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Nothing but Pitch Black Darkness

Ahmed Rabbani’s journey through the U.S. dark prison system to Guantánamo.

CIA black site prison near Kabul and Ahmed Rabbani
  Foreign Policy Illustration/Reuters

By 2002, Ahmed Rabbani, a 33-year-old taxi driver in Karachi, had fallen on hard times. A Rohingya born and brought up in Mecca, he attended school while working alongside his father. Even though he had been born on holy terrain—the very birthplace of the prophet Muhammad—and later lived in Medina, where the prophet received the word of God and where he was buried, Rabbani would never receive Saudi citizenship due to his family’s Pakistani origins. Demoralized by what he saw as a future with limited options, he dropped out of school when he was 15. Fate, cruel as it was, threw Rabbani one small blessing: He started to work in catering and discovered that he loved to cook.

Rabbani eked out a meager living managing the grounds of two Medina hotels and labored as a sous-chef, cooking for weddings and large parties. But his was a sad life and, by the time he was 20, his family was broken. His two brothers had been arrested for theft and were deported back to Pakistan, while his father was arrested for defaulting on a loan. Almost overnight, Rabbani became the sole provider for his family. It was near impossible to pay off his father’s debts on a cook’s salary so Rabbani, whose friends call him Badr, which means moon, started selling drugs.

Things fell apart quickly after that. He was arrested on a drinking-related charge and eventually deported to Pakistan, banned from entering the kingdom of his birth for five years. In Karachi, where he reunited with his family, he opened a small restaurant of his own but he barely spoke Urdu at the time; Arabic was his mother tongue, and managing the business became too difficult.

CIA black site prison near Kabul and Ahmed Rabbani

Foreign Policy Illustration/Reuters

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By 2002, Ahmed Rabbani, a 33-year-old taxi driver in Karachi, had fallen on hard times. A Rohingya born and brought up in Mecca, he attended school while working alongside his father. Even though he had been born on holy terrain—the very birthplace of the prophet Muhammad—and later lived in Medina, where the prophet received the word of God and where he was buried, Rabbani would never receive Saudi citizenship due to his family’s Pakistani origins. Demoralized by what he saw as a future with limited options, he dropped out of school when he was 15. Fate, cruel as it was, threw Rabbani one small blessing: He started to work in catering and discovered that he loved to cook.

Rabbani eked out a meager living managing the grounds of two Medina hotels and labored as a sous-chef, cooking for weddings and large parties. But his was a sad life and, by the time he was 20, his family was broken. His two brothers had been arrested for theft and were deported back to Pakistan, while his father was arrested for defaulting on a loan. Almost overnight, Rabbani became the sole provider for his family. It was near impossible to pay off his father’s debts on a cook’s salary so Rabbani, whose friends call him Badr, which means moon, started selling drugs.

Things fell apart quickly after that. He was arrested on a drinking-related charge and eventually deported to Pakistan, banned from entering the kingdom of his birth for five years. In Karachi, where he reunited with his family, he opened a small restaurant of his own but he barely spoke Urdu at the time; Arabic was his mother tongue, and managing the business became too difficult.

With a work visa under a fake name, he returned to Saudi Arabia before his five years were over and worked in a sweet shop, but a year later he was arrested on another alcohol-related charge and lost everything—his freedom, his car, his job. After a brief stint in jail, he would repeat the cycle of deportation and return, bouncing between jail and desperation as a free man.

Things went from bad to worse for Rabbani. Eventually, he found himself selling drugs, this time in Karachi. His brothers got involved and in the mid-1990s, the police raided their house and arrested everyone. They accused the Rabbanis of weapons smuggling and beat them, holding them in dank cells. When they realized it was just drugs, the police accepted a bribe and let the men go. When they returned to their home, it had been wrecked.

Rabbani lost everything again. He started driving a taxi then and for a while, things seemed like they might be all right. He spoke fluent Arabic which enabled him to build up a select clientele of Arabs, some of whom he would drive great distances, even as far as Afghanistan.

