Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Slahi (Book Review #57 of 2016)

Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)

(I included this book as one of several attempting to understand Islam, the War on Terror, and the rise of ISIS. See list of some of the related books are listed below.)

Perhaps what haunts me the most about this book is Slahi's comment that in the US you can be a white supremacist, anti-government protestor, or highly critical of the government and be protected by the First Amendment. But if you speak similar rhetoric against the US as a citizen of another country, you risk being expedited to Gitmo as a terrorist/enemy/existential threat, or worse. There is a strong sense of madness in this book, Catch 22-style. The more he is beaten and fails to produce any evidence, the more they think he must just be cleverly hiding it, and the more they try to torture it out of him.

In short, if you want evidence that America has long since left its moorings of individual liberty and Habeas Corpus and now has a massive bureaucracy fighting a shadow war with little accountability and little regard for human life or dignity, then this is a good place to start. I hope this book is required reading in a high school somewhere. This is one book that should have been required reading of Americans in 2016 as we could have a more intelligent debate about what we want this country to stand for.

The US government never found evidence to take Slahi to trial. He repeats his story to his guards and his interrogators repeatedly, only to have to repeat the ordeal when their time of service is up and new guards and interrogators are rotated in, some for training. He is kept from calling his family for years. His is subjected to both mental and physical torture that makes waterboarding look desirable. Those facts are published openly, our government admits to them. What it doesn't want you to know, it has redacted in this book. I read this book in the spring of 2016, and shortly thereafter Mohmedou was cleared for eventual release. Mohamedou was finally released in October; back to his family in Mauritania, without charge, after 14 years.

Supposedly, Mohamedou mastered English while writing this. Though quite valuable, historically, his editor inappropriately compares the book to the Homeric epics. Perhaps it would be more homeric without the constant redactions (you can find a link to the original hand-written manuscripts on the book's website. Slahi had been a college student in Germany where he earned an engineering scholarship. He is a devout Muslim, and a Hafiz (memorized the Quran). In the early 1990s, he went from Germany to Afghanistan to fight with Al Qaeda against the Afghan government, which the US also opposed at the time. He maintains he severed his links to Al Qaeda and returned to Mauritania, but his cousin/brother-in-law was allegedly a spiritual advisor to Osama bin Laden. Slahi's house was used by three jihadis to spend a night before traveling to Afghanistan in 1999, where they were to receive training to fight in Chechnya. The US government maintains this was itself a terrorist act.

Slahi moved to Montreal in 1999 where he led prayers at a mosque, where one of the bombers in the Millenium Plot either worshiped or was radicalized. The Canadian government investigated Slahi but found no evidence he even knew the bomber. Slahi returned to Mauritania in 2000, where he was detained and questioned for three weeks by the FBI, who released him. At some point, his Al Qaeda-affiliated cousin and he attend the same wedding of a relative, which the US maintains again put him in contact with Al Qaeda, although his cousin apparently left sometime before 9/11 and disavowed the attacks. Slahi kept working as a computer engineer but was rounded up after September 11 with other persons of interest, this time extradited with no hope of release. He was extradited from Mauritania by the CIA, a move that was unpopular in Mauritania when it was revealed because it was a breach of national sovereignty and Mauritania's constitution; it cost their president an election. 

The military and FBI interrogators are obviously split over his interrogation. This conflict among multiple would-be suspects is backed up by FBI agent Ali Soufan's book The Black Banners. His interrogators always question him about the Millenium plot on LAX, something he has already been investigated for by three different countries and been allowed to walk free. He recounts the plane rides and torture of being restrained in a jump suit in which it is hard to breathe, much less eat. The CIA secretly rendered him out and Slahi reports being detained in Central Asia before rendered to Jordan for torture and interrogation for several months. From Jordan to Guantanomo.

At Gitmo, the guards would take the prisoners blindfolded on high-speed boat rides, trying to make them think they were being transferred, or perhaps just to torture them by near-drowning and suffocation. At some point, it gets sadistic because it is clear that Slahi and some other suspects know nothing that would be useful to the US government, yet they are still endlessly questioned and tortured through various means. There is the sleep deprivation and blaring music, being kept from doing their required prayers in Islam (something Slahi was deeply concerned about his salvation over). While some of the scenes with women coming in, disrobing, and sexually molesting the married man are redacted, much of it is not redacted-- the government admits your tax dollars are paying for this. By regulation, these activities would be monitored by guards and interrogators, and I guess this is what they do for entertainment in Gitmo.

