AFTER years of legal wrangling, the memoir of 44-year-old Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) detainee, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, handwritten in 2005, was finally unclassified by the US Department of Defence in 2012 and published this year with more than 2,500 redactions. Guantánamo Diary is an extraordinary account of captivity, rendition and torture. It catalogues shocking verbal and physical abuse, determined attempts by Slahi’s interrogators to establish guilt without collaborating evidence, and using torture to coerce signed confessions from him. Despite the thick, black redaction marks throughout the book, some information hidden in one part of the memoir is made available a few pages down.
Published in the aftermath of the report released in Dec 2014 by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme, this memoir is by far the most detailed account of post-9/11 torture. Slahi was detained in 2002 and accused by his interrogators of recruiting three of the 9/11 hijackers, being a member of Al Qaeda as well as being involved in terror plots in Canada and the US. He has never been charged formally and his lawyers say there is little evidence against him. In a statement in February this year, the chief prosecutor in the Guantánamo tribunals, army Brigadier General Mark Martins proposed that defence lawyers be permitted to address instances of torture on defendants by the CIA and their international affiliates. He stated that he was prepared to advise that the military commissions at Guantánamo ease restrictions on deliberating on “enhanced interrogation techniques that were applied to an accused from on or around the specified capture date through Sept 6, 2006, including descriptions of the techniques as applied, the duration, frequency, sequencing and limitations of those techniques,” including disclosure regarding confinement conditions. In essence, such disclosures would speed up trials and ensure transparency at military commissions, say human rights activists. But they stress that to date detainees are not allowed to speak about where they were held or which countries were complicit in their confinement. The Obama administration has argued that to allow the US government the power to suppress its own misconduct (on the subject of torture) and defend the no-transparency argument is because it doesn’t want to show that terrorists have won.
Unveiling the CIA’s ways of enforcing its unquestioned power over detainees, most interrogators at Guantánamo are instructed to express aversion towards detainees as “the most evil creatures on earth,” Slahi writes. It is well-known that Guantánamo military commissions have cost US taxpayers enormously and secret tribunals received censure over their inefficient investigation methods. This year, the Pentagon estimated the cost for each of the 122 detainees at $3.5 million, which includes the cost of military commissions for detainees. The US Senate Report concluded that torturing detainees did not obtain actionable intelligence or gain cooperation from detainees — something that Slahi’s torture and imprisonment verifies — rather the disclosures tarnished America’s image and human rights record. In this only first-person serving-detainee account, Slahi writes in English (learnt at Guantánamo) about how he and countless other prisoners survived rendition and torture, clearly pointing to a catalogue of human rights abuses sanctioned and practised by the US authorities, whether at Guantánamo or in other countries that collaborated in the rendition programme in Europe and the Middle East. An Open Society Justice Initiative report in 2013, Globalising Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition, states that 54 countries participated in CIA’s rendition programme including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Ireland and Iceland, providing secret prisons, airport and air space for flights.
A Mauritanian and former computer technician, who received a scholarship to study in Germany at 17, Slahi says he rejects the need for counter-violence, which may also be a clever ploy to expose the motives of his interrogators. Approved by Donald Rumsfeld, the then US secretary of defence, his own account of torture during a “special interrogation” of three months’ duration in 2003 has been corroborated by various legal and government investigations. He describes beatings, sensory deprivation, starvation, being shackled for days in a freezing cell, being doused with ice water, mock executions, sexual assault, being kicked, and assault threats directed towards his mother. Slahi writes that it all stopped after he confessed to what he claims he was not guilty of. It is apparent in his writings that he confesses when realising the notion of the powerful versus the powerless.
In an unclassified letter dated Nov 6, 2006, addressed to his lawyers Nancy Hollander and Sylvia Royce, Slahi said he confessed after being tortured repeatedly. When asked by them to recall what he had told his interrogators, he said that after seven years of being questioned, it was like asking Charlie Sheen how many women he had dated. He notes in this letter that his ‘pre-torture’ period lasted until May 22, 2003, when he insisted he hadn’t done anything against America. Later, he refers to the post-torture period when he agreed to all accusations made by his interrogators, including writing the “infamous confession” of planning to attack the CN Tower in Toronto. He writes in this letter that the “incriminating parts [he provided his interrogators] are lies”. This letter reflects much of the same style as his memoir; infused with a strange sense of optimism and humour, hoping the truth will set him free. For their part, Slahi’s lawyers say his case is in legal limbo and have repeatedly asked for him to be released.
