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For two detainees who told what they knew, Guantanamo becomes a gilded cage

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; 10:59 PM

By the time Tariq al-Sawah, a veteran of the wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan, reached Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in May 2002, there was no fight left in him. Injured by a cluster bomb in the mountains of Afghanistan, the middle-aged Egyptian was still recovering from wounds to his hands, back, thighs and buttocks when the Americans grabbed him.

Three months later, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who had moved in radical circles in Germany, turned up at the U.S. military prison. There, a masked interrogator threatened the Mauritanian with death while others deprived him of sleep and bombarded him with sound and light, pushing him to the brink of a mental breakdown.

When it came to their initial treatment at Guantanamo, Sawah and Slahi had little in common, according to military officials. Their paths would intersect only later, when they both made the same choice: to cooperate with the United States.

Sawah, now 52, and Slahi, now 39, have become two of the most significant informants ever to be held at Guantanamo. Today, they are housed in a little fenced-in compound at the military prison, where they live a life of relative privilege -- gardening, writing and painting -- separated from other detainees in a cocoon designed to reward and protect.

But as the Obama administration attempts to close the prison, Sawah and Slahi are trapped in a gilded cage. Their old jihadi comrades want them dead, revenge for the apostasy, now well known, of working with the United States. The U.S. government has rewarded them for their cooperation but has refused to countenance their release.

Some military officials believe the United States should let them go -- and put them into a witness protection program, in conjunction with allies, in a bid to cultivate more informants.

"I don't see why they aren't given asylum," said W. Patrick Lang, a retired senior military intelligence officer. "If we don't do this right, it will be that much harder to get other people to cooperate with us. And if I was still in the business, I'd want it known we protected them. It's good advertising."

A current military official at Guantanamo suggested that that argument was fair. Still, he said, it's "a hard-sell argument around here."

In the case of Slahi, the government might not have a choice. A federal judge, ruling on a habeas corpus petition this week, ordered Slahi released because the United States had failed to produce evidence to justify his continued detention. The government may appeal, and even if it doesn't, it could take months to arrange his repatriation or find a country willing to take him.

"After all the allegations, he's not obviously a bad guy; they couldn't prove anything," said Nancy Hollander, Slahi's attorney. "We have to see where it is safe for him to go, and I hope the U.S. will assist with that. I want him free, but I want him free and safe."

This chronicle of Sawah's and Slahi's sometimes improbable journeys is based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former military officials, some of whom spoke anonymously because much about the two detainees remains classified. It was supplemented by government reports, military documents and transcripts of hearings at Guantanamo Bay at which Sawah and Slahi spoke to a panel of military officers. The military does not allow reporters to interview detainees.

By all accounts, Guantanamo has become a surreal sort of home for Sawah and Slahi. Each has a modular unit outfitted with a television. Each has a well-stocked refrigerator. They share a garden, where they grow mint for tea.

Together -- and they are reported to have become close -- they are known by some in the military as Guantanamo's "Odd Couple": The taciturn Sawah is 5-foot-10 and has, on occasion, ballooned to more than 400 pounds; the gregarious Slahi is short and slight.

Sawah, an enthusiastic painter, has decorated his place with his own watercolor scenes of the ocean and has been allowed chaperoned walks by the sea. Slahi has used his time at Guantanamo to write his memoirs.

"A little advertisement," he told a military panel in describing the project, while expressing the hope that it would one day be declassified and published. "It is a very interesting book."

A subject of interest

In the decade before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Slahi had periodically flickered on the radar of Western intelligence -- a player, perhaps, but one of uncertain caliber.

The son of a camel dealer in Mauritania, he traveled to Afghanistan for the first time in 1990 to fight the communist government in Kabul. He returned twice over the next couple of years and swore bayat, a loyalty oath, to Osama bin Laden, whose religious committee at the time was headed by Slahi's brother-in-law, Mahfouz Ould al-Walid.

Slahi later told the U.S. military that he believed Walid had used one of bin Laden's satellite phones to contact him about transferring money to family in Mauritania.

After he left Afghanistan, Slahi repeatedly found himself in the proximity of extremists.

In Germany, where he received an academic scholarship in 1998 and studied electrical engineering, his acquaintances included men who would later be tied to the bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia and a foiled plot to attack a resort on the French island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean. He also met two of the Sept. 11 pilots, as well as Ramzi Binalshibh, alleged to be a key organizer of the plot.

In Canada, where he arrived in November 1999, Slahi led prayers at a mosque attended by Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian who would later be convicted as part of the "millennium plot" to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve of that year.

Slahi's apparent links to extremists made him a subject of interest in 2001. A few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he was back home in Africa, Mauritanian security officials came calling. The Americans, they said, wanted to talk. Before long, Slahi was en route to Jordan, where he was held for eight months, and then to Guantanamo -- turned over, he said, "like a candy bar to the United States."

At one hearing at Guantanamo, he laid out what he presumed to be the military's case against him. He seemed to know that he was not leaving anytime soon.

"Look at me," he said. "I have contact with Osama bin Laden's operative, who was helping launder money, [am] in Canada attending a mosque where we believe a very dangerous group is attending, and [am] even the imam of the mosque. Something is going on."

"It's not looking good," said the presiding officer.

"No," replied Slahi, "it's not looking good at all."

