The Mauritanian (originally published as Guantánamo Diary)


Introduction by Larry Siems

Edited by Larry Siems

By Mohamedou Ould Slahi

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This "profound and disturbing" (New York Times Book Review) bestseller written by a Guantánamo prisoner is now a major feature film starring Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster.

When The Mauritanian was first published as Guantánamo Diary in 2015—heavily redacted by the U.S. government—Mohamedou Ould Slahi was still imprisoned at the detainee camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, despite a federal court ruling ordering his release, and it was unclear when or if he would ever see freedom. In October 2016 he was finally released and reunited with his family. During his fourteen-year imprisonment the United States never charged him with a crime.

Now he is able to tell his story in full, with previously censored material restored. This searing diary is not merely a vivid record of a miscarriage of justice, but a deeply personal memoir—terrifying, darkly humorous, and surprisingly gracious. The Mauritanian is a document of immense emotional power and historical importance.


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A Timeline of Detention

January 2000 After spending twelve years studying, living, and working overseas, primarily in Germany and briefly in Canada, Mohamedou Ould Slahi decides to return to his home country of Mauritania. En route, he is detained twice at the behest of the United States—first by Senegalese police and then by Mauritanian authorities—and questioned by American FBI agents in connection with the so-called Millennium Plot to bomb LAX. Concluding that there is no basis to believe he was involved in the plot, authorities release him on February 19, 2000.
2000–fall 2001 Mohamedou lives with his family and works as an electrical engineer in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
September 29, 2001 Mohamedou is detained and held for two weeks by Mauritanian authorities and again questioned by FBI agents about the Millennium Plot. He is again released, with Mauritanian authorities publicly affirming his innocence.
November 20, 2001 Mauritanian police come to Mohamedou's home and ask him to accompany them for further questioning. He voluntarily complies, driving his own car to the police station.
November 28, 2001 A CIA rendition plane transports Mohamedou from Mauritania to a prison in Amman, Jordan, where he is interrogated for seven and a half months by Jordanian intelligence services.
July 19, 2002 Another CIA rendition plane retrieves Mohamedou from Amman; he is stripped, blindfolded, diapered, shackled, and flown to the U.S. military's Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The events recounted in Guantánamo Diary begin with this scene.
August 4, 2002 After two weeks of interrogation in Bagram, Mohamedou is bundled onto a military transport with thirty-four other prisoners and flown to Guantánamo. The group arrives and is processed into the facility on August 5, 2002.
2003–2004 U.S. military interrogators subject Mohamedou to a "special interrogation plan" that is personally approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Mohamedou's torture includes months of extreme isolation; a litany of physical, psychological, and sexual humiliations; death threats; threats to his family; and a mock kidnapping and rendition.
March 3, 2005 Mohamedou handwrites his petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
Summer 2005 Mohamedou handwrites the 466 pages that would become this book in his segregation cell in Guantánamo.
June 12, 2008 The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5–4 in Boumediene v. Bush that Guantánamo detainees have a right to challenge their detention through habeas corpus.
August–December 2009 U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson hears Mohamedou's habeas corpus petition.
March 22, 2010 Judge Robertson grants Mohamedou's habeas corpus petition and orders his release.
March 26, 2010 The Obama administration files a notice of appeal.
November 5, 2010 The DC Circuit Court of Appeals sends Mohamedou's habeas corpus case back to U.S. district court for rehearing. That case is still pending.
Present Mohamedou remains in Guantánamo, in the same cell where many of the events recounted in this book took place.

Editor's Notes on the Text, Redactions, and Annotations

This book is an edited version of the 466-page manuscript Mohamedou Ould Slahi wrote by hand in his Guantánamo prison cell in the summer and fall of 2005. It has been edited twice: first by the United States government, which added more than 2,500 black-bar redactions censoring Mohamedou's text, and then by me. Mohamedou was not able to participate in, or respond to, either one of these edits.

