Screen shot 2015-06-11 at 4.43.34 PM

Mourad Benchellali (Screen shot from Witness to Guantanamo)

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.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."


  1. Michael Valentine
    June 11, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    Injustice will never defeat terrorism it only makes it stronger. That must be the thinking behind putting this man on the no fly list, after the treatment his sociopathic captors (the U.S. Government) released him.

  2. dubinsky
    June 11, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    there’s not a reason on Earth why he shouldn’t be barred from flying over US territory…. given that he voluntarily attended an AQ terrorist training camp and stayed to complete the course of training.

    he can call it a joke, but it really ain’t.


  3. kgosztola
    June 11, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    Are you such a heartless person that you do not believe that people can change? Are you such a heartless person that you cannot see he is committing himself to something good? Are you such a heartless person that you cannot recognize that he has endured punishment enough for whatever he did when he was fourteen years younger?

  4. dubinsky
    June 11, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    I’m not asking for him to be punished any further, kevin…I’m saying that the US has no reason to trust him and no reason to allow him into or above the country.
    the government’s obligation is to the safety of the citizenry rather than to members, reformed or not, of al Qaeda.

    I’m perfectly willing to wish him luck in evincing good character and will root for that….. at a distance.

  5. June 11, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    Kevin, as dubs had replied to me the other day…

    those kids ain’t in summer camp, champ.

    and if you wanna
    discuss benevolence, it ain’t really “looking out” for kids when
    Palestinians send them out to throw rocks at soldiers. it might make
    for good political theater to have children bleed for the cameras or get
    hauled off to jail, but it sure ain’t good for the kids.

    CTuttle dubinsky •a day ago

    Whew, you are warped, dub…! “good political theater”…?

    np, it ain’t me who is warped…it the Palestinian adults who send those children out to throw rocks at men with guns.

    were you not ethically obtuse you would see how vile it is.

    He’s quite the ethical character,eh…?

  6. jo6pac
    June 11, 2015 at 7:58 pm

    I was wondering if you missed the part he was going to fly over Amerika. I do wonder if you work in some cube for the so-called govt. of the people of Amerika? Just saying

  7. kgosztola
    June 11, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    Serious question: What the fuck would you suggest he do with his life?

    I would think one would champion any and all former Islamic extremists who changed their mind about jihad and wanted to discourage youth from throwing their lives away by joining ISIS or al Qaeda.

  8. dubinsky
    June 11, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    exactly what does keeping him out of the US do to keep him from leading a worthwhile life, kevin?

    gimme reason rather than emotion.

  9. dubinsky
    June 11, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    I was responding to the idea that keeping him out of the US is some sort of undue punishment rather than a reasonable precaution…..

    perhaps you missed something or I wasn’t sufficiently clear.

  10. jo6pac
    June 11, 2015 at 8:53 pm

    He is not landing in Amerika but flying over it

  11. June 11, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    I question if he even enters American Airspace, jo…! 8-(

  12. dubinsky
    June 11, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    no, he ain’t gonna do either.

    he’s lost all his US A privileges

    until further notice.

  13. dubinsky
    June 11, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    and you’re still ethically obtuse and eager to misunderstand and misrepresent.

  14. June 11, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    How did I misunderstand and/or misrepresent what you said, dubs…? I quoted ya verbatim…!

  15. dubinsky
    June 11, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    you probably wouldn’t understand, tut.

    but just in case ….. did you happen to notice that your comment contained a bunch of other words…one that I didn’t write?

  16. ComradeRutherford
    June 11, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    You sound exactly like the far-right wingers that kept saying that because Senator Byrd had once been in the KKK, that everything good he did against racism didn’t count and that also meant that all Liberals therefore supported the KKK.

  17. dubinsky
    June 11, 2015 at 11:05 pm

    you sound like a person who is confused and confusing the rights of American citizens to travel freely across the uS with foreigners who have no such right.

  18. jane24
    June 12, 2015 at 12:18 am

    I am particularly impressed by Mourad Benchellali’s current views and activism in light of the fact that he was formerly a prisoner at Guantanamo. For me this makes
    Benchellali’s stance quite remarkable, and imo, words from a man such as he are likely far more effective in countering Islamic extremism than any of the tactics employed by the government.

  19. kgosztola
    June 12, 2015 at 10:59 am

    I gave you reason. It’s not my problem if the reason goes completely over or around your head.

  20. kgosztola
    June 12, 2015 at 11:05 am

    No, here’s the issue. You are claiming through your statements that he still poses some threat that would warrant putting him on watch lists but he is a free person in France.

    The responsibility is on you to prove that he poses some threat today, even after making the decision to reform himself. I cannot prove a negative. I cannot sit here and prove he is a **not threat**.

    Would you want me to ask you to prove that you are not a complete idiot? No, because now I am asking you to prove that you are not something which you clearly are not. So, if I want to prove you are an idiot, I have to do it with facts or evidence before me and not by forcing you to prove that you are really smart.

  21. dubinsky
    June 12, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    why would you assume that it want over my head rather than that I’m making a counterargument and suggesting that ultimately your argument is based on hope rather than more?

    banning him from US land and airspace inconveniences him, it doesn’t prevent him from talking.

    the restriction can be removed later if he proves to be sincere. there’s little to gain for the US in removing it immediately.

  22. dubinsky
    June 12, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    actually, the burden is not on me….it’s on him.

    he has no right to access US territory…and he’s already proven himself a potential threat by joining AQ and attending their training camp.