Transcript

752: An Invitation to Tea

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

OK. So a man sits in front of a camera in his own home, trying to somehow summarize who he is, all that had happened to him over 14 years.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Hi, everyone. My name is Mohamedou Ould Slahi. I'm from Mauritania.

Ira Glass

It's hard, right? Like, do people even know where Mauritania is? He tries another take.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I am from Mauritania. In case you don't know what Mauritania is, which is very likely, it's in West Africa.

Ira Glass

And he continues at length. Doesn't work.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

This is too long. Too preachy. Another take. Hi, everyone. Peace be with you. My name is Mohamedou Ould Slahi. I was kidnapped in 2001, and spent more than 14 years, mostly in Guantanamo Bay.

Ira Glass

During this 14 years in Guantanamo, the United States government came to believe that he recruited into Al-Qaeda men who later became hijackers in the 9-11 attacks. But they never charged him with that, or anything else.

Mohamedou Slahi was tortured, on one occasion beaten quite badly. He was kept awake by loud music, made to stand for hours at a time, left shackled in a cold room. The torture stopped after a few months, but they kept him for another 13 years. A judge ruled that the government could prove that he had been in touch with people in Al-Qaeda and sometimes help them out, but failed to show more than that and didn't have enough evidence to hold him. So finally he was released.

And if you've only heard of one Guantanamo detainee, this man, Mohamedou Slahi might be that guy. He wrote a book, originally called Guantanamo Diary, published while he was still locked up, became a cause for human rights groups and celebrities. There's a movie about him with Jodie Foster, and Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tahar Raheem.

These days he is living in Mauritania. Maybe the most famous person in the country. People stop him on the street and at the beach. He married an American human rights lawyer, had a son, is writing another book, just published a novel. And the purpose of this video he was shooting was very particular. He wanted to issue an invitation to everyone who knew him at Guantanamo Bay, the guards and interrogators, everybody.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Some of you guys mistreated me, even tortured me. But I'm telling you wholeheartedly that I have forgiven you. I hold no grudge against you guys. Honest to God. I invite all of you to my house so we could drink tea and talk about the past. Thank you very much and God bless you.

Ira Glass

This invitation to tea, it's also at the very end of his book. And for a long time, nobody took him up on it. But then by chance one of the guards from Guantanamo noticed on Facebook that Mohamedou was out and messaged him.

The guard's name is Scott, though Mohamedou knew him as Master Jedi. Guards didn't use their real names. They wore masks. Apparently there's a whole Star Wars thing going on. There was Master Yoda, Master Luke. Anyway, Scott, Jedi, was really young at the time. Got sent to Guantanamo and was assigned right away to Mohamedou their most high profile detainee.

Scott

I remember going into that building scared to death because I was expecting someone about eight feet tall, 200 pounds that I didn't know what I was getting into as a young kid. But I opened up that screen and I see this skinny, little, tan man laying on the bed who looked like he didn't have a clue what was going on.

Ira Glass

This audio that you're hearing was collected as part of this really remarkable documentary by a filmmaker who made it his mission to track down some of the guards and interrogators Mohamedou was reaching out to with his invitation to tea, to see if they would be willing to talk to him. The filmmaker who did this is John Goetz.

And back when Mohamedou was at Guantanamo, John was a reporter. He was living in Germany, writing for a German audience. And he started writing about Mohamedou because Mohamedou was one of the few people at Guantanamo with a German connection. Mohamedou had lived in Germany for 11 years.

John Goetz

And then when you look at his story, his story was just incredible. You know, he was the son of a camel herder, as part of a family with 12 kids, who ends up with this elite scholarship in Germany and becomes an engineer here, a successful engineer at one of the leading high tech companies of Germany. And then at the same time he's accused of having recruited the pilots for the September 11th attacks.

Ira Glass

After the United States concluded that it did not have the evidence for a case against Mohamedou and released him, John went to see him in Mauritania, meet him for the first time in person. And he asked about that invitation.

John Goetz

And I was wondering, was it a real invitation? Or did he really mean that?

Ira Glass

And did he?

John Goetz

He did. He was more serious than I thought he'd be. When I met him, he had-- it was very recent that he had gotten out. And in many ways he was just kind of ripped out of the environment he had been in for 14 years. And he wasn't finished with what happened to him.

Ira Glass

John says that Mohamedou's lawyers told Mohamedou, absolutely do not try to track down your former captors yourself for this invitation. It'll look like you're stalking them. But Mohamedou asked John, as an American journalist, could he try to find these people? He'd seen the TV documentary where John had done exactly that kind of tracking down for his story.

And John said yes. He thought it could be a good film. And then spent two years searching for people Mohamedou had known in Guantanamo. He actually spoke with about a dozen of them. Three were willing to talk to Mohamedou all these years later about what had gone down. Two of those were people that John found, and then there was Scott, who, like I said, showed up out of the blue on his own.

John Goetz

Well, Scott was one of Mohamedou's guards in the period while Mohamedou was being tortured.

Ira Glass

And does that mean that he saw the torture or participated in the torture?

John Goetz

Scott says he did not see the torture. Scott says he did not physically abuse Mohamedou. But Scott says it was his role to soften up Mohamedou.

Ira Glass

That means Scott prevented Mohamedou from ever praying, gave him meals at random times, sometimes Mohamedou only got 60 seconds to eat or take a shower. Pillow was Mohamedou's nickname at Guantanamo. Because after they tortured him and broke him, the first comfort they gave him as a reward was a pillow.

Mohamedou's torture ended after a few months. Scott was there for about a month of that. And after the torture ended, everything between them was very different. For starters, they were allowed to talk to each other. And they talked a lot. Scott guarded him in 12 hour shifts for about a year more.

