As a prisoner in Guantánamo, Younis Chekkouri learned about the new group of Islamic extremists advancing through Syria and Iraq.
Released after 13 years without charges, and free in his home country for the first time in two decades, the 46-year-old vows not to be among the estimated 2,000 Moroccans who have chosen to join the Islamic State group.
“Islam is innocent of this group and its actions,” he says. “They are criminals.”
Other inmates at Guantánamo also followed the news and widely echoed his condemnations of IS, he adds.
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The only positive part about Guantánamo was that I ate three meals a day there.
He and his younger brother, Ridouane Chekkouri, who was released from Guantánamo in 2004, sit alongside each other on the terrace of a cafe in their hometown Safi, recounting – and listening – to their shared stories of torture and abuse.
According to unclassified appeals documents provided to The Associated Press and written by the elder Chekkouri’s lawyers in 2010, “he suffered serious abuse at the hands of the United States, in detention in Afghanistan.”
“Part of this involved threats made against his younger brother, Ridouane,” the documents say.
“They would try to use my brother against me,” Younis says, recalling their initial detention in the province of Kandahar in Afghanistan. “They broke his arm,” he adds as Ridouane gazes down.
Younis says he went to Afghanistan after a number of years studying Sufism in various countries across the Mideast, including Sudan, Yemen, and Syria, among others. In court documents, he is quoted as saying he was looking for work as a recently married 31-year-old, initially traveling with his wife. In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, he describes himself as something of a tourist.
He was picked up by bounty hunters along with suspected al-Qaida fighters and others in December 2001, and recalls being taken to a room in Pakistan “where I was greeted by people with blonde hair and blue eyes.”
“They immediately asked me which terrorist group I belonged to,” he said. None was the answer, but that was disregarded by the U.S. military until 2009.
Only then did it conclude that he didn’t pose a threat to the United States, acknowledging in court documents that the allegations against him were trumped up by fellow detainees determined to be unreliable. They included one described as “a pathological liar” and another who was repeatedly subjected to waterboarding, “parroting whatever his torturers wanted to hear.”
Still, Younis remained at the U.S. base in Cuba until September last year, caught up in international legal wrangling, and upon his arrival in Morocco he was immediately detained without any charges or detailed explanation of why. He was eventually released Friday, pending a hearing on Feb. 23 that will determine whether or not he will face charges of “conspiring against national security,” according to his Morocco lawyer Khalil Idrissi.
The U.S. Justice Department alleged, among other things, that he had ties to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, or GICM, allegations it later withdrew. Morocco’s head of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations has said Morocco can choose to maintain the allegations dropped by the U.S.
At least four former Guantánamo inmates from Morocco have joined extremist fighters in Syria, including one later arrested in Spain for recruiting, and the North African kingdom keeps a close watch on the rest.
Within 20 minutes of meeting the AP, Younis receives a phone call from a local security official asking about the group’s authorization to film him, two plainclothes officers approaches him directly, and a uniformed officer requests authorization from the AP.
As he recounts his time detained in Guantánamo, Chekkouri breathes deeply and requests a break.
“The only positive part about Guantánamo was that I ate three meals a day there,” Chekkouri says. He compares life there to “The Hunger Games,” a film he says he watched during his imprisonment.
“I was subject to all sorts of dark torture and sexual abuse in Guantánamo and Kandahar,” he says as his brother hands him tissues for the tears streaming down his face.
A Sufi Muslim whose form of religion is viewed with suspicion by extremist groups like IS and al-Qaida, Chekkouri denies any links to radicals.
“I’m finally tasting freedom,” he says as he gazes toward the Atlantic Ocean from the boardwalk of his coastal hometown.
Since his release, he has been left to fend for himself, unable to purchase the proper medication to treat his depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, Chekkouri remains hopeful about his future. He is due to be reunited with his Algerian wife, who is in her homeland, in about two weeks.
“Ours is a unique story, worthy of a Hollywood film,” reflects Chekkouri. He pulls out a Valentine’s Day card his wife sent him while he was in Guantánamo, filled with hearts and a long, hand-written poem in Arabic.
But they are no longer the young couple they were when he was detained, and he feels robbed of the fatherhood he dreamed of while in Guantánamo, when he would write to an imagined daughter.
“I saw my niece yesterday and embraced her. I went to sleep that night thinking she was my daughter,” he says as he holds back tears. “They’ve deprived me of being a father.”
Ben Fox in Miami contributed. Hinnant reported from Paris.