SPIEGEL ONLINE

SPIEGEL ONLINE

10/09/2008 07:09 PM

From Germany to Guantanamo

The Career of Prisoner No. 760

By SPIEGEL Staff

Mohamedou Ould Slahi is believed to have provided aid to the Sept. 11 attackers, and he has pledged his loyalty to Osama bin Laden. But the Mauritanian suspect only began talking to investigators after he was tortured at Guantanamo, and the confessions extracted from him could collapse in court.

From left to right: Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Osama bin Laden, Ramzi Binalshibh and Mohammed Atta
AP;Getty Images

From left to right: Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Osama bin Laden, Ramzi Binalshibh and Mohammed Atta

Hochfeld, a section of the western German city of Duisburg, is a classic, 20th-century working class neighborhood, a place of run-down houses two and three stories high, most of them badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Those who were able to leave the neighborhood have moved away, replaced by a new underclass of immigrants hoping for a better life in the affluent West.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was one of them, or at least he appeared to be. He arrived in Germany as a student from Mauritania, a thin young man with noticeably good manners. The many FBI and CIA agents who would later interrogate him in Mauritania, Jordan, Afghanistan and, finally, Guantanamo, were astonished by the incongruity between his politeness and the monstrous acts committed by al-Qaida, to which, as a result of their investigations, he was linked.

Slahi lived in a yellow, two-story building at Eigenstrasse 92. His two-room apartment was on the ground floor, on the right-hand side of the building. He married a 17-year-old girl from his native Mauritania, and she moved in with him and learned to speak German. A young, ambitious couple, they could have been model immigrants. To this day, she says that she had no idea about her husband's double life.

Slahi, now 38, is believed to have been a major player in the terrorist network assembled by terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to conduct militant jihad against the "infidels" and "crusaders" -- especially against the world's superpower, the United States. Slahi apparently knew several of the terrorist pilots behind the Sept. 11 attacks, who met regularly at the apartment of their ringleader, Mohammed Atta, on Hamburg's Marienstrasse. Students like Slahi, who also led double lives. One of his relatives was even higher up in the al-Qaida hierarchy.

Agents at the FBI and CIA, as well as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, view Slahi as a central figure in international terrorism, a man partly responsible for murderous attacks on New York and Washington. Rumsfeld, who left office in 2006, was familiar with the Slahi file, and it was Rumsfeld who issued a direct order to interrogate the prisoner -- using torture, if necessary -- until he revealed what he knew. By then, Slahi was being held in Guantanamo.

Even today, the Americans believe the Mauritanian presents a considerable danger. They base their claims on highly incriminating testimony -- including that given by Ramzi Binalshibh. Binalshibh, who was also in Germany before Sept. 11, 2001, lived in Hamburg and knew at least two of the pilots involved in the attacks. Binalshibh, too, is being held at Guantanamo, and it's possible he will receive the death penalty.

It is beyond doubt that Slahi was a promoter of global jihad. He preached in gloomy backyard mosques in cities like Duisburg and Krefeld, telling Muslims from Germany's industrial Ruhr region about the consequences their faith should have for their lives. He sent money to a high-ranking member of al-Qaida, which made him suspicious. He traveled to Afghanistan, which made him even more suspicious. He moved like a fish in water in a milieu that was home to some of the world's most-wanted terrorists.

These are all clues that weigh heavily in a post-Sept. 11 world. Nevertheless, if he were brought to trial under the rules of a constitutional state, prosecutors would have great difficulty proving him guilty. But Guantanamo is a legal gray zone -- and prosecuting terrorists is significantly easier there, at least for the time being.

Slahi's case is exemplary of the years before and after Sept. 11, 2001. His life history documents, almost without interruption, a decade of terrorism against the West, as well as the West's difficulties in finding a suitable response to it. Slahi's biography is yet another example of why the Guantanamo system has failed. Thanks to a wealth of documents, letters and testimony, it can be reconstructed in greater detail than almost any other case. It also demonstrates that Germany seemed practically ideal as a haven for jihadists, at a time when most Germans had never even heard of the name Osama bin Laden.

