What Guantánamo made of them
published by Die Zeit, Germany
The man who called himself “Mister X” in Guantánamo wore a balaclava and mirrored sunglasses when he tortured. The person he was torturing was not supposed to see his face. Now, 17 years later, Mister X is standing at a potter’s wheel in his garage in Somewhere, America. A bald man with a greying beard, tattooed on the back of his neck. His hands, big and strong, mould a grey-brown lump of clay. The pot won’t turn out very nice, you can already tell. He says that’s the way it is with his art, he’s more attracted to ugliness.
Mister X thought long and hard about whether he wanted to receive journalists and talk about what happened back then. It would be the first time that a Guantánamo torturer has spoken publicly about his actions. The meeting on this day in October 2020 was preceded by numerous emails. Now, finally, we are with him. An interview of several hours is already behind us, in which Mister X told us about his cruel work. We told him that the man he maltreated at that time would also like to talk to him. Mister X replied that, on the one hand, he has been longing for such a conversation for 17 years – on the other hand, he has been dreading it for 17 years. He asked for half an hour to think it over. He said he thinks well while making pottery.
The man who would like to talk to him is called Mohamedou Ould Slahi, and in the summer of 2003, he was considered the most important prisoner in the Guantánamo Bay camp. Of the almost 800 prisoners there, according to all that is known, no one was tortured more severely than he was.
There are events that define a biography. Even if they do not last long in terms of a lifetime, in this case just under eight weeks, they unfold a power that makes everything before fading into oblivion and cast a spell over everything that comes after.
Back then, in the summer of 2003, Mister X was in his mid-thirties and an interrogator in the American army. He was part of the so-called Special Projects Team, whose task was to break Slahi. The detainee had so far remained stubbornly silent, but the intelligence services were convinced that he possessed important information. Perhaps even information that could prevent the next major attack or lead to Osama Bin Laden, who was the most wanted terrorist in the world at the time: the leader of Al-Qaeda, the main perpetrator of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The team’s mission was to defeat evil. To achieve this, it countered it with another evil.
Mister X always tortured at night. With each night that Slahi’s silence lasted, he tried out a new cruelty. He says torture is ultimately a creative process. Listening to Mister X describe what he did can leave you breathless, and sometimes Mister X seems to feel that way himself as he tells the story. Then he shakes his head. Pauses. Runs his hand through his beard. Fights back tears. He says, “Man, I can’t believe this myself.”
The way he talks, you don’t get the impression that it was all a long time ago. In fact, it is not over at all. Mister X says there is hardly a day when he does not think about Slahi or when Slahi does not haunt his dreams. Slahi was the case of his life, in the worst sense of the word.
There was a moment back then that not only burned itself into his memory, but it also poisoned his soul, says Mister X. That night, he went into the interrogation room where Slahi, small and emaciated, was sitting in his orange jumpsuit on a chair, chained to an eyelet in the floor. Mister X, tall and muscular, had thought of something new again. This time he pretended to go berserk. He screamed wildly, hurled chairs across the room, slammed his fist against the wall and threw papers in Slahi’s face. Slahi was shaking all over.
Mister X says the reason he never got rid of that moment was not that he saw fear in Slahi’s eyes, but that he, Mister X, enjoyed seeing that fear. Seeing the trembling Slahi, he says, felt like an orgasm.
Mohamedou Slahi is 50 years old today. In December 2020, two months after our visit to Mister X, he is standing on the Atlantic beach. In front of him, the waves break on the Mauritanian coast, not far behind him begins the endless expanse of the Sahara. Slahi wears a Mauritanian robe and a turban, both in the bright blue of the sky above him. With narrowed eyes, he looks out to sea and says that if he were to sail off here on a steady westerly course, he would arrive where he was held for 14 years, at the south-eastern tip of Cuba.
Slahi has been free again for five years. But like Mister X, he too cannot shake off his time in Guantánamo. Today he lives again in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, on the edge of the desert, the place where the USA had him kidnapped a few weeks after September 11, 2001. Unlike then, he is now a celebrity. He is approached on the street; he zooms out of his house into universities and onto podiums around the world to denounce human rights abuses by the United States. He says that when he closes his eyes in the evening and sleep comes, sometimes the masked man comes again, too.
When one of the authors of this article first visited him in 2017, Slahi expressed a wish – he would like to find his torturers. At the time, he had already written a book about his time in Guantánamo. In the last sentence, he had invited the people who had tortured him to have tea with him: “My house is open.”
