In the autumn of 2001 Mohamedou Ould Slahi was working in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, setting up computer networks. He was born in the hinterlands, son of a nomadic camel trader, and had picked up the trade in Germany; he went to the University of Duisberg on a scholarship in 1988, at the age of 17. He’d long been a fan of the German national football team. He was also devout and had memorised the Koran as a teenager. In 1991 he went to Afghanistan to train with the mujahedin and pledged an oath to al-Qaida. He made another trip the next year, but saw little action fighting Muhammad Najibullah’s communist government before it fell. When the fighting disintegrated into factional struggles, he went back to Germany. He tried once to join the war in Bosnia, but couldn’t get through Slovenia. He worked in Duisberg until 1999, when his visa expired and pressure was coming down from the immigration office. He applied for permanent residency in Canada and went to Montreal, where he led prayers at a mosque attended by an Algerian called Ahmed Ressam. On 14 December 1999, Ressam was arrested at the US border with explosives and timing devices in his rented car. This was the Millennium Plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport, and though Ressam was a stranger to him it was the start of Slahi’s troubles.
In Montreal he believed he was being watched, possibly through a small hole drilled through his bedroom wall from his neighbour’s flat. (He called the police about it and they told him to fill the hole with caulk.) He was questioned by Canadian intelligence, but let go. Still, he was spooked, and in January 2000 he set off to return to Mauritania, via Dakar; on landing he was picked up by Senegalese special forces. He was rendered to Nouakchott, held for weeks, threatened with torture, and interrogated by Mauritanian intelligence and the FBI. Here was the start of the American authorities’ four-year fixation on two words, ‘tea’ and ‘sugar’, picked up on a tapped phone conversation and presumed to be code. They released him to return to his family. On his way out, the director of Mauritanian intelligence told him: ‘Those guys have no evidence whatsoever.’
The same was true in September 2001, when the Mauritanian secret police called Slahi and asked him to turn himself in. A few weeks later he was rendered by the US to Jordan (an eight-month stay), then to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, and finally to Cuba, where he remains today. In Guantánamo Diary, the memoir he wrote in 2005, now unclassified and published with more than 2500 redactions by the US Department of Defense (many to conceal the identity of his interrogators, guards and fellow detainees), the US intelligence services are a gang of reckless and clueless thugs enacting their 9/11 revenge fantasies on whatever brown-skinned men happen to be at hand. There have been 779 detainees at Guantánamo; of 517 men being held in 2005, 80 per cent had been handed over by Afghans and Pakistanis for $5000 bounties, resulting in not a few senseless detentions. Slahi recounts one of his first GTMO interrogations:
■■■■ ■■■■ showed me the worst people in ■■■■ ■■■■ . There were 15, and I was number 1; number 2 was ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ .
‘You gotta be kidding me,’ I said.
‘No, I’m not. Don’t you understand the seriousness of your case?’
‘So, you kidnapped me from my house, in my country, and sent me to Jordan for torture, and then took me from Jordan to Bagram, and I’m still worse than the people you captured with guns in their hands?’
‘Yes, you are. You’re very smart! To me, you meet all the criteria of a top terrorist. When I check the terrorist check list, you pass with a very high score.’
I was so scared, but I always tried to suppress my fear. ‘And what is your ■■■■ check list?’
‘You’re Arab, you’re young, you went to Jihad, you speak foreign languages, you’ve been in many countries, you’re a graduate in a technical discipline.’
‘And what crime is that?’ I said.
‘Look at the hijackers: they were the same way.’
Aside from the points on their checklist, the US authorities were interested in Slahi for his associations. Slahi is the cousin and former brother-in-law of Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, a.k.a. Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, a member of al-Qaida’s spiritual council in Kandahar at the time of 9/11. Slahi writes of relatives at his niece’s wedding discussing the $25 million price on their cousin’s head. Years earlier German intelligence had twice intercepted phone calls between the two: Slahi was helping Abu Hafs transfer money to his family in Mauritania; on one occasion Abu Hafs had allegedly borrowed Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone to call Slahi. This brought the accusation that Slahi was an al-Qaida fundraiser. Abu Hafs is a tricky character. He’s five years younger than Slahi; he wrote poetry that bin Laden is said to have liked. He was alleged, by officials as high-ranking and mendacious as Paul Wolfowitz, to have had a hand in the 1998 embassy bombings and the Millennium Plot and to have travelled to Iraq to propose an alliance between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. In November 2001 Abu Hafs was interviewed by Al Jazeera and said that al-Qaida hadn’t organised the 9/11 attacks but that they fit with its purposes. Detainees in US custody told interrogators that Abu Hafs had denounced 9/11 and quit al-Qaida. He’s reported to have fled to Iran after the US invasion of Afghanistan, and to have spent a decade under house arrest until he was sent back to Mauritania in 2012. He spent time there in prison, and told the press he was questioned by US interrogators. He’s now a free man, unlike his cousin.
