Mohamed, whose family is Somali, immigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of three, fleeing the devastating civil war that ravaged that East African country.
Mohed Mohamed, his older brother, maintained that his family, having fled Somalia in 1995, has always been pro-American and grateful to the United States for its intervention in Somalia’s civil war in the 1990s.
Zahra Mohamed, his sister, explained that Gulet, like any other American teenager, grew up playing basketball, had an iPhone, and obsessed over the game Madden NFL. But like many American teenagers, Gulet had a bad case of wanderlust. He wanted to travel abroad to learn more about his heritage, Zahra explained.
He begged his mother to let him leave: after all, he had never known his father, and he wanted to learn Arabic. Traveling to the Middle East would let him get to know his father’s side of the family, rediscover his roots, experience his ancestral homeland, and learn the language of the Quran.
In March, 2009, Gulet Mohamed departed from Alexandria, Virginia to study Arabic and Islam in in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Gulet, the most adventurous of the seven siblings, was the first member of his family to travel outside the United States since the family’s relocation.
After several weeks of study, he left to visit his maternal relations in Somalia at his mother’s insistence. Residing in his uncle’s home for several months, Gulet found the environs uncomfortably hot and painfully sickening through bouts of food poisoning that left his youthful wanderlust unsated. Mohamed again ventured to visit other family living in Kuwait and to continue his studies in Arabic.
Throughout his journey of seeking knowledge and rekindling the ties of kinship, Mohamed traveled on an authentic American passport with valid visas for all of the countries on his whimsical itinerary. His past history had no indication of any violent or criminal activity, nor had he ever been arrested.
Yet, on December 20, 2010, when Mohamed went to the airport in Kuwait City to have his visa renewed (a process he had routinely engaged in every three months without incident for the past year), he was told by a visa officer that his name had been “marked” in the computer.
After five hours of uneasily waiting, Mohamed had finished sending his brother an email when he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and kidnapped by two men in civilian clothes. After a fifteen minute drive in a SUV, Mohamed was deposited in an undisclosed location. He was then dragged into a room and interrogated by officials who refused to identify themselves.
That was the start of a month-long nightmare during which he was imprisoned for a week in an unknown location by unknown captors. Over the next several days, his captors grew increasingly hostile and began beating his feet with sticks, striking him in the face, and whipping him as they spat out questions regarding his time in Yemen.
“Are you a terrorist?” they asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Do you know Anwar?” his interrogators asked, referring to Anwar al-Awlaki.
“I’ve never met him,” Gulet recalled saying.
“You are from Virginia, you have to know him,” they responded. (From 2001 to 2002, Anwar al-Awlaki was the imam of Dar Al-Hijrah in Falls Church, Virginia.)
Mohamed eerily recalled that his interrogators possessed detailed information that could have only come from US government sources:
The subject matter of the interrogators’ questioning—communicated in English and Arabic—indicates that [the US government] facilitated Mr. Mohamed’s illegal detention, interrogation, and torture. Mr. Mohamed’s interrogators asked him detailed questions about his American siblings, referenced non-public facts regarding his family, and even had information about specific encounters Mr. Mohamed had in Virginia. One of his interrogators claimed to have met Mr. Mohamed at a mosque in Virginia where the two exchanged introductions briefly.
The interrogators also threatened to have American officials detain Mohamed’s mother in Virginia and that “he would never see her again” if he did not disclose all of his purported connections to terrorists. Additionally, during the interrogation sessions, the Kuwaiti agents, in an effort to intimidate their young captive, would repeatedly bark orders to “bring the electricity.”
Mohamed said he rarely slept during a week or so at the prison and was able to mark time only by the daily cycle of Islamic prayers.
“I could not sleep,” he said. “I could not eat. I was scared to walk to the bathroom because I was afraid they would hunt me down. I’ve been beaten and tortured, physically and mentally,” he said, choking back tears. “I’m not the same.”
A week later on 28 December, Mohamed was transferred to a deportation facility, where he was visited several times by the FBI and told that he would not be allowed to return home until he cooperated with their questioning. Mohamed repeatedly asked for a lawyer and invoked his right to remain silent, but FBI agents continued to visit and interrogate him.
Under US law and constitutional precedent, law enforcement questioning is generally supposed to stop once a suspect requests a lawyer. Mohamed eventually gained access to a fellow detainee’s smuggled cell phone and was able to contact his family and retain a CAIR attorney, Gadeir Abbas. Abbas details the disturbing violation of civil rights in a letter to the Attorney General, Eric Holder:
Despite these declarations [on having retained a lawyer], the FBI agents reportedly continued to question Mr. Mohamed for two hours. Some of their questions allegedly touched on Mr. Mohamed’s religious beliefs and practices, including whether he has memorized the Quran and whether he had prayed his morning (fajr) prayer. Other questions indicated to Mr. Mohamed that the agents sought to make him a government informant on his return to the United States.
Mr. Mohamed and his brother who was present during part of this interrogation both say that the FBI agents became visibly angry with and physically intimidating toward Mr. Mohamed, to the extent that Kuwaiti officials reportedly intervened to protect him from the agents.
Abbas said, the FBI agents performing the interrogation stood up and started shouting and physically crowding Mohamed. They also reached for his pockets—a move that Mohamed’s brother and uncle believe was an attempt to confiscate the cell phone Mohamed has been using to communicate with the press and his lawyer. At that point, Abbas says, “a Kuwaiti official came into the room and directed the FBI agents to sit down and calm down and told them not to treat Gulet like that.“
“In the absurd world that is represented in this case, Gulet’s torturers are intervening to protect Gulet from his own government,” Abbas said. “Not only is the FBI’s behavior grossly immoral and insensitive to the plight that Gulet Mohamed has endured and is currently facing, but the FBI’s opportunistic actions to leverage Gulet’s dire situation to pepper him with senseless questioning is illegal.”
After he was able to establish contact with the US embassy, an American Embassy officer told Mohamed that his travels had raised “red flags” and that the embassy had been unaware of his whereabouts, searching hospitals and local jails since his disappearance — an assertion Mohamed does not believe. Also at this time, American officials disclosed to the Times that Mohamed was on the no-fly list and could not return to the US.
Kuwaiti officials told Mohamed’s family they were holding him on behalf of the United States and tried to deport Mohamed but were unable to do so because the United States had placed him on the no-fly list.
His brother, Mohed, flew to Kuwait, spending $1,500 on a one-way, direct ticket to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC, so the Kuwaitis could finally deport Gulet. Kuwaiti officials took Gulet to the airport late one evening but he was not allowed to board the United Airlines flight due to the no-fly list, further extending his detention in Kuwait.
A nineteen year old Mohamed was finally allowed to return 21 January, 2011, after a hearing in which a federal judge ordered the government to make arrangements for his return unless it could produce evidence against him.
FBI agents questioned Gulet after his plane landed at Dulles International Airport early that Friday, and he was subsequently cleared through customs to be reunited with his eager family.
“There are probably people out there being tortured like I was, whose voices are not being heard,” Gulet Mohamed said.