At that first meeting and again now, in December 2020, he says that during the time of torture in Guantánamo he felt one thing above all: hate. Again and again, he imagined the cruel way in which he would kill Mister X. He said that he had to kill him, his family and everyone who had helped him. Him, his family, and everyone who meant something to him. But then, in the solitude of his cell, while thinking, praying, and writing, he realised that revenge was not the answer. So, he decided to try something else: forgiveness.
In the silence of his cell, he forced himself to think that this big, strong man, Mister X, was really a small, weak child. A child whom he, Mohamedou Slahi, patted on the head and said: What you did is bad, but I forgive you. The process of re-educating himself took several years. But at some point, he said, still sitting in his cell in Guantánamo, he had managed to convince himself so much of the sincerity of this thought that he really felt the need to forgive.
When Slahi expressed the wish to talk to Mister X, he said he hoped it would bring peace to his still troubled soul. In the best case, he could replace the old, painful memories of that time with new, good memories.
Thus began our search for Mister X.
How can one imagine a man who tortures another? In American files, for example in a Senate investigation report, there is a list of what Mister X did. They are descriptions of the crudest psychological and sometimes physical violence.
If you meet him now, something strange happens: You don’t manage to associate the image that all the reports have created in your head with the man sitting in front of you. We know with certainty that he is Mister X. Former colleagues of his have confirmed his identity. But the Mister X we meet is this: a subtle art lover. An educated man interested in history. All in all, a pretty nice guy. After spending several days with him, one cannot escape the impression that he is obviously also a very empathetic person.
Mister X says that he occasionally invites homeless people to a restaurant and that he sometimes cries in front of the television when he sees reports from disaster areas. That he can empathise so well is precisely the reason why he has been such a good interrogator, such a good torturer. You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. What causes him even greater pain? What could make him feel even more insecure? Where is his weak point? It was precisely because of empathy, however, that he broke down over what he had done at the time.
Shortly after he left Guantánamo in the winter of 2003, Mister X started drinking. It was not unusual for him to drink three bottles of red wine a night. He spent more and more time in bed and spoke less and less with his wife and children. He hardly found any sleep anymore. He toyed with the idea of killing himself, he says. A doctor diagnosed him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. The torturer, of all people, had suffered the kind of trauma one would expect to find in his victim.
There are many studies on the psychological suffering of torture victims. War refugees from Syria, refugees who were mistreated in Libyan camps, Uyghur prisoners from China – in all these people, increased depression, addictions, concentration difficulties, sleep problems and suicidal thoughts are observed.
Mister X also suffered from all these symptoms.
One could see the distraught Mister X as the personification of the trauma that has gripped the entire United States since September 11, 2001. After that primal experience, the country that wanted to defend the values of the West in the fight against terror precisely betrayed those values. Rule of law. Justice. Democracy. And since that primal experience, the country has been ravaged more than ever by omnipresent violence perpetrated by broken people. Spree killings, assassinations, hate crimes. Maybe the entire US has some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome?
For 17 years, Mister X says, he has been working off the guilt he has brought upon himself. He has taken medication, undergone therapy, and looked for a new job. For 17 years he has been trying to make up for his mistake. A few things have helped him. A little. But not really. Maybe also because he had secretly known all these years that to really come clean with himself, he would have to do one thing urgently. “The decent thing to do would be to tell Slahi to his face that I regret what I did to him. That it was wrong.”
From that point of view, Slahi’s offer to talk, which we reporters make to him, is a gift. The opportunity to draw a line under the matter. But there is a thought that is driving Mister X and that makes it difficult for him to accept the offer.
Mister X still thinks Mohamedou Slahi is a terrorist, one of the most brilliant in recent history. A charismatic man. A manipulator. A gifted communicator who already spoke four languages, Arabic, French, German, and English, and taught himself a fifth, Spanish, in Guantánamo.
Slahi is probably the smartest person he has ever met, Mister X says. So smart that Slahi managed to fool his interrogators, just as he now manages to make millions of people in the world believe he is innocent. Mister X says he knows this person’s psyche better than that of his own wife. For weeks, he has done nothing but put himself in this man’s shoes, and one thing is clear: Slahi is a brilliant liar.
In 2010, a US federal judge rules that Slahi must be released because the US government’s alleged evidence against him was just not that: evidence. The government appeals.