He had gotten divorced and remarried. Then, in 2002, there was one bright spot on the patchy horizon of Rabbani’s life: His wife was pregnant. But on the night of Sept. 10, 2002, Pakistani authorities woke him in the middle of the night. They weren’t the police this time. They had guns and said they would kill his family if he didn’t cooperate. Rabbani was hooded and taken, alongside his brother Abdul, from his home that night. He would never return.


Satellite photo of Cobalt prison in Afghanistan

The isolated clandestine CIA black site prison and interrogation center known as Cobalt or the Salt Pit is pictured in a satellite image in 2014. A brick factory prior to the Afghanistan War, the site north of Kabul was adapted by the CIA for extrajudicial detention. DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

In custody, he was thrashed with sticks, beaten with wire, and tortured. He confessed to every charge the Pakistanis threw at him, saying anything to stop the beatings. It was the start of the War on Terror, when George W. Bush’s administration told U.S. allies “you’re with us or against us.” Those allies acted with near impunity to please Washington, assuming they could do anything to a man if he was suspected of terrorism.

Pakistan was essential to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and was paid handsomely in the form of billions of dollars of military aid. When the Pakistanis handed Rabbani over to the Americans, essentially selling him for a $5,000 cash bounty, the foreigners were wearing masks, their faces concealed. Rabbani, the Pakistanis told the Americans, was not a taxi driver from Karachi, but a wanted terrorist called Hassan Ghul. Rabbani was scared, terrified even, but he was going to tell the Americans the truth: He was a taxi driver, this was all a case of mistaken identity. “I expected justice immediately,” he later said.

But instead, he was spirited away, put in diapers and flown to an isolated CIA black site north of Kabul. The Americans named it Cobalt, after the rich blue mineral buried in the Afghan mountains. It was also referred to as the Salt Pit, but the men held within its walls would always know it as the Dark Prison.

According to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, at one point the Dark Prison held nearly half of the 119 detainees identified in the government report. Rabbani is one of the 17 men mentioned by name, recognized as a detainee who endured what the CIA was calling “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), 9/11 parlance for torture, without government authorization.

Guantanamo Bay protester

A protester with a photo of prisoner Ahmed Rabbani during a rally and protest for the closure of Guantánamo Prison in San Francisco on Jan. 11, 2012. Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Two contract psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, coined the term. More accurately, they borrowed it from the Gestapo, who used what they called verscharfte vernehmung, or enhanced interrogation during the Nazi era. The two men created a program of EITs by reverse engineering the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) handbook, a U.S. military how-to manual designed to train U.S. soldiers to resist torture. The two psychologists turned the manual around to create total helplessness in detainees, a breakdown of resistance and will, leaving men with no room to survive, evade, or escape.

EITs included waterboarding (the sadists of the Spanish Inquisition were less interested in semantics than the Nazis, calling the simulated drowning tortura del agua, or water torture), sexual humiliation, and sweat boxes.

None of these methods were officially considered torture. More than three years after EITs became standard daily practice at Cobalt, Guantánamo Bay, Bagram Airbase, and other U.S. detention sites, President Bush would insist at a 2005 press conference that “the United States does not torture and that’s important for the world to understand.”

The clandestine site was a house of horrors that was kept dark at all times; not even a sliver of light broke through the blackout curtains and painted windows. Music reverberated at ear splitting volume 24 hours a day. Other noises were played over the speakers too, Rabbani said: the deafening sound of airplane engines, people screaming, and nails scratching down a blackboard.

Several of the cells were outfitted with bars built deep in dark pits designed specifically for sleep deprivation and strappado, as the Spanish Inquisitors called it, which means holding a man’s arms high above his head to keep him standing in a position that would eventually dislocate his bones. Planes ferried detainees from Pakistan to Cobalt; the guards, who were Afghan, communicated with each other solely with hand signals, and the prisoners were not allowed to speak to anyone except their CIA interrogators.

