Thursday, February 25, 2016

Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, edited by Larry Siems

Hardcover, 379 pages Published January 20th 2015 by Little, Brown and Company (first published January 1st 2015)

Mohamedou Ould Slahi wrote this diary in 2005 while in detention in Guantánamo. For years he was considered America’s highest ranking terror suspect; I don’t know when that designation changed, or if it ever did. In 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Guantánamo detainees could challenge their detention through habeas corpus. In 2009 U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson heard Mohamedou’s petition and in 2010 ordered his release. Within weeks, Obama’s administration filed a notice of appeal, sending the judge's decision back for review. The case is still pending. Mohamedou remains in U.S. custody in Guantánamo.

An NYRB review by Steve Coll introduced me to this title. It is, as Coll maintains, a “remarkable” document. Mohamedou was targeted by U.S. intelligence after the Millenium Bombing Plot in 1999, when Ahmed Ressam attempted to drive explosives from Montreal to Los Angeles. Mohamedou claims not to have known Ressam, but he was living in Montreal at the time also. After talking with his parents in Mauritania, he decided to return home rather than be surveilled by American intelligence agents. As soon as he arrived in Senegal to be picked up by his family, he was detained for questioning by his own government and subsequently released. After 9/11, he was called in by Mauritanian intelligence to answer questions. He drove himself to the police station, beginning a long and harrowing tale of capture, rendition, torture, and imprisonment.

I have been unable to understand why the Obama administration challenged Judge Robertson’s ruling on Mohamedou's habeas corpus, though the footnotes on Mohamedou’s wiki might prove instructive if one is trained in legalese. Mohamedou’s own personal diary of his time in detention from 2001-2005, from Mauritania, to Jordan, to Afghanistan, and finally to Guantánamo, though written in 2005, was not released for publication until 2013. Heavily redacted, it still allows a reader to get a sense of the man. He addresses a question directly to readers:
“So has American democracy passed the test it was subjected to with the 2001 terrorist attacks? I leave this judgment to the reader. As I am writing this, though, the United States and its people are still facing the dilemma of the Cuban detainees.”
Taking into account all we know of the successes, failures, intents, bureaucratic execution and distortions that are a part of our “intelligence” history, I think we have to conclude that keeping Slahi in Guantánamo for some 15 years is far from our finest hour, if he forgives the understatement. Moreover, it has not made us safer, that oft-recycled excuse for exceeding the letter of the law.

Slahi’s reminiscences are unexpectedly keen, propulsive, visceral, and colloquial, using American expressions to describe circumstances and characters we are sure to recognize. I say “unexpectedly” not because he is a Muslim, but because he is an engineer. It may be profiling to say that in my experience with engineers spoken or written language is not usually their forte. Mohamedou used English to write, though his stronger languages are Arabic, German, and French. He went to school in Germany, and understands western habits. He graduated from the University of Duisburg with a degree in engineering. When his visa was expiring in Germany, he traveled to Montreal to find work. Using English allows Mohamedou to address us, the American electorate, directly, and to gently remonstrate using our own language habits, and peculiar phraseology. We wish we knew this man, could send him books, could argue with him late into the night, only to realize with sadness, bitterness, and distaste after putting the book down that such things will never happen. Too much water under the bridge, we can almost hear him say.

Absolutely Mohamedou Ould Slahi should be released immediately: one only hopes that he is able to reconstruct some kind of life for himself after his ordeals. As he so eloquently puts it, there are stages to a prisoner’s emotions while under incarceration:
”I have been through several stages during my captivity. The first phase was the worst: I almost lost my mind fighting to get back to my family and the life I was used to…It was several weeks before I realized that I’m in jail and not going home anytime soon...

Phase two is when you realize that you’re in jail and you possess nothing in the world but all the time in the world to think about your life—although in GTMO detainees also have to worry about daily interrogations…you have control over nothing…you have no privacy…In the beginning it is a horrible thing to lose all those privileges in the blink of an eye, but believe me, people get used to it. I personally did.

Phase three is discovering your new home and family. Your family comprises the guards and your interrogators. True, you didn’t choose this family, nor did you grow up with it, but it’s a family all the same, whether you like it or not, with all the advantages and disadvantages…

[In a footnote the book’s editor, Larry Siems, adds: MOS adds a note here in the margins of the handwritten original: “Phase four: getting used to the prison, and being afraid of the outside world.”]
One has to conclude it may have been a crime to keep him locked up. Highly recommended.

Larry Siems is a human rights activist and directed the Freedom to Write program at PEN American Center. He worked with Slahi's legal counsel to get this document released. It has been translated into 24 languages.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Nice job, Trish!

    Your review makes me want to add yet another book to my always growing "to read" list due in large part to your excellent, erudite and informative book reviews. When time permits, I will look into the reason behind why the Obama Administration appealed U.S.D.C. Judge James Robertson's decision to release Mohamedou Ould Slahi and try and get back to you. I sense it may have something to do with a U.S.D.C. Judge's ability to order the release of detainees on military bases located outside the United States.

    Nevertheless, keep up the great work with your book reviews. You are truly a treasure to us book lovers.

    Your "Goodreads" friend,
    Shaun P. Kenney
    Tucson, Arizona

    1. Thanks, Shaun. I look forward to seeing what you dig up.

  2. Here's what I have been able to find.

    On November 5, 2010, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the decision by U.S.D.C. Judge James Robertson and remanded the case to the D.C. District Court for further factual findings, based on guidance it had given to the D.C. District Court about review of such habeas corpus cases of detainees. The Circuit Court panel said the following questions needed to be answered: (1) whether Salahi understood that he was referring recruits to work in al-Qaeda’s “jihad” against the U.S.; (2) what Salahi may have said to bin al-Shibh in a discussion of jihad in Afghanistan; (3) whether he had been asked by al-Qaeda to help with communications projects in Afghanistan and elsewhere; (4) whether he had taken a role in planning computer “cyberattacks"; and (5) whether he remained “a trusted member” of al-Qaeda up to the time of his capture.

    What is particularly interesting to me is how heavily redacted U.S.D.C. Judge Robertson's written opinion is and, further, that the District of Columbia Circuit Court (D.C.C.) divested the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals of procedural jurisdiction. The appeal should have gone to them and not the D.C.C. and upon remand it should have been returned to U.S.D.C. Judge James Robertson and not another Article III U.S.D.C. Judge unfamiliar with the facts in this case. Rather odd and may be a violation the Judiciary Act of 1891 (a/k/a the Evarts Act) that established the jurisdictional contours of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

    The essence of this man's case turns on the concept of when and how does one disavow loyalty to an enemy of the state? The D.C.C. struggles with this "evolving concept" and has yet to answer the question and establish clear, bright line standards to assist the other U.S.D.C. Judges who may face this issue. Their inability to resolve this issue allegedly justifies Mohamedou Ould Slahi's indefinite incarceration.

    Does anyone else see the connection to Mr. Slahi's curiously existential legal status and that of Joseph K., the protagonist in Franz Kafka's "The Trial"? What little I have read of both books and this man's experience concerns me because it does little to allay but, rather, affirms my growing suspicion that we, as a nation, have turned down a very dark and scary alley. It will take the work of dedicated lawyers, a few chosen civil libertarians and intelligent, well-read book critics (like your "bad self") and a vociferous population to bring us back out of this dangerous place. Otherwise we will continue to quietly slipping into a democratic "mocktocracy" and dictatorship not unlike Germany in 1933. May God helps us.

    1. Many thanks for that, Shaun. You have given all of us much to consider. I particularly like the reference to Kafka. Will need to read that one again to see how closely its philosophy aligns.