In 2015, the book Slahi wrote in prison is published: Guantánamo Diary. It is extensively blacked out, but the message is clear: The USA tortured an innocent man. The book becomes a bestseller.
In 2016, Slahi is released, after 14 years without charges. In Mauritania, he is received like a hero.
In 2019, it is announced that Guantánamo Diary will be made into a film. Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch will star, and Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald will direct.
In 2020, the Guardian‘s website publishes the trailer for a documentary in which one of Slahi’s guards travels to Mauritania and former enemies become friends.
Apparently friends, says Mister X. He doesn’t buy any of this “forgiveness stuff” from Slahi. The film scenes – the walk in the Sahara sand, Slahi laughing and helping his guard into a Mauritanian robe –, Slahi has masterfully staged all that. Slahi who generously forgives, the decent David who rises above the corrupt Goliath – the tale of a hero.
That is what makes Mister X hesitate for so long: Slahi, he fears, could also use him for his mise-en-scène. He could show the whole world: Look, now not only an insignificant guard apologises, but also my torturer, and I forgive him too! Slahi would become an even greater hero.
Is Mister X’s urge to confront his victim stronger than his fear of being instrumentalised?
Mister X has made a small, ugly pot. It has to dry now. He puts it aside, wipes his hands on a towel and looks serious. He is silent for a long time and then says, “I’ll go through with this now. Oh, God.”
The picture jerks, the sound wobbles, and for a brief moment Mister X has hope written all over his face that technology will save him from his courage. Then the face he knows so well appears in front of him on the computer screen – narrow as before but aged. The man on the screen, unlike Slahi in 2003, has hardly any hair left. And Slahi now wears glasses, with black rims.
It is late in Mauritania, almost midnight, but Mohamedou Slahi has stayed awake. He too has a visit from a member of our team. We have been keeping Slahi informed by phone from the USA for the past few hours: There is a delay; Mister X needs a little more time.
Now a picture is building up on the monitor in Mauritania. The greying beard, the bald head, the tattoos on the back of the neck.
Mohamedou Slahi looks his tormentor in the face. No mask, no sunglasses.
Mister X: Mister Slahi. How are you?
Mohamedou Slahi: How are you, sir?
Mister X: Not bad, and you?
Mohamedou Slahi: I am doing very well.
Mister X: That’s good.
Mohamedou Slahi: Thank you for asking.
Mister X: Yes, sir. I was extremely hesitant to make this call. But I do want to explain a few things to you.
The first time Mister X saw him was on 22 May 2003. Mister X was standing in an observation room in Guantánamo, looking through a pane that was a mirror from the other side. There, in the interrogation room, Slahi was being questioned by two FBI agents. For half a year they had spoken to him almost every day – without the slightest success. In a few days, it had already been decided, the military would take over, Mister X and his colleagues.
There was a table in the middle of the room, with the agents on one side and Slahi on the other. The FBI had brought cakes. One of them, blond and tall, obviously the boss, was leafing through a Koran and said something about a passage. Then Slahi stood up. He wore no handcuffs, no chains. He walked around the table, took the Koran from the agent’s hand, and said, no, no, he got it wrong, he had to see it this way and that way. In the end, Mister X watched as the agents hugged Slahi like a friend. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
The FBI agent who leafed through the Koran is called Rob Zydlow. We also talked to him. He lives in California, he retired a few months ago. He thinks failure is a harsh word. But, yes, in Slahi’s case, his plan didn’t work out. He tried the nice way, but no matter whether he brought home-made cakes, as he did that day, or burgers from McDonald’s, whether he watched animal documentaries with Slahi or let him teach him Arabic, Slahi just didn’t talk. All he ever said was: “I’m innocent.”
Slahi, on the other hand, says today that the FBI cake tasted good, that he liked the documentary about the Australian desert best, and that Rob Zydlow’s attempt to learn Arabic was simply ridiculous. It was true that the FBI people had been reasonably nice to him for months, but he did not owe those agents any answers. On the other hand, they owed him answers. Why did the US have him kidnapped?
Slahi did not know that on that day, behind the glass, the man he would meet a little later as Mister X was watching. He did not know that at the Pentagon a document was just being passed from one office to the next, signature by signature, all the way to Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, giving examples of what methods this man could use to get prisoner Mohamedou Slahi to talk. A paper that provided a framework, but still left the torture team plenty of room for their own ideas.
Rob Zydlow says he sensed a real hunting fever in the army people who took over.
