Begg says he never did anything wrong, and whether or not he “deserved” what happened to him depends to some extent on how much you believe his denials of any involvement.
But he eloquently makes a point with his story that, while not original, bears repeating over and over again: Everyone is a loser when the West’s war on terror ignores the basic principles of justice and decency. The Confession is available for rental or purchase in the U.S. through the Google Play store.