Even after he was released (and featured in a documentary on U.S. human rights abuses), Ghezali was again arrested in 2009 trying to cross into Pakistan with a suicide vest and $50,000.
With a black baseball cap pulled tight over a mop of stringy long hair and a patchy, close-cropped beard, Mehdi-Muhammed Ghezali looked more like a Metallica roadie than a disciple of Ayman al-Zawahiri. He addressed the scrum of reporters in a clipped, heavily accented Swedish and accused the American government of wrongly detaining him for three years and “physically and mentally” torturing him. A book about his experiences was in the works; a documentary crew, cobbling together a film about American human rights abuses, had requested an audience; and his legal team was plotting a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld. It was 2004, and Ghezali was a free man.
In late 2001, Ghezali, a Swedish national, had been detained during the battle at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, handed over to the American military, and sent to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. According to his lawyers, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although he spoke none of the local languages, Ghezali told his captors, in the midst of the Taliban’s retreat into the mountainous hinterlands of Afghanistan, he had crossed that country’s border with Pakistan to study Islam.
After an intense lobbying effort by Swedish prime minister Göran Persson–and a vague promise that the country’s intelligence services would keep a watchful eye on him–Ghezali was delivered to Sweden (on the government’s private Gulfstream jet). The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter noted that Ghezali had achieved “rock star status” upon returning to his homeland, a native victim of America’s rapacious imperialism. And after two-plus years in isolation, the emotionally fragile former prisoner would be happy to discover “that a majority of Swedes were glad that he was home.”
That his story was threaded with head-scratching omissions and inexplicable gaps in chronology–the years in Cuba were, apparently, not enough time to concoct a consistent narrative–seemed to have little effect on his credibility. To his supporters, he was merely a bit player in a larger morality play. But even his most credulous supporters winced when, during a press conference in his hometown of Örebro, Ghezali offered the following opinion of Osama bin Laden: “I don’t know him as a person and therefore can’t pass judgment on him. I don’t believe what the Americans say about him.”
Sweden’s justice minister ruled out prosecuting Ghezali, and the story faded from the public consciousness. But in a country with a significant Muslim minority, it was perhaps inevitable that the foreign ministry would find itself in a similar situation again.