Mister X says he went to the army shop and bought a blue overall. Slahi was a man-catcher, as his dealings with the FBI agents proved. So, that was the logic, Slahi would not be dealing with a human being, but with a figure from a horror film.
In high school, Mister X was in the theatre club. He still plays Dungeons & Dragons, a board game with elves, orcs, and dragons, reads comics and loves science fiction. While the interrogation methods of some of his colleagues back then were unsurpassably boring – question, question, question – he really immersed himself in the roles.
On the evening of July 8, 2003, Mister X put on the blue overall, black military boots, black gloves and a black balaclava, plus mirrored sunglasses. He had Slahi brought into the interrogation room and hooked to the eyelet in the floor, but the chain was so short that Slahi could only stand bent over. Then Mister X switched on a CD player and heavy metal music filled the room, deafeningly loud.
Let the bodies hit the floor
Let the bodies hit the floor
Let the bodies hit the floor
Let the bodies hit the floor
Mister X put the song on a continuous loop, turned off the lights, switched on a strobe light that emitted glaring white flashes of light, and left the room. For a while, he says, he watched from the next room. But the music was so loud that he couldn’t think. So, he went outside for a smoke.
Slahi says he tried to pray, to take refuge in his own thoughts. He did not talk.
Mister X tried out new songs. The American national anthem. A commercial for cat food that consisted only of the word “meow”. Mister X turned up the air conditioning until Slahi was shaking all over. Mister X turned up the heating until Slahi’s clothes were soaked with sweat. Mister X put his feet up on the table in front of Slahi and told him that he had had a dream. In this dream, a pine coffin had been lowered into the ground in Guantánamo. There had been a number on the coffin. 760, Slahi’s prisoner number. Then his freak-out, which he could not get rid of later.
No matter what he did, Slahi remained silent.
Mister X: It is difficult for me to have this conversation because I am not convinced of your innocence. I still believe that you are an enemy of the United States. But what we did to you was wrong, no question about it. Nobody deserves something like that.
Mohamedou Slahi: I can assure you that I have never been an enemy of your country. I have never harmed any American. In fact, I have never harmed anyone at all. Never.
Whether Mohamedou Slahi was a terrorist, as Mister X thinks, or completely innocent, as Slahi himself claims, will probably never be clarified. Perhaps he was something in between, a sympathiser. In the search for concrete criminal acts, for terrorist actions by Mohamedou Slahi, we have spoken to many people who were close to him or who know his case well. There were agents of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Germany, where Slahi lived for eleven years, secret service members in Mauritania and the USA, investigators, and several members of the Special Projects Team. We read German and American files. After years of research, we found nothing.
Mohamedou Slahi grew up two hours’ drive from Nouakchott, in the sandy foothills of the Sahara. His father tended the camels, his mother the twelve children. He was an exceptionally good student – just like his cousin Mahfouz, who was the same age. As teenagers, in the mid-eighties, the cousins shared a room. Late into the night, they read books about Islam and longed to join the thousands of young men from all over the Islamic world and travel to Afghanistan to fight the infidel Soviet occupiers. But they were too poor to make such a journey. Then Slahi got a scholarship to study in Germany.
In 1990, at the age of 19, he enrolled in electrical engineering in Duisburg. Five years later, now a graduate engineer, he started a job at the Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronics. He was now building microchips for the renowned German research institution, earning 4000 DM a month.
That was one life of Mohamedou Slahi. The other had begun during his studies.
1990: Stay at an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. Weapons training, oath of allegiance to Emir Osama Bin Laden.
1992: Second trip to Afghanistan, where the Islamists were on the verge of overthrowing the Afghan government. Slahi was deployed in an artillery unit. After two months, he returned to Germany, ostensibly, as he would later say, because the Islamists had disappointed him with their fighting among themselves – it was not at all the paradise-like reign of God on earth that he had imagined.
At that time, there was still a kind of shared interest between Al-Qaeda and the West; after all, Bin Laden’s people had helped to drive the Soviet occupiers out of Afghanistan.
If you ask Slahi what his relationship with al-Qaeda was like in 1992 after his return to Germany, he says: “That chapter of my life was closed. I cut all ties. I stopped reading the magazines, I stopped informing myself about Al-Qaeda’s activities, I had no more friends in the organisation, no more contacts, with anyone, no phone calls, nothing.”
If this were true, Slahi would have turned his back on the organisation before it turned against the US.
But it is not true. Slahi kept in touch: with his cousin, with whom he used to share a room and who had, under the name Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, in the meantime become a confidant of Osama Bin Laden – once the cousin even called him on Bin Laden’s satellite phone; with a friend in Duisburg who was involved in the attack on the synagogue in Djerba in April 2002; with another friend who was later convicted of planning an attack on La Réunion. And Slahi, in Duisburg in October 1999, had three overnight guests, one of whom was Ramzi Binalshibh, who would later become one of the key planners of 9/11. Binalshibh later told his American interrogators that the other two visitors were two of the hijackers. At the meeting in Duisburg, Slahi advised them to travel to Afghanistan.
Slahi did not break off all contacts. On the contrary, the list of his friends and acquaintances reads like an excerpt from Al-Qaeda’s Who’s Who.
If you ask Slahi about these contacts, he confirms everything, but acts as if it was an insult that you bring up these trifles at all. They were his friends and what his friends believed or did had nothing to do with him.
All the contacts and friendships – it is not hard to imagine that hunting fever broke out among Mister X and his colleagues. Unimaginable what Slahi might know. Even if he himself was perhaps hardly involved.
Perhaps he would lead the investigators to his cousin, Bin Laden’s confidant. It was suspected that the cousin and Bin Laden were on the run together.
How many lives could be saved if only he finally came clean?
Mister X says that in the team they felt they were fighting on the front line of the war on terror. He says he was aware that if he got anything of significance out of Slahi, President George W. Bush would be informed personally.
For weeks, Mister X worked his ass off on Slahi. To no avail. Then he got a new boss, a man called Richard Zuley, known as Dick.
Mister X says of him today, “Dick is a diabolical motherfucker.“
Richard Zuley himself says: “All Mister X got out of Slahi was petty stuff. Slahi had everything under control, we had to change that.”
Zuley now lives in a row house on the north side of Chicago. For years he worked here as a police officer, now, in retirement, he spends a lot of time at the airfield where his small plane is parked. When Zuley talks about how he took over Slahi’s interrogations, he smiles. “There was no question then who was in charge.”
Zuley suggested to Slahi that his mother could be raped if he did not talk. And under Zuley’s command, Slahi was beaten half to death. That was one day in late August 2003. When Mister X saw Slahi’s bloody and swollen face, he says, he was shocked. For him, this raw physical violence went far beyond the limits of what was permissible and was also not compatible with Rumsfeld’s list. Mister X confronted his boss – and was taken off the case the same day.
When asked why, Zuley replies, “I deployed people who were effective.” You don’t feel any sense of guilt, only pride that he managed to break Slahi.
Slahi was moved to a new cell that evening. “There was nothing in the cell,” Slahi remembers, “no window. No clock. Nothing on the wall that I could look at. It was pure loneliness. I don’t know how long it lasted, I didn’t even know when it was day and night, but at some point, I knocked and said I was ready to talk.”
After months of silence, Slahi was now talking so much that Zuley had paper and pens brought to him, and later a computer. Slahi wrote that he had planned an attack on the CN Tower in Toronto. He listed accomplices. He drew organigrams of terror cells in Europe. Slahi says it was all made up.
In fact, the intelligence services soon raised doubts about the veracity of the information Zuley’s team was passing on to them. In November 2003, Zuley arranged for a lie detector test on Mohamedou Slahi. The latter recanted his confession and the machine failed.
Mohamedou Slahi: You know so little about me. Apparently, your government has given you very little information…
Mister X: Let me make something clear.
Mohamedou Slahi: May I please finish my sentence?
Mister X: Excuse me, please continue.
Mohamedou Slahi: The military prosecutor who was supposed to charge me, Stuart Couch, intended to ask for the death penalty at the beginning, but then he realised that I was innocent.
Stuart Couch is now 56 years old and a judge. An accurately dressed man with a military short haircut and a strong southern accent. On a Sunday morning in January 2021, we have an appointment at a hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia. Couch talks about his Christian family and his time as a soldier in the Marines, which shaped him. He paints a picture of himself as a man who was shaped by a strong belief in values and rules. Rules that demanded a lot of him when he had to make the most difficult decision of his career in the spring of 2004.
The US government had ordered him, the military prosecutor, to indict the most important prisoner in Guantánamo Bay, Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Of course, this was a potential death penalty case, says Couch. After all, it had to be assumed that Slahi had recruited the later hijackers for Al-Qaeda – at the meeting in the Duisburg flat.
There was a lot of circumstantial evidence for Slahi’s involvement with al-Qaeda, namely the many friendships and contacts. Couch assumed that with all the smoke, it was a matter of time before fire was encountered. “My grandfather used to say, ‘If you lie down with the dogs, you’ll get fleas.’ And man, Slahi must have lain with a lot of dogs.”
But Couch found no fire – not a single piece of evidence. Instead, he found something else. During a site visit to Guantánamo, he heard loud music coming from an interrogation room in a corridor. Let the Bodies hit the floor. Through the crack in the door, he saw bright flashes of light. Inside, a detainee was chained to the floor in front of two speakers.
The scene repelled him as a human being and as a Christian, he says. As the prosecutor, he immediately understood that if they did the same to Slahi, he would have a huge problem. What he had said or would still say would have no relevance in court. “Under torture, people tell everything, whether it is true or not, the main thing is that the torture stops,” says Couch.
He began to investigate what was going on in Guantánamo. Shortly after Slahi’s confession reached him, he had certainty: it was worth nothing.
Stuart Couch says he wrestled with himself for days. Not pressing charges would mean possibly letting a terrorist get away with it. He consulted with his priest. Afterwards, he told his superiors that he was withdrawing from the case.
The case never went to trial. Nevertheless, Slahi remained in prison for another twelve years. He was not released until October 2016, one of the last decisions of the Obama administration.
Asked today if he believes Slahi was a terrorist then, Stuart Couch, “I don’t know.”
Mister X says he is sure. You only have to look at how Slahi communicates. He plays games – no innocent man does that.
In fact, watching Slahi talk to Mister X, one sometimes gets the impression of watching a shrewd politician. Mister X says a total of six times that the torture should not have happened. Slahi never responds to this. Instead, he talks about other things – his innocence, criticism of America. Once he starts talking about Chalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief planner of 9/11, who is still in Guantánamo. Another time is about the US war in Afghanistan.
Mister X: I will not say anything about Chalid Sheikh Mohammed, nor about politics. I can only talk about the techniques I used. That they were wrong, and I should never have done it. You should never have been mistreated. You should never have been beaten. That’s not who we are. That’s not who I am.
Mister X tells Slahi that he painted him, six years after that August day in 2003. The bleeding Slahi in oil with a split lip and a swollen eye. Now, during the conversation, he asks us, reporters, to send a photo of the painting to Mauritania via WhatsApp.
Mohamedou Slahi: Ah, wow. This prisoner in the picture looks much better than the real prisoner back then. (Slahi laughs.)
Mister X: You really didn’t look very good that day. And this painting is not meant to … it’s to reflect what happened to you that day.
Mister X painted the picture when he had just resigned from the army. His post-traumatic stress disorder had become so bad that he could not work anymore. Alcohol no longer helped, nor did the medication. So then painting. He says he had hoped that the artistic confrontation would trigger a catharsis. But it only brought pain. So, he destroyed the painting again. Only the photo still exists.
Mister X: I have to live with this shame. Maybe this is a small victory for you, that I have to live with my demeanour.
Mohamedou Slahi: Um, I don’t know … I always had the impression that you were an intelligent person. And I found it hard to understand how you could do such a thing to me.
Slahi asks exactly the question that determines Mister X’s life. After art failed to give him an answer, he tried science. He enrolled in Creative Studies at university. He studied how creativity is used for evil purposes, for cigarette advertising, weapons of mass destruction, torture. He read study after study in search of an explanation for why he was capable of so much cruelty. From all that reading, he took away: The tendency to cruelty is in all human beings. It will prevail if the circumstances allow it. The circumstances in his case were: A country that craved revenge. A president who demanded success. A superior who spurred on the interrogators.
“My country made me do some pretty shitty things, and I did them,” says Mister X. “I hate myself for it. And I hate my country for turning me into this monster.” He states it as a matter of fact: “What I did was torture. One hundred per cent. No doubt about it.”
The few studies that exist about people who have been tortured suggest that there are two types of torturers. Those who live on afterwards as if nothing had happened. And the others who break. Scientists suspect that it is the worldview of the torturer that determines which category he will fall into.
For example, if a person tortures in the belief that it is morally right to torture one individual to potentially save thousands, as Richard Zuley did, then he is more likely to escape unscathed.