Deemed high-value

Slahi had just arrived at Guantanamo when Binalshibh was captured in Pakistan, and some of the Yemeni's testimony, relayed to the military, suggested that their new prisoner was much more important than previously thought.

"I did see this dude Ramzi Binalshibh," Slahi acknowledged in the colloquial English he has picked up at Guantanamo. He explained that Binalshibh and two of the men who would later pilot planes on Sept. 11, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, had spent the night at his house in Germany. But he denied Binalshibh's claims that he had dispatched the group to Afghanistan, and said he later passed a polygraph challenging Binalshibh's account.

By mid-2003, the military saw Slahi as a high-value detainee who was to be subject to a special interrogation plan personally approved by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

A Senate investigation found that Slahi was subjected to steadily escalating abuse. In addition to receiving death threats, he was told, falsely, that his mother had been detained and would be placed among the male detainees at Guantanamo unless he started talking. He was deprived of sleep, exposed to "variable lighting patterns" and blasted with rock music, including Drowning Pool's "Bodies," with its chorus of "Let the bodies hit the floor!"

In late August, Slahi was forced to wear blacked-out goggles and taken on a boat ride. He said Arabs with Egyptian and Jordanian accents beat him, threatened him with torture and argued over which country would get him. Slahi, who apparently believed he would be killed, urinated on himself, according to former military officials.

Senate investigators found that a "contemporaneous document suggested that the interrogation may have begun affecting Slahi's mental state." An interrogator said Slahi was "hearing voices." By September 2003, the Mauritanian was moved into one of Guantanamo's smaller facilities, Camp Echo.

At some point, he began to provide information that helped officials chart connections among Islamist radicals across Europe.

An old soldier

Unlike Slahi, Sawah was forthcoming from the start. A skilled bombmaker who had fought in Afghanistan, he had plenty to tell the Americans and eventually became "the source of 150 first-rate information reports," according to one former military intelligence official.

"He was an old-soldier type who'd just had a bellyful," the official said. "Right after he got to Guantanamo, he told the interrogators he'd had it."

Sawah, a geologist by training, was in Greece when he saw what he described as a video depicting Serb atrocities against Muslims. A former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's Islamist opposition group, he decided to join the fight in Bosnia. He married a local woman and fought in the army with other foreign mujaheddin.

Eight years after his arrival, though, Bosnian authorities came under U.S. pressure to force out former mujaheddin, largely because several had been linked to the millennium plot in Los Angeles. Sawah left the country.

Battle-hardened by the Balkan war, he was a prized recruit in Afghanistan. The U.S. military charges that Sawah trained under an al-Qaeda explosives expert and, after displaying a certain aptitude, was sent for further training at an al-Qaeda compound in Kandahar.

At some point, according to a military document, Sawah designed a shoe-bomb prototype, which "technically matches the design of the shoe bomb" used by Richard C. Reid, the infamous British bomber. He also penned a 400-page bombmaking manual, according to the military.

At Guantanamo, after some officials expressed skepticism about Sawah's master-bombmaker claims, he proved what he could do, showing off some drawings. Among those drawings, according to a former military official, was one of a device that he said could be attached underwater to the hull of a ship.

The official said the Navy built the device and tested it. It worked.

"He clearly knew what he was doing," the official said. "But it always seemed more like an occupation than a calling with Sawah."

Indeed, a 2008 military document said Sawah's disillusionment with his old life was so profound that "he has denounced Islam and is now an atheist."

When congressional delegations visiting Guantanamo were shown a detainee being questioned, it was sometimes Sawah -- a willing participant -- who was placed in front of them, according to a former military official. The overweight Egyptian was enticed with takeout from the Subway franchise on the base.

Witness protection?

Nearly eight years after their arrival at Guantanamo, Slahi and Sawah have all but exhausted their use as informants.

The capital case against Slahi collapsed when a military prosecutor refused to proceed because, he said, evidence had been obtained through torture. The detainee's fate is now on hold, as the Justice Department reviews the court ruling to set him free.

In 2008, Sawah was charged with conspiracy and material support for terrorism. He, too, has challenged his detention in a habeas proceeding in U.S. District Court in Washington. His lawyer declined to comment.

A Justice Department-led review of the cases of all detainees at Guantanamo Bay, which recently wrapped up, decided that Sawah and Slahi are owed no special treatment. An administration official, speaking before the federal court ruling on Slahi, said the government wants either to prosecute them or to hold them in some form of indefinite detention without charge.

Some current and former military officials say there should be other options. The treatment of high-profile informants such as Sawah and Slahi, they argue, will affect the government's ability to turn other jihadists.

"We are much behind in discussing and working out details of some form of witness protection program for the most potentially important and in-danger witnesses," said a military official who has served at Guantanamo.

The former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo, Lawrence Morris, said officials always weighed a detainee's cooperation, particularly its quality and timeliness, before making a charging decision.

"We were not heedless to other factors, but our job was to make our best judgment from a criminal standpoint," said Morris, who noted that the decision to bring a case against Sawah came after prolonged deliberation and consultation with intelligence officials.

Slahi said at a hearing at Guantanamo that he wants to be given sanctuary in the United States.

"When I [told] my American friends here, they said, 'No, no, you were in Cuba, and for God's sake, you are a suspected terrorist and the United States would not accept you,' " he said.

"I will not force you to take me," continued Slahi. "I feel like I deserve [it] because I was honest, cooperative and forthcoming. I may be wrong; obviously I am, so just turn me over to Canada."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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