He has, however, always hoped that his manuscript would reach the reading public—it is addressed directly to us, and to American readers in particular—and he has explicitly authorized this publication in its edited form, with the understanding and expressed wish that the editorial process be carried out in a way that faithfully conveys the content and fulfills the promise of the original. He entrusted me to do this work, and that is what I have tried to do in preparing this manuscript for print.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi wrote his memoir in English, his fourth language and a language he acquired largely in U.S. custody, as he describes, often amusingly, throughout the book. This is both a significant act and a remarkable achievement in itself. It is also a choice that creates or contributes to some of the work's most important literary effects. By my count, he deploys a vocabulary of under seven thousand words—a lexicon about the size of the one that powers the Homeric epics. He does so in ways that sometimes echo those epics, as when he repeats formulaic phrases for recurrent phenomena and events. And he does so, like the creators of the epics, in ways that manage to deliver an enormous range of action and emotion. In the editing process, I have tried above all to preserve this feel and honor this accomplishment.

At the same time, the manuscript that Mohamedou managed to compose in his cell in 2005 is an incomplete and at times fragmentary draft. In some sections the prose feels more polished, and in some the handwriting looks smaller and more precise, both suggesting possible previous drafts; elsewhere the writing has more of a first-draft sprawl and urgency. There are significant variations in narrative approach, with less linear storytelling in the sections recounting the most recent events—as one would expect, given the intensity of the events and proximity of the characters he is describing. Even the overall shape of the work is unresolved, with a series of flashbacks to events that precede the central narrative appended at the end.

In approaching these challenges, like every editor seeking to satisfy every author's expectation that mistakes and distractions will be minimized and voice and vision sharpened, I have edited the manuscript on two levels. Line by line, this has mostly meant regularizing verb tenses, word order, and a few awkward locutions, and occasionally, for clarity's sake, consolidating or reordering text. I have also incorporated the appended flashbacks within the main narrative and streamlined the manuscript as a whole, a process that brought a work that was in the neighborhood of 122,000 words to just under 100,000 in this version. These editorial decisions were mine, and I can only hope they would meet with Mohamedou's approval.

Throughout this process, I was confronted with a set of challenges specifically connected with the manuscript's previous editing process: the government's redactions. These redactions are changes that have been imposed on the text by the same government that continues to control the author's fate and has used secrecy as an essential tool of that control for more than thirteen years. As such, the black bars on the page serve as vivid visual reminders of the author's ongoing situation. At the same time, deliberately or not, the redactions often serve to impede the sense of narrative, blur the contours of characters, and obscure the open, approachable tone of the author's voice.

Because it depends on close reading, any process of editing a censored text will involve some effort to see past the black bars and erasures. The annotations that appear at the bottom of the page throughout the text are a kind of record of that effort.

These notes represent speculations that arose in connection with the redactions, based on the context in which the redactions appear, information that appears elsewhere in the manuscript, and what is now a wealth of publicly available sources about Mohamedou Ould Slahi's ordeal and about the incidents and events he chronicles here. Those sources include declassified government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation, news reports and the published work of a number of writers and investigative journalists, and extensive Justice Department and U.S. Senate investigations.

I have not attempted in these annotations to reconstruct the original redacted text or to uncover classified material. Rather, I have tried my best to present information that most plausibly corresponds to the redactions when that information is a matter of public record or evident from a careful reading of the manuscript, and when I believe it is important for the overall readability and impact of the text. If there are any errors in these speculations, the fault is entirely mine. None of Mohamedou Ould Slahi's attorneys holding security clearances has reviewed these introductory materials or the footnotes, contributed to them in any way, or confirmed or denied my speculations contained in them. Nor has anyone else with access to the unredacted manuscript reviewed these introductory materials or the footnotes, contributed to them in any way, or confirmed or denied my speculations contained in them.

So many of the editing challenges associated with bringing this remarkable work to print result directly from the fact that the U.S. government continues to hold the work's author, with no satisfactory explanation to date, under a censorship regime that prevents him from participating in the editorial process. I look forward to the day when Mohamedou Ould Slahi is free and we can read this work in its entirety, as he would have it published. Meanwhile I hope this version has managed to capture the accomplishment of the original, even as it reminds us, on almost every page, of how much we have yet to see.


by Larry Siems

In the summer and early fall of 2005, Mohamedou Ould Slahi handwrote a 466-page, 122,000-word draft of this book in his single-cell segregation hut in Camp Echo, Guantánamo.

He wrote it in installments, starting not long after he was finally allowed to meet with Nancy Hollander and Sylvia Royce, two attorneys from his pro bono legal team. Under the strict protocols of Guantánamo's sweeping censorship regime, every page he wrote was considered classified from the moment of its creation, and each new section was surrendered to the United States government for review.

On December 15, 2005, three months after he signed and dated the manuscript's last page, Mohamedou interrupted his testimony during an Administrative Review Board hearing in Guantánamo to tell the presiding officers:

I just want to mention here that I wrote a book recently while in jail here recently about my whole story, okay? I sent it for release to the District [of] Columbia, and when it is released I advise you guys to read it. A little advertisement. It is a very interesting book, I think.1

But Mohamedou's manuscript was not released. It was stamped "SECRET," a classification level for information that could cause serious damage to national security if it becomes public, and "NOFORN," meaning it can't be shared with any foreign nationals or intelligence services. It was deposited in a secure facility near Washington, DC, accessible only to those with a full security clearance and an official "need to know." For more than six years, Mohamedou's attorneys carried out litigation and negotiations to have the manuscript cleared for public release.

During those years, compelled largely by Freedom of Information Act litigation spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. government released thousands of secret documents that described the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Many of those documents hinted at Mohamedou's ordeal, first in the hands of the CIA, and then in the hands of the U.S. military in Guantánamo, where a "Special Projects Team" subjected him to one of the most stubborn, deliberate, and cruel interrogations in the record. A few of those documents contained something else as well: tantalizing samples of Mohamedou's voice.

One of these was in his own handwriting, in English. In a short note dated March 3, 2005, he wrote, "Hello. I, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, detained in GTMO under ISN #760, herewith apply for a writ of habeas corpus." The note concluded simply, "I have done no crimes against the U.S., nor did the U.S. charge me with crimes, thus I am filing for my immediate release. For further details about my case, I'll be happy for any future hearings."

Another handwritten document, also in English, was a letter to his attorney Sylvia Royce dated November 9, 2006, in which he joked, "You asked me to write you everything I told my interrogators. Are you out of your mind? How can I render uninterrupted interrogation that has been lasting the last 7 years? That's like asking Charlie Sheen how many women he dated." He went on:

Yet I provided you everything (almost) in my book, which the government denies you the access to. I was going to go deeper in details, but I figured it was futile.

To make a long story short, you may divide my time in two big steps.

(1) Pre-torture (I mean that I couldn't resist): I told them the truth about me having done nothing against your country. It lasted until May 22, 2003.

(2) Post-torture era: where my brake broke loose. I yessed every accusation my interrogators made. I even wrote the infamous confession about me planning to hit the CN Tower in Toronto, based on SSG ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​ advice. I just wanted to get the monkeys off my back. I don't care how long I stay in jail. My belief comforts me.2

The documents also included a pair of transcripts of Mohamedou's sworn testimony before detainee review boards in Guantánamo. The first—and the first sample of his voice anywhere in the documents—is from his Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) hearing; the date is December 8, 2004, just months after his so-called "special interrogation" ended. It includes this exchange:

Q: Can I get your response to the very first allegation that you are a member of the Taliban or al Qaida?

A: The Taliban, I have nothing to do with them whatsoever. Al Qaida, I was a member in Afghanistan in 91 and 92. After I left Afghanistan, I broke all my relations with al Qaida.

Q: And you've never provided them money, or any type of support since then?

A: Nothing whatsoever.

Q: Ever recruited for them?

A: No, not at all; no trying to recruit for them.

Q: You said that you were pressured to admit you were involved in the Millennium plot, right?

A: Yes.

Q: To whom did you make that confession?

A: To the Americans.

Q: And what do you mean by pressure?

A: Your honor, I don't wish to talk about this nature of the pressure if I don't have to.

Q: Tribunal President: You don't have to; we just want to make sure that you were not tortured or coerced into saying something that wasn't true. That is the reason he is asking the question.

A: You just take from me I am not involved in such a horrible attack; yes I admit to being a member of al Qaida, but I am not willing to talk about this. The smart people came to me and analyzed this, and got the truth. It's good for me to tell the truth, and the information was verified. I said I didn't have anything to do with this. I took and passed the polygraph, and they said I didn't have to speak of this anymore. They said please don't speak of this topic anymore, and they haven't opened it up to this topic for a year now.

Q: So no U.S. authorities abused you in any way?

A: I'm not willing to answer this question; I don't have to, if you don't force me to.3

The other transcript comes from the 2005 Administrative Review Board hearing where he announced he had written this book. A year had passed since the CSRT hearing, a year when he was finally allowed to meet with attorneys, and when he somehow found the distance and the stamina to write down his experience. This time he speaks freely of his odyssey, not in fear or in anger, but in a voice inflected with irony and wit. "He was very silly," Mohamedou says of one of his interrogator's threats, "because he said he was going to bring in black people. I don't have any problem with black people, half of my country is black people!" Another interrogator in Guantánamo known as Mr. X was covered head to toe "like in Saudi Arabia, how the women are covered," and wearing "gloves, O.J. Simpson gloves on his hands." Mohamedou's answers are richly detailed, for deliberate effect and for an earnest purpose. "Please," he tells the board, "I want you guys to understand my story okay, because it really doesn't matter if they release me or not, I just want my story understood."4

We do not have a complete record of Mohamedou's effort to tell his story to the review board at that hearing. Just as he begins to describe what he experienced in Guantánamo during the summer of 2003, "the recording equipment began to malfunction," notes a boldface interruption in the transcript. For the lost section, in which "the detainee discussed how he was tortured while here at GTMO by several individuals," the document offers instead "the board's recollection of that 1000 click malfunction":

The Detainee began by discussing the alleged abuse he received from a female interrogator known to him as ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​. The Detainee attempted to explain to the Board ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​ actions but he became distraught and visibly upset. He explained that he was sexually harassed and although he does like women he did not like what ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​ had done to him. The Presiding Officer noticed the Detainee was upset and told him he was not required to tell the story. The Detainee was very appreciative and elected not to elaborate on the alleged abuse from ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​.

The Detainee gave detailed information regarding the alleged abuse from ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​ and ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​. The Detainee stated that ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​ and ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​ entered a room with their faces covered and began beating him. They beat him so badly that ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​ became upset. ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​ did not like the treatment the Detainee was receiving and started to sympathize with him. According to the Detainee, ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​ was crying and telling ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​ and ■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​■​ to stop beating him. The Detainee wanted to show the Board his scars and location of injuries, but the board declined the viewing. The Board agrees that this is a fair recap of the distorted portion of the tape.5

We only have these transcripts because in the spring of 2006, a federal judge presiding over a FOIA lawsuit filed by the Associated Press ordered them released. That lawsuit also finally compelled the Pentagon, four years after Guantánamo opened, to publish an official list of the men it was holding in the facility. For the first time, the prisoners had names, and the names had voices. In the transcripts of their secret hearings, many of the prisoners told stories that undercut claims that the Cuban detention camp housed "the worst of the worst," men so dangerous, as the military's presiding general famously declared as the first prisoners were landing at the camp in 2002, they would "gnaw hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down."6 Several, like Mohamedou, broached the subject of their treatment in U.S. custody.

The Pentagon doubled down. "Detainees held at Guantánamo are terrorist trainers, bomb-makers, would-be suicide bombers, and other dangerous people," a military spokesman again asserted when the transcripts became public. "And we know that they're trained to lie to try to gain sympathy for their condition and to bring pressure against the U.S. government."7 A year later, when the military released the records of Guantánamo's 2006 Administrative Review Board hearings, Mohamedou's transcript was missing completely. That transcript is still classified.

Mohamedou's manuscript was finally cleared for public release, and a member of his legal team was able to hand it to me on a disk labeled "Slahi Manuscript—Unclassified Version," in the summer of 2012. By then, Mohamedou had been in Guantánamo for a decade. A federal judge had granted his habeas corpus petition two years before and ordered him released, but the U.S government had appealed, and the appeals court sent his petition back down to the federal district court for rehearing. That case is still pending.

Mohamedou remains to this day in the same segregation cell where he wrote his Guantánamo diary. I have, I believe, read everything that has been made public about his case, and I do not understand why he was ever in Guantánamo in the first place.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was born on December 31, 1970, in Rosso, then a small town, now a small city, on the Senegal River on Mauritania's southern border. He had eight older siblings; three more would follow. The family moved to the capital, Nouakchott, as Mohamedou was finishing primary school, and his father, a nomadic camel trader, died not long after. The timing, and Mohamedou's obvious talents, must have shaped his sense of his role in the family. His father had taught him to read the Koran, which he had memorized by the time he was a teenager, and he did well in high school, with a particular aptitude for math. A 2008 feature in Der Spiegel


  • "A longtime captive has written the most profound and disturbing account yet of what it's like to be collateral damage in the war against terror."—Mark Danner, NYTBR, & Editors' Choice
  • "Slahi is a fluent, engaging and at times eloquent writer, even in his fourth language, English....Slahi's book offers a first-person account of the experience of torture. For that reason alone, the book is necessary reading for those seeking to understand the dangers that Guantánamo's continued existence poses to Americans in the world."—Deborah Pearlstein, Washington Post
  • "A riveting new book has emerged from one of the most contentious places in the world, and the U.S. government doesn't want you to read it....You don't have to be convinced of Slahi's innocence to be appalled by the incidents he describes."—Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle
  • "Guantánamo Diary will leave you shell-shocked."—Vanity Fair
  • "Slahi emerges from the pages of his a curious and generous personality, observant, witty and devout, but by no means fanatical....Guantánamo Diary forces us to consider why the United States has set aside the cherished idea that a timely trial is the best way to determine who deserves to be in prison.—Scott Shane, New York Times
  • "An historical watershed and a literary triumph....The diary is as close as most of us will ever get to understanding the living hell this man--who has never been charged with a crime, and whom a judge ordered released in 2010--continues to suffer."—Elias Isquith, Salon
  • "Everyone should read Guantánamo Diary....Just by virtue of having been written inside Guantánamo, Slahi's book would be a triumph of humanity over chaos. But Guantánamo Diary turns out to be especially human. Slahi doesn't just humanize himself; he also humanizes his guards and interrogators. That's not to say that he excuses them. Just the opposite: he presents them as complex individuals who know kindness from cruelty and right from wrong."—Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker
  • "The tragedy of Slahi's memoir is not just his grave abuse at the hands of U.S. officials. It is that....Slahi's account of life--if it can be called that--at Guantánamo is not the exception. It is the rule, and it continues today."—Alka Pradhan, Reuters
  • "Guantánamo Diary stands as perhaps the most human depiction of an entire post-9/11 system."—Omar El Akkad, Globe and Mail
  • "Literary history was made today with the publication of the first-ever book by a still-imprisoned Guantánamo detainee....As astonishing as the scope of the abuse is Slahi's enduring warmth, even for his torturers and jailers."—Noa Yachot, Huffington Post
  • "A vision of hell, beyond Orwell, beyond Kafka: perpetual torture prescribed by the mad doctors of Washington."—John le Carré
  • "This is an incredible document, and a hell of a story."—Steve Kroft, correspondent for 60 Minutes
  • "Anyone who reads Guantanamo Diary---and every American with a shred of conscience should do so, now---will be ashamed and appalled. Mohamedou Ould Slahi's demand for simple justice should be our call to action. Because what's at stake in this case is not just the fate of one man who managed, against all odds, to tell his story, but the future of our democracy."—Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
  • "Here, finally, is the disturbing and stirring story the United States government tried for years to conceal. Mohamedou Ould Slahi's ordeal shocks the conscience, to be sure. But on display in these pages is something much deeper as well: an enduring faith in our common humanity, and in the power of truth to leap prison walls and bridge divides. With devastating clarity and considerable wit, Guantánamo Diary reminds us why we call certain things human rights."—Anthony Romero, Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union
  • "Once considered such a high-value detainee that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld designated him for 'special interrogation techniques'....Slahi had been subjected to sleep deprivation, exposed to extremes of heat and cold, moved around the base blindfolded, and at one point taken into the bay on a boat and threatened with death....Slahi faces no criminal charges."—Carol Rosenberg, Miami Herald

On Sale
Jan 20, 2015
Page Count
432 pages

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

About the Author

Mohamedou Slahi was born in a small town in Mauritania in 1970. He won a scholarship to attend college in Germany and worked there for several years as an engineer. He returned to Mauritania in 2000. The following year, at the behest of the United States, he was detained by Mauritanian authorities and rendered to a prison in Jordan.

Later he was rendered again, first to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, and finally, on August 5, 2002, to the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he was subjected to severe torture. He was cleared and released on October 16th of 2016 and repatriated to his native country of Mauritania. No charges were filed against him during or after this ordeal.

Larry Siems is a writer and human rights activist and for many years directed the Freedom to Write program at PEN American Center. He is the author, most recently, of The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America's Post-9/11 Torture Program. He lives in New York.

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