National Security & Defense

Slahi’s Tall Tales from Gitmo

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The descriptions of torture in his memoir merit a skeptical eye.

The New York Times found a professor from the University of California, Berkeley, to read Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s “memoir,” Guantánamo Diary — which is appropriate, because only someone who teaches at Berkeley would be credulous enough to believe it.

From 2005 to 2006, Slahi, who has been in custody since November 2001, penned a memoir from his cell at Guantanamo Bay. After several years in the courts, it has finally been released, heavily redacted — and, unsurprisingly, garnered acclaim from the usual corners. In his Times review, Mark Danner called Slahi’s book “the most profound account yet written of what it is like to be” what Danner calls “collateral damage” in the period that has followed September 11, 2001, “a new era in which all would be sacrificed to protect the country, [permitting] torture and even murder of the innocent.” That Slahi is among said innocent is, of course, taken as given.

But his innocence is just as unlikely as are many of the episodes in his book.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was arrested in Mauritania in November 2001 on suspicion that he was involved in the “Millennium Plot” to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999 and in the attacks of September 11, 2001. He was temporarily held and interrogated in Jordan, then transported to Bagram Air Force Base and, eventually, Guantanamo Bay, where the events of his Diary purportedly occurred.

Slahi maintains his innocence, as do his supporters, citing certain key facts: for instance, that in 2007, Marine Lieutenant Colonel V. Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor tasked with Slahi’s case, refused to bring charges against him, saying that the detainee had been tortured, making inadmissible the confessions of guilt acquired therefrom. They eagerly cite, too, the order of U.S. district judge James Robertson in March 2010 that Slahi be released. And, of course, they cite Slahi’s unflagging protestations.

What they neglect to mention is that Lieutenant Colonel Crouch believed Slahi was guilty — but declined to prosecute for moral reasons. Or that Judge Robertson was the nation’s original anti-Guantanamo judicial activist, having ruled in 2003 that Osama bin Laden’s driver and bodyguard, Salim Hamdan, was protected under the Geneva Convention, a decision with which a five-justice majority of the Supreme Court agreed in 2006. Or that the Obama administration’s Justice Department appealed Robertson’s order — and that it was eventually vacated by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

That was five years ago, and Slahi is still tending his garden (literally — he has a personal garden and, at least at one point, a barbecue grill) at Gitmo. If he was so utterly, obviously innocent, why has the Obama administration — which is shipping detainees to freedom with all the efficiency of FedEx — not released him? His emancipation would be an ideal photo op for a “post-Gitmo America” “returning to its principles.”

Perhaps it has something to do with the key accusation leveled against him, and the evidence supporting it — in which knee-jerk Gitmo opponents are studiously uninterested. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Slahi was responsible for recruiting multiple jihadists into al-Qaeda in October 1999. Two of his recruits — Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah — hijacked planes on September 11; a third, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, intended to participate in the attack but could not obtain a visa to enter the U.S. All were reportedly persuaded by Slahi not to conduct jihad in Chechnya. Slahi at the time was a key contact in a terror cell based in Hamburg, Germany, and directed the three recruits to Afghanistan. “Even then,” the commissioners wrote, Slahi “was well known to U.S. and German intelligence.”

Was Slahi just, in the words of Benjamin Wittes, writing skeptically of Slahi’s innocence at Lawfare, “an all-the-wrong-places-at-all-the-wrong-times guy”? Hardly, according to Peter Finn. In an article for the Washington Post, Finn reports that Slahi and fellow detainee Tariq al-Sawah had by 2010 became “two of the most significant informants ever to be held at Guantanamo,” providing enough reliable information to “help officials chart connections among Islamic radicals across Europe.” Jess Bravin, in his book Terror Courts (2013), reported likewise:

“After he broke, he gushed, he told us more than we could process,” said a person familiar with the interrogations. “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.”

There is good reason to believe that Slahi was not just an innocent enmeshed in America’s paranoia-induced terror dragnet.

But there is, too, the book — “A vision of hell, beyond Orwell, beyond Kafka,” according to a back-cover blurb by novelist John le Carré, who, one would think, would be able to distinguish between history and fiction. Apparently not.

Without question Slahi endured rough treatment at the hands of American interrogators, who were no doubt especially zealous in the period immediately after September 11, 2001, when Slahi was taken into custody. But what he describes experiencing at Guantanamo Bay makes for literally unbelievable reading.

Those touting Slahi’s account suggest that it is confirmed by the “torture report” recently released by the Senate Intelligence Committee. But the Senate report in fact seems to undercut Slahi’s claims. The Senate Democrats’ willfully deceptive study of the use of “enhanced-interrogation techniques” at Guantanamo Bay was intended to chronicle the Bush administration’s worst abuses — for example, “keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours,” more than seven full days. If Slahi is to be believed, that would be nothing: “For the next 70 days to come,” he writes at one point, “I wouldn’t know the sweetness of sleeping. Interrogation for 24 hours, three and sometimes four shifts a day. I rarely got a day off.” One can say with reasonable certainty that that never happened. If it had, Slahi would be dead.

He recounts, too, episodes of sexual abuse: “Today, we’re gonna teach you about great American sex,” a guard allegedly tells him at one point; “as soon I stood up, the two [redacted] took off their blouses and started to talk all kinds of dirty stuff you can imagine.” Slahi says the female guards rubbed themselves against him and fondled his genitalia “from noon or before until 10 p.m. when they turned me over to [redacted].” Nothing like that is mentioned in the Senate’s 500 pages of whistleblowing.

Given that Slahi’s claims have been known for years, and that they would have made ideal material for a “report” intended to shame the Bush administration, it is odd that they do not appear there. Perhaps even the Senate Democrats knew that Slahi was prone to embellishing — or more.

Other episodes are laughable. He recalls having to spend an entire night listening to the American anthem. “Don’t pray, you insult my country if you pray during my national hymn,” says the guard “We are the greatest country in the free world, and we have the smartest president of the world.”

However zealous Gitmo interrogators may be about their cause, it is hard to imagine any American saying that. It is not implausible that Slahi spent an evening listening to Francis Scott Key on loop. But, just like so many of his other claims, where fact ends and fiction begins is a mystery. Slahi’s guards and interrogators throughout are cartoons, a mélange of Bush-worshiping good ol’ boys and Team America–style Norks.

In fact, the book could very well be written by the average Berkeley professor or New York Times columnist. It is a collection of liberal tropes. Slahi is brutalized by interrogators who proclaim that “we want you to die slowly” — but Slahi never turns to hate (though he does lament that this is not the “democratic” America he had always “trusted”). He simply prays, confident in his peace-loving faith. Being beaten by a party of interrogators for “three to four hours,” he is sufficiently self-possessed to meditate that one guard who yells accusations at him is simply “trying to convince himself that he was doing the right thing.” Eventually, of course, the torture works, and Slahi begins confessing to whatever interrogators demand, feeding them false information about people he says he had never before heard of. He says that the interrogators knew it was false but that they seemed happier with obvious lies than with denials. That would make them precisely the sadists that so many liberals claim.

Which is, no doubt, the reason why so many of that breed have accepted his account at face value. For reviewers at the Washington Post or the Telegraph or elsewhere, Slahi confirms everything they already believed — about Guantanamo Bay, about the Bush administration, about the War on Terror, about America. His book is a 379-page exercise in confirmation bias.

If ever Slahi does get out of Gitmo, he has a tenure-track position waiting for him in California.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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