‘Guantánamo Diary’ goes Through the Looking Glass

The younger brother of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Yahdih Ould Slahi, with a copy of Mohamedou’s prison memoir in London on Jan. 20, 2015 showing pages that were redacted by the U.S. government.
The younger brother of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Yahdih Ould Slahi, with a copy of Mohamedou’s prison memoir in London on Jan. 20, 2015 showing pages that were redacted by the U.S. government. AFP/Getty Images

There’s a moment early in the memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the Guantánamo prisoner whose account of prison camp brutality has partially emerged from U.S. government censorship, when he’s immobilized in shackles and blindfolded in a cargo plane en route to what is now his 14th year of detention and struck by a chilling thought:

Perhaps, he thinks, the Americans are about to extra-judicially execute him by blowing up their U.S. plane over the Atlantic Ocean — and declaring it an accident.

It’s a brief scene, mostly describing how a guard fastened Slahi’s seatbelt so tight he labored to breathe in the August 2002 flight to Cuba. But it symbolizes the “Through the Looking Glass” quality of the 372-page book by the Mauritanian captive once considered such a prized Pentagon catch that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld personally approved a special interrogation package that descended into torture.

Slahi‘s fleeting suspicion that he is a pawn in an American suicide mission seems to answer the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, who months before gave this explanation for why war-on-terror captives were trussed up and hooded to the point of sensory deprivation.

“These are people that would gnaw hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down,” he said. “These are very, very dangerous people, and that’s how they’re being treated.”

And therein lies the import of “Guantánamo Diary” — an account of his fear, loathing and occasional sympathy for the mostly anonymous Americans who have passed through Guantánamo. It is written by Detainee No. 760, a now 44-year-old German-educated electrical engineer who joined the anti-Communist jihad in Afghanistan in 1990, but claims he broke with the movement years before the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Book coming to 26 nations, 23 languages

Each side assumes the worst, as captive and captor occasionally try to convince the other of their humanity in a book that in February made The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. It has been released in 14 countries with 12 more in the pipeline, from Lebanon to Brazil. With those it will be in print in 23 languages.

Britain’s spy novelist, John le Carré, calls the book “a vision of hell, beyond Orwell, beyond Kafka,” in a jacket endorsement.

As the only detainee memoir to emerge from inside the prison (others wrote after they left) it offers a near real-time account of early experimentation at Guantánamo — something exceptionally rare because the U.S. military has never allowed reporters to talk to its prisoners, neither those cleared to go nor those awaiting trial.

Slahi is neither. He’s never been charged with a crime and he has no date for a hearing with the inter-agency parole board that decides which never-convicted captives can leave Guantánamo, to countries that provide security assurances that satisfy the Pentagon.

Nearly unbearably brutal narrative

The book recounts beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual molestation, being driven mad through isolation, a threat of rectal re-feeding — material that would frankly be unbearable if it weren’t at times clever in Slahi’s capacity to frame it with irony.

Of a particularly brutal period of U.S. forces trying to break him by leaving him shivering in freezing cold air-conditioning after drenching him in ice water, he observes: “It was so awful; I kept shaking like a Parkinson’s patient.”

In another passage, he pokes fun at his U.S. guards’ preoccupation with video games as an addiction, “one of the punishments of their civilization.”

He marvels in page after page at how ignorant U.S. soldiers are about what it means to be a Muslim even as he describes debating religion with them.

Captive debated religion with captives

In one exchange, Slahi is trying to persuade a Catholic guard of the “logical necessity” of the existence of God.

“I don’t believe in anything unless I see it,” the American soldier says.

“After you’ve seen something,” Slahi explains, “you don’t need to believe it.”

It’s a curious juxtaposition to Slahi’s quest throughout the book to rid himself of a U.S. intelligence profile as an al-Qaida captive of consequence. His interrogators want to tie him to the foiled Millennium Bombing plot, if not 9/11 — something he confesses to after nearly going mad through isolation, only to retract it later, apparently convincingly through lie detector questioning that is blacked out by censors.

Slahi’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander, won’t say how much money the book has made. Cash advances go into a trust, some of it she says has already been used to pay for the education of a nephew from the family’s native Noakchott, Mauritania.

Book won’t make author a fortune

“It’s not going to be a book that makes Mohamedou rich,” says Larry Siems, a writer and human rights activist who Hollander entrusted to edit the book. “But it will stand as a real legitimate work of literature.”

Siems was talking by phone from Perugia, Italy, recently while on a book tour in Europe. He says there are historical examples of editors like him, who couldn’t speak or correspond with their writers — U.S. publishers of Soviet era dissident samizdat literature, for example. But this is unusual, as he sees it, because he is an American editing a book based on a handwritten manuscript censored by Americans of a man in American custody.