In Nov 2001, Slahi drove himself to a local Mauritanian police station which he was asked to report to. He was later interrogated and flown by the CIA to Jordan (for eight months), then to Afghanistan, and finally to Guantánamo where he has been detained ever since. His torture years behind him, he is no longer shackled in isolation in a freezing cold cell with no food, water or sanitation facilities. Housed in the same room in the detention facility where he wrote his memoir, he shares this space with another detainee and both are allowed certain prison privileges. At that time in 2002, Rumsfeld signed several torture memos allowing special interrogation plans for specific Guantánamo detainees — and Slahi was one such prisoner by virtue of his former associations with Al Qaeda which can be traced to the period before 2001. He admitted to travelling to Afghanistan in 1990 and training at an Al Qaeda run camp in Khost after which he swore an oath to Bin Laden and took the name Abu Musab. Later, Slahi also took part in an operation led by Jalaluddin Haqqani. But when the Soviets withdrew and “the Mujahiden … started to wage Jihad against themselves,” he returned to his education and his Mauritanian wife joined him in Germany.
Fighting against the Soviets was not unusual at the time and thousands of young men travelled to Afghanistan with the Americans supporting the fight. The problem was that Slahi had close associates from his Afghanistan years, and some remained committed to the cause as it evolved and turned on its old US allies. In Germany, Slahi had once crossed paths with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a planner of the Sept 11 attacks. His relative, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, married Slahi’s wife’s sister, making him Slahi’s brother-in-law; later al-Mauritani became part of Bin Laden’s close network. In his introduction, editor Larry Siems traces Slahi’s most incriminating connection, al-Mauritani. He is said to have opposed the Sept 11 attacks by writing to Bin Laden, objecting to it on religious grounds. When interrogators spoke to him in a Mauritanian prison, in 2012, al-Mauritani had “renounced his ties to Al Qaeda”. After a period under house arrest in Iran, he is now free.
Slahi had also met Al Qaeda operative, Ahmed Ressam, at a mosque in Montreal in 1999 when he moved to Canada with his wife. Ressam was arrested shortly afterwards on the US-Canadian border with a car-load of explosives and accused of the Millennium Plot. Throughout the book, he vehemently says he is not guilty of plotting terror attacks, nor was he a member of Al Qaeda when arrested, having cut all ties to radical Islam in the 1990s.
In 2010, in his unclassified opinion, Judge Robertson while reviewing Slahi’s habeas corpus petition stated he should be released writing that “associations alone are not enough, of course, to make detention lawful,” but the Obama administration appealed this order. It is Slahi’s past history that appears reason enough to keep him at Guantánamo for more than 14 years. And with the US authorities not having enough evidence to charge him outright, his memoir will not only receive more attention but bears testimony to what went on inside a black hole where detainees had no access (in the early years) to legal assistance. Recounting one of his first GTMO interrogations, he writes: “[Redacted] showed me the worst people in [redacted] There were 15, and I was number 1; number 2 was [redacted].‘You gotta be kidding me,’ I said. ‘No, I’m not. Don’t you understand the seriousness of your case?’ ” ... ‘And what is your [redacted] 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.’”
Colonel Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor at Guantánamo from 2005 to 2007, told Siems that Slahi reminded him of Forrest Gump. “In the sense that there were a lot of noteworthy events in the history of Al Qaeda and terrorism, and there was Slahi, lurking somewhere in the background. He was in Germany, Canada, different places that look suspicious, and that caused them to believe that he was a big fish, but then when they really invested the effort to look into it, that’s not where they came out. ... [the] conclusion was there’s a lot of smoke and no fire.”
In his introduction to Guantánamo Diary, Siems explains that the absence of sharing information with prosecutors has been disastrous for Slahi’s case. His interrogation by the Jordanians and the CIA at first in connection to the Millennium Plot determined there was no evidence to incriminate him. This fact was never passed on by the CIA to the lead prosecutors at Guantánamo. What Siems also implies here is that when the CIA got all the information out of Slahi, and realised it wasn’t as significant as expected, they handed him over to Bagram authorities, after which he was rendered to Guantánamo.