A man who remains unshakably loyal to Slahi is his younger brother Jahdih, who lives in Düsseldorf today. His studio apartment has become a center of operations for the Mauritanian's supporters. Jahdih followed his brother, and role model, to Germany at a time when Mohamedou was already back in Mauritania, where he disappeared in 2001. In fact, Mohamedou paid for his brother's ticket to Germany.

In October 2002, Jahdih Ould Slahi finally discovered where his brother was -- in Guantanamo -- through an article in SPIEGEL. Today, Slahi writes letters to his younger brother, sometimes in German, containing advice: "I know that you like computer hardware, but try learning a programming language like Java; that sort of thing is in demand in Germany."

Such passages can also be interpreted in another way: Choose your own path, but don't follow in my footsteps.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi gave his brother Jahdih power of attorney to handle his affairs, including the coordination of his legal defense. In the letters he wrote to the president of the United States, to the former defense secretary and to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Jahdih insisted that his older brother was innocent.

A Son in Guantanamo

At noon on a Friday in June 2008, the Slahi family convenes at the offices of the International Red Cross (IRC)in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. His mother, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and aunts are all dressed in the flowing robes they would normally wear to a family party. They have come here to talk to Mohamedou, their lost son, by telephone. The Joint Task Force in Guantanamo has granted its approval, with the IRC acting as go-between. Thick carpets cover the stone floor and light-colored curtains billow at the windows of the IRC office.

"My son, my son, how are you feeling?" his mother asks. "I am so happy to hear you." She breaks into tears, as she hears his voice for the first time in more than six years. Mohamedou's older brother speaks with him for 40 minutes. Slahi tells his brother that he is doing well. He wants to know who has married whom, how his siblings are doing and who has had children. "That was my brother, the brother I know. He has not changed," Hamoud Ould Slahi says after the conversation.

This summer marked Slahi's sixth year in Guantanamo. The once-intractable detainee, physically delicate but iron-willed -- who cursed his interrogators and complained about being "treated completely unfairly," as an official with Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, noted -- has turned into a model prisoner. This is why he enjoys privileges, including the telephone conversation with his family. The interrogators refer to his cell as a "suite," because it is larger than other cells and contains a computer and a color TV. Slahi is permitted to order food from McDonald's and shares a small tomato garden with other prisoners.

His interrogators consider the Mauritanian to be one of their best sources. He has prepared Excel tables and figures to explain the inner workings of al-Qaida to them. He has even written an autobiography in his "suite." "Slahi is a short, tiny little guy. He's got no beard, and a child-like face," one of the men who regularly interrogated him told SPIEGEL. "He is an extremely intelligent, very pleasant person and an excellent chess player."

But how did he then get to Guantanamo? And where did his career begin?

Slahi Denies Prior Knowledge of Sept. 11 Plans

The Slahis live in Boudiane, a town outside Nouakchott with streets out of sand and power-lines forming wild patterns above houses out of clay. Children are playing football with bare feet, piled-up bricks are serving as goals. The Slahi's dwelling bears the number A 158. A tent covers the courtyard, and goats walk around freely. Mohamedou Ould Slahi lived in a bare room with two windows facing the courtyard and mattresses leaning against the wall.

Mohamedou's father, a camel dealer, taught his son to read the Koran. "He was the only one who knew the Koran by heart at an early age," his mother says. As a youth, soccer was Slahi's passion, and he gave the boys in the neighborhood the names of German national team players, like Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Pierre Littbarski. Hans-Peter Briegel was his favorite. "We have always rooted for the Germans during international matches," his brother Jahdih says.

After completing his high-school education with an emphasis on mathematics, Slahi applied for a scholarship with the Carl Duisberg Society in Germany. He was one of four candidates accepted out of a total of 40 applicants.

Slahi boarded a plane for Germany on a Friday in the late summer of 1988. He was the first family member to attend a university -- abroad, no less -- and the first to travel on an airplane. Distraught by the departure of her favorite son, his mother's goodbye was so tearful that Mohamedou briefly hesitated before getting on his flight. In the end, the others convinced him to go. "He was supposed to save us financially," his brother Jahdih says today. Soccer, he explains, was an important reason Slahi decided to go to Germany -- first to Essen and later to nearby Duisburg.

