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Slate’s GTMO Memoir and the Murky Story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 11:56 PM

Slate magazine has a big scoop this week; it has published excerpts from a lengthy, 466-page memoir by Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi, released by Slahi’s lawyers. In the Slate package, Slahi describes the brutal interrogation he endured at Guantanamo—which was one of the two most extreme interrogations conducted there–and he does so vividly, sometimes nauseatingly. Slahi writes rather well, and even the many redactions don’t really get in the way. It’s well worth a read. Here are the various components of what Slate has published:

INTRODUCTION

PART ONE: ENDLESS INTERROGATIONS

PART TWO: DISAPPEARED

PART THREE: FAMILY

SLAHI’S TIMELINE

AN INTERVIEW WITH COL. MORRIS DAVIS

I really have only one problem with the way Slate has presented this material: the naive reader would have very little sense from it of who Slahi really is or why he is still at Guantanamo—let alone why he was treated as he was. The material, and its packaging, is so focused on what was done to Salahi that it ends up way too credulous of his denials of his own role. The introduction, by Larry Siems, opens:

Mohamedou Ould Slahi began to tell his story in 2005. Over the course of several months, the Guantánamo prisoner handwrote his memoir, recounting what he calls his “endless world tour” of detention and interrogation. He wrote in English, a language he mastered in prison. His handwriting is relaxed but neat, his narrative, even riddled with redactions, vivid and captivating. In telling his story he tried, as he wrote, “to be as fair as possible to the U.S. government, to my brothers, and to myself.” He finished his 466-page draft in early 2006. For the next six years, the U.S. government held the manuscript as a classified secret.

When his pro bono attorneys were allowed to hand me a disk labeled “Unclassified Version” last year, Slahi had been a Guantánamo detainee for more than a decade.

Siems, and Slate more generally, treat Slahi—though they never quite say this—as an innocent, wrongly suspected, brutalized, and still held even after being cleared:

That all this abuse was fruitless is clear from the 2010 decision of U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson granting Slahi’s habeas corpus petition and ordering his release. Once there had been talk of trying Slahi as a key 9/11 recruiter, a capital crime, but no criminal charges were ever prepared against him. The man first assigned to prosecute him, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, withdrew from the case when he discovered Slahi had been tortured. When Couch’s boss, former Guantánamo chief prosecutor Col. Morris Davis, met with the CIA, the FBI, and military intelligence in 2007 to review Slahi’s case, the agencies conceded they could not link him to any acts of terrorism. During Slahi’s habeas corpus proceedings, the government still alleged he played a role in recruiting the 9/11 hijackers, though by then it was acknowledging, as Robertson notes in a footnote to his opinion, “that Slahi probably did not even know about the 9/11 attacks.” The only evidence the government offered to support allegations of Slahi’s involvement in terrorist plots came, Robertson found, from statements he made in the course of his brutal interrogation.

The reader might miss Siems’s subtle acknowledgement later on (which he does not quite state directly) that Robertson’s opinion was vacated by the D.C. Circuit. And the reader would never learn a series of facts about this detainee that are, shall we say, hard to reconcile with the image of a brutalized person against whom the United States can prove no wrongdoing.

Slahi’s case is, in fact, a murky one—and a very morally complicated one. Because while his interrogation was perfectly horrible and the evidence linking him to any one plot is not strong enough to support criminal charges, he’s almost certainly not a character one wants to whitewash. Here is how D.C. Circuit Judge David Tatel described the facts found in his habeas case—excluding, as the district court did, those that depended on the brutalization Slahi endured—in remanding the matter to the district court for further hearings:

Mohammedou Ould Salahi was born in 1970 in Mauritania. In December 1990, he traveled from Germany, where he was attending college, to Afghanistan “to support the mujahideen”—Islamic rebels seeking to overthrow Afghanistan’s Soviet-supported Communist government. Salahi Am. Decl. ¶ 5. While in Afghanistan, Salahi attended a training camp run by al-Qaida, which organized and funded efforts by foreign volunteers to assist the resistance movement. See John Rollins, Cong. Research Serv., R41070, Al Qaeda and Affiliates: Historical Perspective, Global Presence, and Implications for U.S. Policy 3–4 (2010). Although the United States denies having supported al-Qaida directly, it acknowledges that it provided significant economic and military support to the Afghan mujahideen from approximately 1981 to 1991. Id. at 4.

