But Benchellali didn’t know all that when he boarded a plane out of Guantanamo in July 2004. He imagined his nightmare was over that he would step onto the tarmac and into his parents’ arms. It was only later that he discovered his family would never be whole again.
His brother Menad the same brother who arranged for him to go to Afghanistan had been arrested for manufacturing deadly toxins in the family apartment, as part of an alleged plot to attack Russian targets in France on behalf of Chechen separatists.
Several relatives had been detained in connection to Menad’s activities, including Benchellali’s mother, a fact that left him devastated: “It was the worst period of my life,” he says.
Not only was his family in turmoil, but his individual ordeal was far from over too. Benchellali still faced “terrorism” charges in France, and he was sent to the same facility that housed his mother, the FleuryMerogis prison. As his case, and eventual conviction, drew the media’s attention, he started to receive letters of support including one from the woman who’d eventually become the mother of his child.
But some of the letters, however well intentioned, put Benchellali ill at ease. He got the feeling that, even among his supporters, he was perceived as a “jihadist”, he says. That suspicion lingered even after a Paris appeals court overturned his “terrorism” conviction.
Benchellali wrote a book about his experiences and reinvented himself as an “antiradicalisation” activist, with the aim of educating others about groups like alQaeda. He hopes that, by sharing his story, he can prevent others from falling into the same trap he once did. His message is particularly aimed at youth.
“I tell them, ‘Me, I’m going to tell my story. Afterwards, do with it what you like.’ That’s to say, I’m not going to give you lessons, and I’m not there to say what’s good or bad,” Benchellali explains. “But after that, you can’t say you didn’t know.”
Over the years, Benchellali has been invited to tell his story to school groups, community centres and law enforcement officials as far away as Australia.
But every once in a while, even today, an invitation gets revoked. Benchellali suspects fear is the driving factor fear that he might be a recidivist in disguise.
“Maybe he’s pretending. Maybe he’s playing a role I know people think that,” Benchellali says. “I understand that they’re afraid. But I think they’re wrong.”
Political value of recidivism data
Benchellali maintains that he never converted to alQaeda’s ideology, nor participated in any violence. But of the 714 detainees transferred out of Guantanamo, 121 have, according to a January report by the US Director of National Intelligence, been confirmed as reengaging “in terrorist or insurgent activities”. An additional 87 detainees are suspected of reengaging.
But those numbers are misleading, says lawyer Mark Denbeaux, director of the Seton Hall Law School Center for Policy and Research. He is one of the most vocal critics of the biyearly report, which tracks recidivism among former detainees.
Denbeaux points out that no evidence is offered to indicate who is reengaging in “terrorist” activities, and in what way. His research has uncovered inconsistencies in past reports including instances where criticising the US government was counted as a “return to the fight”.
Though Denbeaux dismisses the recidivism reports as fundamentally flawed, he admits the data “has political value in order to try and legitimise torture in Guantanamo”. He sees the reports as an attempt to skew the public’s perception. “Right now, the fight going on is: What should the narrative be for Guantanamo?”
The fight for Guantanamo’s legacy hits close to home for Benchellali. He personally has noticed a shift in how the French public perceives Guantanamo. “Today in France, there are people who call for a French version of Guantanamo,” he says. “That wasn’t the case five, 10 years ago.”