From Germany to Guantanamo The Career of Prisoner No. 760
Part 4: '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
- Part 1: The Career of Prisoner No. 760
- Part 2: Slahi Denies Prior Knowledge of Sept. 11 Plans
- Part 3: 'Everyone Wanted a Piece of Slahi'
- Part 4: 'The Man with the Most Blood on His Hands'