Mohamedou Ould Slahi speaks out after 14 years in Guantánamo

FBI suspected him of being a »key member of Al Qaeda« and to have »recruited two of the men who became 9/11-hijackers«. This claim was rejected in June 2016 by Periodic Review Board who gave Mohamedou Ould Slahi his freedom after 14 years in USA’s most notorious prison. Berlingske spoke to the ex-prisoner and author of »Diary from Guantánamo«.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Fold sammen
Læs mere

The slender African man in front of the camera puts on a sad smile. For a moment he lowers his otherwise lively gaze and looks at the wooden desk in front of him.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi is telling his story about 14 years of captivity in one of the most notorious prisons of the Western world. He was released last year in October.

The video-connection from Mauretania is flawless, but Mohamedou ould Slahi still takes a deep breath and pronounces the words with extra care:

»Not. One. Single. Time.«

At no point in time during the 14 years he spend in American custody - most of the time locked up in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba - was he officially told why he was there.

Why the American authorities told the Mauretanian intelligence agency to apprehend him in 2003.

Why they sent him onwards on a chartered Golf Wings airplane to another intelligence service in Jordan who tortured him.

Why he eight months later was sent from Jordan to USA.

Why the American interrogators found it necessary again to torture him during a period of approximately seven month until he was ready to name anyone he knew as a terrorist.

»Not one single time,« he repeats.

Today the 46-year old man is back in Mauretania, and from here he has agreed to do this interview with Berlingske.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi spent 14 years in Guantánamo. Today he lives in his native country Mauretania. Foto: AFP Fold sammen
Læs mere

Back at Guantánamo 41 prisoners remain. In total, more than 700 persons have been incarcerated at the military facility that Barack Obama had promised to shut down because, allegedly, the existence of the prison violate »our most precious values«.

Several prisoners have been released or transferred from the prison during Obama’s time in The White House, including Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY) has put the newspaper in contact with the ex-prisoner of Guantánamo who hopes to be able to visit Denmark later this spring to address human rights at the annual Amnesty gathering.

»That would set a true example if Denmark stands by its democratic values,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

Before his release last year from the American prison in Cuba he managed to publish his first book with the help of another writer, Larry Siems. »Diary from Guantánamo« has since become an international bestseller and has been translated into 22 languages, including Danish.

He wrote the book on small pieces of paper that were sent out of the prison. The book is a documentation of »the cruelties that were practices as a part of the War on Terror«, as it says on page 269 in a chapter about the torture Mohamnedou Ould endured in the special section of Guantánamo where he sat from June 2003 to September the same year.

But why did this Mauretanian end up in a prison that according to the Bush administration was reserved for »the worst of the worst« in the time after 9/11 2001, when Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden became the number one enemy of the USA?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was detained shortly after the attack in New York by the Mauretanian police who interrogated and subsequently released him. When the same police department contacted him to ask further questions he drove back to the police station in his own car. From here he was sent onwards to Jordan and from there to Guantánamo.

Three years before the attack on the World Trade Center and USA, in 1998, Mohamedou Ould Slahi travelled as an 18-year old from Mauritania to Duisburg in Germany. He had a scholarship from a German foundation enabling him to study at the university.

During his studies here he read stories about the Soviet controlled regime in Afghanistan and the mujahedeen fighting to take back power.

Mohamedou Ould Slahis bestseller, »Diary from Guantánamo«, is translated in 22 languages. Private foto. Fold sammen
Læs mere

Mohamedou Ould Slahi decided to help the mujahedeen and travelled in 1990 to Afghanistan where he received six weeks of military training in the Al-Faruq-camp in Kandahar.

»I didn’t know what Al Qaeda was back then. As a young man in Germany I read about the war crimes being committed in Afghanistan, and I felt an urge to go there. I was young and when I got there it was a jumble of Americans and Saudis fighting against the Soviet,« Mohamedou Ould Slahi remembers. He adds that the mujahedeen at this point received military and financial assistance from the USA.

