Can you forgive him? Mohamedou Ould Slahi (left) seeks reconciliation with his American torturer Mr X, right © Daouda Corera / © Balazs Gardi

What happened in Guantánamo: a former prisoner and interrogator speak 17 years on

Mr X was supposed to break his prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi. He tortured him—and broke himself. Now they speak again
May 12, 2022

When he was a torturer in Guantánamo Bay, the man who called himself “Mr X” wore a balaclava and mirrored sunglasses; the person he was torturing was not supposed to see his face. Now, 17 years later, in October 2020, Mr X is standing at a potter’s wheel in his garage in Somewhere, United States. He is bald with a greying beard and tattoos on the back of his neck. His hands, big and strong, mould a grey-brown lump of clay. The pot won’t look great, you can already tell. He says that’s the way with his art; he’s more attracted to ugliness.

We told Mr X that the man he maltreated would like to talk to him. He replied that on the one hand he has been longing for such a conversation for 17 years—on the other hand he has been dreading it for 17 years. He asked for half an hour to think it over while he made pottery.

The man who would like to talk to him is Mohamedou Ould Slahi. In the summer of 2003, he was considered the most important prisoner in Guantánamo. Of the almost 800 detainees there, as far as we know, no one was tortured more severely than Slahi was. Back then, Mr X was in his mid-thirties and an -interrogator in the US army. He was part of the so-called Special Projects Team, whose task was to break Slahi. The detainee had so far remained stubbornly silent, but the intelligence services were convinced that he possessed important information that could possibly prevent the next major attack or lead to Osama bin Laden. 

Mr X always tortured at night. Each night Slahi’s silence lasted, he tried out a new cruelty. He says torture is ultimately a creative process. Then he shakes his head. Pauses. Runs his hand through his beard. Fights back tears. He says, “man, I can’t believe this myself.”

Mr X says there is hardly a day when he does not think or dream about Slahi. 

There was a moment that Mr X says poisoned his soul. One night, he went into the interrogation room where Slahi, small and emaciated, was sitting in his orange jumpsuit on a chair, chained to an eyelet in the floor. Mr X, tall and muscular, had thought of something new again: he pretended to go berserk. He screamed wildly, hurled chairs across the room, slammed his fist against the wall and threw papers in Slahi’s face. Slahi was shaking all over.

Mr X says the reason he never forgot that moment was not that he saw fear in Slahi’s eyes, but that he, Mr X, enjoyed seeing that fear. Seeing the trembling Slahi, he says, felt like an orgasm.

Slahi is now 50 years old. In December 2020, two months after our visit to Mr X, he is standing on a beach in Mauritania. With narrowed eyes, he looks out to sea and says that if he were to sail from here on a steady westerly course, he would arrive where he was held for 14 years, at the southeastern tip of Cuba.

Slahi has been free for nearly six years. But, like Mr X, he cannot shake off his time in Guantánamo. Today he lives in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, on the edge of the desert where the US had him kidnapped a few weeks after September 11th, 2001. Nowadays, he is a celebrity. He is approached on the street; he speaks at universities and on podiums around the world to denounce US human rights abuses. When he closes his eyes at night, sometimes the masked man comes again, too.

When one of us first visited him in 2017, Slahi expressed a wish to find his torturers. At the time, he had already written a book about his time in Cuba called Guantánamo Diary. In the last sentence, he had invited the people who had tortured him to have tea: “my house is open.” At that first meeting and again now, he says that during his torture he felt one thing above all: hate. Again and again, he imagined the cruel way in which he would kill Mr X, his family and everyone who meant something to him. But then, in the solitude of his cell, while thinking, praying and writing, he realised that revenge was not the answer. So he decided to try something else: -forgiveness.

He forced himself to think that this big, strong man, Mr X, was really a small, weak child. A child whom he patted on the head and said: what you did is bad, but I forgive you. The process of re-educating himself took several years. But at some point, he said, sitting in his cell in Guantánamo, he really felt the need to forgive. 

Slahi hoped talking to Mr X would bring peace to his still-troubled soul, replacing painful memories of that time with better ones.

How can one imagine a man who tortures another? A US Senate investigation report contains a list of what Mr X did. It describes the crudest psychological and physical violence.