Slahi is not given his mandatory International Red Cross phone call for 6 years in detention. He's held naked in a 49 degree room. He notices how his interrogators are clearly frustrated with the military as they watch Marine guards beat him senseless, perhaps out of their own frustration with the military. (Medical records confirm his condition and beatings.) A federal judge orders him released on Habeas Corpus in 2010 as there was not a case against him-- it's not illegal to be related to a terrorist. At the time Slahi's memoir was declassified in 2012, there was no prepared prosecutorial case against him. Yet, he was still deprived, held, and interrogated. He has been lied to and manipulated by guards, their bosses, and bureaucrats. His lawyers are the only truly sympathetic ears he has. He describes his Marine guards as "big babies," always playing video games and taking out their boredom on him with beatings and manipulation.

Mohamedou asked for a Bible early on in his captivity to help with his English and better understand the West. It was better than learning English through his guards' curses. Through reading it, he feels he gained insight into the war in Iraq and the West's interest in the Middle East in general. Sadly, for years his only experience with people he assumed to be Christians were brutality. His guards mock him for being a virgin until marriage, taunting him as being gay (oddly, I had a similar experience as a virgin Christian in a Muslim country and that endeared me to him a bit more). Slahi rightly notes that "Americans worship their bodies..." Only after several years in captivity is a Christian woman assigned to him and she watches out for his health and well-being. They engage in religious discussion and, perhaps the most sad aspect of the book for me, she doesn't understand the Gospel:
She explained her assurance of going to heaven, which Slahi found remarkable because even with his memorization of the Quran, teaching in a mosque, praying perfectly, etc., the Quran gives him no such assurance. When she explains that it was because she had "accepted Jesus" he writes that that's just one more work a person has to do. I know only what little of their discussions Mohamedou records, supposedly she enlists the help of others in theological discussions. But he never grasps that Christianity teaches that our righteousness isn't our own, it is Christ's and given only as a free gift, none of our works--praying/not praying, etc. can obtain it.

There is the issue of a false confession, which he gave to an interrogator who he trusted as humane and promised to help him get what he wanted. It's not clear if and when he met with other prisoners and lawyers before the government gave up on him, but eventually he is allowed fellowship and to plant his own garden with the help of the Christian woman. After the government has basically given up on him, he's given books, watches movies with his guards, plays video games and other activities that just make his continued captivity for no reason even more absurd. He's kept in prison because he's in prison. I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. The redactions cause it to suffer (not the only book on the list below that is redacted, others are worse) and I am sure someone in the US government would say Slahi is lying about something somewhere. I'm just glad he's finally back home. This book speaks volumes about an America few Americans know.

Other books I read or listened to concurrently:
A History of Islam, The Middle East, and Arab nations:
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook  (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Robert G. Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito (1.5 stars)
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary (4.5 stars)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield (3.5 stars)
History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (4.5 stars)
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 (Great Courses) by Salim Yuqub (3.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia - Scott Anderson (5 stars)

Desperately Seeking Paradise - Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars)
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)

Reform and human rights:
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (4.5 stars)
Heretic - Ayaann Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (4 stars)
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (5 stars)
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali (4.5 stars)
In the Land of Invisible Women -  Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
Between Two Worlds - Zainab Salbi (5 stars).
City of Lies - Ramita Navai (3 stars)
Reading Lolita in Tehran -  (read earlier)
Half the Sky - Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (4 stars)
Seeking Allah Finding Jesus - Nabeel Qureshi (4.5 stars)

Foreign policy/Americans traveling in Middle East and Central Asia:
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars)
The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker (4 stars)
A Rope and a Prayer - David Rohde and Kristin Mulvihill

Al Qaeda and ISIS books:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll  (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
ISIS - Jessica Stern (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Eric Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
The Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow (1 star)

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