Why does fear justify violence? When does the need for information overrule human rights? How do we forgive those who commit violence against us out of fear—in the name of intelligence gathering? For Mohamedou Ould Slai, imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay since 2001, forgiveness isn’t even a question.
“I’m not going to judge anybody,” he writes in his New York Times bestselling memoir, “Guantanamo Diary.” “I am just providing the facts as I have seen and experienced them, and I don’t leave anything out to make somebody look good or bad. I understand that nobody is perfect, and everybody does both good and bad things. The only question is, How much of each?” (318)
How much good and bad did Mohamedou commit? Why is he of such an interest to our government?
The diary opens with Mohamedou’s transfer from a Jordanian prison to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantanamo in August of 2002. He is diapered, shackled and blindfolded. This scene is so horrific, his treatment is so nauseating, that I’m not sure if I can keep reading. I feel that I, we—the reading public—owe ourselves, and Mohamedou: truth deserves to be written and read. So I keep reading.
Mohamedou, as well as his editor, Larry Siems, provide a time line of detention, as well as of Mohamedou’s life and the events that lead the U.S. government to suspect Mohamedou of terrorists acts.
Born into a large family (eight older siblings and three younger) in Mauritania in 1970, Mohamedou memorizes the Quran at his father’s knee. After his father’s death, Mohamedou continuea his studies and in 1988, 18-year-old Mohamedou wins a scholarship from the Carl Duisberg Society to study in Germany. He is the first person in his family to attend college. Mohamedou studies electrical engineering. His obvious intelligence is a concern later: an intelligent terrorist can lie about their involvement effectively, a fact his interrogator’s return to. His position as a Hafiz (one who memorizes the Quran) and deep spiritual beliefs are also of concern.
Mohamedou raises another red flag by joining al Qaeda in 1991. However, al Qaeda at this time looks very different from al Qadea today. For one, the U.S. provides weapons to al Qaeda (Mohamedou trains with U.S. mortars [xxii]) and they are basically our allies in the fight against the communist government in Afghanistan. As the communist government collapses the cause moves away from Mohamedou’s beliefs. The Mujahiden begin waging Jihad against each other, vying for power. Mohamedou leaves Afghanistan because, “I didn’t want to fight against other Muslims,” he said in his 2004 Combatant Status Review hearing with the U.S. “My goal was solely to fight against the aggressors, mainly the Communists, who forbid my brethren from practicing their religion.” (xxii-xxiii)
However, Mohamedou maintains friendships with men from his Afghanistan venture (some of whom still maintain ties with al Qaeda). This combines with his connection to prominent al-Qaeda member Abu Hafs al-Mauritani (Mohamedou’s distant cousin also related by his marriage to Mohamedou’s wife’s sister). Taken together the connections paint an assumption that Mohamedou is still entrenched in al-Quadea. In 1999, U.S. government intercepts a phone call from al-Mauritani to Mohamedou via Osama Bin Laden’s satellite phone. There is record of Mohamedou helping al-Mauritani send money to his family in Afghanistan. These activities raise more red flags for the U.S. government.
The final proverbial red flag comes from al-Quadea member Ahmed Ressam, arrested entering the U.S. from Canada with plans to bomb LAX on New Years Day in 1999. Mohamedou and Ressam stay at the same mosque in Canada more than a month apart. Mohamedou returns to his native country at his family’s repeated insistence after Canadian authorities question him about his connections with Ressam. Canadian authorities release him, but Mohamedou is detained in Senegal, then questioned again in Mauratania. Both governments also find no link between Mohamedou and the Millennium Plot.
In November of 2001, Mohamedou voluntarily leaves his home in Mauritania and drives himself to the police station at the behest of Mauritanian authorities. A week later the CIA transfers Mohamedou to a prison in Jordan where authorities interrogate him for more than seven months. In July of 2002 Mohamedou is stripped, diapered and shackled, then transported to U.S. Military’s Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Two weeks later, in August 2002, Mohamedou is flown to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
He is still there today, despite U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson granting Mohamedou’s habeas corpus petition in 2010 ordering his release. In 2010, the U.S. government convinces the DC Circuit Court of Appeals to accept a looser standard for judging whether a detainee is part of al Qaeda:
“The government no longer needed to show that a Guantanamo prisoner was carrying out Al Qaeda orders or directions at the time he was taken into custody.” [xliii] The U.S. Government appeals the habeas corpus decision and the case is sent back to the federal district court where the case is still pending. He is still there, despite the capture and subsequent release of al-Mauritani—the closest tie between Mohamedou and Osama bin Laden. (Al-Mauritani serves a loose house arrest in Iran from 2003 to 2012, is shipped back to Mauritania in April of 2012 and is released in July of that year.)
In a letter he writes to his attorney, Sylvia Royce, in November 2006 Mohamedou says that he divides his time in custody into two parts: pre torture (2001-2003) and post torture (xvi). Mohamedou “confesses” to plotting to bomb the CN tower in Toronto while under torture.
