I cracked. After twenty-seven hours of near non-stop torture, I cracked, and the biggest secret of my life slowly slipped from between my lips.
I was strapped to a chair in the middle of an empty, windowless room. A single lightbulb dangled from the ceiling and shed its harsh light upon me and my torturer who was preparing to rip the fingernail off of my right index finger.
“Are you a member of the CIA?” Screamed the wild-eyed, bearded jihadist as the pliers he was clenching in his right hand began to rock back-and-forth, loosening the nail from my finger. This was the fourth nail he had gone to work on.
“Yes,” I gasped. Blood covered my right hand and dripped from the armrest on which my arm was strapped, soaking into the dirt floor of my cell. I struggled against the bands, desperate for relief from the searing, intense pain shooting up my arm into my shoulder and then spreading throughout my body like a viral disease.
I had been waterboarded, beat, and electrocuted. In the twenty-seven hours since my capture, I had drunk one cup of water and eaten one piece of bread. One terrorist after another had cycled through my cell with the command to beat me into submission. Question after question was fired at me.
“Where are you from!”
“Why are you here!”
“Are you a spy!”
I had taken a pledge of silence, not uttering one word since my capture. I refused to betray my country, my home, and the agency. My mission was to infiltrate this terror cell and pass intelligence back to Langley to prevent future terror attacks and bring about the destruction of their cell. Mission before self. Mission before self, I had repeated in my head. Over and over again.
People’s lives were on the line, and I could not betray myself and others taking part in the mission by succumbing to their barbaric methods and revealing who I indeed was. Loose lips sink ships was another mantra I continually repeated to myself.
When I finally broke my vow of silence and admitted to being a CIA spy, I froze. My torturer froze. My admission was unexpected. I had not even thought about it. Like the way a foot kicks out when the patellar tendon is struck, the word “yes” had reflexively slipped out when the jihadist pulled on my fingernail.
My torturer also appeared to be stunned by my admission. But the physical respite I had gained by admitting I was a CIA agent only lasted a moment. The fingernail came off anyway.
“I knew it, you filthy kafir,” he spat as I screamed in pain. Kafir was an Arabic word for infidel and one of the worst things a Muslim could call another person. He punctuated his sentence with a punch directly into my nose. I felt the cartilage crack and blood began pouring in torrents down my face and onto my bare chest. My vision began to fade, and I could feel myself slipping into unconsciousness.
“Why are you here?”
The pain pounding in my head—no, my face—was overwhelming. Tears poured from my eyes and mixed in with the blood dripping from my face. At first, I fought the darkness that was quickly closing in, threatening to pull me into unconsciousness. But it was a losing battle.
I heard my tormenter continue to scream, but I wasn’t listening. The pain. Oh, the pain.
And then I was out.
When I awoke, the first thing I noticed was that I had been cleaned up and laid down on a cot placed in the corner of my cell. Someone had bandaged my right hand and cleaned the blood from my face and chest. I was also clothed, dressed in a scratchy linen shirt and pants.
The pain was certainly still there. Whenever I moved, my body cried out in protest, and it felt as if someone had taken a sledgehammer and brought it down directly onto my face.
My cell was windowless, and there was obviously no clock; therefore, I had no idea how long I had been unconscious. It could have been anytime from an hour to twenty-four hours for all I knew.
Then I remembered what had happened. I had admitted to being a member of the CIA. My training had prepared me for torture, exhaustion, and pain, but in a moment of sheer agony, it had all gone to the wayside. What have I done? I thought.
I had betrayed my country to save my own skin. For the moment, I was being granted a bit of physical respite, but the psychological torment I felt for betraying the mission mitigated any of the benefits.
I thought back to the oath I had given when sworn in as a member of the Central Intelligence Agency: “I, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me, God.”
I thought back to the secrecy agreement I had signed: “I do solemnly swear that I will never divulge, publish nor reveal either by word, conduct, or by any other means such classified information, intelligence or knowledge.”