One interrogator would begin his conversations with Rabbani by extinguishing cigarettes on his skin. They said Rabbani had been facilitating the travel of mujahideen to and from Afghanistan, that he ran al Qaeda safehouses in Karachi near Jinnah International Airport, that he had trained with terrorists in Kandahar, assisted in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s travel, smuggled improvised explosive device components from Pakistan to Afghanistan, plotted terror attacks on American trains and Pakistani hotels, met Osama bin Laden up to a dozen times, was involved in planning an attack in the Strait of Hormuz, and was privy to al Qaeda’s anthrax program. Rabbani had confessed to all manner of terror-related crimes when tortured in Pakistan and, there in the Dark Prison, he would confess to more.

Cobalt itself, a senior CIA official stated, was an enhanced interrogation technique. According to the Senate report, the CIA obfuscated and lied repeatedly about its torture program, misleading the White House, Congress, the National Security Council, and other government agencies. In 2004, CIA officials insisted to the Justice Department that they were not using nudity to humiliate detainees.

Gul Rahman, an Afghan detainee picked up from a refugee camp in Pakistan where he lived with his family, died at the black site. He was kept in freezing water until hypothermia set in and forced to spend the night sitting on the frozen ground without pants in the middle of November. He had been chained and kept naked or nearly naked during his entire three weeks in the Dark Prison.

Clips from the 2014 CIA torture report

Excerpts from the 2014 CIA torture report describe the torture and death of Gul Rahman.

The CIA didn’t notify Rahman’s family of his death for 16 years; the latest reports show they have yet to receive his body. The CIA lied about using diapers to demean grown men, about how long they held men in strappado, and perhaps most egregiously, claimed their brutal methods were effective at producing valuable information. They were not. The Senate report concluded that torture yielded no actionable intelligence whatsoever.

EITs were a colossal failure, except perhaps for Mitchell and Jessen, the two contract psychologists who put the EIT program together. In four years, their company raked in $81 million from the U.S. government alone. At Cobalt, Rabbani would be put through at least 30 different types of torture. The guards beat him relentlessly. They put him in tomb-like structures, in cold cells—an approved EIT favored by the Gestapo—threatened to sodomize and kill him, and hung him naked in strappado for hours and hours. There was “nothing but pitch-black darkness,” Rabbani said, “loud music, the smell of alcohol and blood, pain from hunger, beating and thirst.”

He wasn’t allowed to wear shoes the entire time he was kept in the Dark Prison, and because the CIA censors the last numeral in all their documents, it’s believed that Rabbani was held at the torture site for 540 to 549 days.


In all the time that Rabbani spent in the Dark Prison, he was never allowed to change his clothes, wearing the same things he had been given in Pakistan before his compatriots handed him over the Americans. He wasn’t allowed to wash them either, and the fabric soon ripped from the slightest touch, stiff with dirt. There was no mattress in his cell, just two blankets that he slept on. Prisoners were given one meal a day and a second meal every four days.

He lost 60 pounds of body weight. There was no toilet, just a bucket with no lid that was changed once a day. The cell always stank of feces and urine, no matter if the prisoners used one of their two allotted bottles of water a day to try and clean their surroundings. Rabbani was allowed to shower for three minutes under cold water only once every two months. Eventually, he got lice; death was the only thing he hoped for.

Rabbani was allowed to shower for three minutes under cold water only once every two months. Eventually, he got lice; death was the only thing he hoped for.

Rabbani did not suffer the worst of what the torturers of the Dark Prison were capable of inflicting. In 2002, the same year that People magazine named him one of the sexiest men alive, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed the now infamous torture memo. It authorized 20-hour interrogations—which Rabbani underwent, chained to a chair, plastic so it could be hosed down after prisoners lost control of their bowels—and stress positions up for four hours. In a handwritten note at the bottom of the memo, Rumsfeld complained, “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?” Bashir Nasir al Marwalah was kept standing for five days straight.

