This year sees the 20th anniversary of the Twin Towers terrorist attack, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq two years later in 2003. One of the remainders to this politically tumultuous time still exists in an American naval base in Cuba: Guantanamo Bay.
Set up in 2002, it was used to incarcerate “extraordinarily dangerous criminals”, but quickly became used as a dumping ground for anybody considered to be associated with terrorists. Its location – outside US jurisdiction – meant suspects who were considered too dangerous to free, but who couldn't be tried either for lack of evidence or because they might expose state secrets, could be locked up indefinitely. The prison camp also used torture practises that went against human rights.
Remarkably, Guantanamo is still in full operational order today – and there are currently 40 prisoners held without trial and with little prospect of release. However, one of the former inmates, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was imprisoned here for 14 years, went on to write a memoir of his time at Gitmo, Guantanamo Diary. This glaring miscarriage of justice has been turned into a Hollywood film, starring The Serpent’s Tahar Rahim as Slahi and also featuring Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch.
The early life of Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Slahi was born in Rosso, Mauritania – which borders Morocco and Algeria in Africa – in 1970 and went on to get an electrical engineering degree in Germany’s University of Duisburg. After his studies, in 1991, he became involved in the fight against communism in Afghanistan, going into battle with the mujahideen – jihadists – against the Soviet Union, finding himself on the same side as the United States, who financed billions of dollars of weapons and aid to the "freedom fighters” like Slahi. Al-Qaeda were one of the jihadist groups involved in this activity and Slahi trained in their camps.
One of his associates, his cousin, Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, was a spiritual advisor to Osama bin Laden and al-Walid was vocal in his advice to bin Laden that the September 11 attacks on America should not be carried out. When al-Walid left al-Qaeda, he twice arranged for Slahi to send money through to his family, at a total of $8,000. This later was used as “evidence” that Slahi was funding al-Qaeda activity, and US intelligence claimed to have heard him talking to al-Walid on a phone owned by bin Laden.
A move to Canada
In 1999, Slahi moved to Montreal, Quebec. When a man called Ahmed Ressam was found with explosives crossing the Canadian-American border, in a plan called The Millennium Plot, to blow up an LA airport, Slahi was flagged to US intelligence, on the basis that the two men attended the same large mosque. He was accused of recruiting Ressam.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) put Slahi under surveillance for several weeks but found no evidence to arrest him. A classified German intelligence report at the time reiterated: “There is not only no evidence of any involvement by Ould Slahi in the planning and preparation of the attacks, but also no indication that Ressam and Salahi knew each other.” Slahi left Canada a year later and returned to Mauritania.
However, on his trip home, he was arrested in Senegal at the request of the United States, and questioned about a supposed role in the Millennium Plot. After three weeks being interviewed in custody, he was released without charge. But after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, he was again flagged as a person of interest, due to his time spent with al-Qaeda. In September 2001, he was questioned again by the US, and cooperated fully, before being moved by the CIA to a prison in Jordan.
As explained by The New Yorker: “The evidence against him lacked depth, but investigators considered its breadth conclusive. His proximity to so many events and high-level jihadi figures could not be explained by coincidence, they thought, and only a logistical mastermind could have left so faint a trail.”
Locked up in the Jordanian prison, Slahi was interrogated without charge for eight months, when eventually, under the duress of torture, he said he was forced to “confess” his involvement with the Millennium Plot. In August 2002, he was stripped naked, put in an adult nappy and had shackles placed on him to fly to Guantanamo. In his diary, he wrote: “I was so exhausted, sick, and tired that I couldn’t walk, which compelled the escort to pull me up the steps like a dead body.”
Sent to Guantanamo
In Guantanamo, Slahi described in his diary: “The cell – better, the box – was cooled down to the point that I was shaking most of the time. I was forbidden from seeing the light of the day... I was living literally in terror.” He was subjected to 24-hour interrogations, force feeding during Ramadan, and no access to medication for his sciatic-nerve injury. He was head-butted, groped, threatened with rape, waterboarded, starved of food, subjected to strobe lights and taken out to sea blindfolded in a mock execution. Then, because the FBI weren’t getting the intel they wanted, they upped the torture on him again.
Eventually, Slahi cracked. He wrote in his diary: “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 haven't done anything. 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. One of the hardest things to do is to tell an untruthful story and maintain it, and that is exactly where I was stuck.”
Slahi was left to languish in Guantanamo, never charged with any crime, never given a day in court. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that detainees in the prison could file habeas corpus proceedings to challenge their detention. Slahi did so, and quietly, in 2010, the US government dropped its previous allegations that Slahi had participated in the Millennium Plot and that he knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened. However, he was still not released.
It wasn’t until Barack Obama became president in 2009 that he committed to shutting down the prison. He didn’t succeed, but in 2013 he did manage to put forward a list of detainees who could be eligible for review to release, which included Slahi. In June 2016, he had his first periodic review and four months later, he was finally freed, after being detained for 14 years without ever being charged with a crime.
His 446-page memoir that he had written while in captivity took six years for the government to declassify (and heavily redact), and it was eventually released in 2015. Guantanamo Diary became an international best-seller, and now has been adapted into the film The Mauritanian.
Salahi is now living back in Mauritania, is married to an American lawyer and is a certified life coach. He told The New Yorker that his sessions draw on his coping mechanisms of surviving Guantanamo, and asks his clients: “I want to ask you a favour, if it is OK with you, and that is to tell me five things that you are grateful for today.” In his Instagram bio, he reiterates the phrases: “Love, Peace and Islam”.
The Mauritanian is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video
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