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Locked Up Abroad—for the FBI

Inside the feds' secret program to have American citizens detained and interrogated by foreign governments.

When Gulet Mohamed finally returned home on a chilly Virginia morning in January, the 19-year-old from Fairfax was wearing the same outfit he had on when he disappeared a month earlier in Kuwait. Clad in a fleece hat and a gray Real Madrid sweatshirt, the straggly-bearded, wide-eyed teenager stepped out of arrivals at Dulles Airport and into a phalanx of television cameras. He wore a bewildered smile—as if he was still unsure of what had happened to him but was just grateful it was over.

For more than a year, Mohamed had been living in Kuwait City with an uncle. On December 20, 2010, according to legal records (PDF), he went to the airport to renew his tourist visa for an additional three months. The process took longer than usual. From a waiting area, Mohamed emailed his brother to let him know he'd run into some red tape.

Soon afterward, two men in street clothes came in, blindfolded him, escorted him out of the airport, and led him into the back of a vehicle. They drove maybe 15 or 20 minutes. When the men removed his blindfold, he was in a cell with white walls.

Later, the men—members of Kuwait's security forces, Mohamed inferred—marched him to an interrogation room, where they shouted names at him in Arabic.

"Osama bin Laden! Do you know him?" "Anwar al-Awlaki?"

When he responded "no," his interrogators slapped him across the face. As the days passed, Mohamed claims, they beat him with sticks on the soles of his feet, asked him to choose between torture by electrocution or power drill, and threatened his family.

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Sometimes, Mohamed later told his lawyer, his captors escorted him, blindfolded, to another part of the facility, where a man who spoke with an American accent posed specific questions about his life in the US. He inquired about Mohamed's siblings by name. "Don't you know we know everything about you?" he asked.

Mohamed is one of a growing
number of American Muslims who claim they were captured overseas and questioned in secret at the behest of the United States, victims of what human rights advocates call "proxy detention"—or "rendition-lite." The latter is a reference to the Bush- and Clinton-era CIA practice of capturing foreign nationals suspected of terrorism and "rendering" them to countries such as Egypt, Jordan, or Morocco (PDF) for interrogations that often involved torture.

Many of these episodes follow a similar script. A US citizen is detained, questioned, and sometimes abused in a Middle Eastern or African country by local security forces. Often his interrogators possess information that could only have come from US authorities; some of the detainees say American officials have been present for the questioning. When the suspect is released from detention, he often discovers he's on the no-fly list and can't return home unless he submits to further questioning by FBI agents. Sometimes he's denied access to a lawyer during these sessions.

Gulet Mohamed: Jacquelyn Martin/AP PhotoGulet Mohamed. Jacquelyn Martin/AP PhotoIn the past, the FBI has denied that it asks foreign governments to apprehend Americans. But, a Mother Jones investigation has found, the bureau has a long-standing and until now undisclosed program for facilitating such detentions. Coordinated by elite agents who serve in terrorism hot spots around the world, the practice enables the interrogation of American suspects outside the US justice system. "Their citizenship doesn't seem to matter to the government," says Daphne Eviatar, a lawyer with Human Rights First. "It raises a question of whether there's a whole class of people out there who've been denied the right to return home for the purpose of interrogation in foreign custody."

Although it's difficult to say for certain whether the men in this story—which is based on interviews with law enforcement and intelligence officials, court documents, transcripts, and other records—are terrorists, tourists, or something in between, one thing is clear: Pakistanis, Saudis, and Somalis aren't the only ones being captured and questioned on our behalf. Americans are too.

In October 2008, a few days before Halloween, a 27-year-old Somali American drove a car full of explosives into a government office in northern Somalia. The bomber's name was Shirwa Ahmed, and he'd grown up in Minneapolis playing basketball and listening to Ice Cube. Ahmed is widely believed to be the first American suicide bomber (PDF).

What worries federal authorities is that Ahmed was one of at least 20 young men who left Minnesota between 2007 and 2009 for Somalia—intending, the FBI believes, to join the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group al-Shabaab. Since then, several more of these men are believed to have become suicide bombers—including one just this past May.

When he requested a lawyer, one of the agents told him: "You're here; your lawyer is not."

Cases like Ahmed's seem to be on the rise. Between 2002 and 2008, an average of 12 people per year were indicted on charges relating to "domestic radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism," according to a 2010 report by the RAND Corporation (PDF). That number rose to 42 in 2009. For counterterrorism officials, the face of Islamic terrorism was no longer a Saudi trained in the mountains of Afghanistan. It was Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, radicalized over the internet, or Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani American who attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010 (PDF). A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report released in January 2010 warned that Al Qaeda (PDF) "seeks to recruit American citizens to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States" and singled out Yemen and Somalia as places where such recruits might travel.

Gulet Mohamed had spent time in both countries—which by itself would have raised "a lot of flags," according to a former senior State Department official familiar with his case. He first visited Yemen in March 2009, planning to study Arabic and Islam. After a few weeks, however, he and his mother decided that the country was not safe, and he made his way to a relatively stable part of northern Somalia to stay with family. In August 2009 he moved on to Kuwait, where he remained until his arrest.

After a week of beatings and harsh interrogation, Mohamed was transferred to a Kuwaiti deportation facility. It was here, he says, that the FBI showed up. Agents interrogated him repeatedly, asking him why he had traveled to Somalia and Yemen and whether he knew Shahzad or Zachary Chesser, an American Muslim charged in July 2010 with aiding al-Shabaab. According to Mohamed, when he requested a lawyer, one of the agents told him: "You're here; your lawyer is not."

Mohamed was also informed that his name had been placed on the no-fly list—effectively blocking his return to the US. "Your government is not letting you back into your country," one Kuwaiti official told him. Another said: "Gulet, we have relationships with the Americans. This interrogation is between you and your government."

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