Majid Khan, a fellow Pakistani who was held incommunicado for three years and in complete darkness for four, was raped in his second year in the Dark Prison when his interrogators pureed his uneaten lunch and “rectally infused” the concoction to punish Khan for a hunger strike he had begun.

The Pentagon has since negotiated a deal with Khan, who is being held in Guantánamo: If he drops his right to use a landmark decision which would allow him to question the CIA about its torture program in court, he will be released in “the next few years.” Rabbani, for his part, repeatedly begged his interrogators to believe him; he was not Hasan Ghul, he was Ahmed Rabbani, known as Badr or “Moon” to his friends, and he was a taxi driver in Karachi. But the CIA already knew that.

One day after Rabbani had been arrested, on Sept. 11, 2002, according to a memo referenced in the Senate report, “it was determined that an individual named Mohammad Ahmad Ghulam Rabbani, aka Abu Badr, and his driver were arrested, not Hassan Ghul.” Not only did the CIA know he wasn’t Hassan Ghul, but for two days, they held Ghul in the Dark Prison at exactly the same time as Rabbani.

Ghul, an actual terrorist, was moved out of Cobalt after cooperating with the authorities. He was kept in other sites for approximately 900 days, after which he was eventually freed. Ghul returned to Pakistan and continued his life as a terrorist. According to the Senate report, Ghul was killed by a drone strike in 2012. Rabbani, however, would spend nearly two years in the Dark Prison before being moved, first to Bagram and then to Guantánamo Bay. (The U.S. government did not offer comment on Rabbani’s case.)


Clive Stafford Smith

Clive Stafford Smith is pictured on Oct. 30, 2015, after a plane carrying Shaker Aamer, the last British Guantánamo Bay detainee to be released, arrived at London Biggin Hill Airport in England. Carl Court/Getty Images

Clive Stafford Smith—one of Rabbani’s lawyers, the co-founder of Reprieve, and an internationally-recognized human rights attorney—has spent most of his life representing death row prisoners. A British-American lawyer, author, and activist, he has won 400 death row appeals and accompanied six clients to their executions.

Now, at 62, he has an awfully upbeat demeanor for someone whose work revolves around unlawful incarceration. He answers my questions over email in what he calls “Guantánamo orange” and assures me, when I worry about sound glitches on recordings of our interviews, that the CIA will have a “full back up.” He filed the first litigation against Guantánamo Bay in 2002, the year the prison was opened, alongside two colleagues and friends. He ended up taking more than 80 detainees on as clients, though it was two years before he would be allowed into the prison to meet any of them face to face.

To date, after 19 years in U.S. custody, Rabbani has never been charged with a crime, never had disclosure, and never been given a proper habeas corpus hearing.

To date, after 19 years in U.S. custody, Rabbani has never been charged with a crime, never had disclosure, and never been given a proper habeas corpus hearing. Eric M. Freedman, the Siggi B. Wilzig distinguished professor of constitutional rights at Hofstra University’s law school who filed several habeas cases alongside Stafford Smith in 2002, believes that the United States already had the perfect legal model to deal with terrorism and national security cases.

After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the men involved were “found and arrested and tried in an open trial in federal court in the Southern District of New York with excellent defense counsel paid for by the U.S. government,” he argues. “The jury convicted them, did not sentence them to death, accepting the argument of defense lawyers that if you do, you’ll only create martyrs and more attacks.”

The terrorists vanished into the supermax prison system, where they remain and haven’t been heard from since. That was how War on Terror cases should have been handled, Freedman insists; the fact that this existing model was replaced with a system of extra-legal preventive detention that habeas corpus was precisely designed to prevent is a “disgrace to the rule of law, period.”

U.S. officials have been explicit about what they call “forever prisoners,” men who will never be charged with a crime; Rabbani is one such prisoner. Not only was Rabbani denied the right to a trial, but as Kristin Davis, a Washington-based attorney who has worked on his case pro bono since 2018 points out, like many men in Guantánamo “he wasn’t picked up on the battlefield. He never was on a battlefield. He didn’t engage in hostilities.” Rabbani is being treated as a prisoner of war, Davis says, while never having actually participated in any war. There’s a good reason he can’t be charged, Stafford Smith adds, “because he hasn’t done anything—other than cook and drive a taxi.”

