Banana rats and the man who worked for Bin Laden

Khalid in Guantanamo
Khalid today – giving us an interview

At one time Khalid Al-Jhani made bombs for Osama Bin Laden – but now he’s a free man. How could that be? Al Jhani has led an extraordinary life – he set off as an idealistic young man to protect Muslims, ended up working for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, met Osama Bin Laden several times, was captured shortly after 9/11 and sent to Guantanamo, then, four years later, passed through an innovative Saudi rehab programme.

Here’s a brief extract from the documentary I made for the UN – here he talks about Bin Laden:

Brief reflections on camera about Al-Jhani’s story and its paradoxes:

The complete film: Second Chance in Saudi Arabia

Reflections on my filming trip to Riyadh – where we profiled Khalid Al-Jhani – now living an almost normal life, after previously working as an explosives trainer for Al Qaeda.

Stuck in the hotel.

I’d almost given up on the filming trip.  We’d been stuck in a dreadful, depressing Holiday Inn in Riyadh for three days and had been able to film almost nothing – just some shots of streets from the car and some people in a square – and all the time our Saudi fixer from the Interior Ministry nervously hovered by us, telling us not to film women. I’d assumed the authorities would be very concerned with us filming anything at all politically sensitive, but strangely, Ali, the fixer, seemed (apart from his worry about shots of females) more interested in questioning our aesthetic choices rather than censoring us.  He felt that we shouldn’t have bothered to take a shot of a building site (which showed ancient houses behind modern construction – so that we could show the contrast). Later he thought we should have taken a shot of Riyadh’s central towers from further back along the road. I guess he was trying to help, but almost invariably, his interventions were a nuisance.

We are here to film a short documentary about Saudi’s rehab programme for ex-terrrorists, and to profile one of its graduates – a guy who was with Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, who ended up in Guantanamo, and then went through the Saudi programme. He’s now living an almost normal life, having been given a house, a car, and help to finance a dowry for his wedding by the Saudi authorities.

Antonio and I had both become somewhat taciturn and moody. It’s hard not to when you have nothing to do and you share the same dining room day after day with a few irritable businessmen. We’d had hell trying to get Antonio’s ticket and contract sorted out on time – stymied by an administrative scew-up. It was so bad that Antonio had had to fly out three days late and had missed the early part of the trip. Fortunately, the first three days were a conference on terrorism and the internet and it was easy for me to film it myself.

At first, things had looked good. My heart had soared when I’d arrived and met Captain Hamed from the Interior Ministry. I’d missed the “captain” bit first time round, assuming it was some kind of forename – but everyone at the Interior Ministry had a rank. Ali was a lieutenant. Hamed had told me we were going to Jeddah to film Khalid al-Jhani – the guy I’d asked to be able to film. That was a huge victory. For some reason, they’d wanted us to film a character called Ibrahim, who’d appeared in the Saudis’ own film on this subject – ex-terrorists who’d passed through their rehab programme. But Ibrahim had the personality of a baked-bean and his story was infinitely less dramatic than al-Jhani’s.

But now, thank God!, we were going to film al-Jhani at work and at home in Jeddah! A city on the sea that, I was told, was more liberal and diverse than Riyadh, which was a huge, LA-like sprawl of low-rise buildings, without charm or character – impenetrable to a Westerner only there for a few days, without an invite into anyone’s home. Faceless. You have most contact with the expat workers from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – who staff the hotels and drive the cars. The blind foreigner leading the blind foreigner around – with sometimes disastrous results. The taxi drivers often have no clue where you are going, this fact only emerging after aimless driving for long periods. After a fruitless two-hour search for a well-known tourist site that I wanted to film, I named the hotel’s in-house cab company as the “Worst Taxi Service in the World.”

But then disaster. After radio silence from Hamed for two days, I finally get through to him the day before we are due to fly to Jeddah. The trip has been cancelled. There have been floods in Jeddah. We won’t be able to get around. I am dubious – I think they’ve just decided we can’t film him. (It later turns out there WERE bad floods in Jeddah). Why can’t we go on Monday? Jhani can’t do other days because, it turns out, he doesn’t want his colleagues or his neighbours to know we are filming. The two days we have planned are the Saudi weekend – Thursday and Friday, so his colleagues will be away, and won’t be likely to visit him at home. He can’t do any other days. I still don’t really believe this.

