“Waiting on torture is worse than torture.”
It’s an old Arabic proverb, quoted by Mohamedou Ould Slahi in his bestselling memoir, Guantánamo Diary, which chronicles his nearly 15 years of extralegal interrogation and detention.
“I can only confirm this proverb,” writes Slahi, who both waited for torture and experienced it. The quotation comes in the section of the book describing his time in the custody of Mauritania’s feared State Security in the early days of his ordeal. Born in Mauritania, Slahi had been living in Canada and was arrested in Dakar, Senegal, in January 2000 at the behest of US intelligence while heading home. Senegalese intelligence handed him over to Mauritanian custody, where he remained until late November 2001, when the CIA had him flown to Jordan for further interrogation - a brutal, eight-month layover in his “endless world tour” en route to Guantánamo.
The man who would keep Mohamedou waiting on torture in those early days was a reputed master of the dark arts. Deddahi Ould Abdallahi - a cousin of the dictator, Maaouaya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya - was then Mauritania’s Directeur de la Sûrete de l’État (DSE), the head of State Security, and the most feared man in Mauritania.
“Where are you?” Deddahi would demand, reaching Mohamedou on his cell phone during a period of house arrest after Mohamedou's initial interrogation. “I’d like to see you.”
Trembling, Mohamedou would drive himself to the “secret, well-known jail” for a new round of interrogation.
Ultimately, Deddahi never tortured Mohamedou (only the Americans would do that, once they got him to Guantánamo).
Rather, on a dirty section of airport tarmac moments before turning Mohamedou over to Jordanian intelligence officers, Deddahi knelt down to pray beside his captive who, by then, Deddahi believed to be innocent.
“When are you coming?”
It was Deddahi’s gruff voice on my driver’s cell phone. Fifteen years later, it no longer inspires fear (at least not as much): Having failed to protect his president – Taya was ousted in 2005 in a bloodless coup – Deddahi is now retired. I had been in Mauritania a week working with Mohamedou on my screenplay adaptation of Guantánamo Diary, and Deddahi had agreed to meet to discuss the time Mohamedou spent in his custody, his reaction to Mohamedou’s book, and finally the return of Mauritania’s most famous prisoner from Guantánamo (Deddahi was one of several hundred people to stop by Mohamedou's family's home to greet him after his return).
The interview was conducted on November 23rd, 2016, in Deddahi’s home in central Nouakchott. -Michael Bronner
Michael Bronner: Tell me a little bit about your past. How did you become a policeman?
Deddahi Ould Abdallahi: I became policeman in 1972, for the usual reasons. First of all, I was jobless at the time [chuckles].
MB: I imagine Mauritania was a very different place when you became a policeman…
DOA: Absolutely. It had been only 12 years since Mauritania gained its independence. Conditions were very harsh, and we lacked resources. At that time, it was very hard to afford to study, or to continue your studies, and there were fewer job opportunities. Now Mauritania has been independent for 56 years and things are totally different. When I joined the police force, the terms for joining were very easy. There were fewer people with degrees back then. They recruited whomever they could find.
MB: Let’s jump ahead to January 2000. You were the director of State Security. You arrested Mohamedou when he landed in Nouakchott en route home from Canada. Who asked you to do arrest him?
DOA: We had a campaign against Al-Qaeeda activists. We had done deep research on the Islamist movement in the country. We had identified addresses and adherents. We interrogated all people who had connections with that movement and brought them to justice. If they were not guilty, we freed them. Mohamedou was one of them. When he came back from Canada, we “received him.” We did our own broad investigations. Sometimes these investigations lead to nothing, and sometimes they lead us to people related to terrorist groups. Mohamedou was under investigation by German, Canadian, Senegalese and American intelligence services. Everybody knows that after 9/11 international cooperation on the level of people’s movement changed. It became easy to deliver any suspect to another country. We discovered a terrorist network here in 1994, for example, and among its members there were Libyans, Moroccans and Tunisians, some of whom came back from [the anti-Soviet jihad in] Afghanistan.
MB: Did you believe that Mohamedou was a terrorist when you first took him in custody?
DOA: We had some information that he was in connection with al-Qaeeda, and such relations made us suspicious that he might be a jihadist or extremist. That’s what we thought. After long interrogations, we finished with him and released him. He was cleared. He began working with various technology companies in the country. The Presidency intended to hire him as computer scientist. He even did work for the Presidency on some occasions.
MB: As you say, you got to know Mohamedou over many discussions. How did your impressions of him change?
DOA: Personally, I didn’t find anything concrete against him.
MB: No evidence of a crime…
DOA: Frankly I found nothing in that regard - neither a terrorist crime nor any kind of crime. I met him several times, but I found nothing. He had friends in al-Qaeeda during his stay in Germany, and he has family members who belonged to this group. What the Americans think is another story, and now that they have released him, it is clear he is innocent.
MB: The decision to send Mohamedou from Mauritania to Jordan, then, seems to be a strange one. How did you decide to send him?