I had broken both oaths by opening my mouth, and I now had a decision to make. Since they already knew who I was, would it be advantageous to cooperate with them in an effort stave off execution and hope for a chance to escape?
Or, should I meet my fate head-on?
Slowly, I moved to a sitting position and placed my bare feet on the dirt floor. The room was stuffy and stank like body odor and blood. I was just beginning to make it to my feet when the metal door flew open and three men, all with turbans on their heads and Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, walked in.
“Let’s go,” one of the men gruffly said, as the other two grabbed my arms and tied my wrists together behind my back. I didn’t move.
“Let’s go,” he said again. I still didn’t move.
“Filthy infidel,” one of the men behind me said. I felt the barrel of an AK-47 dig into my back and push me forward. My weakened legs buckled underneath me, and I fell to the ground. Immediately, fists began to rain down on my battered body as I did my best to somehow shield my face.
“Enough,” the leader of the three said. “Carry him.”
The two men who had tied my wrists together roughly picked me up and slung me over their shoulders. They carried me out of the cell and into a narrow hallway lined with metal doors. Ten feet down was a barred window. Sunlight streamed through, illuminating the walkway.
We went quickly down the hall and through another doorway into a spacious, sparsely furnished room. Sitting at a desk in the middle of the room was a tall man dressed in a white robe with a tall turban atop his head. His beard reached down to his chest, and his eyes were dark and penetrating. He seemed to have the ability to stare through me.
“Sit,” said the dark-eyed man, gesturing to a chair in front of his desk.
With my hands still tied behind my back, I was sat in the chair. The man sitting at the desk nodded to the three men with the Kalashnikovs, and they filed outside. The door shut behind them.
For a second, neither of us said anything. His dark eyes were locked on mine, and I had to force myself not to nervously shift in my chair. Despite how bad I must have looked, I was determined to exude strength and not back down.
“So, you are a member of the CIA,” he said with a heavy Arabic accent. His voice dropped at the end, indicating a statement rather than a question. “You know what we do to spies, correct?”
This was the moment. If I was going to cooperate, now was the time.
“We kill them,” he said flatly. For at least a minute, nothing was said as he tried to let his words sink in. Finally, he broke the silence. “However, Allah is merciful, and so am I. You will have one chance to save yourself from execution and the fires of hell if you simply tell us who your contact is. Who got you into our cell?”
I bit the inside of my mouth but didn’t break eye contact.
After a few seconds, the man rose from his chair and came around the desk. Kneeling down, he placed his face mere inches from mine. His breath smelt of garlic and rotten cabbage, and I had to fight to keep a straight face.
“I will not play games with you, and I will not prolong our conversation any longer than it needs to be. You are being given a measure of mercy. Do not spurn your chance at survival!” He placed his hand on my shoulder. “Who got you into our cell?”
I’m too young to die, I thought to myself. My interrogator was giving me a chance. Two words, and I might see another day.
I took a deep breath.
“You!” I shouted, then spat a glob of saliva and mucus directly into his face.
He jumped back, wiping furiously at his face. “Curse you!” He roared in anger. “May you burn in the fires of hell!”
Hearing the commotion, the three men outside burst into the room, safeties off, guns at the ready. “Kill this kafir!” My interrogator shouted.
The three men were on top of me in a flash. They grabbed me by my armpits and hoisted me out of the chair. We moved into the hallway and down towards the door that led to the outside. When we reached the outside, the first thing I noticed was the sky. It was a beautiful azure blue. What I nice day to die, I thought to myself.
They marched me to a brick wall pockmarked with hundreds of bullet holes. The ground beneath my feet was stained red with the blood of those executed before me.
So this is how it ends, I thought. I had revealed myself as a member of the CIA, but I had kept my contact a secret. The mission would go on without me.
My face was pushed into the brick wall, and I was instructed not to move. Behind me, a group of men talked and laughed as a couple of their colleagues readied their weapons. There was a moment of silence.
“God bless the USA!”
I never heard the shot.