I say we may have to cancel the trip and go back home. I get the first flash of anger from Captain Hamed. He feels he has worked hard for us to set all this up – perhaps he has, but I’m drowning in pessimism, thinking we are not going to get anything good at all.

But. But – they WILL bring him to Riyadh. My heart sinks – no home, no work? Are they only going to offer an interview and nothing else? But then, with Antonio, I realize there are things we could do – shopping, eating, at the terrorist rehab centre – “the prodigal son returns.” Hamed even suggests we can film him in the sand dunes – we leap at the idea. I visualize tracking shots of his four-by-four, with dust spraying out behind; interviewing him at the wheel as the evening slides in over the desert. (Sadly, this part of the shoot didn’t work out like that.)

We get confirmation that he’s coming. Still, as we wait, we continue to twiddle our thumbs. Partly to fill the time, we want to do a shot of the city from a tower, but, surprisingly, our Interior Ministry friends don’t seem to be able to wave an ID card and get it done. They are told no by the people who run the tower. I have no idea how hard they are trying. Probably not very hard. We manage to do a little filming late in the day – driving around as dusk descends. We do manage one element I wanted – a recreation, point of view sequence of the outside of a compound that was attacked by terrorists. Surprisingly, Ali again has no clout. Instead we film furtively outside the entrance while Ali tries to ask for permission. Even more surprisingly, Ali suggests that we film secretly anyway, which of course we are already doing. Is he on our side or not? Maybe he is trying to help, after all.

Finally, we go to the rehab centre. But I’m worried. The original time for our arrival had been 10 am. Now that’s switched to 1pm. We have only one day at the centre. It gets dark at around 5.  We get there, and at least we have an interesting cultural experience. The centre, which looks at first glance like a prison from outside, and a weird kind of holiday-camp inside – reminiscent, slightly, of the Prisoner TV series – which was filmed at the toy village of Portmeirion in Wales. Waiting for us are about 20 officials. I greet as many of them as I can, thankful that I had decided to put on a tie that day. We sit down in a large, beige-coloured room, that is evidently meant to recreate the interior of a large tent. (Someone later tells us it’s extremely expensive to construct buildings in this shape, with the ceiling divided into four planes meeting at a central point.)

Arrayed on low tables, boxes of untouched dates (should I pick one up and eat – or would that be rude?), various sweets, bottles of water. We are immediately served the local coffee – I don’t drink coffee but take some any way, not wanting to commit a social gaffe. It tastes peppery and is semi-translucent, utterly unlike the Western version. I respond to the elaborate greetings and welcomes as elaborately as I can muster. We are asked what we want to film. I say we want to film as much of the centre as possible and also to film a couple of detainees who are currently doing the programme. The head of the centre nods enigmatically. Is he annoyed that I asked so directly? I don’t know.

As he begins talking he grabs a microphone. It emerges that this is an elaborate presentation. A screen has been set up with various powerpoint displays. We are being filmed and photographed (a pain later, as we have to quell the photographer who keeps taking flash photographs while we are filming).  It also emerges that every person sitting there will also make speeches, one after the other. (Will we ever actually get to film anything?) I keep smiling and nodding, showing the greatest attentiveness.

Some present speak excellent English. It emerges that quite a few have studied in the West – especially the US and the UK. One of them, a professor, is a good speaker. He’s a definite for an interview. Eventually, we break up. I grab the professor and he talks very well and apparently with freedom. It’s also suggested we interview the religious instructor. I don’t want to, but again, don’t want to offend anyone. But I end up being rather rude anyway. By the time we get to the religious instructor, daylight is running out, and for the first time ever, I finish an interview before my interviewee is finished. I hope he isn’t too put out, but no time to worry.

Khalid shortly after his capture by the Pakistani military
Khalid, now a free man, on a shopping trip

The terrorists

And then, thank God, things go well. We get to the volleyball court – a bunch of young men hanging around – are these all ex-terrorists? Well no, a couple – one of whom, a feisty, tough-looking small fellow with piercing eyes and a beard I had pegged for a war-hardened mujahadeen figure – turn out to be the coaches.