Slahi was also linked to Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was arrested in Pakistan on 11 September 2002 and later handed over to the CIA. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, he was thought to be a facilitator of the attacks, but ‘personnel at CIA headquarters … overestimated the information bin al-Shibh would have access to within al-Qaida, writing that bin al-Shibh “likely has critical information on upcoming attacks and locations of senior al-Qaida operatives”.’ Higher-ranking al-Qaida detainees later told the CIA that bin al-Shibh had been shut out of further planning because he was closely linked to the 9/11 attacks and therefore considered high risk. His CIA interrogators felt the Pakistanis had got as much out of him as there was to be got, but Langley instructed them to follow its initial blueprint for ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’: the ‘attention grasp, walling, the facial hold, the facial slap … the abdominal slap, cramped confinement, wall standing, stress positions, sleep deprivation beyond 72 hours, and the waterboard, as appropriate to [bin al-Shibh’s] level of resistance’. He was a test case for the agency’s torture programme. He and two of the hijackers had spent a night at Slahi’s house in Germany in 1999, and Slahi gave them advice about going to Chechnya. Whatever bin al-Shibh told his interrogators, Slahi became a suspected al-Qaida recruiter in Germany.
Slahi isn’t mentioned in the Senate torture report: he’s never been in the custody of the CIA. His memoir is a reminder that the CIA’s crimes are only part of the story. Torture was also practised by the US military after Donald Rumsfeld signed a memorandum on 22 December 2002 authorising ‘counter resistance techniques’. Rumsfeld personally signed off on Slahi’s ‘special interrogation plan’ at Guantánamo. It began with solitary confinement in a zone called India Block. Slahi was put in a ‘box’ where the temperature had him shivering. He was without soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and his Quran. Early on a Red Cross inspector arrived and asked him if he wanted to write a letter. He wrote: ‘Mama, I love you, I just wanted to tell you that I love you!’ He wouldn’t see another Red Cross inspector for a year. What followed were weeks of humiliation, starvation, prolonged standing and sleep deprivation. The interrogators turned his body against him, and he was often made to soil himself. His sciatic nerve was constantly inflamed and he developed hypertension. He was prevented from praying and subjected to sexual aggression by female guards. His account is heavily redacted, but the effect comes across:
That afternoon was dedicated to sexual molestation. ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ blouse and was whispering in my ear, ‘You know how good I am in bed,’ and ‘American men like me to whisper in their ears,’ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ I have a great body.’ Every once in a while ■■■■ ■■■■ offered me the other side of the coin. ‘If you start to co-operate, I’m gonna stop harassing you. Otherwise I’ll be doing the same with you and worse every day. I am ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ and that’s why my government designated me to this job. I’ve always been successful. Having sex with somebody is not considered torture.’
■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ was leading the monologue ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ . Every now and then the ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ entered and tried to make me speak, ‘You cannot defeat us: we have too many people, and we’ll keep humiliating you with American ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ .’
‘I have a ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ friend I’m gonna bring tomorrow to help me,’ ■■■■ said. ‘At least ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ co-operate,’ said ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ wryly. ■■■■ ■■■■ didn’t undress me, but ■■■■ ■■■■ was touching my private parts with ■■■■ ■■■■ body.
Slahi was soon an emaciated, drooling wreck, doused in ice and blasted with rap and heavy metal (‘I didn’t really mind the music because it made me forget my pain’). They insulted his wife and his religion, and told him they were going to arrest his mother if he didn’t confess to masterminding the Millennium Plot and recruiting the 9/11 hijackers. He wouldn’t sign their forged letter.
The special interrogation plan came to a head with Slahi’s ‘birthday party’, in August 2003. After a weekend of complete isolation, a pair of masked guards entered his cell and punched him in the face and the ribs, a barking dog behind them. They blindfolded him, put him in the back of a truck, and sprayed ammonia in his nose. Then he was dragged into a speedboat. It was a three-hour cruise. He was forced to drink saltwater – ‘Swallow, motherfucker!’ they said – and vomited. They stuffed his clothes with ice cubes. ‘The goal of such a trip,’ Slahi writes, ‘was, first, to torture the detainee and claim that “the detainee hurt himself during transport,” and second, to make the detainee believe he was being transferred to some far, faraway secret prison.’ The deception in this case was meant to be enhanced by the presence of two Arabic speakers, according to Slahi an Egyptian and a Jordanian. The cruise was led by an American whose identity is redacted, but the editor, Larry Siems, thinks it may have been the navy reservist Richard Zuley, identified in court documents as the Special Projects Team chief for Slahi’s interrogations at Guantánamo, a retired Chicago cop now working for the aviation police at O’Hare International Airport.