“Torture doesn’t guarantee that the detainee cooperates,” Mohamedou writes, “In order to stop the torture, the detainee has to please his assailant, even with untruthful, and sometimes misleading, Intels.” (255) He explains “confessions are like the beads of a necklace: if the first one falls, the rest follow.” (275)
The abuses heaped on Mohameou are numerous and nauseating. Methods of torture vary from physical and sexual abuse, starvation, as well as both depriving and forcing large quantities of water down his throat. He is denied basic hygiene and sleep. His hands are shackled to the ground, forcing him to stand for hours in a stooped position. He is denied the right to pray or outwardly practice his religion. He is exposed to heat, cold, loud music, and horrific images of victims of terrorist acts. He is beaten, molested and verbally abused. (242-246, 259, 269-270, 285, 366) He is repeatedly threatened with being thrown in a hole and erased from all official record. (239) At one point, a guard says to him,
“In the eyes of the Americans, you’re doomed. Just looking at you in an orange suit, chains and being Muslim and Arabic is enough to convict you.” (220)
He is denied the ability to communicate with his family. His interrogators even produce a false letter from Mohamedou’s mother to try and manipulate him into confessing. (194-195) In fact, for the first year of Mohamedou’s incarceration his family thinks he is still in Mauritania. They have no idea he is being held in Jordan, then Afghanistan and then Cuba. He is told if he doesn’t cooperate they will torture his family.
Mohamedou finishes “Guanatano Diary” in 2005. Almost a decade passes before his writing is declassified and released (heavily redacted) to the general public. (Mohamedou’s polygraph test is redacted (297-300), along with a poem he wrote (359-361). Swathes of pages, chunks of text, and odd phrases—including some names, locations, dates and pronouns—are also redacted.)
Mohamedou never meets his editor, Larry Seims. Seims explains that the Pentagon denies access to Mohamedou due to the Law of War, from the 1949 Geneva Conventions Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which states:
“Prisoners must at all times be protected, particularly from acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” (xlv)
Public curiosity surrounding Mohamedou is more detrimental to American support of Guantanamo at this point than to Mohamedou. From 2002 to 2006, Americans are largely unaware of what is happening in Guantanamo Bay. A law suit filed by the Associated Press leads a federal judge to compel the Pentagon to release a list of detainees held in Guantanamo. Seims quotes a military spokesperson speaking about Guantanamo detainees:
“We know that they are trained to lie to try and gain sympathy for their condition and to bring pressure against the U.S. Government.” (xx)
Evidence suggests that Mohamedou is not lying about his torturous treatment in Guantamano. The U.S. Senate Armed services Committee’s 2008 Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody and the Justice Department’s own 2008 review of interrogations in Guantanamo reveal a special interrogation, approved by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, that matches Mohamedou’s descriptions of his treatment. (xxxviii)
Evidence also suggests that Mohamedou does not know anything about 9-11, nor is he involved with recruiting for the devastating attack. (xxxi) Bin al-Shibh, believed to be the coordinator of the “Hamberg cell” of hijackers on 9-11, reports that Mohamedou allowed al-Shibh to stay at his home in Germany, and provided valuable advice about safely traveling into Chechnya through Afghanistan. (xxxvi)
“I was so scared,” Mohamedou writes, “the guy [interrogator] made me believe I was the one behind September 11.” (204) However, Mohamedou realizes that Bin al-Shibh is trained and already working for al Quadea in 1998, a full year before Mohamedou supposedly “recruites” him for al Qaeda. (205)
This is a complex read, and not just because of the ambiguous nature of right versus wrong in war. Mohamedou is a complex man: he is deeply religious, yet asks for Bible to “study the book that must more or less have shaped the lives of the Americans.” (176) Mohamedou demonstrates that he understands the why of his incarceration, even if he believes his treatment is unjust:
“The cultural barrier between Christian and the Muslim world still irritates the approach of Americans to the whole issue considerably.” (260)
Mohamedou writes in English, his fourth language and one he learned while in captivity. He addresses readers directly at some points and infuses his writing with simile and metaphor: “I couldn’t find a handrail in the train of his thought,” he writes about listening to an interrogator. (270) He infuses his writing with cultural references we can recognize. He compares attempting to recall a list of abuses to Charlie Sheen trying to remember a list of women he slept with. (xvi) Mohamedou also repeatedly references the popular Bill Murray film Groundhog Day when describing the days of repeated torture. (237)
Despite attempts to connect with American readers, Mohamedou paints an unattractive picture of America. Through his interactions (and sometimes friendships) with his guards Mohamedou is able to earn privileges (post torture and “confessions”) such as a pillow (297), some books (including a Qur’an and Bible) and movies. (320) Through his exposure to American culture Mohamedou draws conclusions about our eating habits (wasteful), and our love of video games, which run counter to our obsession with exercise and worship of the body. (334-335) He cuts to the quick, writing:
” The rest of the world thinks of Americans as a bunch of revengeful barbarians… I don’t believe the average American is a revengeful barbarian. But the U.S. government bets its last penny on violence as the magic solution for every problem, and so the country is losing friends every day and doesn’t seem to give a damn about it.” (339)
His writing is deeply philosophical at times. He wonders about the value of human life: “Is an American criminal holier than a non American one?” (269) He writes about facing death: “We human beings take everything into consideration except for death; hardly anybody has death on his calendar.” (147) He discusses survival strategies: “The key to surviving any given situation is to realize that you are in it.” (88) He even muses on the nature of intelligence gathering: “The intel industry is like any other industry: you buy the best product for the best price, regardless of the country of origin.” (171)
Mohamedou’s diary is a testament to the resilience of the human soul. This is not simply a laundry list of horrors committed against him, but an expression of his humanity, empathy, confusion and anger. If the government has cause to hold you “you can seek professional representation; if not, well you shouldn’t be arrested in the first place. That’s how the civilized world works, and everything else is dictatorship. Dictatorship governed by chaos.” (94) Mohamedou’s words, written more than a decade ago, are the most important words I have read this year.