Rabbani’s fate will be decided at a Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing on Aug. 17. Although previous PRB hearings have denied appeals for Rabbani’s release, both Davis and Stafford Smith are hopeful about their client’s chances. In 2016, a PRB hearing called “PK-1461’s detention” a “necessity to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.” His lawyers, using Rabbani’s name rather than his internment serial number, argued that he was tortured into false confessions and, in reality, was not a terror facilitator but a “shrewd and cunning businessman and chased after the almighty dollar.”


Outside of Guantanamo Bay

A guard tower stands at the perimeter of Camp Delta in the Guantánamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. John Moore/Getty Images

The use of false confessions is not unique to the War on Terror. As many as half of the prisoners exonerated on death row in the United States are condemned on the basis of false confessions. People who are sleep deprived for just one night are nearly five times as likely to admit to something they didn’t do, and even one out of five perfectly rested people will confess to crimes they didn’t commit if intimidated by authority figures.

To illustrate this point, back in his Atlanta days, Stafford Smith got Jerome Holloway, one of his death row clients, to confess to assassinating Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. Stafford Smith eventually got Holloway, believed to be one of the most mentally incapacitated men on death row at the time, a new trial and his death sentence thrown out.

Rabbani’s brother, Abdul, was cleared for release from Guantánamo this past May, and Stafford Smith is hopeful that Rabbani will be next. In February, Afghanistan became the first foreign government to intervene on behalf of a citizen held in Guantánamo. The Afghan government petitioned a U.S. federal court for Asadullah Haroon Gul, a former Hezb-i-Islami (HIG) commander who has spent a third of his life held without charge, to be released because according to a 2016 peace agreement signed between HIG and President Ashraf Ghani’s government, Gul’s war is over; he cannot reasonably be kept as a prisoner of a defunct war.

Until very recently, thanks to the Afghan peace agreement, it would have seemed that the Afghan war itself was over. Former Guantánamo prisoners were part of the Taliban’s negotiations that secured the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan under the agreement. “How can you ask Afghanistan to release thousands of prisoners if you will not release one?” Gul, who is the last remaining low-value Afghan in Guantánamo, wrote in an article published in a local paper.

Pakistan’s government has recently become the second country in the world to intervene on behalf of their remaining citizens held in Guantánamo, starting with Rabbani.

Pakistan’s government has recently become the second country in the world to intervene on behalf of their remaining citizens held in Guantánamo, starting with Rabbani. In June, Shahzad Akbar, an advisor to Prime Minister Imran Khan, wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to request Rabbani’s urgent repatriation to Pakistan. “Many have been incarcerated in Gitmo without due process, including Pakistanis,” Akbar told me, “and it is the duty of the state to provide any possible legal and consular assistance to its citizens.” Davis is encouraged by Pakistan’s intervention, noting that “we have not seen involvement at this level in 20 years.”

“The Treasury Department has a list of all the people who are under department sanctions and the FBI has the most wanted list and almost none of the prisoners in Guantánamo are on those lists,” Stafford Smith says. “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is, but very few others. This is ironic on a very bizarre level because why would you think these are the worst terrorists in the world when you don’t even have them on your most wanted lists?”

But as skeptics ask, surely there must be bad guys in Guantánamo? “There are people who have done some shocking things but they’re a tiny, tiny group of people there,” says Stafford Smith, “and it’s worth pointing out that more people have died in Guantánamo than have been put on trial. Nine total, three from suicide.”


