Of the 780 "unprivileged enemy belligerents" who, at one time or another, have found themselves detained at Guantánamo Bay, 122 remain. A handful of these, including the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the USS Cole bomber Abd al-Nashiri, have been charged with war crimes and are scheduled to face trial before a military commission. Several dozen others have been slated for release but remain at Gitmo while American officials struggle to find countries willing to take them. Finally, there are those detainees stuck in legal limbo, neither charged with any crime nor approved for release, caught in a netherworld of captivity.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi belongs to this latter group. Slahi has spent more than a dozen years in Gitmo and has now published Guantánamo Diary, a remarkable account of his early years of detention.
The native Mauritanian was born in 1970, the ninth of 12 children of a nomadic camel trader. An excellent student, Slahi became the first member of his family to attend college, winning a scholarship to study engineering in Duisburg, Germany, where he lived, off and on, until 1999. Unable to secure a visa to settle in Europe, Slahi moved back to Mauritania, where he found employment in a small computer and electronics business. It was there, in the wake of 9/11, that his troubles started in earnest.
It is not hard to understand why American officials became interested in Slahi.
In the early 1990s he interrupted his studies to fight with the mujahideen in Afghanistan, swearing an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden. His cousin emerged as a spiritual adviser to the al-Qaeda leader. He studied in Germany at the same time as several of the 9/11 operatives. In 1999 he moved to Canada, where he frequented the same Montreal mosque as Ahmed Ressam, the native Algerian whose plan to blow up Los Angeles International Airport with a carload of explosives was thwarted with his arrest at the US border on December 14th, 1999. He also possessed all the skills – a quick intelligence, a knowledge of languages and a training in engineering and computers – coveted by terror organisations.
In the desperate days following 9/11 American officials connected these dots, and what they saw was not a suspect who had some explaining to do but a confirmed terrorist, a trained, committed and highly dangerous enemy of the United States.
So at the behest of the US, Mauritania rendered Slahi from his home to Jordan, where he endured eight months of imprisonment and interrogation. Thereafter Slahi was briefly kept at Bagram airfield, in Afghanistan, before being flown to the detention camps at the Guantánamo Bay US naval station, where he arrived on August 5th, 2002. He has been there ever since.
Slahi wrote Guantánamo Diary three years into his Gitmo detention, during the summer of 2005. For the next six years his lawyers struggled with the government to secure the right to publish. In 2013 Slahi posted online excerpts of the manuscripts replete with passages blacked out by government censors.
Now, a full decade after its composition, Guantánamo Diary appears in book form, expertly edited by Larry Siems, a writer and human-rights activist, and less expertly censored by the US government.
The broad outlines of the story that Slahi tells are by now familiar. The CIA's acts of torture have been well documented, most revealingly in the recently released executive summary of the US Senate intelligence committee's report on the agency's abusive, morally bankrupt and utterly ineffectual practices. Slahi receives no mention in the senate report for the simple reason that he was never taken into CIA custody. His case, however, was investigated by the US justice department and received prominent mention in Jess Bravin's 2013 book, The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantánamo Bay, which amply demonstrated that the CIA had no monopoly on abuse.
At Gitmo the defence department deployed a rich range of cruel, inhumane and degrading practices of detention and interrogation. Sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, sexual degradation, beating, stress positions, forced hypothermia: Slahi was subjected to them all without respite over the course of months. By early 2004 the abuse had largely ceased, but the damage had been done. A military prosecutor named Stuart Couch, tasked with preparing criminal charges against Slahi, concluded that he had been systematically tortured and refused to pursue the case.
In 2010 a federal judge ordered Slahi released from Gitmo, but the Obama administration appealed the ruling, so Slahi remains in his Cuban exile.
What makes Guantánamo Diary an essential read is not, then, the novelty or shock value of the story but Slahi's virtues as a narrator. He is bright, fair minded, observant, remarkably free of hatred, by all measures reliable and quite witty. Writing for an American audience that he directly addresses as "dear reader", Slahi composed his diary in English, a language he largely learned as a detainee.
Although no one is about to confuse his prose with Conrad's or Nabokov's, two other writers who wrote in adopted English, Slahi's writing is workmanlike and pleasingly colloquial. Having absorbed, without particularly admiring, much in the way of American popular culture, he aptly likens his plight to a cross between Groundhog Day and Catch-22.
While acknowledging that he swore allegiance to bin Laden at a time when the US was also arming the mujahideen in their fight against the communist puppet regime in Afghanistan, Slahi insists that after the early 1990s he had nothing to do with al-Qaeda and vehemently denies any connection with Ressam or the 9/11 plots.
Yet, in acting like an innocent person falsely accused – evincing incredulity, exasperation, sarcasm, an absence of remorse and a steadfast refusal to confess – Slahi makes clear that he only cast himself as a defiant and hardened terrorist in the eyes of his interrogators. Frustrated that they can find nothing solid against Slahi, his interrogators level accusations willy-nilly:
“I can tell, you were plotting to kill the [Mauritanian] president,” said ********.
I couldn’t help laughing. “So why didn’t I kill him?”
“I don’t know. You tell me,” ******** said.
Slahi’s refusal to confess proved he was concealing secrets; only by falsely confessing could he demonstrate his good intentions and his willingness to repudiate terrorism. And confess he does. After months of torture, during which he comes to hear voices, he offers a copious confession filled with false and impossible testimony.
In his confused state, he weighs the possibility that “I might have recruited the guy” – a 9/11 terrorist – “before I was born”. A polygraph test later suggests that Slahi simply fabricated intel to end the abuse, but in this regard he was at least successful; he receives a pillow as an early reward for his co- operation. In his sensory-deprived state he clings to the pillow not, however, because of its softness but because its tag offers a piece of writing that he can read and reread.
It is such details that make Guantánamo Diary a crucial, intimate history of abuse. Notably absent in the pages of this intimate account is the voice of bitterness or ill will. Highly intelligent and, by his own reckoning, "logical and argumentative", Slahi appears less troubled by his interrogators' brutality than by their stupidity. (He often refers to his captors as nitwits.) Still, he is restrained in his judgments and works hard to humanise his captors.
Ironically, the black pen of the military censor, which in places makes the book look like a giant crossword puzzle, inadvertently undoes this effort in a way that replicates the logic of Slahi’s torture. Despite the author’s best efforts to render his guards and interrogators as individuals, they appear before us as redacted abstractions, a group of masked, anonymous tormentors.
Today Slahi's torture lies a decade in the past. Now he trounces his guards at chess, devours nonfiction books, such as Fermat's Last Theorem, and even tends a small prison vegetable garden. But his detention as documented by his diary offers, as he puts it, a small but inexpugnable "example of the evil practices that took place in the name of the War Against Terrorism".
Lawrence Douglas teaches at Amherst College, in Massachusetts. His new book, The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, will be published by Princeton University Press this autumn