During the interview with Berlingske he admits that he »at some point in time as a young man was impressed by some preacher«, but, he says:

»As I got older and more mature I grew to despise intolerant people, who I have no sympathy for«.

Nonetheless, Mohamedou Ould Slahi had sworn allegiance to the leader of the mujahedeen, Osama Bin Laden. And in the spring of 1992 he travelled again to Afghanistan.

Up until his release the American authorities have maintained that Mohamedou Ould Slahi continued to serve as a member of Al Qaeda up until his arrest in 2001.

By his own account Mohamedou Ould Slahi broke off his connection to Al Qaeda in 1992 - the same year that Osama Bin Laden first named USA as the great enemy of Al Qaeda.

»Everybody who fought against Soviet in Afghanistan back then was part of Al Qaeda, because that is what they called the group of volunteers. I was young and didn’t understand what was going on, but yes, I was there for a while and I didn’t like it so I went back to Germany,« Mohamedou Ould Slahi says.

In the light of the circumstances do you understand why the Americans took interest in you?

»Yes, I understand that. But that part of their job should have been done without kidnapping me. I know that the American intelligence community has a list of people they suspect, but that they don’t kidnap,« he says.

In Germany he graduated in 1995 as an electrical engineer and the following years decided to remain in the country.

Then, in 1998 his phone rang and gave the American intelligence services yet another reason to pay attention to the young African.

On the other end of the line was the cousin of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, who was a spiritual advisor for Bin Laden and had a place in Al Qaeda’s powerful Shura-council.

According to Mohamedou Ould Slahi though, the cousin was merely a distant family member from the Ould-tribe who needed a hand.

»I didn’t know this, but when he called me he used Osama Bin Laden’s satellite telephone. I found out later on,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi who still remembers the conversation with his cousin.

»He wanted me to send 4.000 dollars to his family in Mauretania and he wanted my help to do it. I did help him out at least two times transferring money,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi who back then thought nothing of helping out his cousin.

The following year, in 1999, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s German permit of residency expired and in November he moved to Montreal in Canada.

Here, another coincidence cast suspicion over the Mauretanian.

During the few months he lived in Montreal - until his mother got sick and he returned to Mauretania - Mohamedou Ould Slahi attended a mosque in the city. The same mosque was also frequented by known terrorist Ahmed Ressam who had been arrested at an American-Canadian border-crossing at a previous occation. Ressam was found to carry a large quantity of explosives.

He later confessed to having had plans to detonate a bomb in Los Angeles’ LAX airport on New Year's Eve in a foiled attack referred to as the Millennium conspiracy.

In American custody, Ressam named 150 people who allegedly were connected to terrorism. As official court documents show, Mohamedou Ould Slahi was not one of them.

Still, the American intelligence agencies suspected Slahi of having activated Ahmed Ressam on behalf of Al Qaeda.

According to Mohamedou Ould Slahi the two did not know each other at all, and there is no evidence that he in any way should have assisted or in other ways had something to do with the terror cell that planned the Millennium attack.

However, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s social network in Muslim communities became a recurrent problem for him during the interrogations in Guantánamo.

»They speak about social animals. I am one. And it has created a lot of problems for me because they continuously wanted to know why I knew this and this and this guy. I had this European attitude from Germany: »Yes,  I know this person, so what?« But the American idea of guilt is different from that of Europe,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi and explains that from his time in Germany he had learned to appreciate the Western judicial system where the law decides if you have done wrong or not.

Legally, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s detention was made possible by the standing order that president Bush signed shortly after 9/11 that gave American authorities the right to use »all necessary« military force against persons suspected of being accomplices in the attacks on World Trade Center and The Pentagon in 2001. This included detaining members of Al Qaeda.

»This is the reason I lost to the system all the way - up until I was finally allowed to have my case tried in court. There, the judge ruled that I had done nothing wrong and that I could go home,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

He refers to the judgement passed by Judge Robertson who in 2010 found that there was no evidence suggesting Mohamedou Ould Slahi was a member of Al Qaeda at the time of his arrest.

In the summer of 2005 Mohamedou Ould Slahi took the first step to have his case tried in court.

By hand he wrote a so-called »habeas corpus«-subpoena and thereby demanded to have a court explain why he was being held in a cell in Guantánamo.

Other prisoners had done the same thing, but the American government did not accept that the prisoners had that right. After a legal dispute Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s case was tried in 2009. A decision was made the following year.

In 2010 Judge James Robertson acknowledged that it was understandable if Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s personal relations to two convicted terrorists and to his cousin, Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, who was close to Osama bin Laden, was enough to attract the attention of American intelligence officials.

But »the government’s problem is that its proof that Slahi gave material support to the terrorists is so attenuated, or so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution. Nevertheless, the government wants to hold Salahi indefinitely, because of its concern that he might renew his oath to al-Qaida and become a terrorist upon his release. That concern may indeed be well-founded. (...) But a habeas court may not permit a man to be held indefinitely upon suspicion, or because of the government’s prediction (...). Salahi must be released from custody. It is so ordered,« the judge wrote in 2010.

The government appealed the decision, and it was not until six years later, in June 2016, that the Periodic Review Board reviewed the case and arrived at the same conclusion as Judge Robertson.

The Pentagon announced the release of Mohamedou Ould Slahi in July 2016 citing his »highly compliant behavior in detention« and »clear indications of a change in the detainee’s mind-set«, wrote The Independent who referred to Slahi as »the most tortured man in Guantánamo Bay«.

The »coercion« and »mistreatment« mentioned by the 2010-judgement is, by the way, well documented.

»If the American government want to kill a fly it sends in a team of Navy Seal commandos and afterwards level the ground with fighter jets just to make sure that the fly is dead,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi and pauses.

»Anyway... They started this torture program. They call it »enhanced interrogation technique« but here you have to be careful because this is a very misleading name. They are good at that stuff in USA. They also have a law that allows the government to spy on its own citizens. They call it »The Patriot Act«. They are good at that stuff,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi. He pauses again.

»They are also good a giving very good looking men a very bad treatment«.

Foto: Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Fold sammen
Læs mere

18th of June 2003 the Americans moved Mohamedou Ould Slahi to another section of the Guantánamo prison - among prisoners and guards referred to as »The Nightclub«.

»It began with them putting me in isolation for 70 days,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi and explains how he was stripped of all his belongings in the new cell, including soap and a roll of toilet paper. In the cell was only a thin blanket. The temperature was kept low and there was no daylight.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was interrogated 24 hours a day for several days on end and he was not allowed to sleep. Besides, the guards played the same rock song on repeat with the volume turned up and kept the bright light turned on in his cell to deprive him of sleep.

According to »Diary from Guantánamo« the guards would play this song on repeat.

During the many interrogations, Slahi says, he was beaten and sexually molested by women. He and another prisoner had been joking about the rapes before him being exposed to them.

»I was naive. At one occation, a young Saudi prisoner returned to his cell crying, telling us that a girl had touched him so and so. After that I was joking with a Tunisian neighbour that they could just go on and do that to us, Allah would understand, if we could do nothing to defend ourselves. We laughed about it,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi and shakes his head of his own ignorance:

»That was the most stupid thing to say.«

Shortly after he experienced himself what it meant to get raped. He was tied down and sexually molested by a women.

»You are in chains. You have no possibility to fight. You can get raped over and over again… It is not about sex, but about humiliation. The person who rapes another person wants to control that person, destroy his or her life and humiliate that person. That is the purpose of rape,« he says.

The American interrogators wanted him to admit to having recruited the 9/11 hijackers for Al Qaeda and having played a key-role in the Millennium conspiracy.

»I admitted everything they told me to admit during torture. Any name they asked me about I said that this person was a terrorist. But every time I wasn’t tortured I told them that I didn’t do all these things,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi:

»And in my case there simply wasn’t any evidence against me. These allegations were completely made up, as judge Robertson also concluded«.