Slahi was an eager student. He completed a language course and preparatory courses for university study. He enrolled in Duisburg's Mercator University for the 1990-91 winter semester. When he returned home for a visit in the summer of 1991, he brought his younger brothers and nephews remote-controlled toy cars, cameras and soccer balls. Suddenly he was the rich uncle from the West. Everyone admired him.

He was then 21, and that summer he married 17-year-old Wafa Bent-Sief. She lives in Nouakchott today, with her second husband, and still speaks German fluently. She says she and Slahi met when he approached her on the street. A few weeks after the wedding, Slahi returned to Germany. In 1995, the year he completed his final examinations, she moved to Germany to join him. The couple visited Duisburg's Taqwa Mosque regularly, says Wafa, "but he was there much more often than I was."

Slahi must have been well into living a double life by then. But his former wife says that he never told her anything about his other life, nor did she notice anything peculiar.

From his early days as a student, Slahi was known in the mosques in Duisburg and Krefeld. Karim Mehdi, a Moroccan, told interrogators that Slahi recruited people for the war against the infidels. Mehdi, 41, studied chemistry and was part of the Duisburg group associated with Slahi.

Mehdi has been in prison since 2003 in France, where he was sentenced to nine years for planning an attack on a vacation complex on the island of La Réunion. The first witness to incriminate Slahi, Mehdi told investigators that Mohamedou recruited him for the jihad and encouraged him to travel to Afghanistan. He says that he saw Slahi in the training camps there twice, in 1990 and 1992. After the second time, the two men returned to Germany together.

Mehdi is not the only terrorist to have mentioned Slahi's name during questioning. No one's testimony has been more damaging to him than that of Ramzi Binalshibh. A Yemenite, Binalshibh lived in the infamous Marienstrasse apartment with Mohammed Atta and was one of the students who, while in the West, learned to fundamentally hate the West. He would have liked to be among the 19 terrorists who hijacked the jets in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001. He applied for a US visa at the American Embassy in Berlin three times, and each time his application was denied. Instead, he was left to play the role of intermediary between the Sept. 11 terrorists and the al-Qaida leadership in Afghanistan.

Binalshibh was arrested in Karachi in September 2002. He is currently involved in pre-trial hearings before the military judges at Guantanamo and, if convicted at trial, he could face the death penalty.

If what Binalshibh told his interrogators is true, the Twin Towers may not have come down without Slahi, and 2,973 people may not have been murdered on that day.

According to Binalshibh, Mohammed Atta and the other suicide attackers from Germany had originally planned to travel to Chechnya to join the Muslims there in their struggle against the Russian army. Instead, Slahi invited them to travel to Afghanistan during a meeting in Duisburg with two of the later suicide pilots, Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi.

Why would Binalshibh have fabricated the story? On the other hand, don't people like him say all kinds of things, when tortured, to trick their interrogators?

The German investigators familiar with the history leading up to the 9/11 attacks are more cautious in their assessment of Slahi's position within al-Qaida. They say that Binalshibh's statements about Slahi recruiting the attackers has "legend status," and that none of their information supports his assertions.

Slahi himself vehemently denies having known about Sept. 11 ahead of time.

Responding to a tip from their American counterparts, the German intelligence agencies began observing Slahi and his Duisburg associates back in 1998. While following an al-Qaida member in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the Americans became aware of money transfers that were processed through a Düsseldorf branch of Citibank, and they conjectured that the funds could be "al-Qaida related."

The account at Citibank belonged to Slahi, who by then had established a company with 50,000 deutsche marks in seed capital. The company, Ould Slahi GmbH, an "importer of textiles and non-precious metals," was registered with the Essen Municipal Court on April 2, 1998. According to the entry in the German commercial register, Slahi's new firm was involved in the "export of all manner of electronic devices."

The al-Qaida man in Khartoum was Abu Hafs al-Mauretani, a cousin of Slahi's who was believed to have headed al-Qaida's religious committee.

At the end of 1998, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, began monitoring Slahi's accounts under a program code-named "cashier." But the effort yielded little valuable information. Slahi later said that his cousin had asked him for money, and that he had helped him twice, including a transfer of 8,000 deutsche marks in December 1998, but had refused to send any more money after that.

