VIDEO: With a Second War on Terror Looming, a New Film Explores the Grave Abuses of the First
Imprisoned without charges for fourteen years in Guantánamo, Mohamedou Slahi is a symbol of humans' impulse to abuse power and their capacity for redemption.
Mohamedou Slahi is an extraordinary person with a harrowing past and a remarkable, still-unfolding story. The interview I conducted with him on Saturday, which can be viewed below, is one I sincerely hope you will watch. He has much to say that the world should hear, and, with a new War on Terror likely to be launched in the U.S., his story is particularly timely now.
Known as the author of the best-selling Guantánamo Diary — a memoir he wrote during his fourteen years in captivity in the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo — he is now the primary character of a new Hollywood feature film about his life, The Mauritanian. The first eight years of Slahi’s imprisonment included multiple forms of abuse in four different countries and separation from everything he knew, but it afforded no charges, trials, or opportunities to refute or even learn of the accusations against him.
The film stars Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley, while Slahi is played by the French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim. Foster last week won a Golden Globe award for her role as Nancy Hollander, Slahi’s lawyer who worked for years, for free, to secure his right simply to have a court evaluate the evidence which the U.S. Government believed justified his due-process-free, indefinite imprisonment. Cumberbatch plays Slahi’s military prosecutor whose friend died on 9/11 when the American Airlines passenger jet he was piloting was hijacked and flown into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Slahi’s story is fascinating unto itself but, with a second War on Terror looming, bears particular relevance now. No matter your views on the post-9/11 War on Terror — ranging from “it was necessary to take the gloves off and dispense with all limits in order to win this war against an unprecedented evil and existential threat” to “the U.S. gravely overreacted and mirrored the worst abuses of what it claimed it was fighting” to anything in between — it cannot be disputed that limitless power was placed in the hands of the U.S. Government to imprison, to monitor, to surveil, to kidnap and to kill anyone it wanted, anywhere in the world, with no checks. And like most authorities vested in the state in the name of some emergency, these powers were said to be temporary but, almost twenty years later, show no signs of going anywhere. They are now embedded in the woodwork of U.S. political life.
What happened to Slahi is a vivid embodiment of how humans will inevitably abuse power when it is wielded without safeguards or limits. In November, 2001, Slahi was attending a party with his mother and other relatives in his home country of Mauritania, the U.S.-aligned nation in Northwest Africa plagued for years by dictatorships and military coups. Police arrived and told him they needed to question him. That was the last time he would ever see his mother.
After two weeks of intense interrogation about his ties to Islamic radicals, Slahi was flown in chains and shackles to Jordan, the U.S.-controlled oil monarchy where he had never visited and with which he had no ties. For the next eight months, he was interrogated on a daily basis by Jordanian and U.S. operatives, including CIA agents. The Jordanians frequently used classic torture techniques to extract information when their CIA bosses assessed that he was not being forthcoming. After eight months, the Jordanians concluded that he was not affiliated with any extremist groups and had no more information to provide, but the Americans, still reeling from the 9/11 attack, were not convinced.
He was told he would return to Mauritania but quickly realized that was a lie as he was placed in full-body shackles, chains and a jumpsuit. This time, he was flown to the notorious U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, home to thousands of prisoners detained indefinitely by the Bush and Obama administrations with no charges or human rights protections. After two weeks of brutal daily interrogations, Slahi was told that he was being taken to a U.S. military base in Guantánamo.
Because the camp had opened only after Slahi was first detained in Mauritania, he had no idea what Guantánamo was. But, he told me, he was so happy and relieved to hear he was being taken to the U.S. because “the U.S. is where you get legal rights and there is a functioning court system.” Upon hearing the news, he thought his nightmare, now almost a year long, was about to end. In fact, it was only beginning, and was about to get far darker than he could have imagined.
Flown to the floating island prison in the middle of the Caribbean, thousands of miles away from his home, Slahi, though in American custody on a U.S. military base, was in a place which the U.S. Government had decreed was not the United States at all. It was a no-man’s land, free of any law or authority other than the unconstrained will of U.S. political leaders. Shortly after his arrival, the Bush administration — guided by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft — authorized the use of multiple forms of torture that it and the U.S. press euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
It is not in dispute, because official U.S. Government documents acknowledge it, that Slahi, along with dozens of others, was subjected to these techniques over and over. They included prolonged sleep deprivation, beatings and stress positions, a mock execution, and sexual humiliation and assault.
When he arrived at the camp, he spoke Arabic, German and French, and then quickly learned English from his captors and interrogators. His refuge from his hopelessness was the book he wrote, which he authored in English. Completed in 2005, it was taken from him by camp guards and not permitted to be published until ten years later, when it became a global bestseller while Slahi was still consigned to a cage, convicted of nothing and with no idea of when, if ever, he would be freed.
Throughout his ordeal, all Slahi wanted, as any human would, was the opportunity to be told of the charges against him and presented with the evidence corroborating the accusations. But the U.S. government’s decree that Guantánamo was foreign soil and thus free of constitutional constraints enabled them to imprison people indefinitely with no due process of any kind. A bipartisan law enacted by Congress in 2006 called “the Military Commissions Act” fortified the Bush administration’s position by barring federal courts from reviewing any petitions brought by War on Terror detainees to have the validity of their imprisonment legally evaluated.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court — by a 5-4 majority in Boumediene v. Bush — ruled that the Guantánamo military base was under U.S. sovereignty and the U.S. Constitution thus governed what the U.S. Government could and could not do there. As a result, detainees such as Slahi finally earned the right to petition federal courts for release on the ground that they were being wrongfully imprisoned, based on the constitutional guarantee of habeas corpus.