DOA: I had nothing to say or do with that. I am not the one who decided or planned that. I was told that Mohamedou would be travelling abroad and that there was a plane that would carry him. Things were in motion such that I didn’t know at what time or where he would be going [until the last minute]. Once Mohamedou got on that plane, I lost any connection with him. I can’t say a word about him from that moment. I guess there was coordination between security branches all over the world in their war on terrorism. The Americans had their relationships with Jordan and other states. So this was not strange to me.
MB: But at that time, you were one of the most powerful men in this country, and you had decided that Mohamedou was clean. Yet the Americans kept telling you to arrest him. How did you feel about that?
DOA: Look, being involved in an activity and being a suspect are different things. If one commits a crime, there will be evidence and this is clear. Suspicion can be false, and security forces had to check this. When we find it is a crime, we punish. If we find nothing, we release the suspect.
MB: Mohamedou wrote in the book that, when you told him he would be interrogated by American FBI agents while being held in Mauritania, he challenged you, asking how, as the director of State Security, you could allow foreigners interrogate him.
DOA: I don’t remember him saying that. He asked me not to deliver him to the Americans, and asked me to bring him instead to the president. I couldn’t do that. I only follow orders, and the decision had been made to deliver Mohamedou to the Americans. At that time, if one was connected to 9/11 events, it was difficult if not impossible not to deliver him to the US, taking into consideration the agreements between our two countries. Terrorism had been an international challenge. We had to struggle against it and cooperate on the international level.
MB: Have you read Mohamedou’s book?
MB: What were your impressions?
DOA: It didn’t surprise me. It reflected Mohamedou Ould Slahi as I knew him…I think it is a book written by an honest man describing his life and the problems he went through in an honest way. He was accurate in what he says in the book, especially when it comes, as I can testify, to the time I shared with him. There might be some details that he missed or lost from his memory. But Mohamedou, as I know, was an intelligent young man. We personally could not prove the suspicions that were around him. I think Mohamedou has an encyclopedic knowledge of Islamist jurisprudence and culture, and he had true connection with the Islamic movement, but for me, this is knowledge rather than a dangerous activity.
MB: What did you think when you heard that Mohamedou was in Guantánamo?
DOA: I believed that they found something against Mohamedou – that there was something I didn’t know. Now that they have released him, I am totally sure that they could not prove he had anything to do with terrorist attacks.
MB: One of my jobs as a journalist is to watch over how my country uses its power in the world. Do you, as the former head of Mauritanian security, feel abused in this process?
DOA: I think that terrorism is a curse, and there is no country that does not seek to protect its people and guarantee their safety. The US, like any another country, sought to protect itself. We cannot be against its policy of security…Many countries collapsed because of terrorism. Look at Libya, Iraq, and Syria.
MB: Do you think that mistakes were made?
DOA: No. There were no mistakes. As long as cooperation between countries against terrorism and security threats is necessary, Mauritania, like the rest of countries around the world, has to exchange information and take measures. Nothing will change. The biggest mistake a country can make in these conditions the world is going through now is to refuse to cooperate with another country and to refuse a request that can help her get information that might help protect her from threats. It is our duty to cooperate. This is what I think.
MB: You have this man, who you decided was innocent. He comes back fifteen years later – after a lot of torture – and you still feel he is innocent. That is a mistake, isn’t it?
DOA: First, this is the responsibility of the [party] who was behind alleging Mohamedou’s involvement in this situation. Second, those who processed his case slowly after they realized he was innocent and kept him in prison for fifteen years with nothing against him. Those are the only ones responsible for Mohamedou’s suffering. They should have let him go a long time ago, since they found nothing.
MB: Could the same thing happen today, or things are different now?
DOA: I know one thing for sure: The war on terrorism will develop as terrorism continues to grow. Cooperation is necessary in this regard. Whenever it is necessary this can happen again, and that is normal.
MB: But the system didn’t work…
DOA: This was not the first time. Many people spend many years in prison and it appears later that they were innocent - it didn’t happen to Mohamedou only. Maybe it’s because Mohamedou’s case is related to terrorism that people speak about it.
MB: Is Mohamedou’s file closed completely?
DOA: His innocence is clear. They couldn’t prove anything against him. When it comes to what he has suffered, he has the right to sue those whom he thinks they are responsible for what he had gone through. That is up to him. I heard his public declaration that he forgives all people who were behind his plight. Personally, I know nobody who intended to harm him in any way. Mohamedou was in a situation like many other [Mauritanians]. One other of them was in Guantánamo. One died in Afghanistan. I had a neighbor who was the spiritual advisor of bin Laden.* Many of these people ended up in prison. Some get cleared. It depends. That’s life.
*Ironically, Deddahi lives across the sandy street from Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, also known as Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, once a senior al-Qaeda figure and spiritual advisor to Osama bin Laden – al-Qaeda’s “Number 3” before falling out of favor, in part for opposing large-scale attacks on the US in a stern, Quran-inflected letter to UBL prior to 9/11.
For my recent conversation with Mohamedou Ould Slahi, now back home in Mauritania, see Home from Guantánamo.