John Goetz

So in that period they got to know each other quite well. And they played chess together. Apparently Mohamedou won every time they played. You know, they watched films together. And ended up at the end of this having quite kind of a good connection.

Scott

I know we barbecued a few times, gave him some of the food. We used to mess with him a little bit. Because where his toilet was on the floor, there was a hole in the back and you could be like, Pillow, Pillow, and talk to him from that. And he'd be like, my toilets talking, you know?

It wasn't nothing to harm with him. It was just us being bored at that time. So I would go back there and just be like, Pillow, Pillow, it's your toilet. You know? So to me that was pretty comical. So don't hate me for that one, but I thought it was funny.

Ira Glass

Scott told John that after he left Guantanamo, he would think about Mohamedou and dream about him. And back home in the state's at church, they give a talk about forgiveness and reconciliation that made him think that he should reach out.

So when John was filming Scott in Kentucky, at one point John pulled out his iPhone and suggested they call Mohamedou right then. Two of Scott's kids were there. One was playing Minecraft. There was a bunch of pets around. And they got him on the phone.

Scott

Hey, Pillow.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

No fucking way!

Scott

Hey. Watch your mouth before I tie you up. Huh?

[LAUGHING]

Scott

I got fat, man.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Man, you would have been-- I like your beard, man.

Scott

I like your haircut.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

It's beautiful.

Scott

I like that haircut.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Thank you very much.

Scott

You're shiny.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

That's automatic haircut. It fell off.

Ira Glass

Watch your mouth before I tie you up?

John Goetz

Yeah. That's the first thing he really says to him.

Scott

So I feel like I never really caused you any harm, but I wanted to seek forgiveness. You know, because as a kid, a 20-year-old kid, I didn't know what I was doing.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

You're right.

Scott

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Mohamedou says you're right, but then he brings up how some of the guards used to make him take off his orange uniform and then use it to wipe down the entire cell, including the toilet, and then put the uniform back on, and how bad that felt.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

And I was so scared.

Ira Glass

And how in that cell all he had was prayer, but Scott wouldn't let him pray.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I remember one day I ask you, why do you prevent me from praying? Why you prevent me from doing my fasting and so-- and then you said, I don't know. I don't know. Maybe I go to Hell for that.

Scott

Well, was that-- was that me?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yeah, I think it was you.

Scott

No.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

You always discussed about religion and so.

Scott

Yeah, it's a big deal to me. But now that I'm at church, I realize that everyone has their own religion. And it's fine. It's totally acceptable.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Correct.

Scott

I have nothing against anyone else with a different religion. It doesn't bother me.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Same God. Same God.

Scott

Yep.

John Goetz

You know, they talk for a few more minutes. It's not a long phone call. The line breaks down and freezes, like right in the middle of the call.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Anyway, I just want to say, no harm done, and thank you for reaching out. And--

Scott

You might not say there's no harm done, but you lost 14 years. I think we're freezing up again.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yes.

Scott

Yeah.

John Goetz

And then, they kind of reconnect, and basically, say goodbye.

Scott

Well, look, I'm going to let you go to bed. And it was amazing talking to you.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Same here, bud.

Scott

It was like talking to an old friend again. It was awesome.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Same here.

Scott

I love you!

[BACKGROUND VOICES]

Scott's Child

Dad.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I love you, man.

Ira Glass

Oh, wait, does Mohamedou say, I love you, man?

John Goetz

He says, I love you, man. Yeah.

Scott

Goodbye.

[CHILD TALKING IN BACKGROUND]

God, I miss that guy. Just talking to him for just right then, you know, brings all the emotions back. You know, just-- I honestly do love that guy. You know, I think he's an amazing guy.

I don't know why I said it, but it just came over me. You know, just to know that I still have that connection with someone is absolutely amazing.

Ira Glass

We're devoting the rest of our program today to two other calls, which go very differently from the one that you just heard with Scott. These two calls, they were with people who were way tougher on Mohamedou when he was locked up. These are people who interrogated him back then. These are people who have not softened towards him today.

And what's so interesting about hearing these conversations is that Guantanamo has been such a black box for 20 years. And these conversations with Mohamedou Ould Slahi, you'll hear, give this glimpse at how the Americans and the detainees interacted in this way that I, for sure, had never heard before. These conversations that are like sparring matches or, I don't know, mental chess games. From WBZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

OK, so before we get to these calls, because this comes up in the calls, you need to know a little bit about how Mohamedou ended up in Guantanamo in the first place.

John Goetz

Well, from the point of view of the US government, there were a lot of things that made Mohamedou suspicious.

Ira Glass

Again, this is journalist-filmmaker, John Goetz.

John Goetz

Number one, he had gone to Afghanistan in the early 1990s and was actually a part of Al-Qaeda at that phase, and part of, kind of, the Osama bin Laden wing of the mujahideen.

Ira Glass

You may remember, back in the 1980s, the US had supported the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Mohamedou says that after he left Afghanistan in the early '90s, he broke with Al-Qaeda.

John Goetz

But his cousin became one of the top leaders of Al-Qaeda. He even called-- his cousin even called Mohamedou while he was in Germany from Osama bin Laden's satellite phone.

Ira Glass

Mohamedou also had contact with a bunch of people who ended up committing terrorist acts. Like, he was close friends with a man who later was connected to a synagogue bombing in Tunisia. He attended a mosque in Canada, where a major terrorist plot was planned.

John Goetz

He had at least one of the organizers of the 9/11 attacks stay his apartment in Duisburg in October, 1999. Some say that even two of the hijackers were there with him that evening, and he kind of encouraged them to go to Afghanistan.

But the fact that he had contact with all of these different people-- all of these things together, you know, it's kind of like, is there an explanation that's not ominous about Mohamedou? That was kind of like the position of the US government at the time.

Ira Glass

Well, no, that sounds pretty bad. What does Mohamedou say about that?

John Goetz

Well, Mohamedou says-- in each and every case, he gives a simple explanation as for why it happened. I mean, he explains, for example, that his cousin called because he needed Mohamedou to transfer some money to a family member in Mauritania. He says, regarding the mosque in Canada that was involved in planning this terrorist attack, you know, that there were thousands of people that went to the mosque and he never met the guy who was involved who planned the attack.

Ira Glass

OK, and so with that, I think that everybody has caught up with the basic facts about Mohamedou, and we are ready to turn to Act 1.

Act One: Sydney

Ira Glass

Act 1, Sydney. So the reporter for the rest of the hour is going to be Bastian Berbner, who's been on our show before. He's actually been working with John Goetz for over a year. As John made his film, Bastian made a podcast series from the story, for German Public Radio. Here's Bastian.

Bastian Berbner

After years of searching for Mohamedou's captors, John eventually got a tip about a woman who the person said probably knows more about Mohamedou's case than anyone else. That woman's name was Sydney. We are not using her last name here.

Back in 2003, she was in military intelligence, working as an analyst on Mohamedou's case. John found her in a Texas suburb. She's a teacher now, and she agreed to talk. Mohamedou Ould Slahi was the case of her life. In Guantanamo, she spent weeks questioning him, day in, day out, which is rare for someone who isn't an interrogator.

Sydney

I told Slahi-- I was like, I always call him my Gitmo boyfriend, because I know more about him than anybody else who was in my life at that time. And yeah, so he was in-- on the cover of the Gitmo magazine, or paper, and he wrote on it, "to my girlfriend, never forget our times together."

Bastian Berbner

Sydney was a young soldier when 9/11 happened. From then on, she says her life only knew one purpose-- to catch Al-Qaeda terrorists. She was at work before anyone else and stayed after everyone had left. No partner, no vacations for 15 years.

Sydney

When I was in the thick of AQ every day, I had pictures of dead guys next to pictures of my family on my desk. And people were like, how do you have that?

Bastian Berbner

Wait a minute. Tell me about that. What kind of pictures?

Sydney

Oh, some of them were pretty gruesome. I remember one was-- the dude's face literally was blown off. Like, it's a reminder. Like, that dude would have killed me if given an opportunity, and I'm doing everything I can to help track these people down, so they don't get those opportunities to hurt me or my family.

Bastian Berbner

When John asked Sydney if she wanted to talk to Mohamedou, she was reluctant at first, but eventually, she said yes. She still believes he was a key Al-Qaeda terrorist.

Not a fighter or a suicide bomber or anything of that sort, no. Him being super intelligent, charismatic, speaking five languages, she thinks his job was more in the background, recruiting terrorists for Al-Qaeda, including the 9/11 hijackers.

Sydney

He at least served 14 years in jail. That's something. Was it enough? Absolutely not. Not at all.

Producer

What would have been enough?

Sydney

Personally, death.

Bastian Berbner

For a while, I thought, she is so convinced of his guilt, she must have something to back this up. But I talked to her for hours about it. Days. And the stuff she kept bringing up, it either didn't check out when I looked into it. Or the judge had seen it, too, and still ordered Mohamedou's release.

Sydney worked on Mohamedou's case for years. She traveled to Mauritania, interviewed his ex-wife. She says, in Guantanamo, she pushed to have him isolated from the other detainees, but she never got a confession out of him. Now, 17 years later, she thought, he was a free man. Maybe she could finally get him to admit something.

While the film crew set up in her house, she started writing down the list of topics she wanted to cover with him, like 9/11. She was sure he knew about the attacks beforehand. Then his cousin, the one who called him from bin Laden's phone, and Canada. In late 1999, Mohamedou moved there for two months. Sydney was always convinced that he was the head of an Al-Qaeda cell there.

Sydney

[CHUCKLES] He gets so upset when you talk about Canada, and that's definitely one of the topics I'd really want to bring up with him.

Bastian Berbner

Meanwhile, John and I were with Mohamedou in Mauritania. John asked him what he remembered about Sydney.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

She was dying, thirsty, dying to find something. Because that was a very big thing in Guantanamo Bay. If you break up a "terrorist," quote unquote. And she was like, oh my god, when is this going to happen?

When am I going to get my break? I was her break. And not having that break in me, it was like-- I would imagine it would have been very hard for her. But today, maybe I will give her the break.

John Goetz

Why are you doing this?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I just like-- you know, some people like to watch horror movies because the horror is not-- they are not part of it. This is the first time I get to watch a horror movie and I'm not a part of it.

I'm removed from her. She has no power over me. I just want to face her where she has no power over me. Absolutely no power. She can't do nothing to me. That, to me, is very important.

Sydney

OK, we're ready. Are you ready, Mohamedou?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I don't know. It depends.

Sydney

Oh, you don't know? What does it depend on?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

[LAUGHS] First, I want to say, to tell you that I'm so happy to see you again, and that I'm truly, truly sorry that Trump lost the elections.

Sydney

[LAUGHS] You would have voted for Trump? Oh, Mohamedou!

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Me? I don't know. I don't have the right to vote.

Sydney

No, would you have? If you could have, would you have voted for that man?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

No, I like to watch drama unfold.

[SYDNEY LAUGHS]

I don't like to be a part of it.

Sydney

It was a dra-- oh, I think you lie on that part. You are always a part of drama, Mohamedou. I'm happy to see you, too.

