Masood Anwar’s story triggered a global search for the plane that blew the lid off the notorious “extraordinary rendition” programme. It all started with the registration number of a private jet that had whisked away a terrorism suspect from Karachi.
The First Clue
It was the start of just another day for Masood Anwar, a seasoned Pakistani journalist, on an October morning in 2001. He was supposed to meet a bureaucrat at the headquarters of the country’s civil aviation regulator in the port city of Karachi, a routine affair for a beat reporter, which typically includes more discussions about politics than airlines over cups of tea.
The offices of Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority are located near the city’s airport, overlooking the runway and the apron where the aircraft are parked.
On his way, Anwar ran into an old acquaintance who took him aside and, in a whispering voice, related an incident that marked the beginning of a tale that would ultimately span over a dozen countries, involve kidnappings, illegal extradition and torture – all coordinated by the US Central Intelligence Agency.
“‘There were men in masks. A jet was parked in an obscure corner of the terminal. They took a hooded man onboard in the early hours. Someone videotaped the entire thing. No one was allowed near the site,'” Anwar recalls being told by the man, who spoke without taking a breath.
Along with a journalist friend, Tariq Abul Hasan, he began making calls to try and find out more. Soon enough, scattered pieces of information came together to shape a storyline:
Al Qaeda terrorists had attacked the United States on September 11 of that year. Then-president George W Bush declared a “global war on terror,” pushing governments to choose whether they were “with” the US or “against it.”
Pakistan joined the war as a US ally within weeks, launching a crackdown against Al Qaeda members. On October 23, a Yemeni student of the University of Karachi’s microbiology department, was handed over to US agents. He was bundled up onto a small plane and flown away.
Accused of being involved in the bombing of the USS Cole warship a year earlier, Jamil Qasim Saeed was taken to Jordan, media would later uncover. He has not been heard from since.
Headlined “Mystery man handed over to US troops in Karachi,” the story was published on October 26, 2001 in The News International, a leading English newspaper in Pakistan.
In the second paragraph, Anwar reported the registration number of the aircraft: N379P.
“My initial source didn’t have the exact details,” he told TRT World in a recent interview. “I knew there had to be someone among the ground handling staff who could have more information.”
For reporters covering aviation beats, the passion for aircraft borders on geekiness. Like Anwar, they take pride in knowing the technical information: the make and model of the jets, their year of registration and, above all, on having good enough contacts to get access to the apron.
His source was one of the fire brigade officials who have to be present on the ground, as per the international aviation regulations, whenever an aircraft lands. “He noted down the number just in case. I guess I’m lucky the information was passed on to me.”
The Butterfly Effect
Little did Anwar know what string of events that scrap of information was about to set in motion.
The information about the N379P number helped establish the CIA was illegally moving suspects to be tortured in a network of secret prisons around the world. It set off a hunt for jets wherever they landed, became evidence for lawyers defending the incarceration of men at Guantanamo Bay, led to the conviction of US agents, and inspired books and a Hollywood flick featuring Reese Witherspoon.
Known as “extraordinary renditions”, the transfers were a way for US agents to detain and interrogate prisoners without trial.
Using private jets registered to shell companies, the CIA flew shackled and blindfolded men mainly to Egypt, Syria and Jordan. These countries were infamous for extreme interrogation methods, and later testimonies showed that suspects were subjected to brutal torture.
“If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt,” Robert Baer, a former CIA agent, famously said.
For the White House – most notoriously, then-vice president Dick Cheney – the renditions helped the US avoid the Geneva Convention and US laws that prohibit use of torture to extract information.
The Bush administration, which authorised the extraordinary renditions, believed it could not be held responsible for the mistreatment of prisoners – so long as the torture happened in another country.
A few hours after Anwar’s story came online, it was posted on FreeRepublic.com, an online forum. The registration number immediately drew the attention of aviation enthusiasts.
Within minutes, an anonymous blogger going by the pseudonym “ExSES” dug out details about the aircraft, including the name of its owner: Premiere Executive Transport Services.
“Sounds like nice generic cover name. Kind of like Air America,” wrote “TexasChip”, another blogger, hinting at the airline that the CIA once used as a cover for its operations, including the arming of anti-communist guerrillas in Laos.
While this information would be key to exposing the rendition programme, it would take two more years for it to become mainstream news.
Renditions, Full Throttle
Over the next three years, more people disappeared under similar circumstances from various countries, including Indonesia, Sweden, Egypt, Morocco and Thailand.