The Mr X we meet is an educated art lover, interested in history. He seems a nice guy. Mr X says that he occasionally invites homeless people to a restaurant and that he sometimes cries when he sees reports from disaster areas. That he can empathise so well is precisely the reason he had been such a good interrogator and torturer. You must put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It was also because of this empathy, however, that he broke down over what he had done.

Shortly after he left Guantánamo in the winter of 2003, Mr X started drinking—three bottles of red wine per night was not unusual. He spent more and more time in bed and spoke less and less with his wife and children. He could hardly get any sleep. He toyed with the idea of killing himself. A doctor diagnosed him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder—the kind of trauma one would expect to find in his victim.

One thing makes it difficult for Mr X to accept Slahi’s offer to talk with him. He still thinks he is a terrorist

For 17 years, Mr X says, he has been working off the guilt. He has taken medication, undergone therapy and looked for a new job.  “The decent thing to do would be to tell Slahi to his face that I regret what I did to him. That it was wrong.” Slahi’s offer to talk, which we conveyed to Mr X, is a gift that could help him draw a line under the matter. But one thing makes it difficult for him to accept the offer. Mr X still thinks Slahi is a terrorist.

Slahi is probably the smartest person he has ever met, Mr X says. When he was captured, he already spoke Arabic, French, German and English, and taught himself Spanish in Guantánamo. Mr X believes Slahi is so clever that he managed to fool his other interrogators—and now he manages to convince millions of people that he is innocent. 

In 2010, a US federal judge rules that Slahi must be released because the US government’s evidence against him is not reliable. The government appeals.

In 2015, the book Slahi wrote in prison is published: Guantánamo Diary. It is extensively blacked out, but the message is clear: the US tortured an innocent man. The book becomes a bestseller.

In 2016, Slahi is released, after 14 years, without charges. In Mauritania, he is received like a hero.

In 2019, it is announced that Guantánamo Diary will be made into a film starring Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch.

In 2020, the Guardian’s website publishes the trailer for a documentary in which one of Slahi’s guards travels to Mauritania and former enemies become friends.

The need to forgive: a cell at Guantánamo Bay © Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos The need to forgive: a cell at Guantánamo Bay © Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

Mr X doesn’t buy any of this “forgiveness stuff.” His former prisoner, he fears, could use him to show the whole world: look, now not only an insignificant guard apologises, but also my torturer, and I forgive him too! Slahi would become an even greater hero.

Mr X’s small, ugly pot has to dry now. He puts it aside, wipes his hands on a towel and looks serious. He is silent for a long time and then says, “I’ll go through with this now. Oh God.” The video link is set up. The picture jerks, the sound wobbles, and for a moment Mr X hopes that faulty technology will save him. Then Slahi appears on screen.

It is late in Mauritania, almost midnight, but Mohamedou Slahi has stayed awake. He looks his tormentor in the face.

Mr X: Mr Slahi. How are you?

Slahi: How are you, sir?

Mr X: Not bad, and you?

Slahi: I am doing very well.

Mr X: That’s good.

Slahi: Thank you for asking.

Mr X: Yes, sir. I was extremely hesitant to make this call. But I do want to explain a few things to you.

The first time Mr X saw Slahi was on 22nd May 2003. Mr X was standing in an observation room in Guantánamo, looking through a pane that was a mirror from the other side. There, in the interrogation room, Slahi was being questioned by two FBI agents. For half a year they had spoken to him almost every day—without the slightest success. It had already been decided that the military would take over in a few days.

There was a table in the middle of the room with the agents on one side and Slahi on the other. The FBI had brought a cake. One of them, blond and tall, obviously the boss, was leafing through a Quran and said something about a passage. In the end, Mr X watched as the agents hugged Slahi—who wore no handcuffs or chains—like a friend. “I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls.

The FBI agent leafing through the Quran is called Rob Zydlow. He retired a few months ago and lives in California. He thinks failure is a harsh word—but in Slahi’s case, his plan didn’t work out. He tried the nice way, but no matter whether he brought homemade cakes or burgers from McDonald’s, whether he watched animal documentaries with Slahi or let him teach him Arabic, Slahi just didn’t talk. All he ever said was: “I’m innocent.”

Slahi says today that the FBI cake tasted good, that he liked the documentary about the Australian desert, and that Zydlow’s attempt to learn Arabic was ridiculous. Back then, Slahi did not know that behind the glass, Mr X was watching him. He did not know that at the -Pentagon a document was being passed to secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, giving examples of what methods Mr X could use to get Slahi to talk. The paper provided a framework, but still left the torture team plenty of room for their own ideas.

Zydlow says he sensed a real hunting fever among the army personnel who took over.

On the evening of 8th July 2003, Mr X put on blue overalls, black military boots, black gloves and a black balaclava, plus mirrored sunglasses. He had Slahi brought into the interrogation room and hooked him to the eyelet in the floor, but the chain was so short that Slahi could only stand bent over. Then Mr X switched on a CD player and deafeningly loud heavy metal music filled the room:

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Mr X put the song on continuous loop, switched on a glaring strobe light and left the room. For a while, he says, he watched from the next room. But the music was so loud he couldn’t think. So he went outside for a smoke.

Slahi says he tried to pray, to take refuge in his own thoughts. He did not talk.

Mr X tried out new songs. The US national anthem. An advert for cat food that consisted only of the word “meow.” Mr X turned up the air conditioning until Slahi was shaking all over. He turned up the heating until Slahi’s clothes were soaked with sweat. He put his feet up on the table in front of Slahi and told him about a dream he had had. In this dream, a pine coffin had been lowered into the ground in Guantánamo. There had been a number on the coffin: 760, Slahi’s prisoner number. Then he tried his freakout.

No matter what he did, Slahi remained silent.

Mr X: It is difficult for me to have this conversation because I am not convinced of your innocence. I still believe that you are an enemy of the United States. But what we did to you was wrong, no question about it. Nobody deserves something like that.

Slahi: I can assure you that I have never been an enemy of your country. I have never harmed any American. In fact, I have never harmed anyone at all. Never.

Whether Slahi was a terrorist, as Mr X thinks, or completely innocent, as Slahi claims, or just a sympathiser, will probably never be clear. We have spoken to many people who were close to him or who know his case well, and read German and American files on the case. After years of research, we have found no evidence of him ever being involved in anything illegal.

Slahi grew up two hours’ drive from Nouakchott, in the sandy foothills of the Sahara. His father tended the camels, his mother the 12 children. He was an exceptionally good student—just like his cousin Mahfouz, who was the same age. Late into the night, they read books about Islam and longed to join the thousands of young men from all over the Muslim world who were travelling to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupiers. But they were too poor to make the journey. Then Slahi got a scholarship to study in Germany.

In 1990, at the age of 19, he studied electrical engineering in Duisburg. Five years later, then a graduate engineer, he started a job at the Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronics, earning 4,000 Deutschmarks (around £1,700) a month building microchips. That was one life of Mohamedou Slahi. The other had begun during his studies.

1990: Stays at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. (At the time al-Qaeda was not designated as a terrorist organisation by the US.) Weapons training, oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

1992: Second trip to Afghanistan, where the Islamists were on the verge of overthrowing the Afghan government. Slahi was deployed in an artillery unit. After two months, he returned to Germany. He would later say this was because the Islamists had disappointed him with their bickering among themselves—it was not at all the paradise-like reign of God on Earth that he had imagined.

If you ask Slahi what his relationship with al-Qaeda was like in 1992, after his return to Germany, he says: “that chapter of my life was closed. I cut all ties. I stopped reading the magazines, I stopped informing myself about al-Qaeda’s activities, I had no more friends in the organisation, no more contacts with anyone, no phone calls, nothing.”

In his conversation with Slahi, Mr X says a total of six times that the torture should not have happened

But Slahi did keep in touch with the organisation: through his cousin Mahfouz who had, under the name Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, become a confidant of Osama bin Laden. Once, Mahfouz called Slahi on bin Laden’s satellite phone. Slahi was in contact with a friend in Duisburg who was involved in the attack on a synagogue in Djerba in April 2002; another friend was convicted of planning an attack on La Réunion. In Duisburg in October 1999, Slahi had three overnight guests, one of whom was Ramzi Binalshibh, who would later become one of the key planners of 9/11. Binalshibh later told his American interrogators that the other two guests were 9/11 hijackers. During their stay, Slahi advised the three of them to travel to Afghanistan. So Slahi did not break off all contact as he claims. On the contrary, the list of his friends and acquaintances reads like an excerpt from al-Qaeda’s Who’s Who.

If you ask Slahi about these contacts, he confirms everything, but acts as though it is insulting to bring up such trifles. They were his friends and what his friends believed—or did—had nothing to do with him.

Given all the contacts and friendships, it is not hard to imagine that hunting fever broke out among Mr X and his colleagues. Perhaps Slahi would lead the investigators to his cousin, bin Laden’s confidant, who was suspected to be on the run with the terrorist mastermind. Mr X says that the team felt they were fighting on the frontline of the war on terror. He says he was aware that if he got anything of significance out of Slahi, President George W Bush would be informed personally.

For weeks, Mr X worked on Slahi to no avail. Then he got a new boss, a man called Richard Zuley, known as Dick. Mr X says of him today: “Dick is a diabolical motherfucker.” Zuley himself says: “all Mr X got out of Slahi was noise. Slahi controlled the booth. We needed to change that.”

Zuley now lives in a row house on the north side of Chicago where, before he retired, he worked as a police officer. When he talks about how he took over Slahi’s interrogations, he smiles. “There was no question then who was in charge.” It was under his command that Slahi was left to believe that his mother would be raped if he did not talk. And under Zuley’s command, one day in late August 2003, Slahi was beaten half to death. When Mr X saw Slahi’s bloody and swollen face, he was shocked and confronted his boss. He was taken off the case the same day.

When asked why, Zuley replies: “I deployed people who were effective.”

Slahi was moved to a new cell that evening. “There was nothing in the cell,” Slahi remembers, “no window. No clock. Nothing on the wall that I could look at. It was pure loneliness. I don’t know how long it lasted, I didn’t even know when it was day and night, but at some point, I knocked and said I was ready to talk.”

After months of silence, Slahi was now talking so much that Zuley had paper and pens brought to him, and later a computer. Slahi wrote that he had planned an attack on the CN Tower in Toronto. He listed accomplices. He drew organisational charts of terror cells in Europe. Slahi now says it was all made up. In fact, the intelligence services soon raised doubts about the veracity of the information Zuley’s team was passing on to them. In November 2003, Zuley arranged for a lie detector test. Slahi recanted his confession.

Stuart Couch is now 56 years old, a judge with a military-style short haircut and a strong southern accent. On a Sunday morning in January 2021, we meet at a hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia. Couch talks about his Christian family and his time as a soldier in the Marines, which shaped him. In 2004, the US government ordered him, as the military prosecutor, to indict the most important prisoner in Guantánamo: Mohamedou Ould Slahi. This was a potential death penalty case, says Couch. After all, it had to be assumed that Slahi had recruited the 9/11 hijackers for al-Qaeda at the meeting in the Duisburg flat.

There was a lot of circumstantial evidence for Slahi’s involvement with al-Qaeda. Couch assumed that with all the smoke, it was only a matter of time before they found the fire. “My grandfather used to say, ‘if you lie down with the dogs, you’ll get fleas.’ And man, Slahi must have lain with a lot of dogs.”

But Couch found no fire—not a flicker. Instead, he found something else. During a site visit to Guantánamo, he heard loud music coming from an interrogation room: Let the bodies hit the floor. Through the crack in the door, he saw bright flashes of light. Inside, a detainee was chained to the floor in front of two speakers.

For Slahi, forgiveness is also a form of revenge. He exposes those who thought they were the good guys, as evil

The scene repelled him as a human being and as a Christian, he says. He immediately understood that if they had done the same to Slahi, he would have a huge problem. What Slahi had said or would still say would have no relevance in court. “Under torture, people say anything, whether it is true or not. The main thing is that the torture stops,” says Couch. He began to investigate what had been going on in Guantánamo. Shortly after Slahi’s confession reached him, he knew it was worth nothing. Couch says he wrestled with himself for days. He consulted with his priest. Afterwards, he told his superior that he was withdrawing from the case.

The case never went to trial. Nevertheless, Slahi remained in prison for another 12 years. He was not released until October 2016, one of the last decisions of the Obama administration. Asked today if he believes Slahi was a terrorist then, Couch says: “I don’t know.” Mr X, on the other hand, says he is sure. You only have to look at how Slahi communicates. He plays games—no innocent man does that.

In his conversation with Slahi, Mr X says a total of six times that the torture should not have happened. Slahi never responds to this.

Mr X: I can only talk about the techniques I used. That they were wrong, and I should never have done it. You should never have been mistreated. You should never have been beaten. That’s not who we are. That’s not who I am.

Mr X tells Slahi that six years after that August day in 2003, he painted a portrait of him—a bleeding Slahi in oils with a split lip and a swollen eye. Now, during the conversation, he asks us to send a photo of the painting to Mauritania via WhatsApp.

Slahi: Ah, wow. This prisoner in the picture looks much better than the real prisoner back then. (Slahi laughs.)

Mr X: You really didn’t look very good that day. And this painting is not meant to… it’s to reflect what happened to you that day.

Mr X painted the picture when he had just resigned from the army. His post-traumatic stress disorder had become so bad that he could not work anymore. He says he had hoped that the artistic confrontation would trigger catharsis. But it only brought pain. So, he destroyed the painting. Only the photo exists.

Mr X: I have to live with this shame. Maybe this is a small victory for you.

Slahi: Um, I don’t know… I always had the impression that you were an intelligent person. And I found it hard to understand how you could do such a thing to me.

Slahi asks exactly the question that determined Mr X’s life. After art failed to give him an answer, Mr X tried science. He enrolled in creative studies at university and studied how creativity is used for evil purposes. From his reading, he discerned that the tendency to cruelty is in all human beings and will prevail if circumstances allow it. The circumstances in his case were: a country that craved revenge; a president who demanded success; a superior who spurred on the interrogators.

“My country made me do some pretty shitty things, and I did them,” says Mr X. “I hate myself for it. And I hate my country for turning me into this monster.” He states it as a matter of fact. “What I did was torture. One hundred per cent. No doubt about it.”

The few studies that exist suggest that there are two types of torturer: those who live on afterwards as if nothing had happened, and others who break. Scientists suspect that if a torturer believes they are morally right to torture one individual to potentially save thousands, as Zuley believed, they are more likely to escape mentally unscathed. If, like Mr X, they torture in spite of their own humanity, shame and guilt are more likely to trigger trauma.

Slahi, on the other hand, has managed something that therapists rarely see. Victims are often stuck in a cycle of hopelessness. Slahi has broken out of this: he has made himself an actor. He tells us during one of our interviews in Mauritania that, for him, forgiveness is also a form of revenge. He exposes those who thought they were the good guys, as evil. And he styles himself as the good guy.

Slahi: I want to tell you—I forgive you, as I forgive all those who have caused me pain. I forgive the Americans…

Mr X: Yeah…

Slahi: …with all my heart. I want to live in peace with you.

Mr X: It is important for me to get it straight that I did not ask for your forgiveness. I have to forgive myself.

The two do not find common ground. One last attempt: Slahi tries another subject.

Slahi: How are you today? Are you married? Do you have children?

Mr X: I’m not going to talk about my family or where I live, what I do or don’t do. That’s how it is, buddy.

The conversation lasts 18 minutes and 46 seconds and ends in frustration on both sides.

Slahi: Anyway, I wish you all the best.

Mr X: Same to you. 

Slahi: I think you are what you do. I forgive you with all my heart, even if you don’t ask me to.

Mr X: It’s OK. I have nothing more to say. Goodbye, Mr Slahi.

Slahi: Bye.

When the video connection ends, the two are left unreconciled: the weak, self-doubting perpetrator, and the strong victim.

Slahi’s suffering has brought him not only pain and nightmares, but also wealth and prestige. He married a human rights lawyer who worked on Guantánamo cases and has a child with her. Mr X no longer votes Republican, as he used to, but for the Democrats. He is no longer in favour of the death penalty. He is thinking of leaving the US.

For several years, Mr X has been teaching young soldiers and FBI agents interrogation techniques. There are always people at the beginning of the course who say: torture should be allowed. He then says, no, absolutely not: torture exacts a high price. Not only from the person who suffers from it, but also from the one who inflicts it. Then, sometimes, he tells the story of what happened to him.

This article was originally published in German in Die Zeit. The dialogue between Mr X and Slahi was recorded for the film, “Guantánamo Diary Revisited,” directed by John Goetz