Bastian Berbner

I remember, a few minutes into the call, John and I, we looked at each other like, what the hell is going on? It's almost like hostile flirting or something. Later, she told us, that's how you have to talk to Mohamedou to get anything out of him.

The first thing Sydney brings up is his book. In the original draft, she saw, Mohamedou only briefly refers to her, and only by the nickname the guards gave her-- TOF. It stands for Tons Of Fun. Sydney says they called her that because she had a big chest.

Sydney

And I think you had me in there as TOF. Is that right?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

That's correct. That's correct. Yes.

Sydney

So--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

What did that stand for--

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Why did you send--

Sydney

--Mohamedou?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I don't know. This is one of the guards. You can't do that.

Sydney

Come on. Let's hear it, because I heard what it was for, but I want you to tell me.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I don't want to be kidnapped again.

Sydney

[LAUGHS]

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

(LAUGHING) I don't want to be kidnapped again.

Sydney

Hey, I am not that powerful.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

No, but-- no, no, no, but I will tell you something.

Sydney

Are you scared to tell me what that means? Come on. You're not going to offend me. I already know what it means.

Bastian Berbner

Sydney slips into the conversation one of the topics she wanted to discuss-- Mohamedou's cousin, Abu Hafs, the high-ranking Al-Qaeda guy. Today, Abu Hafs lives down the road from Mohamedou, in a mansion. He was never captured.

When I was in Mauritania, I visited him. And it was kind of mind-boggling to see that this key Al-Qaeda guy is not only free, but he's actually very well respected in Mauritania, which is a partner of the United States.

Sydney

Because Abu Hafs, as smart in his own right, is not as smart as you. Have you talked to him?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Very little.

Sydney

Oh, yeah?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

But you are a very smart person. How could you make a judgment? You never met him. You never talked to him. I'm a little bit--

Sydney

Oh, judgment about his intelligence?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yes. May I challenge your idea?

Sydney

Of course.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

You said--

Sydney

Of course.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

You said he's not as smart as me.

Sydney

Yeah.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

So how could you make that judgment without being with him, interrogating him, too?

Sydney

I never interrogated you. We always talked.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

OK, you brought me tea, you brought me biscuit. We dated for a couple of times.

[SYDNEY LAUGHS]

Let's put it that way. So however, I will challenge that idea and tell you--

Sydney

OK.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I will say he's smarter than me. Because he had $25 million bounty on his head. I had $0 bounty on my head. He evaded American capture until American craziness evaporated and they say he's not part of 9/11.

And he snuck himself-- smuggled himself through continents, and he's back in Mauritania, living his life very well with his kid, with his family, without fear, without nothing. I would say, compared to some person who was kidnapped in a mafia-like operation, taken to Jordan, not to the United States, from Jordan to Afghanistan, from Gaza to Guantanamo Bay. I would say, any given day, person number one wins the smart card, any given day. So that's my challenge.

[BOTH LAUGH]

Sydney

OK, well, I will say this.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

OK.

Sydney

That you, your purpose in Al-Qaeda was totally different than Abu Hafs. What do you call him, by the way?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Thank you, ma'am, bin Laden-- Madam bin Laden. I did not know that.

Sydney

So his purpose, totally different than your purpose, for Al-Qaeda.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Thank you for telling me about my purpose.

Sydney

Oh, you know this.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I'm so--

Sydney

You know this, Mohamedou.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I'm so, so eager to hear about this. Give me the update. Give the update and give my next mission, too, while you're at it.

Bastian Berbner

About an hour into the call, Sydney finally brings up Canada, the things she says Mohamedou never wanted to talk about. She's convinced that he was involved in the Millennium plot, a plan to blow up Los Angeles airport in late 1999. It failed when an Algerian man was arrested crossing the border from Canada with a car full of explosives. Before that, he had attended the same mosque in Montreal as Muhamedou, which is why the Canadian government started looking into Mohamedou.

Sydney

I always-- OK, so this is going way, way back, way, way back. And now, Canada, your favorite place on Earth, Canada.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Canada. Who would have thought?

Sydney

I know. Who would have thought this young Mauritanian kid would want to go and live in Canada? After living in Germany.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yes.

Sydney

Which-- Germany is fantastic. I love Germany.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yes. Oh, I agree with you. Fuck Canada.

Sydney

[LAUGHS] I know you hated the Canadians.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Not the-- I love the Canadians. I hate what the government did to me.

Sydney

Yeah, I remember. I remember when you said--

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Sucking up to American government. I hate that.

Sydney

They were always up my ass. This is what you did. They were always up my ass. That's what you would say.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yes, absolutely.

Sydney

Why do you think they were always up your ass?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I tell you why, because American told them, this is a very bad guy. He's a, quote unquote, "terrorist," which is a fucking political term, you know.

Sydney

What, terrorist?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yes. You cannot, for instance-- in the United States, you cannot say KKK is a terrorist group, because it would not fly.

Bastian Berbner

They both say this is how their conversations went in Guantanamo. She would bring up topics she wanted answers on. He would swat her away. And this here is a good example. She asks about Canada, and within seconds, he talks about the KKK and American bigotry. Eventually, Sydney steers the conversation back to Canada, and to his cousin, Abu Hafs, whose real name, by the way, is Mahfouz.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Terrorism is a political term.

Sydney

We're talking about, why was Canada up your ass.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

OK, I tell you why.

Sydney

OK.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Because when I came to Canada, so I had a phone call with my cousin. He called me.

Sydney

Yeah, that-- do you ever just go, man, fuck you, Mahfouz, look what you did to my life? Do you ever say that? Did you ever once think that?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Every day.

