Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Tortuous tale of Guantanamo captive Add to ...

He awoke to see someone drilling two holes into his wall from a neighbour's apartment, then filling them with tiny cameras.

It was late 1999 or early 2000, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi - then a Montreal resident and Muslim prayer leader, now a prized captive in the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay - said he knew who the intruder was: Canadian intelligence, keeping a close watch on him as an al-Qaeda suspect.

That's his story, as told to a military tribunal in Guantanamo in December, 2005, according to a declassified transcript. He said he reported a break-in to police.

But "the police told me to put glue in the hole," Mr. Slahi testified. "I stared at him and said, 'Did I ask your advice or something?' It is a crime behind this."

He said the RCMP followed him everywhere and, resenting the scrutiny, he left the country in 2000.

A few months later, a Canadian Security Intelligence Service spokesman told The Globe and Mail that "the reason for his travel was the heat being placed on him" by authorities. CSIS and RCMP officials have often claimed some of their biggest counterterrorism successes are unheralded "disruption" tactics that force suspects to leave Canada.

But that was hardly the end of Mr. Slahi's story.

BIN LADEN'S CELLPHONE

The twisty tale of the 37-year-old telecommunications engineer spans four continents and several key al-Qaeda plots and personalities. And in the 33-page transcript released last year, Mr. Slahi said some intriguing things.

He said he was once caught on tape discussing money with a cousin who used Osama bin Laden's personal satellite phone.

He said U.S. officials tortured him into making a number of false admissions, including a plan to launch an attack in Toronto.

"I 'yes-ed' every accusation my interrogators made. I even wrote the infamous confession about me was [sic]planning to hit the CN Tower in Toronto," Mr. Slahi wrote in a letter to civilian lawyers, which has been disclosed by The Wall Street Journal. "... I just wanted to get the monkeys off my back."

He lived in several Western countries during the 1990s, but was arrested after Sept. 11, 2001, in Mauritania, the former French colony in northwest Africa where he was raised. Held by the United States since 2002, he has never been charged with any specific terrorist act - but he has been linked to the recruitment of one of the strategic masterminds of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

Today, the case is in limbo, even by the standards of the U.S. prison camp experiment that itself is often described as being in legal limbo. Last year, a U.S. military prosecutor walked away from the Slahi case on principle, saying that even though he believed the suspect "has blood on his hands," he didn't want to be party to a case in which a suspect was tortured by U.S. interrogators.

"I would not characterize my decision re: Slahi as 'comfortable' but in retrospect would still make the same decision," said Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart Couch in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

Two female American civilian lawyers continue to visit Mr. Slahi, who has never been formally charged with an offence. According to the 2005 transcript, he argued that the case against him "does not make any sense to me. It looks like O. J. [Simpson]trial."

The English-speaking detainee beseeched his U.S. captors to "just turn me over to Canada" and compensate him. "Man, just give me a couple of million dollars and let me go on my own and I would be fine," said Mr. Slahi, who has never held Canadian citizenship.

In the fall of 1999, Mr. Slahi moved from Germany to Canada, where he was introduced to officials at a three-storey mosque. He was asked to lead Ramadan prayers for up to 10,000 Montreal Muslims. The mosque, he testified, was frequented by "some people who were very important to intelligence."

He got to know hard-core North African jihadists, shortly before a member of their circle was caught at the U.S. border. In December, 1999, Ahmed Ressam became known as the Millennium Bomber after confessing to plotting to kill civilians at the Los Angeles airport. The fallout from authorities was intense. "The Canadians are crazy they didn't stop this guy [Ressam]so they wanted to seem like they were up to something," Mr. Slahi told the Guantanamo panel. "They were everywhere. ..."

After reporting the incident with the pinhole cameras, he said the RCMP chose not to help him, instead bringing him in for questioning. "I was scared to hell," Mr. Slahi said.

Even after he was let go, the suspect said he was followed everywhere in Montreal. "They were watching me in a very ugly way. It is okay to be watched but it is not okay to see the people who are watching you," he testified. "It was very clumsy but they wanted to give the message that we are watching you."

Mr. Slahi got the message - and left Canada, returning to his home base in Africa.

RAISING SUSPICION

He grew up in Mauritania as a scholar who learned to recite the entire Koran by memory. At 20 years old, he left Africa to join Arabs fighting Communists in Afghanistan.

In 1991, he said, he trained in small arms at the Farouq camp near Kandahar, before being assigned to a mortar battery. It was only during this 10-week period, he maintains, that he was actively involved in al-Qaeda. After the Communists were ousted, Mr. Slahi said he left Afghanistan. He told the U.S. military panel that while he wanted to die a "martyr," he had no interest in killing fellow Muslims during the Afghan civil war.

His next move was to study electrical engineering in Germany, where he also preached. He said he encouraged jihad for others, but his passion "faded" after he married.

By 1998, he began to arouse suspicions. His fugitive cousin, an al-Qaeda lieutenant, called him from abroad and asked him to help launder money. "I learned my cousin was using Usama bin Laden's satellite phone that was intercepted," Mr. Slahi told the military panel. He admitted he did a "favour" for his cousin, by transferring around $4,000 (U.S.) These transactions later gave basis to allegations Mr. Slahi financed terrorism. But he told the Guantanamo board: "How the hell could I know if he stole it or Usama bin Laden gave it to him or wherever the hell he got the money - it was none of my business."

The next year, Mr. Slahi received a significant visitor into his German home - a Yemeni al-Qaeda operative who would go on to co-author the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. 9/11 Commission report blames Mr. Slahi for recruiting that conspirator, Ramzi Binalshibh, and his friends, the eventual hijackers from the Hamburg cell, into al-Qaeda. But he denies this. The al-Qaeda planner "was visiting a friend of mine," Mr. Slahi testified.

Around this time, the Mauritanian came to believe he was being shadowed by German agents. Mr. Slahi said a friend urged him to move to a country where "there is no racism, they speak French, and it is just a very advanced country."

"My friend said, 'We need you here in Canada,' " he told the Guantanamo panel.

'I HATED CANADA'

His Canadian sojourn lasted only a few months. He even told the tribunal that his departure caused a bilateral dispute. "The Canadians were asked by the American intelligence to arrest me and the Canadians asked, 'Where is your evidence?' The Canadians said we cannot arrest someone without paperwork."

Two years later, after 9/11, cross-border authorities had a very similar conversation involving another Arab telecommunications engineer, but with a vastly different outcome.

After Canada told the United States it had no grounds to hold Maher Arar, who had been arrested in a New York airport in 2002, U.S. authorities sent him to Syria instead of the planned destination of Montreal. A Canadian judge has since found that Mr. Arar was never a threat to national security and was wrongly smeared by investigators. This year he was awarded $10-million for his year-long ordeal in a Syrian jail.

As for Mr. Slahi, his impressions of Canada have apparently changed since he complained of being run out of the country. "I didn't like this life in Canada. I couldn't enjoy my freedom. ... I hated Canada."

But in 2005, Mr. Slahi said he was bitter at Mauritanian authorities for handing him over to the Americans. He once had permanent resident status in Canada and was hoping to get it back - should he ever be released from Guantanamo Bay.

"I have the status and I have the papers," he said. "... It's just a wish."

Follow on Twitter: @colinfreeze

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular