One of the common features of the multiple conflicts that followed the 9/11 attacks on the US was the use of secret prisons. Islamic extremists used them – most notably Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq – and so did a range of states in the Middle East, south Asia and beyond. Many had been doing so for many years.
But one of the most enthusiastic users of secret prisons – and torture – in the years following 9/11 was the USA. Its sites eventually numbered more than 100, it is believed, spanning half the world. It is this network of “black sites” that Donald Trump appears to be considering reviving.
Along with Trump’s apparent belief that “torture works”, this raises the prospect of a return to some of the darkest days of the “war on terror”.
The black sites were a consequence of the muddled and frantic response of the Central Intelligence Agency to the attacks in Washington and New York in September 2001.
Within months of those attacks, CIA agents, US contractors and US special forces had begun holding large numbers of prisoners in makeshift camps in Afghanistan. Most were low-grade fighters with no information or indeed ideological motivation. Many were tortured nonetheless. Some ended up being held for years.
When US agencies began picking up more senior figures within al-Qaida and the Taliban, or people thought to be senior in those groups, such facilities were seen as inadequate. For one, there was a risk of intervention by groups such as the Red Cross. Over the next two years the CIA set up a network of secret jails, holding prisoners itself for the first time. These were constructed in remote eastern European woods, Afghan airbases, in Iraq, on island airbases in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. US ships were used too.
Prisoners, deprived of sight and hearing, were flown between these locations in private jets. It was by tracing these flights that human rights campaigners and journalists began to piece together what was happening.
Two well-known individuals held in black sites were Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaida logistician considered to be a key leader by the CIA, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Along with Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, allegedly involved an attack on a US warship off Yemen in 2000, they were subject to repeated near-drowning and a range of other “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
Other individuals were less well-known, and 26 of the 119 people detained from 2002 to 2008 in the secret network “were wrongfully held”, according to a 2014 report by the Senate select committee on intelligence into “the CIA’s detention and interrogation program”.
In a televised address in September 2007, President George W Bush admitted that the CIA had been operating a network of secret prisons for several years.
By the time Bush spoke, the network had already been largely shut down. Most of those deemed “high value” prisoners were in the new camp in Guantánamo Bay. Host countries’ leaders were getting nervous, successive sites had been closed after local security services withdrew cooperation and information of what was happening was leaking.
The president, flanked by relatives of victims of the 9/11 attacks, called the prisons “a vital tool in the war on terror” and claimed that intelligence gathered had saved lives. He also assured viewers that detainees had been treated humanely.
We now know the latter claim was not true, while the Senate’s report concluded the secret prisons and torture “damaged the United States’ standing in the world, and resulted in other significant monetary and non-monetary costs”. Details of the black sites are still emerging – and causing embarrassment. Leaders in Thailand, Morocco, Romania and elsewhere have been forced to deny any knowledge of their existence on their territory. Evidence that between 2002 and 2003 the CIA operated a facility near a village in northeast Poland led to legal action against the country’s former spy chief.
Senior British intelligence officials, though the UK’s services undoubtedly received material from interrogations in black sites, have said they were “as shocked as anyone else” when they discovered the existence of the network and the widespread use of torture by the CIA.
Even before President Obama took power in 2009, many within the US security establishment were moving away from the tactics adopted in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
The US military began to emphasise understanding “human terrain”, or local cultures and politics, as much as seizing or holding ground. The FBI stressed similar knowledge and solutions within the US. Even within the CIA there were many who were uneasy with the excesses of the previous years. Politicians dropped talk of the “war on terror”.
This shift coincided with public support for Osama bin Laden and other extremists dropping sharply across the Islamic world.
There were few among serving and former intelligence officials, or experts, who mourned the demise of the black sites. There were even fewer who thought they might ever return.