A fence topped with razor wire and the watch tower at US's Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Picture: AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV
A fence topped with razor wire and the watch tower at US's Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Picture: AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Like the supply chain behind meat consumption, it isn’t easy to think about Guantánamo. There is a wilful elision; the "war on terror" has become an American shibboleth, and few question its premise or processes.

The US constitution and federal courts are tuned out; its location in Cuba makes it an enclave of legal surrealism. It is America’s Lubyanka.

Its true nature, however, must be recognised and understood. Guantánamo Diary is Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir of two-and-a-half years of tribulation and trauma at the hands of the shadowy military-intelligence operators running Guantánamo, and the now closed prisons Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Bagram in Afghanistan.

The book presents one of the first witness accounts of the conditions and methods inside Guantánamo — and it is deeply shocking.

Slahi was arrested in 2000 on a flimsy suspicion of involvement in a plot to blow up LA International Airport. He was soon released, but his fate was compromised after 9/11.

A young Muslim who had lived in Europe and Canada, he was rearrested within a week of 9/11 in transit home to Mauritania. Despite being cleared again, in November 2001 Mauritanian intelligence requested one more round of routine follow-up questions — and his real nightmare began.

Slahi was renditioned to Jordan, then Afghanistan, before being transferred to Guantánamo, where he was subjected to awful physical and mental abuse.

His cell was kept at very cold temperatures; he was forced to contort for hours and prevented from sleeping for days; he was stripped naked and sexually molested by female guards. Ice was slotted under his clothing before he was beaten, a technique designed to worsen the pain but reduce visible bruising.

He was interrogated every day for four years and kept in solitary for three years. He was never formally charged and was freed in 2016 after 15 years in captivity.

Slahi’s diary covers his multiple arrests, the renditions, the personalities of his interrogators and prison life. Occasionally, he records the Kafkaesque interrogation dialogue with sardonic wit or outright sarcasm.

His prose is lucid, explained by the fact that he wrote the manuscript in the year after the primary period of duress. Nonetheless, it’s harrowing.

Everybody who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan back then was part of al-Qaeda

Initially, he is co-operative with his torturers but unwilling to veer from his story or participate in speculative responses. But eventually the torture breaks him and he will confess to anything: "I erased the words ‘I don’t know’ from my dictionary. I allowed myself to say anything to satisfy my assailants," he writes.

The information he volunteers is useless, which his inquisitors treat with apparent indifference.

His memorised minutiae of the interrogations occasionally strains credibility – except that Slahi is a hafiz, he has completely memorised the Qu’ran.

But there is a vague sense that Slahi is equivocating about full disclosure. His memory seems imprecise when relating his back story as a mujahid fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

His connections to al-Qaeda leaders are not entirely explained by his glib assertions that they may have attended his mosque in Montreal or that he recognises a face shown him during an interrogation session but cannot place it.

Or that he is related through marriage to Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, one of the original religious leaders of al-Qaeda, for whose arrest the FBI offered a $25m reward.

Nonetheless, Slahi underwent two polygraphs, and both concluded that he was truthful. He was also interrogated by the intelligence and military agencies of six countries.

Of his association with al-Qaeda, he writes: "Everybody who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan back then was part of al-Qaeda."

The organisation’s military and financial backer at the time was the US government.

But the book fails to provide a vantage across the broader, complex political climate and legal morass underpinning Guantánamo. Slahi’s editor, Larry Siems, added footnote references to unclassified government documents, press reports, court cases and US Senate commission inquiries. They corroborate Slahi’s account, but Siems missed an opportunity to make the book more relevant.

And it is disappointing that there is barely a scrap of supplementary narrative or editor’s notes to fill in the years between the diary’s 2005 ending and Slahi’s release in October 2016.

In his 2013 statement to the US Senate armed services committee, Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth called Guantánamo an unmitigated disaster. Since it opened 780 detainees were held in the prison and 731 were released without charge. Only eight have been convicted by military commissions, and six of these verdicts have been overturned.

Certainly, the efforts required to counter terrorism should not be condemned, although a big dose of scepticism is necessary.

As Slahi puts it: "The government is very smart, it evokes terror in hearts of people to convince them to give up their freedom and privacy."

In January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep Guantánamo open, vowing to retain the facility indefinitely and hinting at bringing back other forms of torture, including waterboarding. Guantánamo Diary should help focus outrage at this. Its testimony forces examination of one’s views on the twilight zone of extrajudicial incarceration, the use of torture and the line that no authority should cross. As first century Roman satirist Juvenal observed: who guards the guards?