In the fall of 2001, in the midst of the US war in Afghanistan, Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul traveled from their native Tipton, England, to attend a wedding in Pakistan. Once in the region they decided to extend their trip, eager to learn more about their Muslim roots and to offer help in the humanitarian crisis across the border in Afghanistan. On November 28, 2001, the men–who would come to be known internationally as the Tipton Three–were picked up by bounty hunters of the Afghan warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum.
With some 200 other suspected terrorists, the men were packed in shipping containers in the presence of US forces, according to a report issued by the Center for Constitutional Rights. They were shipped to Sherbegan prison, a former Taliban fortress, before being placed formally in US custody. Near suffocation, Iqbal passed out and awoke gasping for air at the small holes Dostum’s guards had created by firing machine guns at the containers. One of the bullets had hit Iqbal in the arm, giving him a wound that soon became infected for lack of medical care. Ahmed says that all three men suffered “cold, dehydration, hunger…uncertainty,” as well as dysentery and other injuries. During the brutal eighteen-hour transport, only twenty of the 200 captives survived.
The story of the Tipton Three–their detention, transport, torture and release–is no more or less outstanding than that of any others who have been swept up in the “war on terror,” disappearing into what Vice President Dick Cheney has referred to as the “dark side” of the intelligence world. What is remarkable about these men is that we know their story, and it is one of the clearest failures of the Administration’s use of extra-legal methods to detain and prosecute suspected terrorists: They were wrongly held and never tried.
Before being designated “unlawful combatants,” Rasul, Ahmed and Iqbal were working-class kids scraping by in Tipton, a poor neighborhood in the Midlands area of England with large Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. All three attended one of the worst secondary schools in England. By the time Iqbal was 16, he had dropped out to take a job in a factory–Ahmed soon joined him. Raised in nonfundamentalist Pakistani households, the three were as much British as they were Muslim; they played soccer in the park and rap on their stereos. As Eric Lewis, one of their lawyers puts it, “They are just kids. Guys in Nikes and backward baseball caps who happen to be Muslims.”
While the men were held at Sherbegan prison, the International Committee of the Red Cross told them that British Embassy officials would be coming to see them shortly and that everything would be cleared up. However, when the British arrived, the men were chastised for being jihadis and told that if they were sent home, they would be charged and placed in Belmarsh, one of Britain’s most notorious maximum-security prisons. But the men were never charged with anything, and instead of being sent to Belmarsh, they were held at a US-operated detention center in Kandahar, where they were repeatedly beaten, interrogated at gunpoint and told that their families back in England had been thrown out on the street.
In Kandahar the men were subjected to cavity searches, which they say were meant to “degrade and humiliate” them. In various interviews after their release, Rasul said, “I could hear dogs barking nearby and soldiers shouting, ‘Get ’em, boy’…. I was taken…for a so-called cavity search…told to bend over and then felt something shoved up my anus. I don’t know what it was, but it was very painful.” After being held in Kandahar for two weeks, Iqbal and Ahmed were masked, goggled and shackled, and led onto a large cargo plane with other detainees, where they were told they would be taking a short journey (Rasul would follow one month later). Twenty-two hours later they arrived in Cuba.