In 2002, Abou Elkassim Britel, an Italian citizen, was traveling for business in Pakistan when police in Lahore apprehended him on immigration charges. The authorities detained and interrogated Britel, who was born in Morocco but married to an Italian woman, and accused him of being a “terrorist fighter,” subjecting him, he says, to sleep deprivation and beatings with a cricket bat. After weeks of abuse, the authorities turned Britel over to the Pakistani intelligence services in Islamabad, where he was interrogated by U.S. intelligence agents and brought to the airport handcuffed and blindfolded by men dressed in black.
Britel landed in Morocco and was brought to the Temara prison, where he was interrogated, tortured, and imprisoned for more than eight months before he was released without explanation or charge. In 2003, Britel was released and then recaptured and ultimately imprisoned for eight years, with a confession obtained under torture serving as the basis for his conviction. In 2011, amid international outcry, Britel was finally released, but he remains deeply scarred by the experience.
“I look at him, but he is not Kassim any longer,” says Britel’s wife, Khadija Anna Pighizzini. “He gets irritated for the slightest thing. He cannot go out. He suffers and suffers and won’t talk about it. He sleeps hours every day, but nothing seems to get him out of this state. Crowds cause him anxiety. He avoids people. He prefers solitude.”
Although Britel’s plight sounds worlds away, it’s more connected to North Carolina than you might think.
According to a 2012 report by the UNC School of Law, the fifty-year-old former detainee was transported to Morocco via Aero Contractors, a North Carolina-based aviation company that transferred dozens of terrorist suspects to secret CIA black sites—a practice known as “extraordinary rendition.”
The UNC report says the company “aided in the kidnapping, extraordinary rendition, secret detention, and torture” of Britel and others, while relying on and benefitting from state and local resources.
According to media reports, the two North Carolina airports that housed Aero’s planes were essentially used as a base for CIA flights; a 2005 New York Times investigation called the company “a major domestic hub of the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret air service.” Critics called the operation a “torture taxi.”
At least forty-four people were rendered to torture on planes operated by Aero, which was founded in 1979 by a CIA officer, according to the North Carolina-based Commission of Inquiry on Torture, or NCIT, an organization that seeks to investigate the state’s involvement in extraordinary rendition. At least thirty-four of those cases appear in a 2014 declassified summary of the Senate torture report. Aero’s planes, investigators found, were housed at the Johnston County airport in Smithfield, where the company is based, and at the Trans Park Authority, in Kinston—both public facilities, supported by taxpayer funds.
Despite public outcry following the revelations, North Carolina has yet to investigate its role in the rendition program. Since the story of Aero’s connections to the Bush-era War on Terror came to light, not one of the state’s four governors—Mike Easley, Bev Perdue, Pat McCrory, or Roy Cooper—have heeded calls to look into or at least publicly acknowledge the program. Cooper, as attorney general, declined to call for a state investigation, and Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee, fought the release of the Senate torture report.
The state’s inaction compelled Christina Cowger, a professor of agriculture at N.C. State, to found North Carolina Stop Torture Now, a grassroots coalition dedicated to ending torture, and create NCIT in 2005 and 2015, respectively.
“When we found that our state officials showed a clear desire to do nothing, and did nothing, we realized, in times when government fails its duty and just really refuses to abide by the rule of law, then it’s up to citizens to step into the breach,” Cowger says.
The organization’s advocacy culminated last week with a two-day public hearing on Aero Contractors and the torture program. The hearing featured testimony from a range of activists, human rights workers, and scholars, including the wife of Abou Elkassim Britel, the former UN special rapporteur on torture, a career military intelligence officer, and a former CIA official.
Witnesses testified about the planes that rendered terrorism suspects as well as the torture detainees endured.
“Their captors sliced off their clothes, put them into diapers, and hooded them,” said Deborah Weissman, a law professor at UNC and the lead author of the 2012 report on rendition. “They were restrained, immobilized, prohibited from moving, and, if they did move, they were beaten. If they asked to be able to change positions, their mouths were taped shut.”
Mohamedou Ould Slahi testified about his treatment while in detention. Slahi, a Mauritanian citizen, was kidnapped from his home in 2001, rendered by Aero Contractors, and detained at Guantanamo Bay from 2002–16 without charge. (He was finally released in 2016, after years of litigation.) Slahi, who later wrote the best-selling memoir Guantanamo Diary, spoke about the long-lasting impact of the imprisonment and torture on his daily life.
“Ever since my release, I could not get a good night’s sleep. I have so much pain,” he told the commission. “I have hypertension that I developed in prison during my detention. Every time I go to sleep, I find myself in the same cell.”
To date, there’s been no significant investigation into the rendition program, but not for lack of effort on Verla Insko’s part. In 2007, the Democratic state representative, introduced the first and only bill to address the post-9/11 rendition and torture program.
Insko introduced the bill after unsuccessfully calling for a state investigation following the 2005 NYT report, she testified last week. Insko and a group of legislators wrote to Robin Pendergraft, the director of the State Bureau of Investigation, asking for an immediate examination of Aero’s activities; Pendergraft said she lacked jurisdiction. The group then wrote to Attorney General Roy Cooper; Cooper also responded with concerns about a lack of jurisdiction.
The bill would have amended state law to identify torture and kidnapping as felonies, give the state jurisdiction to investigate, and empower the convening of a grand jury to investigate the program. It never received a vote.
“Unfortunately, our state government has never summoned the political will to investigate allegations of torture-related rendition flights or to ban them from public North Carolina airports,” Insko said. “I urge you to call upon our governor and attorney general to investigate cases in which Aero Contractors was involved.”
The role of both the Kinston and Johnston County airports is significant. Both are publicly operated political subdivisions of the state; according to Weismann, North Carolina extended credit to Aero to construct a hangar at the Global TransPark in Kinston, and Johnston County provided the company with permits for construction work and conducted safety inspections on its premises.
“Aero could not exist but for engaging in contracts and other transactions with the Johnston County airport,” Weismann said. “It relies on the public airport for permits and inspections, and so of course our tax dollars are very much implicated in facilitating these flights and the torture.”
In 2014, North Carolina Stop Torture Now delivered a letter to then-governor McCrory’s office asking him to launch an SBI probe into the program and calling on Johnston County commissioners to ban the company. Commissioners turned down the group’s request. One told The News & Observer: “I’m not going to touch that thing, not as long as they are a good job provider.”
NCIT says it also invited Aero Contractors, the Johnston County Airport Authority, and Burr, Attorney General Josh Stein, and former governors Easley, Perdue, and McCrory to testify last week, but all refused. Cowger says Cooper was asked to send a representative to the meeting but declined. (Cooper’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment.)
Aero did not respond to a request for comment. A decade ago, Aero’s president, Norman Richardson—”a North Carolina businessman who once ran a truck stop restaurant called Stormin’ Norman’s”—told the Times, “Most of the work we do is for the government. It’s on the basis that we can’t say anything about it.”
The commission hopes to publish a report detailing its findings next summer, Cowger says, and use that to raise awareness about the rendition program and push state and county officials to act.