Slahi wrote the book in English, his fourth language, Siems says, much of it learned in U.S. custody.

Overseas, Siems says, the conversation about the book centers on why the Guantánamo prison still exists so many years after President Barack Obama vowed to close it. Here at home, he says, more ask, even if indefinite detention without charge is wrong, shouldn’t people fear releasing somebody likely radicalized by years in U.S. military custody?

Slahi’s is a complicated case. Members of Congress and reporters who tour the prison won’t see him as they peer through one-way glass in the penitentiary-style buildings that contain most of Guantánamo’s current 122 captives.

Book’s author held in segregation

He’s across the street in a compound of small, wooden buildings called Camp Echo, where commanders isolated certain captives there for interrogation or trial. Now, those segregated there are described as having cooperated with their captors.

As a reward for providing “voluminous information,” according to a Pentagon statement, Slahi has at times gotten special “comfort items” — a non-networked computer, microwave, television and garden.

It was in Camp Echo where, in 2005, Slahi wrote the 466-page manuscript in installments, a running handwritten narrative for his eventual lawyers of what happened to him after he voluntarily turned himself in to his native Northwest African nation’s security forces after Sept. 11, 2001 and was moved around the globe in a series of secret and brutal interrogations.

Siems calls the fact that Slahi wrote it “an enormous feat of faith and courage.” This was a man who’d not only been systematically denied lawyers and Red Cross visits but also exposure to sunlight.

In his book, Slahi offers insight into how he was able to discern night from day in his windowless cell: he studied the drain in his crude toilet for light — “very bright” versus “lightish dark.”

A study in U.S. censorship

It also serves as a study in U.S. censorship by anonymous intelligence contractors who in one instance deny release of a poem Slahi wrote. Sometimes they black out the gender of a female interrogator, and sometimes don’t.

The portion of the manuscript that would “not harm U.S. personnel or damage U.S. national security” was released, says Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a Pentagon spokesman, after “an extensive inter-agency classification review.”

In the end, it’s just one man’s story. And he’s a man who’s been held apart from the others at Guantánamo for nearly all of his years there — first, to isolate him, later perhaps to rehabilitate him.

But in the regime of anonymity that only gives detainees a voice if they can find a judge to hear their story, Slahi serves as an everyman — for those both steeped in the history of Guantánamo prison, and for first-time readers.

Editor’s note: The book jacket for Guantánamo Diary includes a description of Slahi’s treatment taken from a 2010 Miami Herald article by Carol Rosenberg. The excerpt was used without the knowledge of Rosenberg or the Miami Herald and does not constitute an endorsement of the book.

Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter

About the book

“Guantánamo Diary” has been translated into 23 languages, according to its editor, and is available now in the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, Sweden and Turkey.

It’s due to come out later this year in Brazil, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Indonesia, Lebanon, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia and Spain.

About the author

Mohamedou Ould Slahi left Mauritania in Northwest Africa in 1988 to study engineering in Germany but traveled twice to Afghanistan in 1990 and 1992, where he trained with al-Qaida and joined the jihad fighting the Soviets’ proxy pro-communist government of Mohammed Najibullah, which fell in March 1992. He returned to Germany, where he studied and then worked as as engineer, and kept the company of other al-Qaida members, notably alleged 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al Shibh in late 1999. By then he obtained landed immigrant status in Canada and moved to Montreal in November ’99, drawing U.S. intelligence interest in him in the foiled Millennium Plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on Dec. 31, 1999, in part for the company he kept at a mosque where Slahi served as an imam.

After questioning by Canadian officials, he decided to go home, via Senegal, which questioned him apparently at the behest of the U.S., then released him to Mauritania, which also interrogated him — both before and after the 9/11 attacks. In November 2001, the Mauritanians allowed his rendition to Jordan, where he’d never been, for U.S. proxy interrogation. From there he was taken to the U.S. interrogation site at Bagram air base in Afghanistan and then Guantánamo, where he remains. In April 2010, a federal judge, James Robertson, ordered Slahi’s release, saying the U.S. had no basis to hold him. Rather than repatriate him, the Obama administration appealed that decision to a higher court, which said a federal judge should re-review Slahi’s habeas corpus petition using a more liberal association standard. That hearing has never been held.

In 2011, the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks organization released his secret Guantánamo 2008 intelligence profile that recommended his continued detention. It described him as a low-threat detainee of high intelligence value for his past associations with al-Qaida and presenting a high risk that he’d “pose a threat to the U.S., its interests, and allies” if released. It made no mention of his secret, handwritten account of his torture, rendition and abuse or of independent U.S. abuse investigations that supported his account.

Sources: U.S. District Court decision Slahi v. Obama April 9, 2010, leaked Guantánamo documents

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