A former Guantanamo prisoner, who uses his experience to speak out regularly against the Islamic State and its recruitment campaigns for youth, was blocked from traveling from France to an anti-radicalization conference in Canada. He was told he could not board his flight because he is on the United States’ No Fly List.
The Associated Press reported Mourad Benchellali was not allowed to travel because the Air Transat flight from Lyon to Montreal went through US airspace.
“Our personnel had to, and duly applied the provisions of a US security program known as Secure Flight, as all airlines must,” the Canadian airline told the AP.
Benchellali, a French citizen, was released from the prison at Guantanamo in July 2004. He faced trial and was convicted of crimes in France in 2007, but the French Court of Appeals overturned his convictions in February 2009. A higher court ordered his retrial in 2010.
He had no idea he was on the watch list, however, this was his first “trans-Atlantic flight.”
The former Guantanamo prisoner planned to attend a conference organized by the Observatory on Radicalization and Violent Extremism. Organizers were shocked that their guest was “banned” from traveling and would not be speaking alongside police and university researchers scheduled to participate. He also was to attend another conference, “48 Hours for Peace.”
In February, President Barack Obama spoke at a “Countering Violent Extremism” summit where he argued that al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other groups were terrorists “desperate for legitimacy. And all of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like [the Islamic State] somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative.”
“We must acknowledge that groups like al Qaeda and [Islamic State] are deliberately targeting their propaganda to Muslim communities, particularly Muslim youth. And Muslim communities, including scholars and clerics, therefore have a responsibility to push back.”
People like Benchellali are pushing back. When he was 19-years-old, according to a previous report from the AP, he “viewed the voyage to al Qaeda’s training camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan, as a romantic adventure.”
“The reality, he tells youths, was shock-grinding physical exercises in blazing heat, weapons training and propaganda videos in the evening, along with mind-numbing organization rigorously enforced.”
Benchellali believes that there is a “collective responsibility” to provide a reality check to those youth “tempted by jihad.” He recognizes he is in a position to explain that what he did was a mistake.
Previously, Benchellali has spoken with the Witness to Guantanamo Project about the psychological warfare he and other prisoners endured at Guantanamo:
There were some guards—I remember at the beginning, before we went Camp Delta, we were in Camp X-Ray—some guards told us…Well one detainee had asked a guard, “Why do you treat us this way? Why do you beat us up? It’s unfair.” So he said, “You’re going to be sent to another camp, called Camp Delta. And over there, they won’t beat you up anymore, but psychologically it’s going to be very hard for you. We will do anything to make you all crazy.”
And so we passed it on to all the detainees and all that. We told each other the Americans’ goal is to make us all go crazy. So each time we thought, if we break, they will have won. It will be their victory in a way, because that’s what they want. They want us to become completely mad so that it would give more credit to their claims against us. They could say, “See, they are mad men, crazies, they are full of hatred and all that, so we were right when we accused them of being dangerous terrorists and so on.” So we didn’t want to fall into that trap, so that led us to fight in order not to fall apart, not to become crazy, to stay strong. Because we thought, if we fall apart they will have won. It’s like warfare, psychological warfare. So, it isn’t a physical war, but we must not let them win.”
Do previous statements like that have anything to do with his placement on the No Fly List? He also spoke to Witness to Guantanamo about the prison’s brutal interrogations. Is that why he was put on the No Fly List? Or, are all former Guantanamo prisoners automatically put on the No Fly List?
What Benchellali is doing is exactly what the US government wants people like Benchellali to do. People like Benchellali cannot effectively reach people, who need to hear their message, if they are blacklisted from traveling over US airspace—or even to the United States.