[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Thursday, 26 October 2006, 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK
Ghost Plane
Ghost Plane by Stephen Grey

British journalist Stephen Grey's Ghost Plane documents his investigation into the secret CIA practice of transporting terror suspects to third countries - known as "extraordinary rendition".

The book claims many of those prisoners subsequently suffered torture at the hands of regimes such as Syria - publicly pilloried by the Bush administration but, it says, privately colluded with the name of defending the US.

In this extract from the book's prologue, he details some of the allegations of torture and abuse.

Click here to post your comments and reviews
Read extracts from other books in the Newsnight book club

By Stephen Grey


DAMASCUS, SYRIA - Tuesday, 17 December 2002

The Grave received its name because the cells are little larger than coffins. Pay close attention, because this is a key destination in the War on Terror. Admittedly, it is not where President George W. Bush would take visitors on a showpiece tour, and yet here in this dungeon, on this day, 17 December 2002, are at least seven prisoners who claim to have arrived courtesy of the United States.

In charge of the centre is a man named George Salloum, an officer of Syrian military intelligence, dressed smartly in trousers, a golf shirt and a pair of leather shoes. He might seem an unlikely ally for the United States. By profession he is the head of interrogation of suspected terrorists at the Palestine Branch. In short, a torturer. The vice or virtue of his methods and whether, in the War on Terror, such methods may regrettably be necessary, will be examined later. But suffice for now to say Salloum extracts information, or at least confessions, by extreme force, both physical and psychological. The Palestine Branch is a house of confession.

In cell no. 2 is Maher Arar, a Canadian wireless technician who was deported to Syria from New York in a private American jet. As a teenage schoolboy he once had a part-time job folding towels at that Sheraton Hotel. But he left the country at the age of seventeen and never returned - till now. He will later be found innocent of all charges. Every day, Maher is brought out of his cell to face Salloum and his team of interrogators. Among their worst methods is one known as the as the "German chair", so-called because it was said to have been taught to them by the Stasi, the East German secret service. It has an empty metal frame with no backrest or seat and is used to stretch the prisoner's spine to near breaking point.

Maher is spared this worst torture. He is beaten on his back, his buttocks and his feet with a two-inch thick electric cable. Night and day, he hears around him the screams of other prisoners. But the worst of all is the rat-infested, tiny and solitary cell. He can barely stretch out in one direction. As a Muslim, he would like to pray towards Mecca, but no guard will tell him which direction that is. And, anyway, his body can only bend one way, forward towards the metal door.

There is no daylight coming into his cell, just a dim glow through a hole in the reinforced concrete ceiling. Crouching beneath, Maher tries to make out the words from his wife Monia back in Canada. In a letter she had promised "I will do whatever it takes to get you released." This was his only ray of hope. Maher tells the time by the meals that are brought to him. Once a week he is taken out to wash himself. He is held in the same cell for ten months. Later, an official inquiry would find his account of physical and mental torture to be truthful.

Next door to Maher, in cell no.3, is a fellow Canadian called Abdullah Almalki. Maher is accused of being a member of Al Qaeda, in part, because back in Ottawa, Maher was a friend of Abdullah's. Now, the two dare not exchange more than a whisper. Abdullah has been in his cell since May and he will remain there until August of the following year. Like Maher he is accused of membership of Al Qaeda, and, like him, will be cleared of all such charges.

Another prisoner is Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a 42-year-old German businessman from Hamburg, a father of five. An enormous bear of a man, once described as having "arms like small tree trunks", before his capture he weighed more than twenty stone. Now he weighs considerably less. His cell, no.13, is shorter than his body length. From now on, for nearly two and a half years, he will be living in this cramped position. The only time he is taken from his cell again, say fellow inmates, is to be tortured.

No public charges have been laid against Mohammed, but he is regarded by investigators as a key figure in the Al Qaeda cell that organised the strike on the Twin Towers - in short, one of the key suspects behind the September 11 attacks. But, two months after those crimes, rather than questioning Mohammed in America or Germany, he was picked up when he went on holiday in Morocco, just before he boarded a flight to return home. A secret report of the German government, which I obtained, confirmed he was questioned there by American agents and then flown on to Syria on 27 December, also at the request of the United States. While tortured by George Salloum's men, Mohammed had faced lists of questions sent directly by the CIA, the report confirmed. Mohammed's home country was complicit too in his treatment. The Germans tipped off the Americans about his travel to Morocco. They also sent lists of questions to Syria. And, just a month before this imaginary visit, officers from German intelligence and police came directly to interrogate him about his activities in Hamburg.

