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The Tipton Three: Things Not Quite Adding Up

27/04/2011

I have in the past touched upon the case of the Tipton Taliban (or the Tipton Three), the three chaps from the West Midlands who were picked up in November 2001 by Northern Alliance forces and eventually transferred into US custody at Guantanamo Bay. They were amongst the first detainees to be repatriated from Gitmo in March 2004 and went on to produce, with award winning filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, a film of their experience in Afghanistan, The Road in Guantanamo.

The film painted the men’s experience in a very naïf way – as four young men who headed to Pakistan for a friend’s wedding and while there, wandered into Afghanistan out of curiosity to see what was going on. In a petition submitted to the US Supreme Court Shafiq Rasul claimed that he had travelled to Pakistan in the first place “to visit relatives, explore his culture, and continue his computer studies.” Asif Iqbal instead said that he was going with the intention of marrying “a woman from his father’s small village.”

By November 2001 they were in Afghanistan and were captured amongst the many former Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters fleeing the overwhelming US and Northern Alliance onslaught. In a long confessional they published with the Center for Constitutional Rights, they recounted the toughness of their detention, first at the hands of General Rashid Dostum’s forces, then in a Kandahar prison before they were handed over to U.S. forces that moved them to Guantanamo, This made them into poster-children for those angry at Guantanamo and the way the US was pursuing its war on terror until in June 2007 when they agreed to participate in aChannel 4 show in which Rhuhel Ahmed admitted to having visited an Islamist training camp and to having learned how to handle weapons like AK-47s. InJanuary 2010 they confirmed this story during an interview about a BBC show which reunited two of them with one of their Guantanamo jailers, saying that “we all went to the Taliban training camp on many occasions to find out what was happening” and later “being in Afghanistan, we were at that age where….seeing a gun….you’d never seen a gun in the UK…you want to hold it.”

Now with the latest Wikileaks information release we have the version of their tale that they told their American interrogators and that was collated into a detainee assessment in late October 2003 (just under five months prior to their release). It must of course prefaced that some parts of their stories may have been obtained under duress, but nevertheless, the background stories that the Gitmo detainee assessments provide have the ring of truth to them – the consistencies between them, some of the very specific details about their pre-departure experiences in the UK, and especially in light of the men’s subsequent admissions (admittedly, it is mostly Rhuhel Ahmed who has done the on-air admissions since). 

According to the newly published reports, in late 1999-2000 the men started to get interested in jihad. In Shafiq Rasul’s account, in 1999 they started to attend the Muslim community center in Tipton where “they were encouraged from the start, as Muslim youth, to fight jihad.” He reported that “a well-respected cleric named Sheikh Faisal visited the Tipton Mosque and encouraged the detainee and his friends to commit themselves to the armed struggle against the west.” In Rhuhel Ahmed’s telling, “he started thinking about jihad during the summer of 2000, after reading books on Afghanistan and the Taliban. He also listened to tapes and watched videos on the Chechnya Jihad,” all of which he obtained from the Maktabah al-Ansaar bookstore in Birmingham, UK (that was set up by Moazzam Begg a few years earlier). Asif Iqbal merely reports that “he was a member of the Tipton mosque” and “that he became interested in Jihad in 2000.

Inspired, in September 2000, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed both headed (a week apart) to, in Iqbal’s report “receive military training, to help him fulfill his desire to fight Jihad.” According to Ahmed, the two met in Karachi and stayed at a mosque in the city until they left for Quetta and then onto Kandahar where they “attended a forty-day training session sponsored by the Harakat al-Islami Bangladeshi.” Having completed their training, in November 2000 they headed to the frontlines staying “a few weeks between the front and Kabul.” Apparently this was not very exciting, as according to Ahmed, “their frontline tour mainly consisted of guard duty.” By late November they had had enough and on the 26th they returned to the UK.

Until 9/11 when all three men (and a fourth man Munir Ali, also from Tipton who is believed to have died in Afghanistan) headed off to Afghanistan once again. Asif Iqbal is the most forthcoming on reasons behind this decision with his interrogators telling them that “he left on 27 September 2003 [I believe this is a typo which is meant to be 2001] to go and fight against the ‘crusades’…Bin Laden was being blamed for the attacks and that he wanted to ‘fight for Bin Laden.” He went on say that President Bush was responsible “for the conspiracy against the Taliban” and that “the Jews had been the ones who attacked America.” Clearly fired up with zeal, he grabbed a flight “first class, one way.” The others (Rhuhel Ahmed, Munir Ali, and Shafiq Rasul) joined him just over a week later, leaving the UK on October 5th, 2001, and, according to Rhuhel, “basically took the same route from the previous trip.” Shafiq Rasul fills in more details saying that once in Karachi they met up with Abdul Rahman, “a known member of Harakat ul Jihad al Islami.” He organised their trip to Afghanistan, where the three of them met up again with Asif Iqbal.

At this point, their stories diverge a bit. According to Shafiq Rasul they were near the frontlines in Kabul for about ten days hiding in caves “with other Pakistanis, while coalition forces bombed the area.” Rhuhel Ahmed and Asif Iqbal instead say that following their meeting they went to a training camp near Kabul (an analyst speculates in Asif Iqbal’s statement that this might be the al Faruq camp), which Ahmed describes as “an old Russian military camp.” According to Iqbal, they stayed here for four weeks and were “bored.” So much so that they headed back into Pakistan for “sightseeing.” In his telling, after a couple of weeks drifting “they decided to return to Afghanistan, to rejoin the Jihad” – returning to Kabul they went to Bagram “to fight” for a couple of weeks. They then returned to Kabul and were instructed to head to the mountains where the frontline had been established. In Rhuhel Ahmed’s account, at the end of October they finished their training and went to Kandahar, then Kunduz before ending up in the mountains outside Kabul.

From this position in the mountains, the men appear to agree that they realised they were in a bad spot. According to Rhuhel Ahmed “they witnessed heavy US bombing raids” while Asif Iqbal recalls “one bomb landed approximately 50 meters away and ‘wiped out a whole mountain’.” They decided to try to get out to Pakistan, and as they were ended up getting caught with other Taliban aligned fighters by Uzbek General Rashid Dostum’s forces. Having been incarcerated and recognised as foreigners, the General’s forces sold them to the Americans for a reward and the men eventually ended up in Guantanamo.

It is highly likely that while in the custody of General Dostum’s forces, they underwent some nasty experiences, and no doubt Guantanamo was pretty harsh. But this new version of events goes a bit further in discrediting the rose-tinted version that they portrayed in their movie. Undoubtedly, US intelligence seems faulty and determined to conclude that they are more than they say. The American assessments for Ahmed and Iqbal lock onto the fact that they believe the men were at a rally in Afghanistan in winter 2000/2001 where Osama bin Laden spoke and “several of the 9/11 hijackers were present.” As it turns out, British intelligence was able to prove that all three were in the UK at the time; Rasul was in fact working at a Curry’s in the West Midlands. That he appears to have confessed to being in Afghanistan at the time is likely evidence of his mistreatment – all of which seems a bit excessive for an individual who while clearly misguided, was not an Al Qaeda kingpin.

No doubt this will not be the last that we hear from these men. They seem to enjoy the spotlight of publicity and their cause has been taken up by others as a way of shining a light on American misdeeds. Unfortunately, little digging has been done into their reasons for being in Afghanistan in the first place and it would be good to get a more candid version from them of their story at some point – especially in light of these new documents