My following book review appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on November 29:
My Story: The Tale Of A Terrorist Who Wasn’t
By Mamdouh Habib; with Julia Collingwood;
Scribe, 272 pp, $32.95
Before tortured Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib was released in 2005, then prime minister John Howard said his government didn’t “have any apology to offer” and refused to consider compensation. Greens leader Bob Brown described Habib’s treatment as “one of the most shameful episodes in Australian political history”.
This book supports that statement. Habib writes that his “belief in Islam has guided me all my life … I’ve tried to be as straight and honest as possible, and help people whenever I could – sometimes to my own detriment.” Habib’s support for the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman (the Blind Sheik), is disconcerting yet his life, not unlike that of David Hicks, is one of searching for meaning.
The work begins in Egypt, the country of Habib’s birth, and he paints a moving picture of growing up in Alexandria and his experiences with various manual jobs and the army. The nation, he laments, “was all about who you knew, and bribing the right people”.
It wasn’t until 2001 – he was living in Sydney with his wife, Maha, and children – that he finally felt “optimistic” about the future after years of struggling with failed businesses. Alas, this sentiment didn’t last long as he was visited in Dubai by ASIO officials and asked to spy for them, reporting on any contact with suspected terrorists such as Jack Thomas and Rabiyah Hutchinson.
Habib endows this encounter with a beautiful, Monty Pythonesque quality. The authorities appeared to be amateurs, mimicking foreign accents and playing the “good cop, bad cop” routine.
It was reminiscent of the interview with innocent “terror” suspect Mohamed Haneef in 2007 and the gross ignorance of the Federal Police of even the simplest tenets of Islam. These are the people, after all, who are supposed to protect us.
The powerful passages of the book describe Habib’s capture in Pakistan in 2001 and more than three years of incarceration in Egypt and Guantanamo Bay with, he claims convincingly, the full knowledge of the Australian Government. He was tortured through sleep deprivation, the application of electric shocks “everywhere on my body” and multiple, unidentified drugs.
He alleges that Americans consistently beat him up in Cuba and mocked his hunger strikes. Reading these sections it’s hard to ignore evidence, revealed in The New Yorker journalist Jane Meyer’s book, The Dark Side, that the Bush Administration shunned warnings from the CIA six years ago that up to a third of the people held at Guantanamo Bay were imprisoned in error. Habib tells countless stories of fellow prisoners who were humiliated and broken in the care of the Americans.
It reads in parts too much like a casual conversation – and a more skeptical perspective would have been helpful when Habib discusses the role of al-Qaeda members – but this is an important contribution to the literature on the “war on terror”. Years after the establishment of a parallel legal and ethical framework, we barely know anything about its implementation.
War crimes were committed in our name.