On Nov. 26, 1999, just as the Hamburg group was en route to Afghanistan to be initiated as future pilots in the attack on the United States, Slahi left Germany. He traveled to Canada, officially to attend courses in Montreal. He told his wife that he was going to search for a job and an apartment for the two of them. But Slahi had a different explanation for the trip when he was later questioned. He said that he had felt observed in Germany and Mauritania, and that this had made him want to move to a free country.

But Canadian intelligence agents also kept Slahi under surveillance. They suspected him of trying to establish contact with an Algerian terrorist organization known as the Armed Islamic Group. Ahmed Ressam, arrested at a US-Canadian border crossing on Dec. 14, 1999, was believed to have been a member of the group. More than 50 kilograms of bomb-making components, intended for an attack on the Los Angeles airport, were found in the trunk of his car.

Ressam became a key witness. In court, he testified he had received his marching orders for the planned attack from a Mauritanian man: Slahi.

Regardless whether it was Karim Mehdi, Ramzi Binalshibh, Abu Hafs or Ressam, Shahi seemed to know them all.

But was he really involved in the "millennium conspiracy," as Ressam claims?

'Everyone Wanted a Piece of Slahi'

Unlike their US counterparts, German intelligence agents tend to take a more sober view of Slahi. A classified report states: "According to the outcome of the investigations, there is not only no evidence of any involvement by Ould Slahi in the planning and preparation of the attacks, but also no indication that Ressam and Ould Slahi knew each other."

Apparently the American and Canadian authorities had also failed to collect enough incriminating evidence against Slahi by early 2000. Astonishingly, after Ressam's arrest Slahi was permitted to leave Canada without further ado. However, he was taken into custody during a stopover in Senegal, where he was questioned about the thwarted Los Angeles attack and then released. He told his wife that he wanted her to know that he had never had and would never have anything to do with attacks in which women or children could be killed.

It sounded like a decision that had been reached after careful deliberation.

In May 2000, Slahi and his wife left Duisburg and returned to Mauritania, where he took a job with an Internet company, and where they lived with his family. But he remained in contact with friends in Germany, as evidenced by e-mails found on the hard drive of his computer that SPIEGEL has obtained.

On Dec. 31, 2000, a "Brother Ibrahim" from Germany wrote to him: "May Allah forgive us." Ibrahim's real name is Christian Ganczarski, a Muslim convert. Ganczarski, together with Mehdi, the Moroccan, and Slahi, the Mauritanian, formed the core of the Duisburg group.

Ganczarski is the man who received a call from Djerba in April 2002. The man calling him was the assassin who, a short time later, would use 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) of liquid gas to incinerate a synagogue on the Tunisian island. He asked the German for his blessing. "Go in peace, and may God's mercy and blessing be with you," Ganczarski told him. Seventy-seven minutes later, 21 people died on Djerba, including 14 German tourists.

In May 2001, shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks, there was a spike in traffic on Slahi's Web site. "It is possible that he used it as a message board, although we cannot say this with certainty," says Guido Rudolphi of Netmon, a Swiss Internet monitoring service, which analyzed the Web site.

Slahi was knowledgeable when it came to software and hardware. His job was to install Internet lines in many Mauritanian towns and villages. He even installed an Internet connection in the presidential palace in Nouakchott.

Then his marriage with Wafa fell apart, and she obtained a divorce in April 2001. Two months later, Slahi married his cousin Zara, a dark-haired, 17-year-old girl with soft features and a fondness for large amounts of jewelry. Sitting in a living room with thick, red carpets Zara, who lives with her parents today, says: "My husband is no terrorist. He never indicated to me that he had anything to do with these people." She says that on Sept. 11, her husband spent hours glued to the TV with her, unable to look away. "But he said nothing to me then, nothing at all," she explains.

Abducted and Tortured

Slahi was in the shower when the Mauritanian police came to his house at 5 p.m. on Nov. 20, 2001. It was Ramadan, and Slahi had just returned home from work. The policemen asked him to go to the station with them. Slahi left his house wearing a darrah, the traditional Mauritania robe, and holding his reading glasses in his hand. "Don't worry," he said to his mother, "I'll be right back." But he never returned.

He got into his gray Nissan and followed the officers' car. He was even not arrested, the police had been questioning him several times before already. But this time it was serious.

Slahi was questioned for seven days, by Mauritanian officers and by the FBI. On the eighth day, the Americans flew the prisoner to Jordan with the consent of the Mauritanian government. Jordan is notorious for torturing prisoners on behalf of the CIA, allowing American agents to keep their hands clean.

On July 19, 2002, Slahi was flown from Jordan to Afghanistan on a Gulfstream jet with the tail number N379P, an aircraft that was routinely used as a "torture taxi." In August 2002, the military took him to Guantanamo. As he was being driven to the detainee camp there, he saw concrete bollards inscribed, in capital letters, with the phrase: "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom."

The Mauritanian was tight-lipped, self-confident and incorrigible. He seemed like a fanatic.

In August 2002, an investigator with the Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF), a Pentagon investigation unit set up specifically for Camp Delta, received orders to question Slahi and prepare an indictment against him. "We were told that Slahi was one of our most important cases," Britt Mallow, the former head of the CITF, told SPIEGEL. Mallow assembled a team and examined the evidence. "In the end, the only stuff we had was material from intelligence agencies -- and that stuff couldn't be used in court," says the former chief investigator.

In September 2002, two members of the BND and one member of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's foreign and domestic intelligence agencies, were granted access to Slahi. They gave up after 90 minutes. According to the classified BND interrogation report, Slahi "attempted to provoke the interrogators with critical comments." The Office for the Protection of the Constitution agent coolly remarked that Slahi "said nothing that we didn't already know."

The American military and intelligence teams have a different interrogation system, in which detainees face questioning by various teams. These include, in addition to Pentagon investigators, FBI agents and members of the Joint Task Force, the hard-boiled military intelligence unit. "Everyone wanted a piece of Slahi," says Mallow.

The various investigators' powers and responsibilities are clearly delineated, at least in theory. The military police and FBI agents perform straightforward criminal investigation work, the basis for any indictment. The Joint Task Force, on the other hand, is responsible for obtaining intelligence-related information. The head of the unit, at the time, was General Geoffrey Miller -- the man who, a short time later, would be allowed to apply his inhumane methods at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, until the now-infamous images of naked prisoners on leashes triggered a worldwide scandal.

The FBI agents used a good cop, bad cop approach when questioning Slahi. One agent, a man with shoulder-length hair who had memorized the first few verses of the Koran, managed to gain Slahi's confidence. But then the FBI was taken off the case and it was turned over to the Joint Task Force agents.

Mallow, the former CITF chief, discovered, in a roundabout way, that "special interrogation methods" were about to be applied with Slahi. He knew what this meant, and he knew that the information extracted from prisoners using these methods is considered unreliable. "We were concerned that we would forfeit all chances of prosecuting Slahi if they used those tactics on him," says Mallow, who immediately told his supervisor about his concerns.

What happened next is worth noting. Members of the military police sent an e-mail to William Haynes, one of the closest advisors to then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld in the Defense Department. They warned that torture could jeopardize an indictment against Slahi, because courts can throw out evidence extracted under torture.

But their concerns were ignored, and on May 22, 2003, the case was handed over to the intelligence agents. On July 1, General Miller approved an interrogation plan intended to put the obstinate prisoner in his place. This included placing a hood over Slahi's head and forcing him to board a helicopter, so that he would believe that he was being taken to a different, even more horrible place where, as agents whispered darkly, "the rules are different."

Miller's plan also included 15-hour interrogation sessions with sleep deprivation, followed by a four-hour rest period. Another method described in a report released by the US Justice Department in June 2008 was to subject the prisoner to constant loud noise, to "destroy Slahi's concentration and make him afraid."

On July 17, the soldiers forced Slahi to strip down to his underwear. They mocked him for not having produced any children despite his two marriages, insinuating that he was lacking in sexual prowess, and they showed him pictures of naked women. When US officials later questioned him about detention conditions, Slahi told them two female soldiers had stimulated him sexually.

