Global Policy Forum

US Agents Interrogating Terror Suspects


By Anthony Mitchell

Associated Press
April 4, 2007

U.S. agents hunting for Al Qaeda militants in the Horn of Africa have been interrogating terrorism suspects from several countries held at prisons in Ethiopia, according to American officials who spoke to The Associated Press.

U.S. officials, who agreed to discuss the detentions only if not quoted by name because of the information's sensitivity, said Ethiopia had allowed access to U.S. agencies, including the CIA and FBI, but the agencies played no role in arrests, transport or deportation of the suspects from other countries in East Africa. One official said it would have been irresponsible to pass up an opportunity presented by the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia late last year to learn more about terrorist operations.

Human rights groups, lawyers and several Western diplomats assert hundreds of prisoners, who include women and children, have been transferred illegally in recent months from Kenya and Somalia to Ethiopia, where they are kept without charge or access to lawyers and families. The detainees include at least one U.S. citizen and some are from Canada, Sweden and France, according to a list compiled by a Kenyan Muslim rights group and flight manifests obtained by The AP.

One of the U.S. officials said the FBI has had access in Ethiopia to several dozen individuals - fewer than 100 - as part of its investigations. The official said the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed hundreds are a major focus of the agents' work. Law enforcement officials have long believed the bombings were carried out by members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network who were later given haven in Somalia.

Richard Kolko, a spokesman for the FBI, stressed the detainees were never in FBI or U.S. government custody. "While in custody of the foreign government, the FBI was granted limited access to interview certain individuals of interest," he said. "We do not support or participate in any system that illegally detains foreign fighters or terror suspects, including women and children." Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, declined to discuss details of any interviews. He said, however: "To fight terror, CIA acts boldly and lawfully, alone and with partners, just as the American people expect us to."

While some detainees were swept up by Ethiopian troops that drove a radical Islamist government out of Mogadishu, others have been deported from Kenya, where many Somalis have fled the continuing violence in their homeland. Ethiopia, which denies holding prisoners in secret, has a long history of human rights abuses. In recent years, it has also been a key U.S. ally in the fight against Al Qaeda, which has been trying to sink roots among Muslims in the Horn of Africa. Western security officials, who insisted on anonymity because the issue related to security matters, said that among those held were well-known suspects with strong links to Al Qaeda.

Details of the arrests, transfers and interrogations emerged as The AP and human rights groups investigated reported disappearances, diplomats tracked missing citizens and the first detainees to be released told their stories. One investigator from an international human rights group, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak to the media, said Ethiopia held people at jails in three locations: Addis Ababa, the capital; an Ethiopian air base 59 kilometers, or 37 miles, east of the capital; and the far eastern desert close to the Somali border.

More than 100 of the detainees were originally arrested in Kenya in January, after almost all of them fled Somalia because of the intervention by Ethiopian troops accompanied by U.S. special forces advisers, according to Kenyan police reports and U.S. military officials. Those people were deported in pre-dawn flights to Somalia, according to the Kenya Muslim Human Rights Forum and airline documents. At least 19 were women and 15 were children.

In Somalia, they were handed over to Ethiopian intelligence officers and flown to Ethiopia, where they are now in detention, the New York-based Human Rights Watch says. Kenya continues to arrest hundreds of people for illegally crossing over from Somalia. But it is not clear if deportations continue. The Pentagon announced last week that one Kenyan Al Qaeda suspect who fled Somalia, Mohamed Abul Malik, was arrested and flown to the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Ethiopian officials strongly denied that they held prisoners whose detentions have not been announced or that any detainees were questioned by U.S. officials. "No such kind of secret prisons exist in Ethiopia," said Bereket Simon, special adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Kamilya Mohammedi Tuweni, 42, an Arabic-Swahili translator with a passport from the United Arab Emirates, told a different story. She was released in Addis Ababa on March 24 from what she said was 2½ months in detention without charge. "It was a nightmare from start to finish," she said. She is the only released prisoner who has spoken publicly. She said she was freed a month after being interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed by a U.S. agent.

Speaking by telephone from Dubai, where she flew to rejoin her family after being released, Tuweni said she was arrested Jan. 10 while on a business trip to Kenya and had never been to Somalia or had any links to that country. She said she was forced to sleep on a stone floor while held in Somalia in a single room with 22 other women and children for 10 days before being flown to Ethiopia on a military plane.

Finally, she said, she was taken blindfolded from prison to a private villa in the Ethiopian capital. There, she said, she was interrogated with other women by a male U.S. agent. He assured her that she would not be harmed but urged her to cooperate, she said. The manifest of the African Express Airways flight 5Y AXF shows Tuweni was taken to Mogadishu, Somalia, with 31 other people on an unscheduled flight chartered by the Kenyan government.

The family of a Swedish detainee, 17-year-old Safia Benaouda, said she was freed from Ethiopia on March 27 and arrived home the following day. Benaouda had traveled to Somalia with her fiancé but fled to Kenya during the Ethiopian military intervention, her mother said. "She is exhausted, her face is yellow and she's lost about 10 kilograms," or 22 pounds, her mother, Helena Benaouda, a 47-year-old Muslim convert who heads the Swedish Muslim Council, wrote on a Web site she set up to help secure her daughter's release.

The mother spoke briefly by telephone with The AP, saying any information she had was posted on the Web site. She declined to make her daughter available for an interview. According to the Web site, an American visited the location where Benaouda was being held and took DNA samples and fingerprints of detainees. It said the teenager was never charged or allowed access to lawyers.

The transfer from Kenya to Somalia, and eventually to Ethiopia, of a 24-year-old U.S. citizen, Amir Mohamed Meshal, raised disquiet among FBI officers and the State Department. He is the only American known to be among the detainees in Ethiopia. U.S. diplomats on Feb. 27 formally protested to Kenyan authorities about Meshal's transfer and spent three weeks trying to gain access to him in Ethiopia, said Tom Casey, deputy spokesman for the State Department. He confirmed Meshal was still in Ethiopian custody pending a hearing on his status.

An FBI memo read to The AP by a U.S. official in Washington, who insisted on anonymity, quoted an agent who interrogated Meshal as saying the agent was "disgusted" by Meshal's deportation to Somalia by Kenya. The unidentified agent said he was told by U.S. consular staff that the deportation was illegal. Like Benaouda, Meshal was arrested fleeing Somalia. A Kenyan police report of Meshal's arrest obtained by The AP says he was carrying an assault rifle and had crossed into Kenya with armed Arab men who were trying to avoid capture.

Meshal's parents insist he is innocent and called on the U.S. government to win his release. "My son's only crime is that he's a Muslim, an American Muslim," his father, Mohamed Meshal, said from the family's home in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. Representative Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey, wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday to demand Meshal's immediate release.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the guardian of the Geneva Conventions that protect victims of war, is seeking access to the Ethiopian detainees, said a diplomat from a country whose citizens are being held. He insisted on speaking anonymously because he is working for their release.

A Kenyan government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, insisted no laws were broken and said his government was not aware that anyone would be transferred from Somalia to Ethiopia. Lawyers and human rights groups argue the covert transfers to Ethiopia violated international law. "Each of these governments has played a shameful role in mistreating people fleeing a war zone," said Georgette Gagnon of Human Rights Watch. "Kenya has secretly expelled people, the Ethiopians have caused dozens to disappear, and U.S. security agents have routinely interrogated people held incommunicado."

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