The American torture methods in general are described in a comprehensive report from 2014 by the American Senate’s Intelligence Committee. It concludes that the methods do not produce valid information and are likely to result in untruthful answers.

A total of 41 detainees remain in Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Foto: John Moore/Getty Images Fold sammen
Læs mere

Mohamedou Ould Slahi states that he is today still tormented psychologically after the American torture and at times wakes up sweating after nightmares about Guantánamo.

Still, he is not filled by anger towards the people and the system that with kept him locked up for 14 years despite having no substantial charges against him.

»Long time ago, while I was in Guantánamo, I read this book, »Crime and Punishment« by Dostoyevsky. And I’m not sure I understood the book correctly, but what I gather from it is that the punishment is in the crime itself. Therefore there is no reason for more punishment. I am a firm believer in that,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi. He uses the rapes as an example.

»I suffered during the rapes, but I strongly believe that the girls who were used to do this to me had suffered more. I didn’t do anything wrong, and I know this in my heart. Because of that I can live with it,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi. He explains that this is the same reasons he does not wish for revenge.

»My first reaction was, I admit, that I wanted revenge. But what is revenge? It is useless and meaningless. Also, I am just one person. USA is the most powerful country in the world,« says Mohamedou OUld Slahi:

»But I have found one kind of revenge, and it is the best. It’s called forgiveness. There is a saying, actually - I even think that it is from Jesus Christ - that forgiveness is the best revenge. That has given me a power that I control 100 percent. I have so much forgiveness that I can keep sharing it. Also, it has given me the moral high ground.«

After his release Mohamedou Ould Slahi read the manuscript for the »Diary from Guantánamo«. Subsequently, he sat down and rewrote the book to have it published without the hundreds of blacked out words and sentences throughout the original text that the American authorities had censored.

On the other end of the Skype connection - in Mauritania - the writer smiles broadly. He waves a binder full of papers in front of the computer camera.

The new version is finished, but there is a problem.

The American authorities have allegedly protested the release and according to Mohamedou Ould Slahi they have also told the Mauritanian authorities to withhold his passport and driver’s licence.

»I have nothing. I cannot go anywhere without papers. I can’t even open a bank account. I can do nothing, zero,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahis. He believes it to be standard procedure that the US ask the receiving countries to hold former Guantánamo detainees on a short leash for a period of time.

In his view, this is part of the reason why the US are failing as an ambassador for democracy.

»In out part of the world we have one big fight. We need a credible legal system, we need democracy. America is the most powerful country in the world. America should be a beacon for democracy. They have the tools and the power to show the way. So if USA acts against the democratic values, it only gives more power to the despots in our part of the world. The great question in Africa and in The Middle East is whether it is possible to be a free country and follow the law. Right now America is showing us that no, that is not possible,« he says.

Regarding Denmark who has backed the American »War on Terror«, Mohamedou Ould Slahi adds:

»I took notice of especially one sentence in the British Chilcot-report that came out last year about the Iraq war. It said something like this: »USA needs to understand, that in some cases the Brits have different interests than the Americans, and that this should not affect the friendship between them«.

I love the Danes, the few of them I have met; they have all been good and decent people. And you have to remember that Denmark is a small country that cannot get in the way of the US,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi:

»But given its democratic values Denmark can stand up to America. Because just like forgiveness the democratic values of freedom are powerful weapons. And you will not be against the American people if you stand firm on these values, because a large part of the Americans feel the same way,« says Mohamedou Ould Slahi:

»It is easy to be critical of Senegal or Egypt, but as soon as you are talking about USA, everybody backs out. This censorship that the USA has put upon me, Denmark can help me by giving me access to your country«.

By the end of the interview Mohamedou Ould Slahi asserts his role in this story as an innocent man who got in the way of a super power:

»Under no circumstances am I a terrorist. I despise people who attack others because of their ideas or opinions. And I guarantee you this: If I had done one single thing - If I had had as much as a parking ticket - then you would have never seen my face outside of Guantánamo«.