Among them was Saad Iqbal Madni, a Pakistani Quran reciter, who was arrested by Indonesian police on January 9, 2002, while in Jakarta. He was accused of having links with the infamous British shoe-bomber, Richard Reid.
A few days later, Madni was stripped, beaten and shackled from neck to feet, before being taken aboard a plane. It was the same jet with the registration N379P that had first been sighted in Karachi.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Peter Finn, correspondents for The Washington Post in Jakarta, got wind of Madni’s detention. Two months later, they filed what became the first detailed story, which hinted at the practise of taking prisoners to Middle Eastern countries.
“The suspects have been taken to countries, including Egypt and Jordan, whose intelligence services have close ties to the CIA and where they can be subjected to interrogation tactics – including torture and threats to families – that are illegal in the United States,” they wrote.
While they were able to link the disappearances in Pakistan and Indonesia with a Gulfstream V jet, the Post reporters didn’t follow up on the jet’s registration number.
“If you are asking specifically why we didn’t pursue the tail number, that was a great lead and a dropped ball,” Finn told TRT World.
Over the following months, other journalists, along with human rights activists, started enquiring about the whereabouts of some missing people, especially those who had been arrested in Europe.
In December 2002, another team of Post reporters, Dana Priest and Barton Gellman, ran a story about the inhuman treatment of suspected terrorists in US detention centres, including the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.
The powerful quotes and information contained in that story became fodder for lawyers and human rights activists for years to come.
“If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job,” the article quoted one American official, trying to justify brutal interrogation methods that included waterboarding, electric shocks and sleep deprivation.
But it was not until mid-2004 that the actual scale of the CIA’s global torture network became public. And, once again, it was the article by Masood Anwar that started the avalanche of revelations.
Enter the Planespotters
It was the morning of January 23, 2004, and Josep Manchado, a town planner, was hanging around the local airport on the Spanish island of Majorca. A few years earlier, he had begun pursuing a childhood passion of photographing aircraft.
Hobbyists like Manchado are known as planespotters. They hang around airport fences in their spare time, taking pictures of jets and noting specifications. What they did as a hobby would prove crucial in proving the existence of the rendition programme.
“I had been there in the old tower the whole time. It was a boring Sunday morning,” Manchado told TRT World. As he prepared to leave, a friend told him about a business jet parked in a corner of the airport.
“So before heading back home, I took a picture of the jet and later uploaded it on Airliners.net. I also commented on how clean the jet appeared [to be] and the antennas it had.”
That picture was of a Boeing 737 executive jet with no company logo, the type only super-rich people can buy. It had the registration number N313P – the letter ‘N’ indicating that it was a US-based jet.
As it turned out, it was part of the CIA’s rendition fleet. On the same day Manchado took the picture, it was used to transfer another prisoner – Khalid El Masri, a German citizen.
Masri, a father of four, was on a vacation when Macedonian agents arrested him at the Serbian border on December 31, 2003.
Accused of being a terrorist, he was handed over to the CIA. On January 23, 2004, he was put on a jet from Skopje, the Macedonian capital, to Afghanistan.
The jet – a Boeing 737 – had flown in from Majorca.
Manchado’s photograph became a key clue for journalists at Germany’s broadcaster ZDF, who were able to prove Masri had been kidnapped and taken to another country.
Around the same time, another team of journalists at Sweden’s TV4 was working on the case of two missing Egyptian men. Their lawyers said that the men had been kidnapped, flown from Stockholm to a prison in Cairo, and tortured.
Up until then, no one had been able to link the jets and kidnappings with the US government in any convincing way.
Facebook was launched in early 2004, but hadn’t yet become ubiquitous. Twitter and other social media apps were years away. Masood Anwar’s story was on the internet, but had been long forgotten. Then TV4′s Fredrik Laurin came across it.
Laurin and his colleagues worked on a documentary for months before it was broadcast on the Swedish channel on May 17, 2004.
They established that the jet was owned by a company in Virginia which did business exclusively with the US government. They also found that two kidnapped men – Ahmed Agiza and Mohamed el-Zery – had been taken in a jet with the registration number N379P.
This prompted human rights activists and lawyers to demand information from European governments, and politicians pressed airports for details about rendition flights.
“Collaboration between journalists was crucial,” Laurin said. “When journalists in different jurisdictions, regions and language areas, cooperate and share data, the reporting is much stronger.”
Laurin also quoted Anwar in the documentary.
“Anwar was a good colleague. Most importantly, he was willing to share the information. Not many journalists wanted to do that.”