Sydney

Yeah?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Every day.

Bastian Berbner

A few hours before their call, a trailer for the movie about Muhamedou had been released. It's called The Mauritanian. Muhamedou insisted on showing it to Sydney.

Sydney

A lot of drama right there, Mohamedou.

[MOHAMEDOU LAUGHS]

For someone who said they don't want to be in a lot of drama, that's a lot of drama.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Thank you for congratulating me.

Sydney

You know what bothers me about that, Mohamedou? And this is one of those things. These are one of those, like, those unresolved issues that I wanted to talk to you about.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yeah, you will get your chance, you know. But today, I'm running the show.

Sydney

OK. You've always run the show, just so you're aware.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

[LAUGHS] I take that as a compliment.

Sydney

Take it as you will.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

How did you mean it?

Sydney

I took-- you've always had your way about you, Mohamedou. And your role was always the one of recruiter, and you've done that successfully your entire life. So that's what I mean.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Thank you so much. So I'm very sorry that you believe that I'm an evil man. But I can live with that, because you have no power over me.

Sydney

No, 'cause you won.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Today, I'm going to go back--

Sydney

Yeah, I agree with that.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I go back to my home, I drink tea, I will sleep, I will watch movies. I will not go back to the cell. And you will not try to report, Mohamedou Ould Slahi didn't comment on him recruiting. God knows that I am not a recruiter for Al-Qaeda or any organization. That's between me and Allah and the people who believe me, and there is no fucking shred of evidence that the US government could represent at the court of law that I was.

And that Judge Robertson, he's not my brother. He's not a Muslim. He's not an Arab. He's not an African. He's a fucking American conservative.

Bastian Berbner

Judge Robertson was the person who ruled in Mohamedou's habeas case. I'm not sure, by the way, if he saw himself as a conservative. He looked at the evidence the US government produced against Mohamedou and said, that's not enough to hold him. It actually took another six years for him to get released, because the Obama administration appealed the judge's ruling. He got out in 2016.

Sydney

So OK--

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

But I must say that--

Sydney

Are you ready to get back to Canada?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I must have to say that I have to go in very, very-- in five minutes.

Sydney

What?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yes. I cannot stay longer, because--

Bastian Berbner

Can you just let her-- she has a few more points.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I know, I know, but I don't have time to finish them. But you could organize another call. But I'm not staying.

Sydney

So I do want-- I respect your time 100%, and I understand that you want to go home, and it's been a long day. But I really think that you and I both would like to get to the end of something.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Absolutely. I welcome you absolutely, and I have no secret. It's so good to catch up with you. So good. I'm so happy.

Sydney

You, too, Mohamedou.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

And thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me.

Sydney

Absolutely. You, too. Thank you.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

This is only the first. Thank you, too. Bye.

Sydney

Bye.

Bastian Berbner

Immediately after the call, Sydney turns to one of the film's producers.

Sydney

You might not have seen what I saw. He left on purpose. Purpose, he ended that, because he knows what I'm going to ask him-- the whole Canada thing. And you saw, he got exactly upset, and I couldn't even go into it. That's how he behaves.

Bastian Berbner

For Sydney, it was the same as it had always been.

But for Mohamedou, this round felt very different. Right after the call, we were in the backseat of a car, driving to the hotel where I was staying in Mauritania. I'd been interviewing him for days at that point and had never seen him so giddy.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

She is stuck. She's so frustrated because she couldn't interrogate me. And she wants to interrogate me now, to have closure. I'm not giving her that closure.

Bastian Berbner

She's dying to have answers.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

She's dying to interrogate me, and she was kicked out. She was sent away. I am-- she was there not to check on my health.

She was there to put me behind bars for the rest of my life. I am not giving her the satisfaction. You know, I'm letting her die with frustration. That's my plan.

Bastian Berbner

Your revenge.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I mean, my sweet revenge, intellectual revenge. That was my plan.

Ira Glass

Bastian Berbner. Coming up, Mohamedou talks to the interrogator who literally haunts his nightmares the most. That's in a minute with Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. If you're just tuning in, today on our program, we're listening to these very unusual conversations between Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a former Guantanamo detainee, and three of the Americans who were his captors at Guantanamo.

Act Two: Mr. X

Ira Glass

In Mohamedou Ould Slahi's book, one of the most chilling sections is about an interrogator who we only knew as Mr. X. He shows up in the next part of our show. Act 2, Mr. X. Our reporter for this hour is Bastian Berbner. Here he is.

Bastian Berbner

During the summer of 2003, Mohamedou was interrogated in three shifts by three interrogators, up to 18 hours a day. Mr. X was the guy who came at night.

Bastian Berbner

Do you remember when you saw Mr. X for the last time?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I never saw Mr. X, so there is no seeing him the last time or the first time.

Bastian Berbner

What do you mean?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Like, he was always in his overall, and he had this mask that completely covered his face.

Bastian Berbner

Completely?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yeah, completely covered his face. You couldn't see anything.

Bastian Berbner

Even his eyes?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Everything. Everything. It's like a bag he would put on his head. Or I don't know whether he could see even through it. But I could see the shape of his body, you know, and--

Bastian Berbner

Can you describe it?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yeah, he was tall, skinny, muscular.

Bastian Berbner

Mr. X wore blue overalls, like a car mechanic. Black boots, black gloves, black ski mask, sunglasses. When he talked to Mohamedou, he called him by his prisoner number, 760.

Night after night, he tried to break Mohamedou. He blasted heavy metal music and exposed him to strobe lights. He cranked up the AC until Mohamedou started shivering. He turned up the heat until he sweat through his clothes.

He made him stand with his wrists chained to a bolt on the floor, forcing him into a stooped position for hours, which was excruciating for Mohamedou. It was all part of the interrogation plan crafted specifically to break Mohamedou. Donald Rumsfeld signed off on it.

The worst incident Mohamedou describes was a day in late August, 2003, when a few men dragged him out of the interrogation room, put blackout goggles on his eyes, earmuffs over his ears, and threw him into a Humvee. They drove him around and beat him. He was bleeding from his head.

They put him on a boat for a few hours. At one point, he heard people speaking in Arabic, as if he was going to be handed over to another country. What they had actually done was drive the boat around the Guantanamo Bay all day.

At the end, they put him in a cell built to maximize his isolation. No daylight, little sound, no objects of any sort. That's when Mohamedou broke.

He started to produce all this information, so much that they got him a computer to type it all out. Mohamedou says, the stuff he told them, all of it was bullshit. In fact, when the military prosecutor building a case against him learned that Mohamedou was tortured, he dropped the case.

Mohamedou remembers that it was Mr. X who beat him the worst during the mock rendition. For all those years since, he considered Mr. X his worst tormentor. Mr. X is the one who, 18 years later, still wakes him with nightmares.

John searched for Mr. X for years. And then, one day, he got a tip about a Facebook profile. It had photos of a guy, extremely muscular, like a bodybuilder. John sent him messages.

Two years later, he agreed to a meeting in a city hours away from where he lives. He looks a lot different now. He's still physically imposing, but the muscles are gone.

He wears hipster glasses, and his beard is graying. And just to state the obvious, his name is not actually Mr. X. He let us film him for the documentary, but we agreed not to use his real name for the story.

John Goetz

So who was Mr. X?

Mr. X

So I take it you're not literally saying, who is me, Mr. X. Who is Mr. X? Well, Mr. X was the thing that comes at night that you don't want to have to talk to. So the first thing I did was, well, I need to strip away my humanity. I need to not look like a normal human being. And I did that by covering up.

John Goetz

What other elements did it have to create Mr. X? What other stuff did you need?

Mr. X

Well, from a theatrical perspective, there was-- he had to be completely in control, and that was by design, to strip control from Slahi. Slahi liked to be in control. He'd try to take control of interrogations all the time. So one minute, I could be very rational, and then the next minute, I could be completely enraged at the slightest comment, possibly even an innocuous comment. It didn't even have to make sense.

Bastian Berbner

Give me a general sense of what the dynamic between the two of you was.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

There was hardly any dynamic. He was the boss.

Bastian Berbner

What do you mean?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

He was the boss. He was deciding when I sit down, when I stand up, when I have a chair, when I write, when I don't write, when I go back to my room. He was calling all the shots. There was nothing. I was just an object in that relationship, and I just accepted my fate.

Bastian Berbner

When John asked Mr. X if he wanted to speak to Mohamedou again, he said no. It's a complicated thing for him. He told John about it in the car.

John Goetz

Yeah, why are you talking to us? I mean, like, you know, because other people didn't want to talk to us, you know. Why are you talking to us?

Mr. X

Because it's the right thing to do. So one, I want to-- I don't want Mr. Slahi to have the sole voice of what occurred. But more importantly, when I was there, and we were told at one point that we were at this historical-- this historical point in American history, you know, that we were heroes and we were on the side of righteousness.

But if you take the Slahi case alone, that's not what happened. We're not on the right side of history on this one. So I want to put out for the record that we made mistakes, in my opinion.

And people should never be treated that way. And that's created a lot of problems for me psychologically. And I told you before, I had, basically, a mental collapse over it.

Bastian Berbner

Unlike Sydney, who was an analyst, Mr. X was an interrogator. Guantanamo was his first time doing that job. He was in his mid-30s and part of an elite military unit at Guantanamo, called the Special Projects Team.

There were eight people in all-- interrogators and analysts. They only worked the most high-value detainees, the most important of whom at the time was Mohamedou Ould Slahi. The military thought he might have information that could lead to bin Laden or prevent the next big attack.

Mr. X's job was to make Mohamedou talk. And the idea was, you do that by being tough, really tough, using what they called enhanced techniques.

Mr. X

Enhanced techniques were harsh interrogation techniques that today are outlawed, that today are illegal.

John Goetz

So, torture.

Mr. X

Some would be considered absolutely-- would be considered torture by today's standards, absolutely. Yes.

John Goetz

And what about your standards?

Mr. X

Yes. Yeah. Yeah, you got to understand, it's hard. It's hard to-- it's a hard thing to say.

John Goetz

Wait, what's hard?

Mr. X

That I was involved in something that's torture, right? That somebody was psychologically tortured. Now, these things are still being debated today.

John Goetz

And so did you torture?

Mr. X

Yeah. I mean, it's torture.

Bastian Berbner

When Mr. X returned home after Guantanamo, he started to really think about what he had been part of. He began drinking, retreated from his wife and kids. He had obsessive thoughts about mutilating himself.

A doctor diagnosed PTSD. For Mr. X, this was the start of a process of self-examination. There is hardly a day, he says, that he doesn't think about Mohamedou.

John tried to persuade Mr. X to talk to him. There was a film crew in Mauritania all set up in case he agreed. Mr. X was reluctant. He still thinks Mohamedou was a terrorist. And having read his book and a few interviews that Mohamedou had done, he got the sense that he's on a mission to rebrand himself from suspected terrorist to magnanimous forgiver.

Mr. X

I think if I were to engage him in a conversation about this, that in a way, I would be feeding into his brand that he's making himself now. And I don't feel comfortable with that. I really don't.

Bastian Berbner

They're in his garage. Mr. X says he needs to think about it. He goes over to work with some pottery clay, something he's been doing as a kind of therapy.

Mr. X

All right.

Bastian Berbner

A few minutes later, John tries again.

John Goetz

You're going to do some art and think about making the phone call?

Mr. X

[LAUGHS] Yeah, I just did the art. Can I have a second or what? (CHUCKLING) Gosh, John.

[JOHN CHUCKLES]

John Goetz

I'm just wondering.

[MR. X GROANS]

Mr. X

Why not? In for a penny, in for a pound, John, so--

John Goetz

OK. All right.

Mr. X

I'm trusting you on this.

John Goetz

Yeah. Erin, could you come? Wait a second.

Mr. X

You're gonna call him right now?

John Goetz

Yeah. Wait a second.

Mr. X

Oh, my lord.

Bastian Berbner

The producers quickly set up a call on a laptop and hand it to Mr. X. Mohamedou is looking back at him from Mauritania, 17 years after they last met. He's seen photos of Mr. X before, but this is the first conversation they've had with each other where he isn't wearing a mask.

Mr. X

Mr. Slahi. How are you?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

How are you doing, sir?

Mr. X

I'm not unwell. How about yourself?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I'm doing very well.

Mr. X

That's good.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Thank you for asking.

Mr. X

Yes, sir. Well, it's interesting. I was exceptionally reluctant to make this call, because I have a lot of mixed feelings about the era and the things that happened. But I wanted to explain a couple of things to you.

Bastian Berbner

Mr. X starts talking and takes control of the conversation.

Mr. X

So first and foremost--

Bastian Berbner

He doesn't stop for four minutes. And the thing he begins with isn't how the torture was wrong. It's about him, Mr. X, and how Mohamedou described him in his book. Mr. X says he wasn't the one who beat Mohamedou during the mock rendition, which, from my reporting, does seem to be true.

Mr. X

And I was shocked and just floored that you perceived that I was one of the people that entered the room and inflicted the physical abuse upon you. I'm not sure why you perceived that. It does bother me greatly that anyone, but especially you, would think that Mr. X would do that.

That's not Mr. X, and that's not me and who I really am. You see? So you were right to be surprised that Mr. X would have done something like that, because I didn't. I will tell you, another part that's difficult for me here, talking to you, is that I'm not convinced of your innocence.

And I still believe, based on the information that I had received, that you are an enemy of the United States. But I will say that no one deserved the treatment that you received, that we were misguided. And what we did was absolutely, without question, wrong.

So no one who is in-- no one in a-- no democratic society, based on the values of America as I understand, should have been arrested the way you were, brought to Guantanamo, treated the way you were, and kept as long as you were. That's all I can say. And I-- you know, I just-- I hope you have a good life, man.

Did you want to respond at all, or--

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I guess. So first of all, I have no reason to believe that you're lying to me. I have no reason to believe that. All I can say is that that's what I perceived, based on your voice I've been hearing for so many nights, so many late nights, with so much pain and suffering.

What happened happened, and I'm completely-- if you did it or you didn't do it, I'm just saying that I completely forgive you or anyone who inflicted pain. And that's wholeheartedly, because I want to forgive myself, and I want to live in peace with me. And--

Mr. X

Yeah, I think everybody has to accept their actions and forgive themself. So I want to make sure it's also clear I'm not asking you for your forgiveness. I have to forgive myself. So--

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

That's OK.

Mr. X

Yeah, and I knew you would know that. But in a strange way, I thought it was important for you to know that I know what happened to you. I know how it happened.

It sounds exactly like how you describe it, except for the fact that it was me and these other people. I never did any of that stuff. So you can believe it or not. It's fine. But I acknowledge that it occurred.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

So it's OK. Thank you very much for acknowledging it. As to the assertion that I'm-- maybe-- or I am the enemy of the United States, I can assure you, for better or worse, for what it's worth, that I've never been the enemy to your country.

I've never hurt anyone of your country. And for that matter, I never hurt any person, ever, ever. And the facts of my case speak to that.

Bastian Berbner

Mr. X tells Mohamedou he believes he was released because the torture made his case impossible to prosecute, not because he was actually innocent.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I just want to mention one thing to you. So if the United States tortures people, they don't release them, and they don't win cases because they were tortured. Case in point, KSM.

Bastian Berbner

KSM is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man accused of being the mastermind behind 9/11. He was waterboarded 183 times in a secret prison, and then brought to Guantanamo, where he remains today.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

And the people around him, they were heavily tortured, and they are still in prison. So it's not like the United States--

Mr. X

So let me do this, because I'm not going to get into the greater policy decisions that are made above me and above you. You know what I mean? I'm taking ownership of the things that I was involved in.

Bastian Berbner

The way Mr. X interrupts Mohamedou here, he does that several times during the call. Whenever Mohamedou brings something up that Mr. X doesn't want to talk about, he cuts him off. It's a tactic he used during the interrogations at Guantanamo to keep Mohamedou on point, keep him talking about the things Mr. X wanted to hear.

The call lasts about 19 minutes. Mr. X speaks for about 14 of them. He seemed like a different person than before the call, when he was polite and considerate. It was like a switch had flipped inside him. John tries to change the dynamic by bringing up something he and Mr. X had talked about.

John Goetz

If it's OK with you, I'm going to send him a picture.

Mr. X

John wants to send you the painting I did.

John Goetz

I'd love to see his reaction.

Bastian Berbner

This is one of the paintings Mr. X made after he left the military. It was a portrait of Mohamedou as he remembers him the day when he was beaten. Mr. X destroyed the painting after he made it.

He says it was too upsetting to look at. But he has a photo of it on his phone. John texts Mohamedou the photo while they talk.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

So is-- how are you living now? So are you married? Do you have kids?

Mr. X

I'm not going to talk about my family. I'm not going to talk about my family, man. I'm not going to talk about my family or where I am or what I do or don't do. That's just how it is, pal.

John Goetz

Can you tell him that the painting--

Mr. X

He said he sent the painting to you. Did you receive it yet?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I have--

Mr. X

An image-- it's on your WhatsApp.

Bastian Berbner

In the painting, Mohamedou is in bad shape. He's bleeding from his nose and lip. Underneath the blackout goggles, his eye is swollen and bloody. Mr. X said, in all his years, he had never seen anyone that terrified.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Ah, I see. Ah, wow. This detainee looks much better than the actual detainee.

[BOTH CHUCKLE]

Mr. X

I don't think so. You didn't look very good that day, and that painting is not meant to make you-- it's to reflect what happened to you, so. If I had done the things, I wouldn't have painted that. [CHUCKLES] So.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Anyway, I wish you good luck, man, wherever you are, whatever you do. And you know, that's all I can tell you. And I completely-- I completely-- like I say, I forgive you. I don't need you to ask for any forgiveness.

Mr. X

I got you. That's a personal thing. I get it. Yeah.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yes.

Mr. X

All right. Well, I look forward to seeing the movie when it comes out.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Thank you.

Mr. X

Yup. I really don't have anything else to say.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Bye!

Mr. X

Goodbye, Mr. Slahi.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Tschüss.

Mr. X

Tschüss. Close it? What am I doing? Yeah? Bye.

Bastian Berbner

Mr. X turns to John.

Mr. X

Are you happy?

Bastian Berbner

Mr. X wasn't happy. The way he sees it, it's a big deal for a former interrogator to talk to a guy he thinks was a terrorist and admit the way they treated him was wrong. But Mohamedou didn't seem to care.

He just kept redirecting the conversation, the same way he had done in Guantanamo. So then he found himself cutting Mohamedou off. It was like being Mr. X again, the guy who he worked so hard to get away from for years.

Mr. X

It wasn't a good feeling. It wasn't a good feeling at all. I mean, I was absolutely on the defensive, going into it. Like, I-- it is-- I can't even describe it to you.

I don't know about him, but I feel like we're inextricably locked in a dance, a macabre dance, perhaps to our dying day. In that moment, we weren't Slahi and who I am as a person. We really both kind of regressed. I really believe that's the case, and that's why I had the anger that was coming up. And I didn't like that.

Bastian Berbner

Do you fear that in this intellectual chess game, as you said, kind of who was winning the--

Mr. X

Oh, he won. He won the chess game. He has been masterful, first of all, for weathering what we subjected him to. The worst that we could throw at him. The worst.

To include stuff that should never happen, that is not allowed. He weathered 14 years or whatever, 15 years of confinement. He wrote a New York Times best-selling book, and most people, hearing his tale now, believe that he is completely innocent of anything that ever was alleged. And I don't think that that's accurate.

Take nothing away from him. I would do exactly the same things. I respect his intellect, his strength of will, his ability to parlay this into something else. Good for him, really. And I don't say this sarcastically. I mean it. Good for you, you know. And yeah, he won. You won that.

Bastian Berbner

But Mohamedou doesn't think he won. And he wasn't happy with how it went with Mr. X, how Mr. X dominated the call.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I don't like monologues. Because when I want a monologue, I go to Friday prayers. And just the monologue that he kept on and on and on. And I was polite enough to listen to everything, but I don't want to listen to it anymore, you know. That's it.

Bastian Berbner

How did it make you feel?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Weird. Weird. Because we say, we have a saying in my culture. Allah gave you one mouth and two ears. Do justice to your ears.

[LAUGHTER]

Bastian Berbner

Would you be up for watching the conversation you had with him and kind of going into that a little bit?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

No, I don't want. It was a very bad conversation. I don't want to listen to it. You can listen to it. I'm not interested.

Bastian Berbner

Mohamedou got his wish to have a conversation with his captors where he was a free man. He wanted that for all kinds of reasons-- forgiveness, revenge, to control his own story. With Scott and with Sydney, he found that very satisfying. But with Mr. X, what he hadn't counted on was how hard it would be for him, for them, to find a new way to talk to each other.

Ira Glass

Bastian Berbner is a reporter for Die Zeit. If you speak German, the 12-part podcast series he made with John Goetz is called Slahi: 14 Years in Guantanamo. John Goetz's film, where we got the incredible audio that you heard today, is called In Search of Monsters.

It is now being shown in many European countries but has no American distributor yet. John is looking for a distributor. If you're somebody in the film distribution business, perhaps the streaming business, his contact information is on our website.

Darling, nothing's changed. I still think the same. You want to say. You've got some more to say. But I've heard it before. I've heard it before. All these things in time, these bad conversations on my mind.

Well, our program was produced today by Dana Chivvis. People who put together today's show include Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Damien Graef, Seth Lind, Stowe Nelson, Lina Misitzis, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Alix Spiegel, Laura Starecheski, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Chloee Weiner. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman, our senior editor is David Kestenbaum, our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Poul Erik Heilbuth, Ole Pflueger, the German public broadcaster, NDR, and Sarah Koenig. Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 750 episodes for absolutely free.

Plus there are videos, there is a list of favorite shows. There's tons of other stuff there. Again, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr Torey Malatia. When I walked in the studio earlier to record today's program, Torey was there, sitting right at this microphone. I was like, Torey, I need to get in there. He was all--

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Yeah, you will get your chance. But today, I'm running the show.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories on This American Life.