In March 1991, shortly after finishing his training, Salahi swore bayat, an oath of loyalty, to al-Qaida. He left Afghanistan soon after taking this oath but returned in January 1992. Having “heard rumors that the mujahideen had invaded Kabul and started fighting among themselves,” Salahi decided to travel back to Germany in March 1992. Salahi Am. Decl. ¶ 11. At this point, he alleges, he “severed all ties with . . . al Qaida.” Id. ¶ 12.

According to the government, however, the record contains significant evidence that Salahi recruited for al Qaida and provided it with other support after his alleged withdrawal in 1992. For example, the district court found that Salahi sent a fax to al-Qaida operative Christopher Paul in January 1997, asking for his help in finding “a true Group and Place” for “some Brothers” interested in fighting jihad. Salahi, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 11 (quoting Salahi’s fax to Paul). Salahi admitted to interrogators that he knew Paul to be a “man of great respect in Al-Qaida” and that he sent the fax to “facilitate getting the [aspiring jihadists] to fight.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

As the district court recognized, “[t]he most damaging allegation against Salahi is that, in October 1999, he encouraged Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah to join al-Qaida.” Id. at 10. Bin al-Shibh helped coordinate the September 11 attacks, and al-Shehhi and Jarrah were two of the September 11 pilots. Nat’l Comm’n on Terrorist Attacks Upon the U.S., The 9/11 Commission Report 225, 434–35, 437 (2004) [hereinafter 9/11 Commission Report]. The government contends that while bin al-Shibh, al-Shehhi, and Jarrah had originally intended to travel to Chechnya to wage jihad against Russian forces, Salahi convinced them to travel instead to Afghanistan to receive military training. According to the government, the three men followed Salahi’s advice and with his assistance traveled to Afghanistan, where they were recruited by al-Qaida into the September 11 plot. But the district court, having discounted portions of the government’s evidence as unreliable and inconsistent, found only that “Salahi provided lodging for three men for one night at his home in Germany, that one of them was Ramzi bin al-Shibh, and that there was discussion of jihad and Afghanistan.” Salahi, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 11.

In addition to Salahi’s connection to bin al-Shibh, the district court found that Salahi “had an ongoing and relatively close relationship” with Abu Hafs al-Mauritania, who “is believed to be one of [Usama] bin Laden’s spiritual advisors and a high-ranking leader of al-Qaida.” Id. at 12, 14. Abu Hafs is Salahi’s cousin and is married to the sister of Salahi’s ex-wife. Id. at 12–13. In August 1993, Salahi accompanied Abu Hafs to an al-Qaida safe house in Mauritania. Id. at 8. Several years later, Abu Hafs asked Salahi to meet with Abu Hajar al-Iraqi, allegedly al-Qaida’s telecommunications chief, when al-Iraqi visited Germany in late 1995 and early 1996 to explore purchasing telecommunications equipment for al Qaida operations in Sudan. Id. at 8, 12. At the evidentiary hearing in the district court, Salahi testified that his involvement with al-Iraqi was limited to discussing the telecommunications equipment al-Iraqi planned to purchase and to driving him to various locations. Hr’g Tr. at 551:15–22 (Dec. 15, 2009).

The record contains evidence of additional contacts with Abu Hafs. For example, in December 1997, and then again in December 1998, Salahi transferred $4,000 to Mauritania for Abu Hafs, but the district court noted that “the government relie[d] on nothing but Salahi’s uncorroborated, coerced  statements” to tie these money transfers to al-Qaida. Salahi, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 14. Also, around November 1999, Abu Hafs encouraged Salahi to return to Afghanistan, sending him money and two passports. Id. at 13. Although Salahi declined his cousin’s invitation, he retained the passports for over a year. Salahi eventually gave one of the passports to his ex-wife, presumably to return to her sister, the passport’s owner. He gave the other passport directly to its purported owner, Ahmed Mazid, who was introduced to Salahi by Saleh al-Libi, an al-Qaida member from Libya. Id. at 13, 15; Hr’g Tr. at 570:13–16 (Dec. 15, 2009). Around the time Abu Hafs sent Salahi the passports, al-Qaida was allegedly seeking to improve Internet connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Salahi, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 12. The government argued that Salahi’s receipt of the two passports corroborated earlier statements he made to interrogators that he was asked to assist with this project, but the district court found only that Salahi’s receipt and retention of the passports raised “unanswered questions about the lawfulness of his activities and the nature of his relationship with Abu Hafs.” Id. at 13.