A countdown of Ahmed Rabbani’s hunger strike

A campaign on gitmohungerstrikes.org organized by Reprieve sought to close Guantánamo Bay, where Ahmed Rabbani remains in custody. Although the campaign has ended, the site continues to keep track of Rabbani’s ongoing hunger strike. gitmohungerstrikes.org

All but 39 of Guantánamo Bay’s 780 estimated detainees have now been repatriated or resettled. The Bush administration released 500 men, the Obama administration released 240, and the Trump administration released only one. Every single detainee ever held in the prison has been Muslim and male. There was one American, but when the authorities realized the U.S. Constitution would apply to him, they “whipped him out of there very quickly,” Stafford Smith, who has six clients remaining in the prison, says.

Guantánamo is the most expensive detention program in the world, costing U.S. taxpayers some $13 million per prisoner a year. In contrast, U.S. supermax prisons cost roughly $70,000 per prisoner. According to the New York Times, working off a 2013 Defense Department report, the costs of buildings and operations—including the 1,800 troops stationed on the island who only do tours of six months to prevent them from getting close to the prisoners or going mad on the isolated naval base—have risen past $7 billion.

Law books are forbidden at the prison, as are dictionaries, which means prisoners can’t teach themselves very much. At one point during his long incarceration, Rabbani was allowed to take art classes. But he painted what he had endured over those years—the torture, the solitary confinement (in Gitmo, there is no solitary, only what is called “single cell operations”)—and the art lessons were canceled and his paintings taken away, kept as property of the U.S. government. His son Jawad was born shortly after he was taken; Rabbani has never touched his child, now 18 years old. He sees him once a month on a grainy Skype call.

“Here it is every day, every day. With no charges, no trial, and no end in sight. People go mad here.”

In some ways, Rabbani says, Guantánamo is worse than the Dark Prison. “Here it is every day, every day. With no charges, no trial, and no end in sight. People go mad here.” In 2013, after demanding that he either be charged and put on trial or be released, Rabbani began a hunger strike. He has been on it for the last eight years. When he was captured, he weighed 170 pounds; today he is less than 79 pounds. More than half of him has “escaped” Guantánamo. The rest of him will go home free or in a coffin.

Rabbani cooks for his fellow prisoners, even though he no longer eats himself. Instead, he is force fed once a day when prison authorities pump a can of Ensure through a tube into his nostril. After more than 3,000 days on hunger strike, Rabbani has reached a compromise with the authorities over his strike (known as “non-religious fasting” in Gitmo double-speak) and now drinks the second regimen of Ensure himself rather than endure the force feeding twice a day.

If he ever gets out of Guantánamo, Rabbani would like to open a restaurant again. He spends his days testing recipes. He doesn’t eat any of what he makes, using what ingredients he has, mixing everything in garbage bags and cooking in a prison issue microwave. It energizes him, he says. “I forget my suffering; I forget I am starving.” While they wait for his upcoming PRB hearing, Stafford Smith sends Rabbani the spices he asks for by post and has enlisted a chef in Yorkshire to put all his recipes together, photograph the dishes and note down suggested improvements. Maybe one day it will be a book.

Though Barack Obama swore closing down the prison would be his first act as president, Guantánamo survived both his terms, as well as the Trump administration (early in the pandemic, Donald Trump supposedly proposed sending Americans with COVID-19 to the prison). The Biden administration, which transferred its first prisoner out in July, seems to be cautiously moving ahead with plans to shut it down by the end of the president’s term. According to a recent NBC News report, instead of going through Congress, the administration plans to clear prisoners for resettlement.

Those for whom no country will claim responsibility could be transferred to U.S. supermax prisons, allowing President Joe Biden the legroom to sign an executive order formalizing Guantánamo’s closure. It is too early to say whether the administration will be successful.

Someday, Freedman has long believed, “the United States will apologize for Guantánamo and pay reparations exactly the same way they did for the for the detention of the Japanese. It’s as great a stain on the American Constitution as that.”

Fatima Bhutto is a writer based in Pakistan. Her most recent books are The Runaways, a novel, and New Kings of the World, a nonfiction reportage on global popular culture. Twitter: @fbhutto

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