If, like Mister X, he tortures in contradiction to his own humanism, then shame and guilt are more likely to trigger trauma. The symptoms then often resemble those of torture victims, plus, in some cases, one additional thing: a deep mistrust of institutions. Those who have been forced to do abysmal things in the name of a system, an ideology, a country, sometimes lose their trust in this system, this ideology, this country.
Mohamedou Slahi, the victim, on the other hand, has managed something that therapists see very rarely. Victims are often stuck in a situation of helplessness and hopelessness. Slahi has broken out of this helplessness. He has made himself an actor.
You can watch numerous videos of Slahi’s performances on the net. The audience is often visibly moved when he talks about how he received his guard in Mauritania. Actress Jodie Foster, who won a Golden Globe for her role as Slahi’s lawyer in the film The Mauritanian, spoke about him in a statement at the awards ceremony: “You taught us so much: what it means to be human. Joyful of life. Loving. Forgiving. We love you, Mohamedou Ould Slahi!”
It is always this one thing that moves people, for which they admire him: that he is willing and able to forgive.
In a way, Slahi says in one of our interviews in Mauritania, forgiveness is also a form of revenge for him. He is taking revenge on his tormentors and all the people who fought the American war on terror for 20 years: in front of the world, he exposes those who thought they were the good guys as evil. And he stylises himself, the supposedly evil, into the good guy.
Mohamedou Slahi: I want to tell you: I forgive you, as I forgive all those who have caused me pain. I forgive the Americans …
Mister X: Yeah …
Mohamedou Slahi: … with all my heart. I want to live in peace with you.
Mister X: It is important for me to get it straight that I did not ask for your forgiveness. I have to forgive myself.
It doesn’t work for Mister X, he turns Slahi down. The two do not find common ground. One last attempt: Slahi tries another subject.
Mohamedou Slahi: How are you today? Are you married? Do you have children?
Mister X: I’m not going to talk about my family or where I live, what I do or don’t do. That’s how it is, buddy.
The conversation lasts 18 minutes and 46 seconds and ends in frustration on both sides.
Mohamedou Slahi: Anyway, I wish you all the best.
Mister X: Same to you.
Mohamedou Slahi: I think you are what you do. I forgive you with all my heart, even if you don’t ask me to.
Mister X: It’s okay. I have nothing more to say. Goodbye, Mister Slahi.
Mohamedou Slahi: Bye.
When the video connection ends, the two are left unreconciled, the weak, self-doubting perpetrator, and the strong victim.
When one person tortures another, it’s quite intimate. Tears. Screams. Pain. Fear. Nudity. A torturer sees things that otherwise only a partner sees – if at all. Mister X and Mohamedou Slahi are familiar with each other and strangers at the same time. They know everything about each other – and nothing. In this conversation, in which it seems they have nothing in common, it becomes clear that there is one thing they do share: Eight weeks in Guantánamo in the summer of 2003 made them who they are today.
Mohamedou Slahi lives largely from his story, from what was done to him. His suffering has brought him not only pain and nightmares but also wealth and prestige. He married a human rights lawyer who worked in Guantánamo and has a child with her. He has turned his destiny around.
In Mister X’s life, almost everything has turned into its opposite. He no longer votes for the Republicans, as he used to, but for the Democrats. He is no longer for the death penalty but against it. He is no longer sure whether he wants to continue living in the USA and is thinking of emigrating.
For several years, Mister X has been teaching young soldiers and FBI agents interrogation techniques. There are always people at the beginning of the course who say: Torture should be allowed. He then says, no, absolutely not. That torture exacts a high price. Not only of the person who suffers it. But also of the one who commits it. Then, sometimes, he talks about himself.
BEHIND THE STORY
One of the two authors of this dossier, John Goetz, is an investigative journalist at the German public service broadcaster NDR. He had already reported on Slahi in 2008. After Slahi was released from Guantánamo in 2016, Goetz visited him in Mauritania. Slahi expressed his wish to meet his torturers. Goetz went in search of them and found, among others, the man Slahi named as the main perpetrator: Mister X. ZEIT editor Bastian Berbner joined the research a year ago. This was followed by trips to Slahi and to Mister X as well as interviews with investigators, secret service people and members of the torture team. In addition to this dossier, the documentary film “Slahi and his Torturers” was made, which will be available in the ARD-Mediathek from 8 September (Panorama will broadcast a short version this Thursday evening at 9.45 pm). There is also the NDR podcast “Slahi – 14 years in Guantánamo”.