In fall 2009, I found myself in a Tanzanian hotel lobby, sitting across from Suleiman Abdallah, a lanky man with a goofy smile and a broken tooth. Over the next few days, he would describe in excruciating detail how he had been captured in Mogadishu in 2003 by a Somali warlord and handed over to American officials, who had him rendered via Kenya and Djibouti to Afghanistan for five years of detention and torture. Imprisoned in three different US facilities, Suleiman had been unceremoniously released from Bagram Air Force Base the year before, with a piece of paper confirming his detention as well as his innocence. By the time I met him, he was a free man, living with his mother and attempting to rebuild his life.
I had first come across Suleiman’s case in 2006. At that time my work at the British legal charity Reprieve involved searching for information about prisoners who had been “disappeared” by the United States in the “war on terror.” Finding people was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle for which one had first to hunt for the pieces. Evidence of Suleiman’s existence was available only in fragments: a 2003 CNN report that one Suleiman Abdallah had been captured by Somali and Kenyan security personnel; other media reports suggesting that there had been help from plainclothes American officers and a notorious Somali warlord named “Mr. Tall.” A subsequent report placed Suleiman in Kenya, whose security minister announced that he was to be flown to the United States for trial, for offenses related to the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
In fact, Suleiman never arrived in the United States, and none of the authorities ever disclosed his whereabouts. Suleiman joined the growing list of disappeared prisoners held at undisclosed locations with no access to a lawyer, tracked by a handful of global NGOs.
As in other countries caught in US crosshairs following the attacks of September 11, 2001, a bounty system emerged in Somalia in 2002, whereby people were captured by local warlords and sold to the CIA as “terror suspects” in return for cash. In lawless Somalia, anyone without local protection is highly vulnerable; as with many others, the main operating factor in Suleiman’s abduction appears to have been that he was a foreigner with few local connections.
As East Africa’s quiet war on terror became an increasing focus of my work, Suleiman’s file grew steadily more intriguing. Shuttled through the global system of secret US prisons, he remained mostly invisible. His name appeared in the margins of a confession barred by a Kenyan court in 2005 for having been obtained through torture. A 2007 report from West Point suggested that upon capture Suleiman was initially presented to the CIA as Fazul Mohammed, a Comorian terror suspect who was eventually killed by Somali police in Mogadishu last year. Elsewhere, media reports confirmed that as a young man, Suleiman’s nickname was “Travolta” because of his love of dancing.
But I still had no idea where Suleiman was being held. My questions probing his whereabouts evoked only blank faces from the former US prisoners I interviewed around the world. Finally, in 2008 I learned “off record” that Suleiman was being held at Bagram by American troops. About a year later, I discovered that he had been released. I arranged to visit him at his home on the Indian Ocean.
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At our first meetings in Stone Town, the crumbling capital of Zanzibar, Suleiman would turn up wild-eyed, refusing food because eating upset his stomach. We soon forged a routine of driving together into the bush, where, he said, he could find peace. On our first trip, Suleiman drove to a derelict underground prison that had once been used by Arab slave traders, a dungeon that presumably resembled the first place he was held in Afghanistan, a secret prison he called “The Darkness.”