â€¨By Matthew Schofield | McClatchy Newspapers
PARIS — Brahim Yadel trained with Taliban forces and with Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network. He learned to handle weapons and even took advanced al Qaida courses in electronics that would have led to bomb making.
Yadel, now 36, maintains, however, that he never raised a weapon against U.S. soldiers and that by October 2001, disgusted by the 9-11 attack on civilians, he was fleeing Afghanistan to head back to his home in France.
"I always differentiated between war to defend Islam and terrorism," he said. "I went to Afghanistan to defend Islam, for jihad. Had this been a military engagement, I would have stood and fought. Of course, it was not, and I wanted nothing to do with it."
The U.S. has never produced evidence that Yadel was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks or that he fought American troops in Afghanistan. He was released from Guantanamo in July 2004, then he spent two years in a French prison for affiliating with terrorists, which is a crime in France.
In the eyes of Yves Prigent, the campaign leader for Amnesty International's French office, Yadel's story goes to a central criticism of American terrorist prisons: Whom are these prisons supposed to hold? Does Yadel's experience training with people who became enemies of the U.S. make him an enemy combatant if he didn't fight, or try to fight, Americans?
For Yadel, the answer is simple: No, he was never an enemy of the United States or the West. He was a defender of Islam, and his battle never arrived. He says that from the moment he first was questioned by the Americans in their prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan until his last day at Guantanamo, his interrogators always seemed to agree with his assessment of the situation.
"I simply told the truth, that I wished to be a soldier to fight soldiers, that I had no intention of fighting civilians," he said. "I always told the entire truth. I think they respected that."
The entire truth, he admits, is a bit more complicated. He said he felt that he'd made a noble choice in March 2000, when he left his home near the Moulin Rouge for a life of mountain camps and studying Islam in Afghanistan.
Yadel hadn't been an observant Muslim very long. The child of secular Algerian immigrants, by the early 1990s he was living alone, working nights and feeling isolated. Then his parents began what became a nasty divorce.
To take his mind off his own sad life, he began to obsess about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to volunteer with pro-Palestinian groups.
"I'd never been a good student, but I was a lover of history," he said. "This movement led me to Islam."
He didn't go halfway.
"I was seeking refuge," he said. "I came to Islam through political engagement, and stayed politically active."
He was outraged by the oppression of Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya. He was jailed in 1998 for having links to Algerian terrorists, which he acknowledged were real. But while he was in jail, he realized that he wasn't going anywhere on his present path.
He became more devout, and after he was released that led him first to Saudi Arabia for a month of study, then, through the contacts of a good friend, to Afghanistan.
"We were going there to train, to engage spiritually and politically," he said. "It was a Muslim government, and we were going to defend it against the oppressors."
He said that he trained primarily with other Algerians in Afghanistan — under the tutelage of al Qaida. He was in an al Qaida camp in October 2000, when the destroyer USS Cole was attacked off Yemen, killing 17 American sailors.
"I knew bin Laden was against the Americans," he said. "In the logic of war, attacking a warship made sense. It wasn't my battle, but I could understand it."
Then came 9-11, he said.
"Unlike the Afghans, I'd grown up in Western culture, which means American culture," he said. "They didn't understand the enormity of what had happened. I did. It was horrible. I didn't believe in this war."
He said that he and several Algerians immediately decided that they wanted no part of defending such actions and fled, a claim that French prosecutors have accepted in their case against him.
Shrapnel from a bomb wounded him, and he said that the northern alliance fighters who captured him in the Tora Bora mountains locked him in a basement and whipped him until he signed a note saying that he was involved with al Qaida. He said they told him that this would increase the bounty the Americans paid.
He was taken to Bagram Air Base, where, he claims, he was interrogated during surgery to remove the shrapnel. It seems highly unorthodox, but other former detainees also have claimed to have been questioned in the midst of medical procedures.
Nine days later, he was taken to Kandahar Airfield. A few weeks later he was in Cuba, where, he said, the treatment was consistently awful, demeaning and dehumanizing.
He even has a couple of anecdotes that make him chuckle, particularly from early on, when guards brought in Arabic books to occupy the inmates.
"The books were all about Wahhabism and Salafism, about jihad," he said, referring to the theological underpinnings of radical Islam. "They were angry when they found out, and took them back."
He said the guards also tried to throw him off equilibrium once by having a skimpily dressed woman interrogate him.
"Perhaps this is something that unsettled the Arabs, who were not used to women dressed in such ways," he said. "But I am French. It was nice."
After he was sent home to France, he was in convicted December 2006 of associating with terrorists but given his two years "time served" there as a sentence. The prosecutor was harshly critical of the United States and Guantanamo.
Yadel now goes to the mosque only occasionally. He thinks that he'll get his life back to normal eventually.