Siems quotes a 2004 CIA investigation report, Counterterrorism and Detention Interrogation Activities, September 2001-October 2003: “The number of detainees in CIA custody is relatively small by comparison with those in military custody. Nonetheless, the Agency, like the military, has an interest in the disposition of detainees and a particular interest in those who, if not kept in isolation, would likely have divulged information about the circumstances of their detention.” In 2002, Slahi’s family was unaware of his whereabouts, Siems says. It was also at the height of the war on terror and not many knew of the rendition and interrogation programmes that were in place.
Slahi writes of his Montreal years and how he had been put under surveillance; his imprisonment in Mauritania, and the authorities finding no evidence to detain him; but the most devastating revelations are the Guantánamo torture regimes proposed by his various interrogators, women (gender redacted in instances) included. With time on his hands after ‘confessing,’ his descriptions get more nuanced and disconcerting. These portions of the book are hugely disturbing and remind one of how individuals — whether guilty or not — are subject to collective emasculation. The use of torture and cruel, humiliating interrogation methods became standard operating procedure from Guantánamo in Cuba to Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Bagram in Afghanistan. Documents in the public domain, including Five Years of my Life: An Innocent Man in Guantánamo by Murat Kurnaz and the declassified evidence of Mohammed al-Qahtani’s torture at Guantanamo raise the issue about how detainees will react when released, harbouring a deep sense of grievance at the inhumane treatment meted out to them by the Americans — and in some instances their own government.
In certain cases, it has been established that information obtained from released Guantánamo detainees were false confessions as they sought relief from the infinite torture. The pointlessness of such confessions should be seen as such, and current detainees should be given legal representation. The treatment of detainees in captivity without charge was not uncommon even in Iraq in 2003. In A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa, A.T. Williams investigates the death of an Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, who died in British army custody in Basra. The inquiry into his death found that he was hooded for 24 hours out of the 36 that he spent alive in custody, suffered 93 injuries to his body and termed his death an “appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence”.
Experts say the use of enhanced interrogation techniques such as prolonged sleep deprivation, binding in stress positions, and waterboarding, are not deterrents when it comes to reducing terror attacks. It has been alleged that the US used interrogation methods that the Soviet Union perfected during the Cold War, something emulated by the self-styled Islamic State (IS) in ways when it dresses hostages in orange Guantánamo suits, imprisoning them in cages before beheading them.
There have been 779 detainees at Guantánamo; and of the 517 men being held in 2005, 80 per cent had been handed over by Afghanistan and Pakistan for $5,000 bounties, resulting in many senseless detentions, say human right observers. As of January this year, 122 detainees remain at the prison facility. Lawyers for detainees say they must be allowed to talk openly about the torture they experienced.
It is difficult to arrive at a conclusion after reading Slahi’s story of detention. The degrading torture regime at Guantanamo is not only an American policy disaster. There is a possibility that some released detainees have become more radicalised and angry than previously, and so would be difficult to track (they might re-join Al Qaeda affiliates) when released. This is something that the Americans must make provisions to handle. IS’s senior commanders, including its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were inmates at the American-run Camp Bucca in Iraq in 2004 where they were galvanised into creating a militant insurgency. Last year, five high-level Guantánamo detainees were released to the Qatari government in exchange for the American prisoner, Bowe Bergdahl. They have not been permitted to leave Qatar for a year, to keep them away from militant activities, but that period is short of expiring and their fate is being renegotiated. After being imprisoned for years without charge, tortured to near-death, then released, will former fighters reintegrate into society and express remorse at their previous lives, or simply resume old contacts with militant groups to seek revenge?
Torture is not a deterrent and its practice hasn’t left the world safer, as Slahi’s memoir notes. Is Slahi guilty because of his past association with Al Qaeda? After his years of detention, does he share the same ideologies that militant Islam espouses — you don’t come across that in the memoir — or is his expression of remorse and even empathy for his captors a way in which he makes them appear insensitive and monstrous, making him a clever writer? More answers will emerge when he is released.
By Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Edited by Larry Siems