Unlike prior prisoner of war camps, filled with uniformed soldiers arrested on a battlefield, Slahi, like so many War on Terror detainees, was arrested at home, far from any war zone, as part of a “war” that was widely recognized from the start would likely be eternal and where the “battlefield” was designated as the entire planet. Whatever one’s views of the War on Terror, indefinite imprisonment under such circumstances was fundamentally different from the traditional prisoner-of-war framework. Empowering a government to detain, kidnap and imprison anyone it wants from anywhere in the world obviously presents a whole new set of potential abuses.
In 2010 — eight full years after he was first arrested and imprisoned at the behest of the U.S. Government — Slahi was finally able to have his day in court. In a meticulous review of the allegations and evidence presented against him by the Obama DOJ, federal judge James Robertson concluded that the evidence was insufficient to warrant his ongoing detention. A major part of the ruling was the U.S. Government’s own acknowledgement that many of the statements on which it was relying were ones it extracted from Slahi under torture:
There is ample evidence in this record that Slahi was subjected to extensive and severe mistreatment at Guantanamo from mid-June 2003 to September 2003…. The government acknowledges that Slahi's abusive treatment could diminish the reliability of some of his statements.
The huge irony of the government’s allegations that he was affiliated with al-Qaida was that much of the case against him was based on his decision to go to Afghanistan in 1990 to fight with the Mujahideen. For more than a decade — including when Slahi went — the U.S. Government was one of the prime allies and sponsors of this fighting force, using it as a proxy army against the invading Soviet army in Afghanistan and then, after the Soviet withdrawal, to topple the communist government it left in place. Underscoring this irony is that one of the first military guards at Guantánamo with whom Slahi interacted was stationed at the same Mujahideen training camp in Afghanistan where Slahi was first assigned upon his arrival there.
When he decided to join the Mujahideen, Slahi was in West Germany, where he had been given a scholarship to study engineering due to his excelling academically as a teenager in Mauritania. When I asked him what motivated him to leave his studies at the age of 21 to go fight in Afghanistan, he explained that at the time the Mujahideen was considered “cool” throughout the west, the way for young Muslim men to fight against Soviet and imperialist domination. Indeed, throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, Reagan, Bush 41 and Clinton officials, as well as right-wing members of Congress, frequently heralded the Mujahideen as heroic “freedom fighters,” and were regarded by the west as important allies.
That this association of Slahi’s from ten years earlier became the foundation of the U.S. Government’s accusation that he was an anti-American terrorist who must be imprisoned indefinitely highlighted the absurdity of U.S. foreign policy and its arbitrary ability overnight to declare freedom fighters to be terrorists, or allies to be monstrous enemies, and vice-versa (similar to how Saddam’s “gassing of his own people” became the 2002 mantra to justify regime change and war even though Saddam’s chemical assault on the Kurds occurred when he was a close U.S. ally).
Slahi terminated his relationship with the Mujahideen when he left Afghanistan in 1992, but various associations that he maintained, as well a two-month stay in Canada in 1999, were used by the U.S. Government to claim that he was still working on behalf of “jihadists.” But the court found the evidence woefully inadequate to justify the allegations:
A habeas court may not permit a man to be held indefinitely upon suspicion, or because of the government's prediction that he may do unlawful acts in the future - any more than a habeas court may rely upon its prediction that a man will not be dangerous in the future and order his release if he was lawfully detained in the first place. The question, upon which the government had the burden of proof, was whether, at the time of his capture, Slahi was a "part of" al-Qaida. On the record before me, I cannot find that he was.
Despite that resounding 2010 judicial exoneration, Slahi did not leave Guantánamo until six years later, in 2016. In part that was because President Obama — who so flamboyantly campaigned in 2008 on the promise to close the camp — instead had his Justice Department appeal the ruling in Slahi’s favor in order to keep him encaged. The appellate court then ruled in favor of the Obama DOJ, concluding that there were flaws in the process. The court ordered a new habeas corpus review, but it never came. Instead, a Pentagon review board concluded six years later, in 2016, that he could be safely released.
Even when he finally left the camp, after fourteen years in due-process-free captivity, Slahi was not fully free. The U.S. conditioned his release on the agreement of the compliant regime in Mauritania that it would seize his passport and not permit him to travel outside the country. As a result, almost twenty years after his multi-nation nightmare began, his liberty is still radically restricted despite never having been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime. His mother died while he was imprisoned, and he has a young son in Germany who he cannot travel to see.
My interview with Slahi, who I have found to be a fascinating person since I first spoke with him several years ago, can be seen below. It is part of the SYSTEM UPDATE YouTube program I launched last year but put on hiatus while I built this platform. At the start of the video, I spent roughly fifteen minutes discussing my reaction to the discussion I had with him and the reasons I find his perspective so important, so the interview itself begins at roughly the 15:00 mark.
For reasons I cannot quite fathom, Slahi has managed to avoid a life filled with bitterness, rage and a desire for vengeance over what was done to him. He has started a family and re-created his life as a father, a novelist, and an evangelist for humanitarianism and peace in a way that is genuine, profound and inspiring: everything but banal and contrived. Judge for yourself by listening to him. Among other things, he established contact with an American guard he had seen almost every day in the early years of his Guantánamo detention and then befriended, and invited him to Mauritania where the two had an unlikely but remarkable reunion.
I believe as a general proposition that the more the world hears from Slahi, the better (you can follow him on Twitter here). But particularly now, with Democrats and their neocon allies who spawned the first War on Terror explicitly plotting how to launch a second one, this time with a domestic focus, it is more important than ever to understand in the most visceral ways possible how arbitrary power of this kind ends up at least as dangerous and destructive as the enemy invoked to justify their adoption in the first place.