No, the guy wearing the Juventus football shirt is one of our men. He’s impressively good at football and volleyball, has a moody look, but is also clearly one of the jokers in the pack. He’ll be good – and later he gives us a pretty good interview. He never got as far as actually doing anything, terrorist-wise – but still ended up in jail for 7 years. He had been planning to go to Iraq with a bunch of other guys. His father turned him in. Someone had told me before the interview that his big issue was with his father. It figures. In the interview, he says how grateful he is to his father for stopping him. I surmise that both things are possibly true – he probably did/does have an issue with his father. He’s probably also grateful that he was stopped from going further.

In this strange holiday camp, the living quarters each contain a private swimming pool (!) though they are not yet filled with water, since this is a new facility. The rehab progamme itself has been going for about four years – at first it was carried out in prisons, then in special centres.  They have televisions – not sure if they can watch anything – they seemed to have live coverage of prayers at Mosques. They can play football. There’s a small boating pond with bridges. They have art therapy, psychological counseling, lectures in Islamic history and theology.

I gather from various discussions from instructors and inmates that there’s a focus on insisting that there is only one correct interpretation of the Koran and that, essentially, the people who join radical groups are simply wrongly interpreting the Koran, possibly deliberately misled by their recruiters. Also, it’s frequently pointed out that only some scholars, the established respected scholars, can issue fatwas.  So there’s a right line and a wrong line to take – and there’s not much room, at least according to the people in the programme, for any variation in interpretation. There is only one correct interpretation, which has to be relayed to the detainees.

Our Juventus guy, Osama, sits stone-faced, through his history of Islam lecture. I ask him afterwards if he was bored – and he surprises me by admitting he was – I thought that would be impolitic and difficult for him to say so. He explains that he is more interested in working with modern technology – he wants to be a sound engineer – and in fact, he sings beautifully – which he does for us on camera. He tells us he is getting engaged the following week.

I’m surprised at his jokes as well. As Antonio puts on his microphone, which requires threading it under his dishdashe he says, through the interpreter “don’t touch anything” then, in English, “My ass – okay!” We crack up.

The next day, the moment of truth – we finally meet Khalid al-Jhani. I know he speaks English – I think it will be good enough, but I’m not sure. Also, will he let us interview him extensively?  Will he be pissed off at having to come to Riyadh? Has he had enough of giving interviews? Will he be tired, evasive?

Not a bit of it. Both Antonio and I quickly warm to him. He is very friendly, solicitous, checks in about exactly what we want – agrees to everything. We both end up thinking him a hugely likable guy. This is a guy who worked with Bin Laden in Afghanistan and trained people in how to make bombs. And yet, he is funny, connected, interested in us, warm and pleasant.

And I reflect on all the grey areas. He tells us he decided on his own to go off and fight. He watched videos of Bosnia in the early nineties. Is he really different from the young men who went off to fight in Spain during the Spanish civil war in the 30s – fighting for a good cause?  Not so much, surely. Except.  I interview him for 2 hours, but afterwards there are many more questions I wished I’d asked. He mentioned the Kenya and Tanzania bomb attacks that killed large numbers of civilians. This was the period where he was with Bin Laden. So he knew of civilian attacks – didn’t he think this was wrong?  I will have to go through the interviews again. But mostly, from his perspective, he was fighting for a good cause. He was a fighter.

He says, though, that he had doubts about Bin Laden from the beginning. He implies he felt that Bin Laden was a phony – that he pretended to be more learned than he actually was, by displaying books around his room, that he took on Presidential airs, and didn’t see himself as one of the regular fighters, that he justified 911 by saying the Americans were going to attack Afghanistan – a logic that Khalid questioned. Surely you should wait for an opponent’s bad deed before taking revenge?

(He later tells me that Osama always seemed to be well health-wise – no evidence of a kidney machine. Interrogators had insisted on the machine, but he was adamant there wasn’t one, and thinks Bin Laden is alive, if, of course, he hasn’t been killed in battle.)

He tells me he really started to change his mind when he saw footage of 9/11 at Guantanamo – as he watched civilians jumping to their deaths. He was not meant to be killing civilians – he was supposed to be a fighter. They had cheered 9/11 before, in Afghanistan, where they had no TV, only radios and newspapers – so didn’t see any footage. Now, in prison, he didn’t feel like cheering. So he had his doubts. He said one factor was that it was difficult to turn back. He was a wanted man back in Saudi after a certain point, so that made the decision to continue in Afghanistan much easier, even though he had questions about what he was doing. Once started, it was difficult to step aside.