The government also alleges that Salahi interacted with members of an al-Qaida cell during a brief stay in Montreal, Canada, from November 1999 to January 2000. Although this Montreal al-Qaida cell has been linked to the unsuccessful Millennium Plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, the government does not allege that Salahi participated in that effort. Id. at 14. Much about Salahi’s connections to the Montreal cell remains hazy and disputed, and for its part, the district court concluded that the government’s evidence of Salahi’s activities in Canada did not “add [anything] of significance to the proof that Salahi was ‘part of’ al-Qaida,” although the evidence might be sufficient “to support a criminal charge of providing material support” to the organization. Id. at 15; see also 18 U.S.C. § 2339B.

After leaving Canada, Salahi returned to Mauritania, where according to the government he “performed computer activities with a goal of helping al-Qaida.” Appellants’ Opening Br. 43. For example, Salahi considered creating an Internet discussion group about fighting jihad but dropped the plan after a German al-Qaida operative, Christian Ganczarski, suggested that the discussion group would attract attention from authorities. Salahi, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 13. Salahi may also have subscribed to electronic mailing lists through which he received emails discussing cyber-attacks. Two such emails were found on a computer Salahi used at his workplace in Mauritania. Id. The computer also contained a third document with instructions on implementing cyber-attacks. Id. The district court concluded that although these three documents are “not evidence that Salahi engaged in . . . cyberattacks,” they nonetheless corroborate Salahi’s statements to interrogators that “he knew about and had some involvement in planning for denial of service computer attacks.” Id.

Salahi was captured in Mauritania in November 2001 and has been held at the United States Naval Station at  Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002. In December 2004, Salahi appeared before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, which concluded that he was lawfully detained. See Parhat v. Gates, 532 F.3d 834, 837–41 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (describing the establishment of Combatant Status Review Tribunals and the procedures under which they operate). He then filed the habeas petition that is the subject of this appeal.

There’s one other reason to be suspicious of claims that Slahi is was just a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time guy—or, as it would have to be in his case, an all-the-wrong-places-at-all-the-wrong-times guy: Slahi flipped, and when he did so, he provided a lot of information that someone who had played no role in Al Qaeda just wouldn’t have had.

Consider this excellent Washington Post article from 2010 by Peter Finn about Slahi and his co-informant, bomb-maker Tariq al-Sawah:

Sawah, now 52, and Slahi, now 39, have become two of the most significant informants ever to be held at Guantanamo. Today, they are housed in a little fenced-in compound at the military prison, where they live a life of relative privilege—gardening, writing and painting—separated from other detainees in a cocoon designed to reward and protect.

. . .

By all accounts, Guantanamo has become a surreal sort of home for Sawah and Slahi. Each has a modular unit outfitted with a television. Each has a well-stocked refrigerator. They share a garden, where they grow mint for tea.

Together—and they are reported to have become close—they are known by some in the military as Guantanamo’s “Odd Couple”: The taciturn Sawah is 5-foot-10 and has, on occasion, ballooned to more than 400 pounds; the gregarious Slahi is short and slight.

Sawah, an enthusiastic painter, has decorated his place with his own watercolor scenes of the ocean and has been allowed chaperoned walks by the sea. Slahi has used his time at Guantanamo to write his memoirs.

“A little advertisement,” he told a military panel in describing the project, while expressing the hope that it would one day be declassified and published. “It is a very interesting book.”

What sort of information did Slahi provide to warrant this segregated comfort at Guantanamo? According to Finn, “At some point, he began to provide information that helped officials chart connections among Islamist radicals across Europe.”

In his recent book, The Terror CourtsJess Bravin offers a bit more detail on this point:

“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.”

By all means read Slahi’s harrowing memoir. But read it with a full sense of who this man is, why he is where he is, and why his case—and the question of what to do with him now—is so troubling.