A Global Kidnapping Ring
At Ireland’s Shannon Airport, one of the US military’s largest bases during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, peace campaigners had gathered every few weeks since 2002, to stage anti-war protests, as the planes carrying soldiers and supplies flew overhead.
It was also a rendezvous point for the rendition flights.
“We got to know about the rendition flights in 2004, after the Swedish channel (TV4) ran a documentary,” said John Lannon, an organiser of the Shannon Watch, an anti-war organisation.
Using binoculars and flight-tracking devices, activists started collecting information about known rendition planes going through Shannon. “Then we collaborated with other like-minded organisations, such as North Carolina Stop Torture Now.”
The protests at Shannon led to calls for investigation and it was ultimately proven that the Irish government facilitated the rendition flights. As journalists in Europe and the US tracked down more sources and victims, the CIA’s cover slowly started to disintegrate.
A vital piece of the puzzle was provided by British journalist Stephen Grey, who obtained the logs of hundreds of flights – all linked back to shell companies in the US.
“I made a lot of friends with aviation geeks and planespotters because I needed to find sources who can get into air traffic control centres,” he told TRT World.
Between human sources, aviation enthusiasts and open-source websites, he gathered the records of hundreds of suspected rendition flights before going through the cumbersome process of sifting details about actual CIA jets.
At the start of his investigation, Grey focused on the two known jets – those with the registration numbers N379P and N313P. He went on to find evidence of an entire fleet operated by the CIA.
He says none of that would have been possible without Masood Anwar. “His story with the registration number made all the difference.”
By the end of 2004, enough information had become public that Dana Priest of The Washington Post titled her roundup story: “Jet is an open secret in terror war”.
She wrote how the employees of Premiere Executive, the owner of the Gulfstream V jet, did not exist in public records.
They were fictitious people with false identities with no employment records, previous home addresses or recently assigned social security numbers.
“Anwar’s story was definitely the key to unlocking the mystery of rendition,” she said.
“It provided us with the first concrete piece of data to follow the trail, which we did for several years before finding out what was really going on.”
In a series of investigative stories in 2005, Priest went on to expose another side of CIA’s rendition programme: black site prisons, the secret torture facilities run in Eastern European countries.
A year later, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her exceptional beat reporting. Priest is also credited for using the CIA’s own term “black sites” for the first time in the press.
But many did not appreciate what the journalists were doing to untangle the dirty work of the spies.
After her stories on black sites were published, Priest was called a traitor, abused and threatened.
“Politicians called for an investigation of how the information was leaked to me, instead of investigating the black sites. There was a lot of hatred and criticism.”
The work of journalists and human rights activists in exposing the torture of suspected Al Qaeda supporters opened floodgates of litigation in the US and in EU countries.
NGOs such as New York-based Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union were able to interview former CIA detainees and find more evidence.
Congressional inquiries in the US made it difficult to hide information, even when the Bush administration refused to disclose vital facts using the cover of secrecy laws. Eventually, EU investigators found that the CIA operated a thousand flights between 2001 and 2005 as well as confirming the presence of black sites in Poland and Romania.
In 2014, a redacted report by the US Senate Select Committee was released that detailed the CIA’s brutal treatment of prisoners.
All this led to multiple investigations, mostly in Europe. In one case, an Italian court convicted 23 Americans for kidnapping a suspect, Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, known as Abu Omar.
What made it easier for information on such a secretive project to keep spilling out were blunders on the part of the CIA, such as rendition flight operatives calling home from hotels in Europe.
The Rendition Project, a watchdog, has so far identified 57 prisoners who were moved around in 18 known CIA aircraft. The highest number of rendition flights tracked so far involves the N379P plane.
Over the years, detainees such as Saad Iqbal Madni, Khaled el Masri, Ahmed Agiza and Mohamed el-Zery were released. Their stories of illegal detention and human rights abuses have been told many times over.
Exactly how many suspects were actually moved through the programme remains unknown, even today. And no one in the US has ever been prosecuted.
“In the end, I think it’s a very important subject to be debated and learned from. My fear is that we haven’t learned the real lessons yet,” said Priest.
For the Pakistani journalist Masood Anwar who started it all, his story was a matter of luck. He never received a reward or formal recognition, and wasn’t able to follow up on his reporting or the renditions after his newspaper refused to finance further reporting.
“To be honest, I was lucky to get that information. I was only doing my job and thankfully the subeditor didn’t remove the registration number.”