The one moment that he did express regret was when he described training people to make bombs – some were going to Chechnya. He said he hoped they either got killed before setting off the bombs, or that the bombs had failed. He denied ever being a fighter in Afghanistan – I doubt if this was true since he was there a lot, over several years, and attended many different camps. He probably can’t admit to this.

The other time I thought he probably wasn’t telling the truth was when he kept referring to Saudi jails with a big smile on his face, saying how different they had been from his expectations – that they’d heard rumours of mistreatment, but this wasn’t borne out.  He said he was mistreated at first at Guantanamo, but that eventually he found that some of the guards sympathized with him. He said the treatment varied, depending on who was in charge of the jail. He certainly gave no indication that he was angry at Americans. Rather, I had the impression that he would go there in a minute if he was given the chance to.

He fled with Osama Bin Laden to Tora Bora. Bin Laden left a day before the others. Again he wasn’t impressed by this. They escaped through the mountains, only to be handed over to the Pakistani authorities by someone who sold them on for money.

At first he was held in a Pakistani military jail. He had various visits from people who said they were from the UN and the Red Cross. Khalid smiles broadly. It was strange, but at the end of their visits, they’d all ask him where Bin Laden was. He said he didn’t know – and that he was sure the visitors were from the CIA or some such.

Then he was held by the Americans in Kandahar. He was beaten, stripped naked, woken every hour. It was very cold. The Red Cross came visiting but he was told if he went out to see them, they would keep him in shackles for the next two weeks. He didn’t go.

The Americans at Kandahar issued every prisoner with a blue overall. Every overall had a small American flag sewed to it. All the prisoners tore off the flags and threw them on the floor. About a hundred flags were strewn in the dirt. Their guards soon saw this. Later, they were served soup. As they began spooning the soup down, they discovered that the hundred flags had been stirred into it.

Banana rats

Banana rats used to get into the jail at Guantanamo – I wasn’t sure what they were. Khalid said they were a cross between a rat and a rabbit.  He said they sometimes fed the banana rats a bit of their food. One day he had a problem. He put something out on a spoon for a banana rat and it took the food and the spoon along with it. He was aghast, because in Guantanamo they had to hand back all the cutlery they were given for every meal – so if the group was given 19 spoons, they had to give 19 spoons back – and if one was lost, they had to go through a major search and inspection. So as Khalid watched the banana rat escape with his spoon he immediately called out to the guards so that they would see that the banana rat was making off with the spoon. He managed to get them to see it, thus avoiding a lengthy search and inspection.

As he was eating chicken with us, he pointed to his bone and said that they were never allowed bones in Guantanamo. I asked if it was because they could have been used as weapons. He said yes. It was a fantastic change for him to be able to eat whole chickens after six years in jail.  He told us that he had basically forgotten how to drive, and had to start all over again when he returned.

One time in Gitmo an iguana climbed over the fence. He said he was told they were federally protected, but one of the prisoners wanted to kill it. The guards shouted they would have to pay a $100 fine if they killed it – the prisoners were unsurprisingly undaunted by this threat and went ahead any way.

On another occasion, Khalid said he heard someone shouting out “Hey Mohammed! Hey Mohammed!” he turned round and saw some filipino staff – possibly cleaners. They got into a conversation. They told him that they had worked in Saudi Arabia, but that Gitmo was much better, as they were paid much more.

Khalid said that his American guards were amazed when he told them that they had every kind of car, and computers and so on in Saudi Arabia. They had assumed he always lived in caves. Khalid said he often discussed with his guards the ins and outs of eating food with your hands – as Saudis do traditionally. The prison had turned into some kind of bizarre cultural exchange programme.

We spent the whole day with him. The dunes went badly – because Ayman made no move to provide a four-by-four – in fact we thought their vehicle was four-wheel drive, but it wasn’t. Bang went my shots of speeding through the desert.

I took Khalid’s e-mail address. He has a twin brother, who’s married to an American woman. His brother can’t go to the US because of him. Khalid told his brother about the interview he’d just done with us. His brother told him – “You shame us. You shame us.” Khalid smiled at this. I wondered whether he would give any more interviews after this. It couldn’t be easy to constantly upset your family.

We parted on good terms, though I think he’d had enough of us – we’d been filming him for hours and it was about 10.30 when we finally finished.

Antonio and I felt we’d had a good day’s filming.

We are still not quite sure what to make of it all – apart from a film.

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