A life in limbo: Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánomo Diary is a shocking indictment of the ’war on terror’
“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 a rooster is impossible … My concern, as I say, was and still is to convince the US government that I am not a corn.”
So writes Mohamedou Ould Slahi in Guantánamo Diary, an account of his capture and captivity (mostly) at the American navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. After several years of legal wrangling over its declassification and several thousand (often clumsy) redactions by army censors, lawyers prised Slahi’s testament from the American government’s possession and have published an invaluable addition to the documentary record. They and editor Larry Siems deserve great credit.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi was born in 1970 in Mauritania and won a scholarship to study engineering in Germany. In 1990 he travelled from Germany to Afghanistan, joined Al Qaeda and fought against Afghanistan’s communist government. He claims he had quit Al Qaeda by 1992, and back in Germany kept in only sporadic touch with Al Qaeda friends and with his brother-in-law, a high-level Al Qaeda adviser.
In 1999 – by what Slahi claims was a chance encounter – he put up for a night at his home in Germany Ramzi bin Al Shibh, the man charged as a main organiser of the September 11 attacks. Also in 1999, Slahi moved to Canada and joined the same Montreal mosque as Ahmed Ressam, convicted for the “Millennium Bomb” plot to attack Los Angeles airport on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Unsurprisingly, some western spies saw Slahi as a red flashing light – or an ear of corn. A trip home to Mauritania in 2000 began his arrests, interrogations, renditions to Jordan and Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and finally to Guantánamo. After 15 years, US officials have yet to prove anything beyond this summary.
Guantánamo Diary is a story of one man’s total immersion in torture. Slahi finished writing it in 2005. Today, Slahi remains in the same “segregation hut” he was in then.
Though uncomfortable to acknowledge, Slahi’s writing is undeniably charming. There is nothing maudlin in his idiosyncratic, often jerry-rigged English idioms – his fourth language – though much is wry and oblique. “You lock me up, I give you no information. And we both are cool,” he writes. Admiring the Brussels airport, Slahi duly notes the duty-free shops, pay phones, mosque, church and “a psych consulting bureau for atheists”. For a while he lived in Guantánamo on a “dead normal block” full of “dead average detainees” where some interrogators preferred “dead traditional methods”. Using the bathroom: a “dead basic right”. He recalls a captor informed him he had “the right to remain calm”. In a buzzing detention room in Senegal he observes “the funny thing about mosquitoes is that they’re shy in small groups and rude in big ones”. Slahi hated it, he tells us, when guards stared at him “as if they had never seen a mammal before”.
It would be brutal and irrelevant to suggest Slahi pulls his punches, and obscene to want more from the book. But I couldn’t help feeling a phantom second book was stalking Guantánamo Diary, one written by Slahi in his first language, with full and fluent reflections made without regard for western political correctness. Slahi is, after all, a multilingual, highly educated, worldly, one-time jihadi, a hafiz (a person who has memorised the Quran), and who once sheltered a suspected organiser of 9/11. The average western reader would find this second book a much more challenging testimony. We’ve no right to ask Slahi for this account. But we may profit from contemplating how we would receive it.
Guantánamo Diary is not, as editor Siems claims in his introduction, an “epic for our times”; Slahi is not a 21st-century Odysseus knocked about an “increasingly borderless and anxious world” by “distant and clandestine” forces. This is too romantic, however well-intentioned. Slahi’s fate was not set by supernatural forces or the capricious, inscrutable gods of our day, but was corralled by well-documented policies developed by individuals who may one day be held accountable. Nor is a “borderless world” – as commonly understood – the best backdrop. No states are in retreat here. Slahi’s life was seized by the power of the American state and the subordination and complicity of other states, in this case Mauritania, Jordan and Canada.
Guantánamo Diary does remind us much effort has been made to disassociate things from the definite and defined world. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) are now called “counter-resistance techniques” (still torture), and “manipulative self-injurious behaviour” means a hunger strike or attempted suicide. Captives are never told the time of day; they are never told when they might be released. Their bearings are scrambled. They are not defined as prisoners, combatants or convicts. They are not jailed, being neither punished nor rehabilitated.
Doctors are not healers, but judges of whether a body is alive enough for more torture. Interrogators – in a particularly astounding perversion of terms – are less practised in extracting genuine intelligence and more in mimicking the role-play of army trainers pretending to be Korean War-era torturers wanting to make propaganda from forced false confessions. A 2008 US Congress report notes a top Pentagon lawyer called this the “reverse engineering” of the interrogation resistance training American soldiers receive.
We might also do well to dwell on what Slahi reports was the constant companion to his shackles, beatings, sleep deprivation and force-filled bladder – indeed, an integral part of his torture “recipe”: the denigration of his Muslim faith. It’s hard to read the book and not consider how Guantánamo and other dungeons and black holes of the “war on terror” have contributed to the perception of general western contempt for Islam.
Slahi did eventually “confess”. He said whatever he thought his captors wanted to hear. Torture had made Slahi a Clockwork Orange – he could deny nothing: “Whenever I thought about the words ‘I don’t know’ I got nauseous.” It seems an absurd system. “You’re very generous in your written answers,” an American tells Slahi, “you even wrote a whole bunch about [redacted], whom you really don’t know.”
Since the US Congress published its most recent report on torture in December, Americans (and others) have returned to the long-standing debates that typically frame the question of torture. Torture produces shoddy intelligence. Torture is not “who we are”. Wouldn’t torturing someone in order to defuse a “ticking time bomb” be justified? What’s the trade-off between security and liberty? Torture “stains” a country’s honour. Coming clean on torture proves one’s strength. But a more basic question remains unanswered: What was Guantánamo originally for?
Guantánamo never housed the “worst of the worst”, as US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld claimed in 2002. Nor did Guantánamo solve the conundrum of dealing with non-soldier captives. It does seem particularly important that the public be able to see a non-redacted copy of Rumsfeld’s 2003 memo in which he wrote: “We need to stop populating Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) with low-level enemy combatants. GTMO needs to serve as an [REDACTED] not a prison for Afghanistan.”
A report titled America’s Battle Lab published this month by the Seton Hall University law school in New Jersey makes a chilling argument: Guantánamo served to develop new systems of interrogation, to coordinate a worldwide interrogation programme and was part of the American government’s plans to justify its invasion of Iraq. Given the American record on inflating the Iraqi threat following 9/11, one can’t help wonder whether the false confessions manifested at Guantánamo were entirely unintentional.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi himself perceived he was being put to work. “I often compared myself with a slave,” he writes. “Slaves were taken forcibly from Africa, and so was I. Slaves were sold a couple of times on their way to their final destination, and so was I. Slaves suddenly were assigned to somebody they didn’t choose, and so was I. And when I looked at the history of slaves, I noticed that slaves sometimes ended up an integral part of the master’s house.”
The book is available on Amazon.
Caleb Lauer is a freelance journalist based in Turkey.