Camp officials sent a man to Slahi's cell who identified himself as "Navy Captain Collins" from the White House. In reality, the man headed a team at Guantanamo that specialized in "highly valuable prisoners." The bogus captain showed Slahi a fake letter with the words "Director of Intelligence of the US Army" on the letterhead. According to the letter, Slahi's mother was questioned because her son had been so uncooperative, and there was a chance that she too would be sent to Guantanamo. Collins also told Slahi that if he continued to refuse to cooperate, he would "disappear into a dark hole."

'The Man with the Most Blood on His Hands'

The longer the prisoner resisted the interrogation techniques, the more the agents became convinced that he was a major figure within al-Qaida. Rumsfeld was eventually told about the Mauritanian and, on Aug. 13, 2003, he personally approved more severe interrogation methods.

Rumsfeld's approval gave confidence to the interrogators. Less than two weeks later, on Aug. 25, several soldiers picked up Slahi from his cell in Camp Delta and placed isolation goggles on his head, causing him to lose his sense of orientation. He was then taken out to sea in a boat. Making sure the prisoner could overhear them, the agents on the boat said Slahi was about to be executed and made to disappear. He was so terrified that he urinated in his pants.

Fourteen days later, Slahi finally capitulated and asked to speak with Captain Collins. The fake captain later told an investigative panel how prisoner No. 760 justified his change of heart: "He told his guard that he wanted to speak with Captain Collins because he was not willing to protect others to the detriment of his family and himself."

Slahi's weakness was not the violence of the blows. His Achilles' heel was his mother.

A Rich Source

A document from Guantanamo describes Slahi as the single most productive source on al-Qaida in Europe of all the detainees questioned. One agent said that Slahi explained al-Qaida's global structure to him. "After he gave up, he just wouldn't stop talking," says another agent. "He told us far more than we could process. We even gave him a computer and homework."

His account reached back into the history of the jihad, as far back as 1990. Slahi, a student in Duisburg at the time, had just traveled to Afghanistan. There, he spent six weeks in the Faruq training camp, learning to use assault rifles and bazookas. He also told his interrogators that he spent 10 weeks fighting alongside the mjuahedeen.

The interrogators accused him of having traveled to Afghanistan again in 1992, where he fought in an artillery unit in Gardiz. "That is correct," Slahi replied. He also admitted that he recruited more fighters after returning to Germany. But then, he added, he was married, enrolled in the university and his life had changed.

The interrogators were most interested in what Slahi had to say about the origins of the Sept. 11 attacks. If they could prove that he had supported the suicide pilots, he could face the death penalty.

According to Ramzi Binalshibh's version, a sympathizer gave the Hamburg group the Mauritanian's telephone number while they were traveling on a train, and suggested that they contact him. In the fall of 1999, the three men -- Binalshibh, Ziad Jarrah, a Lebanese, and Marwan al-Shehhi -- apparently took a train to Duisburg. Slahi picked them up from the train station and advised them to travel to Afghanistan via Pakistan. Two weeks later, as Binalshibh claims, the three men paid another visit to the Mauritanian, and Slahi gave them addresses in Pakistan.

"You say that you had no advance knowledge of the plans before Sept. 11?" an interrogator asked Slahi in December 2005. "You hadn't even heard any rumors?"

"That's correct," Slahi replied, energetically repeating that he did not arranged for the suicide pilots to travel to Afghanistan.

Slahi may be a rich source, but Binalshibh's testimony is completely at odds with his statements.

When Slahi's US attorney, Sylvia Royce, asked him how many times he had to submit to questioning and what he had told his interrogators, he replied: "How can I remember the details? The last seven years were a single, uninterrupted interrogation. Asking me to remember individual statements today is like asking Charlie Sheen how many women he has slept with." In a letter from November 2006, he wrote: "I said yes to every accusation the interrogators leveled at me."

A District Attorney's Doubts

Stuart Couch is a former navy pilot, like US Republican presidential candidate John McCain. After retiring from the military nine years ago, he worked as an attorney. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, he volunteered to work at the Pentagon. He is a patriotic man who wants to serve his country, and he's by no means a liberal. He voted for George W. Bush, even when he ran for a second term, when Guantanamo existed, there was a war against terrorism and the president's mistakes had become more widely known. Couch is the prototype of a white, conservative America that, after 2001, divided the world into good and evil.

When he was assigned to the job of prosecutor in the Slahi case, one of his colleagues congratulated him, telling Couch: "You got one of the most important cases of all."

