White House photo taken during the President's first 100 days in office

(update below)

The Washington Post has published a story that spotlights how the administration of President Barack Obama has embraced the practice of extraordinary rendition, highlighting the rendition of two Swedish men and one British-Somali man who had his British citizenship revoked.

It details what is known about the men who had been missing and appeared in a Brooklyn, New York, court under suspicious circumstances and were charged with terrorism offenses.

Rendition is the practice of kidnapping a person and transferring them to a foreign country to be interrogated without providing due process or protection against torture. In the case of the three European men, it is believed they were picked up by United States government agents in early August. They were detained somewhere in Africa (perhaps Somalia) and passed through Djibouti. They were held in detention and then brought to the US months later.

The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock describes the timeline of events in the case:

U.S. agents accused the men — two of them Swedes, the other a longtime resident of Britain — of supporting al-Shabab, an Islamist militia in Somalia that Washington considers a terrorist group. Two months after their arrest, the prisoners were secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in New York, then clandestinely taken into custody by the FBI and flown to the United States to face trial…

…The FBI made no mention of any U.S. involvement with the suspects until Oct. 18, when a federal grand jury handed up the sealed indictment. The FBI said its agents took custody of the men on Nov. 14, but the bureau did not specify where or from whom. A spokesman for federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York did not respond to a phone message and e-mail seeking comment.

Defense attorneys and others familiar with the case, however, said the men were arrested in Djibouti, a close ally of Washington. The tiny African country hosts a major U.S. military base, Camp Lemonnier, that serves as a combat hub for drone flights and counterterrorism operations. Djibouti also has a decade-long history of cooperating with the United States on renditions.

For over a month, from November 14 to December 21, it was unknown why the three men had been indicted because that information was kept secret. The family of Mahdi Hashi, the British-Somali, believed US agencies were secretly holding him.

In 2009, Hashi was one of a group of Muslims, who claimed to have come under pressure to become an MI5 informant.

Madhi [spc] Hashi, a 19-year-old care worker from Camden, claims he was held for 16 hours in a cell in Djibouti airport on the orders of MI5. He alleges that when he was returned to the UK on 9 April this year he was met by an MI5 agent who told him his terror suspect status would remain until he agreed to work for the Security Service. He alleges that he was to be given the job of informing on his friends by encouraging them to talk about jihad.

Hashi traveled to Djibouti to visit his sick grandmother. Upon arrival at a Djibouti airport, passport control stopped him and he was “held in a room for 16 hours before being deported back to the UK.” He said Somali security officers told him their orders had come from London.

He was detained again when he arrived at Heathrow airport in London more than 24 hours later:

“I was taken to pick up my luggage and then into a very discreet room. ‘Richard’ walked in with a Costa bag with food which he said was for me, my breakfast. He said it was them who sent me back because I was a terror suspect.” Mr Hashi, a volunteer youth leader at Kentish Town Community Organisation in north London, alleges that the officer made it clear that his “suspect” status and travel restrictions would only be lifted if he agreed to co-operate with MI5. “I told him ‘This is blatant blackmail’; he said ‘No, it’s just proving your innocence. By co-operating with us we know you’re not guilty.’

Authorities in Sweden and Britain had monitored the three men for years as they traveled back and forth to Somalia, but neither country assembled enough evidence to press criminal charges.

The Post reports the two Swedish men were “well known to Swedish security forces,” according to a Swedish official, who requested to remain anonymous. Swedish security agencies would not comment on whether they were involved in the cases of Ali Yasin Ahmed and Mohamed Yusuf. Swedish diplomats visited the men in Djibouti and New York to “provide consular assistance” but had made no decision to intervene on behalf of the men who likely were denied due process while in custody the past months.

Sweden has cooperated with the United States on renditions before. In 2005, a parliamentary investigator, according to the Post, concluded “CIA operatives violated Swedish law by subjecting the prisoners to ‘degrading and inhuman treatment’ and by exercising police powers on Swedish soil.” Sweden covered up the rendition of Egyptians from Stockholm to Cairo in 2001 for three years before, in 2004, unofficial reports of CIA involvement began to surface. No Swedish officials were charged by the parliamentary investigator in 2005, but it was concluded the Swedish security police had been “remarkably submissive to the American officials.”