There are two more prisoners in this jail... Both say they were arrested in Pakistan and then interrogated by US agents before being handed over directly there to a team from Syrian intelligence.
Three other prisoners say the Americans brought them to the Palestine Branch. In cell no.5 is a man in his 30s called Abdel; in cell no. 8 is someone called Omar; and in cell no.12 is a teenager with a brother in Guantánamo. The latter two were arrested on 28 March that year when a team of Pakistani and American agents stormed a Faisalabad compound being used by Abu Zubaydah, one of the alleged senior commanders of Al Qaeda. Fourteen people were in this building and the two prisoners say that each of those arrested was separated and sent to different countries. After their arrest, the prisoners say, they have both been brutally tortured. Omar says that Abu Zubaydah himself was treated the worst. In Pakistan, before their transfer, he was shown pictures of a bruised Abu Zubaydah and told: "If you don't talk, this is what will happen to you." Abdel Halim, a student also arrested in Pakistan, was on 14 May put with the other two on a US plane that brought all three to Damascus. I later found indications that the plane involved was a CIA-owned Gulfstream executive jet. In Syria, the torture continued and Abdel Halim, in particular, seems to have got it worst. "He was treated really bad. He was brought down from the interrogation room wrapped in a blanket. He was brutally beaten and couldn't walk," remembers Abdullah, whose cell was two doors down.

There are two more prisoners in this jail who were handed over by the United States. In cell no.17 is a prisoner called Barah; in cell no.7 is Bahaa, aged 29. Both say they were arrested in Pakistan and then interrogated by US agents before being handed over directly there to a team from Syrian intelligence.

Of course, Syria's treatment of prisoners in this way is no secret. The United States, which considers Syria to be a state sponsor of terrorism, has for many years detailed and criticised the country's human rights abuses. President Bush would condemn the regime for its "legacy of torture, oppression, misery, and ruin." In 2003, the State Department, quoting human rights organisations and former prisoners, would describe torture methods as including: administering electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; forcing objects into the rectum; beating, sometimes while the victim is suspended from the ceiling; hyper-extending the spine; bending the detainees into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts; and using a chair that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim's spine.


In January 2002, President Bush had declared an "Axis of Evil" consisting of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. In May, the US State Department added Syria as a candidate member of the list and called it a "rogue state" for seeking weapons of mass destruction. But, in the War on Terror, many compromises were being made.

On the evening of Tuesday 17 December, President Bashar and his wife were welcomed to a banquet by the Lady Mayoress of London. Asma had proved a hit with the media. Scotland's Daily Record said her style had "earned comparisons with Jackie Kennedy and Princess Diana." On the menu was Gravadlax with Quail's Egg, followed by Canon of Lamb with Minted Béarnaise Sauce, Passion Fruit Soufflé Glacé or Tropical Fruit Salad. The wine on offer for the main course was a choice between Chateau Arnaud de Jacquemeau (1998) and Grand Cru St. Emilion; for dessert a Muscat de Beaumes de Venise was served to complement the soufflé, and Smith Woodhouse 1995 LBV Port followed.

Meanwhile in Damascus, Maher was at his wit's end. By now he had already signed a false confession that he had trained at a camp in Afghanistan. He wondered what more he could say. "After the time went by," he remembered: "I got into a very, very desperate situation. I wanted to be out of that place at any cost, and that's when I realised, to be in that place, the psychological torture in that place is even worse than the beating, the torture. I was ready to accept anything. I was ready to accept a ten, twenty year sentence and say anything just to get to another place."

The trouble for Maher was that he could not provide what the Syrians wanted most: useful information to pass back to the Americans. So his incarceration continued.

In the underground hell of the Palestine Branch, there were innocents like Maher. There were also those guilty of crimes, those who almost certainly were members of Al Qaeda. There are those who would say that, under torture, some useful intelligence might emerge. After all, the United States was to state that the Syrian government had provided information on terrorism that had "saved American lives". So was this torture justified? Was the War on Terror too important to lose? And whose side were countries like Syria really on?

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific