How Mohamedou Ould Slahi Became a Suspected Terrorist, Then a Best-Selling Author
His story, steeped in unknowable complexity and murky details, is perhaps the perfect parable of the post-9/11 era.
A postcard Mohamedou Ould Slahi sent to his family in Mauritania from Guantánamo Bay. Photo by the author
A Mauritanian folktale tells us about a rooster-phobe who would almost lose his mind whenever he encountered a rooster.
"Why are you so afraid of the rooster?" the psychiatrist asks him
"The rooster thinks I'm corn."
"You're not corn. You are a very big man. Nobody can mistake you for a tiny ear of corn," the psychiatrist said.
"I know that, Doctor. But the rooster doesn't. Your job is to go to him and convince him that I am not corn."
The Man was never healed, since talking with the rooster is impossible. End of story.
For years I've been trying to convince the U.S. Government that I am not corn.
–From Guantánamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi
It was a simple prayer. Every day, Mariem Mint Elwadia asked God for the same thing: She wanted to see her son, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, just one more time before she died.
The last time she laid eyes on him, Slahi was on his way to the police station for questioning, an inconvenience that had become somewhat routine back then, in November 2001. It was just after dusk on the outskirts of Nouakchott, the dusty capital of the arid West African nation of Mauritania. Slahi had come home from work and was preparing to shower when the police arrived at the family home. As usual, he drove his own car to the police station.
"Don't worry, I'll be back soon," the 30-year-old told his family. But Slahi never returned. His car sat idle in the police parking lot for weeks, and Mauritanian authorities refused to provide his family with any information on his whereabouts.
Sixteen months later, in March 2003, a 4-by-6 postcard arrived at the house. It didn't offer much in the way of details. At the top right sat an 80-cent stamp from the US that featured a picturesque mountain vista. The return address read 160 Camp X-Ray, Washington, DC 20353, USA. The postmark, dated 2002, suggested the card had been sent via the US Postal Service. In a section labeled "camp," there was a four-letter acronym penned in narrow, inelegant handwriting.
It read "GTMO."
Mohamedou Ould Slahi had become a Guantánamo Bay detainee, and his mother found out through a postcard.
"I am writing this postcard for the fourth time, and I have not received any response from you. I do not know if you are receiving these cards or not," Slahi wrote on the back. "I do not know if God will help me and deliver me from this injustice, but in any case, be patient and invest time in prayer."
At the time, Elwadia could not have known that US intelligence officials considered her son to be a key player in al Qaeda's European and North American operations and a central figure in the 9/11 attacks. Nor could she have known that Slahi would be tortured for months at a time over the course of several years, or that a judge would order his release, or that that decision would be cruelly reversed. And no one could have predicted that Slahi would become a New York Times best-selling author from inside the walls of the world's most infamous prison. But there is little about the globe-spanning life of Mohamedou Ould Slahi that follows a straight line, which is why his story, steeped in unknowable complexity and murky details, is perhaps the perfect parable of the post-9/11 era.
1. The Journey
Slahi was born in 1970 in the city of Rosso, a border town just north of neighboring Senegal. In 1988, he won a scholarship to study in Duisburg, an industrial port city in West Germany. The son of a camel trader and the ninth of 12 children, Slahi would be the first in his family to go college.
In December 1990 the course of his life changed—and one might say his journey to Guantánamo began—when he suspended his studies and left Germany to fight against the Soviet-backed communist government in Afghanistan.
"My whole purpose was only to help my Muslim brothers wage jihad against the communists who invaded the country and forbade the practice of their religion," Slahi said in testimony before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal in 2004.
In Afghanistan, Slahi received training at the Al Farouq camp in Khost, which served as a sort of clearinghouse for foreign fighters and foreign funding. The camp was run by an obscure group of jihadi upstarts who called themselves al Qaeda. As Slahi explained in his testimony: "When I came to Afghanistan, I couldn't choose the training camp; al Qaeda and the Arabs ran the camps. I said, 'Hey, I want to help.' They said I could not until I had training. I said, 'OK, I'll take the training.'"
Slahi swore bayat, an oath of loyalty, to al Qaeda in March 1991 and assumed "Abu Musab" as a nom de guerre (he testified later that his superiors encouraged him to come up with a fake name). He left Afghanistan in 1991 but returned in January 1992 to fight alongside the mujahideen in Gardez, where, he says, he was part of an all-Arab unit fighting under the command of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a notorious Afghan warlord who was a CIA asset before he eventually joined the Taliban and fought US forces.
Having spent, by his account, all of three weeks fighting in Afghanistan, Slahi decided to return to Germany after hearing rumors that the mujahideen had captured Kabul and started fighting among themselves.
"I decided to go back because I didn't want to fight against other Muslims," Slahi told the tribunal. "My goal was solely to fight against the aggressors, mainly the communists, who forbid my brethren to practice their religion."
According to Slahi, he broke all ties with al Qaeda after leaving Afghanistan. But US and German intelligence services weren't so sure, and both began investigating Slahi in the late 1990s. By that point, Slahi had been living in Germany for the better part of a decade; he had completed his degree in electrical engineering and married a Mauritanian woman.
It's during this period that Slahi had the encounters that would lead US officials to believe he was involved in terrorism. In 1998, US intelligence agencies intercepted a call between Slahi and Mahfouz Ould al Walid, his cousin and former brother-in-law, who was in Sudan at the time. Al Walid, also know as Abu Hafs al Mauritani, was an alleged spiritual adviser to Osama bin Laden, and the phone he was using had been linked to the al Qaeda leader. According to Der Spiegel, Slahi was suspected of having sent " al-Qaeda-related funds" to a man in Sudan through a business account, and he did help his cousin transfer tranches of $4,000 back to his family in Mauritania. But according to intelligence sources cited by the German magazine, Slahi " refused to send any more money after that."
In 1999, Slahi was introduced to three men who were interested in going to Chechnya to join the jihadis fighting the Russian government. Slahi allegedly recommended they go to Afghanistan instead, where they could receive training. One of the men turned out to be Yemeni Ramzi Binalshibh, a "key facilitator of the September 11 attacks," according to the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The other two, Marwan al Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, would go on to pilot planes on 9/11. Years later, the US would go on to view this last encounter as evidence that Slahi was directly tied to the attacks. (German intelligence operatives were more skeptical than their American counterparts, telling Der Spiegel that Binslashibh's statements about Slahi recruiting the 9/11 hijackers had reached "legend status.")
"Wherever I went I had people right behind me at the market watching my butt. I said, 'What the heck?'"
After that encounter with Binalshibh, Slahi moved to Montreal, where he applied to take courses at the École Polytechnique de Montréal and led prayers during the holy month of Ramadan at the Al Sunna mosque. One of the men who had previously attended the mosque was Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian national who had been living in Canada on a fake passport and would later be caught with a car full of explosives traveling from Canada to Washington State in December 1999. In the wake of Ressam's arrest for being part of what became known as the "Millennium Plot" to blow up the LA airport, Canadian intelligence services placed Slahi under surveillance but never found sufficient grounds to take any further action. Slahi ultimately decided to leave Canada and return to Mauritania because life under surveillance, he would later testify, was "not a good life."
"Wherever I went I had people right behind me at the market watching my butt. I said, 'What the heck?'" Slahi told the US tribunal in 2004. "That is not the life I want to live; I wanted to live a productive and peaceful life."
Slahi flew back to Mauritania via Senegal, where the police immediately detained him at the request of the US government. Local authorities and FBI officials interrogated Slahi for three weeks—transferring him to Mauritania in the process—in hopes of tying him to the Millennium Plot. The Americans eventually gave up, and Slahi was released.
Slahi settled into his new life in Mauritania working as a computer specialist. Then, on September 29, 2001, Slahi was detained by Mauritanian authorities, again at the request of the US, and was interrogated by Mauritanian and US agents.
Slahi says he was beaten, starved, and threatened with torture unless he confessed to being involved in the Millennium Plot.
Slahi was brought in for questioning and let go several times until November 20, when, after holding him in custody for a week, the US arranged to send Slahi to Jordan. This was a then little-known process called extraordinary rendition, also referred to as "torture by proxy," in which a captive is sent to a foreign prison facility in the interest of bypassing domestic laws that restrict US interrogators.
"Man, what happened to me there is beyond description," Slahi told a review panel years later when describing his time in Jordan. Slahi says he was beaten, starved, and threatened with torture unless he confessed to being involved in the Millennium Plot. Then, on July 19, 2002, a CIA rendition team in Jordan stripped and blindfolded Slahi, dressed him in a diaper, and shackled him before loading him onto a CIA-owned Gulfstream jet. That plane, which was routinely used to covertly shuttle detainees throughout an archipelago of military bases and "black sites" around the globe, would become known in human rights circles as the "torture taxi." In Slahi's case, the jet flew him from Jordan to Bagram Airfield, in Afghanistan, where he was interrogated for two weeks before being taken to Guantánamo Bay. There, on August 5, 2002, he became detainee 760 at Camp Delta.
For a year after his disappearance, the Mauritanian government told Slahi's family that he was in their custody, even as they visited the prison regularly to drop off clean clothes and money to pay for Slahi's meals. To this day, the government still refuses to clarify the circumstances under which this illegal rendition took place, even though the president who handed Slahi over to the Americans is no longer in power.
Among Slahi's friends and family, there is a deep sense of betrayal. "Our experience with this subject is that the government lies," said Slahi's nephew Jemal, who was a young boy when his uncle disappeared. "It just tells the public what it wants to hear."
On a recent visit to the family home, I watched as Jemal sifted through the pile of letters that Slahi has sent home over the years. Even from Guantánamo, Slahi still offers educational advice to Jemal, encouraging him to learn English, read widely, and study mathematics.
"When I was little, my uncle loved girls, loved football, always played with children, and always helped me with my studies," said Jemal, a tech-savvy, French-speaking twentysomething who has become a spokesperson of sorts for the family. "He was the opposite of a terrorist. I am sure he is not a terrorist. He is innocent."
But familial proclamations of Slahi's innocence tend to be punctuated with shoulder-shrugging defeatism, a defense mechanism against false hope. In June 2013, news reports that Slahi had been released and flown back to Mauritania began ricocheting across the internet. Most of these reports quoted Hamoud Ould Nabagha, chairman of the Popular Initiative for the Defense of Guantánamo Detainees, who confirmed that Slahi had been handed over to Mauritanian authorities. The story turned out to be phony, and Nabagha still doesn't know how he was given such bad information.
His organization operates out of a single room, lined with worn couches and faded carpets. It feels like a place that may have once hosted vibrant strategy sessions, but there is little indication that much goes on there these days. Despite his surroundings, Nabagha, who describes himself as "a militant against torture and secret agents" and is a sharp dresser, with tailored suits and fashionably short power ties, cuts a serious figure.
"We helped in the liberation of Mohammad Lameen Ould Sidi Mohammad. He is an example of reintegration. He went to Afghanistan to wage jihad, but now he lives a normal life in Mauritania," explained Nabagha, in reference to another Mauritanian who was once held in Guantánamo but has since been repatriated. "He has a wife. A family. He goes to work."
For Nabagha, Slahi's case is simple, both legally and morally. "If you have a charge, if you have proof, give it to us, and we will try him here," he said. "I believe it is very clear that Guantánamo is a huge mistake that the George Bush lied to your country and to the world.
"We are against al Qaeda and have fought battles against them here," he said, citing the Mauritanian military operations against al Qaeda's North African franchise. "We take this situation very seriously."
Nabagha has a habit of filling in gaps in the conversation with the same refrain used by other activists when discussing the case of Slahi. "Thirteen years," he muttered again and again. "Thirteen years."
2. The Destination
Initially, US officials believed that Slahi may have been involved in the foiled Millennium Plot, but the capture of another detainee would set in motion a chain of events that would set Slahi on a path to unwanted prominence.
On September 11, 2002, Binalshibh was captured in Karachi, Pakistan, and transferred to CIA black sites in Morocco, where, under torture, he told interrogators that Slahi had advised him and two others involved in the 9/11 attacks to go to Afghanistan. Suddenly, many intelligence officials were considering Slahi to be the most important detainee in Guantánamo Bay.
In January 2003, Military interrogators at Guantánamo began circulating a "Special Interrogation Operation" document that laid out a plan to subject Slahi to months of extreme isolation, 20-hour interrogation sessions, sleep deprivation, temperature extremes, sexual humiliation, and what would amount to psychological torture.
On July 1, Guantánamo commanding general, Geoffrey Miller, approved "Special Projects" status for Slahi and signed off on a 90-day interrogation plan that, in addition to incorporating the aforementioned techniques, was to culminate in a mock rendition. Slahi, the plan outlined, was to be flown over the Gulf of Mexico in a helicopter and told he was being sent to a Middle Eastern country where "the rules have changed."
FBI investigators handed control over to military-intelligence interrogators, which for Slahi meant having to deal with a masked man named "Mr. X." Slahi was shackled and put in a pitch-black room lit by strobe lights while the song "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor," by heavy metal band Drowning Pool, blasted continuously for hours. He was subjected to arbitrary anal cavity searches and placed in a room plastered with vivid photos of reproductive organs. There, female interrogators would mock his inability to impregnate his ex-wife, fondle his genitals, and remove their tops and rub their breasts against him.
At one point, according to Department of Defense documents, Mr. X told Slahi he'd had a dream in which he "saw four detainees that were chained together at the feet. They dug a hole that was six feet long, six feet deep, and four feet wide. Then he observed the detainees throw a plain, pine casket with the detainee's identification number painted in orange lowered into the ground." Mr. X explained to Slahi that the dream meant Slahi was never going to leave GTMO unless he cooperated.
"Beatings and physical pain are not the worst thing in the world," the messenger told Slahi. "After all, being beaten for a while, humans tend to disconnect the mind from the body and make it through."
As bad as that July was for Slahi, August would be worse. A military interrogator posing as a naval officer named "Captain Collins," who claimed to have been sent by the White House, presented Slahi with a phony document on official-looking letterhead stating that US authorities had detained Slahi's mother. "Collins"—who was actually Richard Zuley, a former police officer who was recently accused by a Guardian investigation of torturing suspects in Chicago and detainees at Guantánamo—told Slahi that his mother would be sent to Guantánamo and that her safety could not be guaranteed in the "the previously all-male prison environment."
On August 2, 2003, interrogators sent Slahi a "messenger" who said that his colleagues "are sick of hearing the same lies over and over and are seriously considering washing their hands of him.
"Beatings and physical pain are not the worst thing in the world," the messenger told Slahi. "After all, being beaten for a while, humans tend to disconnect the mind from the body and make it through." The messenger warned Slahi that he would "disappear down a very dark hole" if he did not cooperate, and with all of his electronic files deleted and paper files packed away, Slahi's existence would be "forgotten by all."
Five days later, Slahi asked to see Captain Collins, saying that he would cooperate. Even so, six days after that, on August 13, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved and signed a memo authorizing Slahi's "special interrogation."
General Miller decided against the fake rendition, not because it was a bad idea per se but because the ruse "was too difficult logistically to pull off."
Instead, on August 23, interrogators put Slahi in blacked-out goggles before shackling him, beating him, and dragging him to a boat. The vessel set out into the Caribbean, where Egyptian and Jordanian interrogators began discussing within earshot of Slahi plans to execute him and dump his body overboard.
After this incident, Slahi was transferred to Camp Echo and placed in a newly constructed isolation cell for the month of September. In October, a delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross visited Guantánamo. In defiance of international law, General Miller did not allow the ICRC to visit Slahi, who was deemed "off limits" due to "military necessity."
Eight days after the ICRC delegation's visit, a Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) interrogator emailed a military psychologist to report that Slahi was hearing voices.
"Is this something that happens to people who have little external stimulus such as daylight, human interaction, etc???? seems a little creepy," the interrogator wrote.
"Sensory deprivation can cause hallucinations, usually visual rather than auditory, but you never know," the psychologist replied. "In the dark you create things out of what little you have."
During this time, Slahi reportedly broke wide open, becoming what intelligence officials considered one of the most significant informants in Guantánamo Bay. JTF-GTMO documents report that he began providing intelligence to interrogators on September 8, 2003, and that he continued to be "cooperative" through September and October.
"He told us more than we could process," a person allegedly familiar with the interrogations said to Jess Bravin, who published a 2013 book on the subject. "He wrote and wrote, he did homework every night. We gave him a computer, and he immediately wrote a long autobiography. Then he began to map out the structure of al Qaeda—each name with the hyperlink, showing who else he knew."
Yet Slahi maintains that the information he gave them was not an admission of guilt but, rather, the product of months of nonstop interrogations and torture that finally led to "cooperating" in the form of telling interrogators "whatever they want to hear." Slahi would later describe this phase of his detention as the period in which he "yessed" every accusation his interrogators made.
"Had I done what they accused me of, I would have relieved myself on day one. But the problem is that you cannot just admit to something you haven't done; you need to deliver the details, which you can't when you hadn't done anything," Slahi writes in Guantánamo Diary, which was published to widespread acclaim last month by Little, Brown. "It's not just 'Yes, I did!' No, it doesn't work that way: you have to make up a complete story that makes sense to the dumbest dummies," he continues. "One of the hardest things to do is to tell an untruthful story and maintain it, and that is exactly where I was stuck."
"During this period, I wrote more than a thousand pages about my friends with false information. I had to wear the suit the U.S. Intel tailored for me, and that is exactly what I did."
According to Slahi's diary, the intelligence he spewed was bogus. "I felt bad for everybody I hurt with my false testimonies," he writes. "During this period, I wrote more than a thousand pages about my friends with false information. I had to wear the suit the U.S. Intel tailored for me, and that is exactly what I did."
Years later, when his lawyers asked him to detail everything he'd told his interrogators, an incredulous Slahi responded, in writing, "Are you out of your mind! How can I render uninterrupted interrogation that has been lasting the last 7 years? That's like asking Charlie Sheen how many women he dated."
It was just after Slahi "broke" that Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch, the military lawyer assigned to prosecute him, flew to Guantánamo for the first time.
Couch came to the case with a personal connection. One of the co-pilots of United Airlines Flight 175, the second to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, was a friend from his days as a young pilot in the Marine Corps.
In the wake of 9/11, Couch left civilian life and returned to active duty, volunteering to be a part of the newly created military commissions. "I did that to get a crack at the guys who attacked the United States," he told Bravin. "I wanted to do what I could do with the skill set that I had."
Couch took on Slahi's case at a time when he was believed to be one of the few detainees in Guantánamo with a direct connection to 9/11. "Of the cases I had seen," Couch told Bravin, "he was the one with the most blood on his hands."
On his first visit to Guantánamo, in October 2003, Couch was preparing to observe the interrogation of a particularly cooperative detainee. As he waited, Couch heard loud heavy metal music playing down the hallway. Couch assumed it was a couple of off-duty guards who did not know about the interview down the hall.
He found the source of the music, a room with a cracked-open door, and peered through strobe lights to see a shackled detainee in an orange jumpsuit, rocking back and forth on the floor as if he were a junky.
When the two civilians overseeing the detainee asked Couch what he was doing there, he introduced himself and asked them to turn down the music. They told him to move along and shut the door in his face.
Couch would soon be told that the practice was approved, and that "the rules were different" in Guantánamo.
In an interview with Democracy Now!, Couch said the incident gave him an immediate flashback to his own SERE—Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape—training in the early days of his military career.
"My immediate concern was if this is how the evidence is being collected in some of our cases, it's going to be inadmissible, because it's going to be at least coercive and at worst torture," he said.
Couch would soon be told that the practice was approved, and that "the rules were different" in Guantánamo. He became concerned that proving Slahi's guilt would be difficult if all the evidence against him had been obtained through dubious techniques. But when he asked around about the circumstances under which Slahi had been interrogated, he was stonewalled by intelligence officials. It wasn't until March 2004 that he began to uncover the details of Slahi's treatment, via unofficial backchannels.
Couch read about Mr. X and Captain Collins, the sleep deprivation, mock executions, and sexual humiliation. When he obtained a copy of the emails between the JTF-GTMO interrogator and the psychologist in which they discussed how Slahi was experiencing hallucinations, Couch concluded that the hallucinations were not a byproduct of Slahi's treatment but an intended outcome.
The lawyer determined that the evidence against Slahi had been obtained under torture and was therefore inadmissible in court. He also concluded that Slahi's treatment was in violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, ratified by the US in 1996, which includes mental torture.
A devout Christian, Couch felt deeply conflicted about what to do in Slahi's case—until he attended a baptism at his conservative Anglican church in Virginia, during which the pastor asked members of the congregation whether they would respect the dignity of every human life. It was at that moment that Couch, citing his faith, realized he could not continue with the case.
Couch wrote a memorandum to his superior, Army Colonel Robert Swann, arguing that Slahi's treatment was illegal, in violation of both the Geneva Convention and the UN Convention Against Torture. He also expressed concern that the case against Slahi was unethical because it refused to consider evidence that might exonerate Slahi.
Couch would resign a week later.
In November 2004, a full three years after Slahi had been detained in Mauritania, a Combatant Status Review Tribunal met to "make a determination as to whether the detainee meets the criteria to be a designated enemy combatant."
Despite Slahi's insistence that he had never been an enemy of the United States, the tribunal unanimously determined that Slahi was "properly classified as an enemy combatant and was part of or supporting al Qaida forces and associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners."
Still, Slahi continued to protest when he could. On March 3, 2005, he submitted his handwritten petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the legal principle that requires the government to bring a person before a judge or court to determine the lawful grounds of his or her arrest.
"I have done no crimes against the US, nor did the US charge me with crimes, thus I am filing for my immediate release," he wrote.
But in October 2006, using a podium with a placard reading "Protecting America," President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which prohibited detainees designated as enemy combatants, like Slahi, from pursuing habeas corpus petitions.
"The government's problem is that its proof that [Slahi] gave material support to terrorists is so attenuated, or so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution." –Judge James Robertson
Slahi, it seemed, was to languish in legal limbo indefinitely, until June 2008, when the US Supreme court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that the provisions in the Military Commissions Act that nullified habeas corpus petitions were unconstitutional. The 5–4 ruling meant that Guantánamo detainees had a right to habeas proceedings.
In late August 2009, US District Court Judge James Robertson held hearings on Slahi's habeas corpus petition. Three and a half months later, a full eight years after being apprehended in his home country, Slahi finally got what one might as well call his day in court, though he testified via a video feed from Guantánamo and his testimony remains classified.
On March 22, 2010, Judge Robertson granted Slahi's habeas petition, offering, via a declassified version of his opinion, a devastating rebuke of the government's case against Slahi:
The government's problem is that its proof that [Slahi] gave material support to terrorists is so attenuated, or so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution. Nevertheless, the government wants to hold Salahi indefinitely, because of its concern that he might renew his oath to al Qaeda and become a terrorist on his release.
But a habeas court may not permit a man to be held indefinitely upon suspicion, or because of the government's prediction that he may do unlawful acts in the future—any more than a habeas court may rely on its prediction that a man will not be dangerous in the future and order his release if he was lawfully detained in the first place.
Though Robertson ordered Slahi's release, the Obama administration—under extreme pressure from hawkish members of Congress who cited the 9/11 Commission's outdated and debunked portrayal of Slahi as a key architect of the terrorist attack—immediately appealed the US District Court's decision.
Slahi's limited amount of luck soon ran out. In deciding whether the US government had sufficiently demonstrated that Slahi was a "part of" al Qaeda at the time of his arrest, Judge Robertson relied on a formula that membership in a group comes down to "whether the individual functions or participates within or under the command structure of the organization—i.e., whether he receives and executes orders or directions."
The DC Circuit Court of Appeals, however, concluded that subsequent decisions pertaining to other detainees "cast serious doubt" on that formula, and ruled to vacate the district court's decision, remanding the Slahi case for additional fact-finding.
"The DC Circuit issued a series of decisions that essentially turned judicial review of government-detention arguments into a rubber stamp of those arguments," Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told me. "Those decisions give excessive deference to the government's overly broad detention standards and evidentiary claims, and that's part of what happened here."
The government has since filed a motion asking for "judgment on a limited record," which would mean that Slahi's case would be decided only on the documents they make available. Slahi's lawyers oppose the motion, and the judge assigned to the case has not yet made a ruling either way.
"In the 13 years that he has been detained, we've been through one independent hearing, and at the conclusion of that hearing the US government was ordered to release Mr. Slahi," said Theresa Duncan, one of Slahi's pro bono lawyers. "Judge Robertson sat through four days of hearings and poured through thousands of pages of documents—most of which were provided by the government—and having considered all of that evidence, he ordered Mohamedou released," she continued. "To me that is the most telling development in Mohamedou's case."
3. The Best Seller
First produced in handwritten installments over the course of 2005, every section of Slahi's 466-page diary was confiscated by the US government as soon as it was written. The manuscript lingered for years in a secure facility near Washington, DC, where, according to Larry Siems, the book's editor, it was "stamped 'SECRET', a classification level for information that could cause serious damage to national security if it becomes public, and 'NOFORN,' meaning it can't be shared with any foreign nationals or intelligence services."
It took six years of litigation and negotiation between Slahi's lawyers and the government to clear the manuscript for public release, an achievement that, according Slahi's lawyers, represents a small victory in its own right.
"One of the things about Guantánamo is that it is so isolating for the people who are imprisoned there that just getting the story out had meaning in and of itself," said Duncan, who is part of the legal team that encouraged him to write his story.
Many of the harrowing details of Slahi's journey—the mock executions, the months in isolation, the sexual molestation, the threats that his mother would be gang-raped—have been public for years but buried in footnotes and camouflaged in the coded language of declassified memos.
And while Slahi does dutifully recount many of these scenes, Guantánamo Diary isn't merely the work of a defiant archivist. Having spent years struggling to understand his torturers and the larger geopolitical, economic, and spiritual forces that have brought him before them, at times Slahi pleads with the citizens of the country holding him indefinitely to consider the cruelty and strangeness of his situation. "What do the American people think?" Slahi asks. "I am eager to know."
"One of the things about Guantánamo is that it is so isolating for the people who are imprisoned there that just getting the story out had meaning in and of itself." –Theresa Duncan
Throughout the memoir, Slahi draws inspiration from small acts of kindness amid the systemic brutality. "When I got to know [REDACTED] more and heard him speaking I wondered, How could a man as smart as he was possibly accept such a degrading job, which surely is going to haunt him the rest of his life?" Slahi writes of one young guard. "Maybe he had few choices, because many people in the Army come from poor families, and that's why the Army sometimes gives them the dirtiest jobs." (Slahi ultimately concludes that the guard probably carries out his inhumane orders because he has his own well-being to consider.)
At its most compelling, Guantánamo Diary examines the human condition with a thoughtfulness worthy of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Other passages suggest an eye for the finer details of American culture, race relations, and the US government that is reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville. That Slahi manages any of this from the sleep-deprived, psychologically damaged confines of a dark hole in GTMO makes Guantánamo Diary all the more profound.
Slahi is believed to have exhausted whatever usefulness he may have had for the US government. According to Peter Finn, reporting in the Washington Post in 2010, Slahi now lives a life of "relative privilege" alongside another inmate, Tariq al Sawah. Each has his own bedroom, with cable TV and a stocked refrigerator. Their fenced-off quarters includes a garden, where they grow mint for making tea.
Slahi's lawyers take issue with these oft-cited descriptions of Slahi's living conditions. "I'm not permitted to comment on the conditions of his confinement, but I can tell you that Mohamedou is in a prison," said Duncan, who visited Slahi last month. "His movements, the things that he does, are controlled by the US military. So the suggestion that he is living a life of luxury at Guantánamo is completely unfounded. He is a prisoner in a prison, and no person I know would want to live in the conditions he lives in."
Meanwhile, his family and his supporters in Mauritania wait for some semblance of justice, despite years of false starts and heartbreaking setbacks.
"We had so many hopes for Obama, but unfortunately, we were all deceived," said Nabagha, back in his office in Mauritania. "We thought Obama would be a radical change when it came to human rights.
"When the World Trade Center fell, I was shocked," he said. "The Americans were hurt and scared. It's normal that they would make some mistakes. But 13 years later, this isn't normal. It just isn't justified."
"Former Guantánamo military-commission prosecutors have repeatedly stated that Mohamedou has never been implicated in any terrorism plot," noted Shamsi, who also serves as the ACLU's lead attorney on the Slahi case. "The government's case against him is one essentially of guilt-by-long-ago-association, not of actual wrongdoing."
"I can't believe this, but it is true," Yahdih told me over the phone. "He likes the culture from USA, and he likes the English language."
As Slahi's case plods through the US justice system, his lawyers see two other possible paths to Slahi's release. A Periodic Review Board may clear him if it finds that Slahi poses no threat to the United States. The second, and more expedient, path would be for the US government to stop contesting the habeas case that granted him immediate release, an outcome that would be an extraordinary reversal at this point.
The Mauritanian government has repeatedly said it would welcome Slahi back, but for his part, Slahi has told his brother Yahdih, a German citizen living in the city of Düsseldorf, that he would like to be sent to America. "I can't believe this, but it is true," Yahdih told me over the phone. "He likes the culture from USA, and he likes the English language."
Yahdih clarified, however, that Mohamedou would be willing to go anywhere that is not Guantánamo. "We just hope this catastrophe will end," said Jemal, who has since taken the advice of his uncle and is learning English and studying math.
"I would like to believe the majority of Americans want to see Justice done, and they are not interested in financing the detention of innocent people."
Slahi's mother, Elwadia, died in 2013, with her prayers to see her son again, at least in this world, unanswered. Yet like Slahi himself, the family and their supporters have a confounding admiration for Americans and the American legal process.
"We love American lawyers. They give their time and money to defend someone they don't know," Jemal said. "They are people who respect human rights and represent the best of the American people. We have so much respect for them."
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Guantánamo Diary is the extent to which Slahi's belief in the inherent goodness of the American people, and his faith in the fairness of the US justice system, stands in contrast to policymakers like Senator Tom Cotton, who, in a highly contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this month, said that every last Guantánamo inmate " can rot in hell." Or Cotton's fellow Republican senators Kelly Ayotte, John McCain, Richard Burr, and Lindsey Graham, who recently proposed new legislation to suspend transfers and block the closing of Guantánamo.
"I would like to believe the majority of Americans want to see Justice done, and they are not interested in financing the detention of innocent people," Slahi writes before dating the final pages of Guantánamo Diary.
"I know there is a small extremist minority that believes everybody in this Cuban prison is evil, and that we are treated better than we deserve. But this opinion has no basis but ignorance. I am amazed that somebody can build such an incriminating opinion about people he or she doesn't even know."
Peter Tinti is an independent journalist who has written for Foreign Policy, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter.
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