Couch has a personal reason for returning to the military. He lost a good friend on Sept. 11 -- Michael Horrocks, the pilot of the plane that crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. that morning.

It was a sunny fall day in October 2003 when Couch flew to Guantanamo for the first time. After his arrival, he was taken to one of the interrogation rooms, where he waited for the prisoner. He looked around. Everything was new to him, and he saw something he didn't like.

A bearded man in orange overalls was sitting in the far corner of the opposite cell. His arms were tied together and pressed against his legs. The cell was filled with ear-splitting noise, the music of the American heavy metal band Metallica. The noise had clearly affected the prisoner, who was rocking back and forth. He looked like a junkie on drugs.

"I knew what was happening right away," says Couch. "I was looking at the treatment of a prisoner-of-war in enemy detention. It resembled the abuse I had been trained to resist if captured." His instructors had told him that this method violates the Geneva Conventions and is only used by rogue nations.

"Did you see that?" Couch asked the captain on duty. The man's response was brusque. He slammed the door of the cell shut and said: "That's the way it is here. You have a problem with that?" Couch did have a problem with it.

"The Navy," says Couch, "have their own way of getting things done. We don't like it when we don't get answers." From then on Couch, the former navy pilot, started looking for answers.

He was in Guantanamo, a place where special laws apply, even for the prosecutor. Slahi's statements were recorded in a 10-page summary of indirect testimony, written in upper-case letters. The rest was classified and inaccessible. Couch received vague answers to his questions, but, bit-by-bit, he figured out what had actually happened. Convinced that the case was irrevocably spoiled by the torture, he wanted to withdraw from it.

Couch, a devout Christian and admirer of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, arrived at his decision during a baptism in his conservative Anglican church in Falls Church, a Washington suburb. In a sermon about peace and human dignity, the pastor asked his congregation: "Will you respect the dignity of every human being?"

The next morning, Couch wrote a memorandum to his commanding officer. In the Slahi case, he wrote, the United States acted incorrectly, legally, ethically and morally: legally, because the United Nations Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Convention on human rights forbid torture; and ethically, because he felt obligated to take evidence exonerating the defendant into account. For this reason, he wrote, he felt morally obligated to resign from the case.

His superior, a colonel named Bob Swan, summoned Couch to his office. "What makes you think you're so much better than the rest of us?" the colonel shouted. Back in his church in Falls Church, his pastor wanted to know whether the lives of thousands of victims of terrorism are worth less than that of one terrorist.

Less than five years later, in June 2008, Stuart Couch is sitting in a restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. He is wearing a pastel green plaid shirt, eating beef goulash with mashed potatoes and talking about how to distinguish a good investigator from a bad one. A good investigator, he says, is someone who wants to clear up a case. A bad investigator is a missionary with a one-sided mission.

Resigning from the Slahi case was the most difficult decision in his career, says Couch. "Slahi seemed to be the man with the most blood on his hands." Today, Couch works as a judge in the Navy/Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, where he handles cases of misconduct among young soldiers.

Meanwhile, a third prosecutor is attempting to prosecute the Slahi case. There is still no indictment. All there is is the prospect that his statements, extracted under torture, will not stand up in court, and that the next US president, whether his name is Barack Obama or John McCain, will assess the conditions at the US military base on Cuba differently.

And what happens to Slahi?

Sylvia Royce, his lawyer, has sent him Sudoku books and a standard medical volume. He wants to become a doctor. He has learned English in Guantanamo, and he also speaks German, French and Arabic. In a macabre way, Mohamedou Ould Slahi has become a global citizen.

He was once asked, during an interrogation, where he would most like to live if he were released from Guantanamo. He said that his first choice would be the United States, but the prospects of that happening are slim. His second choice is Canada, but the government in Ottawa has already made it clear that he is not wanted there. Despite his family, Slahi does not want to return to Mauritania, where the government in Nouakchott handed him over to the Americans in the first place.

Perhaps the Mauritanian's future lies in the country where he studied and preached, and where his younger brother is waiting for him today, the country where it all began: Germany.

JOHN GOETZ, MARCEL ROSENBACH, BRITTA SANDBERG, HOLGER STARK

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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