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Obama had a choice to maintain loopholes making extraordinary renditions allowable or expressly prohibit them. On his second day in office, he chose to maintain the loopholes.

John Rizzo, the CIA’s top lawyer, came to White House counsel Gregory B. Craig “in a panic,” according to the New York Times. Rizzo explained an executive order Obama was about to sign prohibiting “agency from operating detention facilities, closing once and for all the secret overseas ‘black sites’ where interrogators had brutalized terrorist suspects,” was written in a way that would take the CIA “out of the rendition business. This would be a problem because the CIA “sometimes held such suspects for a day or two while awaiting a flight. The order appeared to outlaw that.”

In response to Rizzo’s concern, the “definition of ‘detention facility’” was redefined to exclude “places used to hold people ‘on a short-term, transitory basis.”

Furthermore, no person who has been a victim of rendition and/or torture has been allowed to challenge their treatment in US courts.

Consider Maher Arar, a Syrian who was detained at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, rendered to Jordan and then handed over to Syria, where he was interrogated and tortured in a tiny cell for nearly a year. He pursued some semblance of justice and accountability for his treatment, but, in 2010, the US Supreme Court decided to reject the lawsuit. The government invoked the state secrets privilege depriving Arar the possibility of redress and pushed the courts to submit to the idea that national security concerns and foreign policy decisions were of more importance than Arar’s rights. (In contrast, the European Human Rights Court has begun to hold European officials accountable for their role in CIA renditions.)

Many records on the government’s extraordinary rendition of individuals remain secret. The ACLU and partner organizations have managed to get released thousands of records on torture, rendition and unlawful detention in the past decade, but the record remains incomplete. A comprehensive report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) on the CIA’s use of torture may contain some profound details on on what went on under the administration of President George W. Bush, however, that 6,000-page report continues to be withheld from the public, as Congress has not decided to release it. (Partly because the government maintains rendition is an intelligence “method” or procedure that must be protected, even if it violates human rights.)

In conclusion, the three men picked up in Somalia are wanted for fighting in a group that the US has designated as a “terrorist organization” against forces backed by the US. There is no evidence of the time that they plotted any attacks or were coming to America with al-Shabaab fighters intent on carrying out some kind of nefarious plot. This means a court is going to try and prosecute these men essentially for being on what the US government considers to be the wrong side of a conflict in Somalia.

The FBI claims they were on their way to Yemen. Suppose they were, in fact, headed to Yemen and headed to fight alongside militants, they would be facing charges that stem from the suspicion that they would be fighting on the wrong side of the conflict in Yemen and against US interests.

The involvement of British and Swedish agents or intelligence agencies is unknown, but it appears these men were being tracked. They would not submit to the agenda of the US national security state and consequently were swept up, sent to Djibouti, held in detention and disappeared and then, after being indicted secretly, moved from Djibouti to New York.

And, if it is true the men are being charged for their engagement in militant activities or intent to engage in militant activities that the US considers terrorism, then the Obama administration should have to reconcile this with the use of drones to extrajudicially assassinate people.

Why didn’t the Obama administration just attack these men with a drone and report them as “militants” who needed to be turned into bugsplat?

Writer Falguni Sheth explored this question:

Why suddenly render these three Somalis to the US and have them appear publicly in a NY Federal Court? If they were “accidentally” killed, there might be a small roar of protest, but the US government has stood tall in the face of much worse uproars.  Most likely, it is useful to make a public example of them to ordinary Muslim migrants who are interested in sending money to relatives or for charitable purposes, in the face of dubious restrictions.  It has been a standard practice for the Obama Administration to prosecute Muslims for charitable donations, as the family of Dr. Shakir Hamoodi and members of the Holy Land Foundation will attest.

It definitely is a question to keep in mind as the case unfolds. This case could stir a lot of controversy internationally yet successfully prosecuting the men would send a clear message to Somali communities or any other individuals who might dare to be on the wrong side of US operations or involvement in foreign countries, especially in poor Middle Eastern or African countries.

Update 

As one commenter notes, it has been reported that the CIA has secret prison sites in Somalia. It is very possible the men were held at one of these locations until being moved to Djibouti.

Jeremy Scahill’s reporting on the secret prison sites here.