Slahi was broken. After medical treatment and a few more interrogation sessions, some of them conducted by guards wearing Halloween masks, he gave in: ‘Now, thanks to the unbearable pain I was suffering, I had nothing to lose, and I allowed myself to say anything to satisfy my assailants.’ ‘People are very happy with what you’re saying,’ one of his interrogators told him: Slahi confessed to plotting to bomb the CN Tower in Toronto with redacted accomplices. He later admitted to guards that this was a lie. He was subjected to a polygraph test; the seven pages after the test begins are redacted: just what he did tell them is unclear. Military tribunals have thrown out his confessions because he was tortured.
Slahi now lives at Guantánamo Bay in what press reports refer to as a ‘hut’ that he shares with Tariq al-Sawah, an Egyptian taken in Afghanistan in 2002 after he was wounded by a cluster bomb. Al-Sawah immediately began co-operating with the US: he didn’t have to endure a birthday party. For GTMO, the hut is relatively luxurious, and the pair keep a garden. This is where Slahi wrote his book; al-Sawah is a painter. The last chapter of the memoir shows that Slahi, on a regimen of tranquillisers and anti-depressants, made his peace with his jailers, or most of them. Acting on new orders – to be nice rather than sadistic – they grew fond and generous towards him, started calling him by the nickname ‘Pillow’, and brought him muffins, a television with a VCR and video games:
I’m terrible when it comes to video games; it’s just not for me. I always told the guards, ‘Americans are just big babies. In my country it’s not appropriate for somebody my age to sit in front of a console and waste his time playing games.’ Indeed, one of the punishments of their civilisation is that Americans are addicted to video games.
Better was the haphazard course he undertook in Western literature: ‘I still remember one book called The Catcher in the Rye that made me laugh until my stomach hurt … It was my first unofficial laughter in the ocean of tears.’ He’s astonished by his new American friends’ devotion to fitness, and their casual attitudes towards pre-marital sex. A heavily redacted passage seems to indicate that a flirtation of sorts developed between Slahi and a female guard, who kept from him that she was vacationing with one of her male colleagues.
It’s a strange ending to a book that is otherwise a relentless catalogue of grotesque abuses. Guantánamo Diary is no masterpiece: inevitably, it’s repetitive (Slahi likens his interrogations to Groundhog Day), and often banal when what it recounts isn’t revolting. But Slahi is an intelligent and sensitive writer whose sense of irony somehow survived along with his sanity. He’s not quite Holden Caulfield but his personality consistently comes through. His efforts at characterisation – of his interrogators, guards and fellow detainees – are thwarted by the military censors’ redactions, which turn a wide cast of villains, friends and villain-friends into so many undifferentiated black marks. But his collective observations of his jailers – especially the prison’s racial dynamics, with white guards dominating their black colleagues, and a Puerto Rican contingent showing the most sympathy to the jailed – are some of the book’s most striking details. (The broad outline of the abuses Slahi suffered, even the worst ones, has been a matter of public record for years.)
The difference between candidate Obama and President Obama became clear when he failed to enforce the executive order to close Guantánamo he signed two days after he took office. Michael Bloomberg and many Republicans objected to trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other accused 9/11 conspirators in New York City, as Attorney General Eric Holder proposed. It was a security risk. The same was said by then Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas about moving the detainees to the US Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth; he and his allies threatened to block Obama’s appointments to halt the relocation. Their line was ‘no terrorists on US soil’ – as if a mass of dormant sleeper cells was waiting to stage the jailbreak. Obama has reduced the number of detainees at Guantánamo from 241 to 127. In his State of the Union address he said again that he wants to shut it, and reportedly plans to argue that once there are fewer than a hundred detainees, held at an annual cost of $3 million each, the prison makes little economic sense. But Republicans in Congress led by John McCain have said they’ll oppose him and have the numbers to do so. Dick Cheney appears on television, rather than in the dock, keeping the torture ‘debate’ alive. I wouldn’t have bet that diplomatic relations with Cuba would be restored before Guantánamo was closed. How many years until Slahi’s hut is a museum piece?