The following is a script from “Prisoner 760,” which aired on March 12, 2017. Holly Williams is the correspondent. Keith Sharman, producer. Erin Horan, associate producer.
President Obama tried and failed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, a place he believed, quote, “hinders…our fight against terrorism.” President Trump disagreed and has vowed to quote “load it up with some bad dudes.” Just 41 prisoners remain at Guantanamo and of the nearly 800 who were there at some point, not many have been interviewed. But tonight, Holly Williams has the story of one very unusual former detainee in his first television interview.
Mohamedou Slahi was set free by the United States and sent to his home country of Mauritania last October after 14 years as prisoner 760 in Guantanamo Bay. Improbably, while fighting for his own release, he taught himself English, wrote a bestselling book about his life in American custody, and became good friends with some of his guards, one of whom you’ll hear from tonight.
Slahi spent about one third of his life at Guantanamo and his book offered an unprecedented look inside the prison. Though it includes descriptions of torture, it can be funny at times and we discovered that in person Slahi has a keen sense of humor. Six weeks after he was released from Guantanamo, we went to northwest Africa to meet him.
Holly Williams: What’s it like losing all control over your life?
Mohamedou Slahi: It sucks. It’s very challenging. I don’t know how to describe it in words. But you feel like humiliation. You feel self-pity. You feel like-- panic. I didn’t have a plan. I was learning as I was going.
Mohamedou Slahi is once again adapting to unfamiliar surroundings. This time: home and freedom. To learn how he went from here to Guantanamo and back again we traveled to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. It’s a tribal and deeply religious nation of nearly four million people, where the Sahara desert meets the sea.
About the size of Texas and New Mexico combined, the country is due east of Cuba, separated from Slahi’s old prison home by the width of the Atlantic.
Holly Williams: You know what’s there? (yes)
Holly Williams: Guantanamo.
Mohamedou Slahi: Guantanamo Bay.
Holly Williams: About 3,800 miles--
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes.
Holly Williams: In that direction?
Mohamedou Slahi: I say, “Goodbye hope never to see you again.”
“I was afraid of false confessing, but it was a relief because now he-- the captain could not torture me anymore...” Mohamedou Slahi
Before we explain how Slahi ended up in Guantanamo in the first place, we’ll tell you how a talent for languages helped him survive there.
Holly Williams: How much English did you speak when you landed in Guantanamo?
Mohamedou Slahi: Almost none.
In the office of his new apartment in Mauritania, Mohamedou Slahi showed us how he learned English in Guantanamo…he reads and writes his fourth language with some help from the U.S. Navy.
Holly Williams: Where did you get those glasses?
Mohamedou Slahi: These glasses I got from Navy Hospital in Guantanamo Bay. Thank you, doctors. And they had choices. And I took the ugliest one.
Holly Williams: You-- you chose the--
Mohamedou Slahi: As a sign of protest.
He was his own teacher in Guantanamo, soaking up new vocabulary wherever he could.
Mohamedou Slahi: I’m letting you now into my world. OK, this how I learn the English language. This is the original.
Holly Williams: So-- so you would, what, hear something, and write it down?
Mohamedou Slahi: Hear something, write it down, and ask.
Holly Williams: And then ask a guard?
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes, a guard, or an interrogator. Who--
Holly Williams: “How do you spell that?”
Mohamedou Slahi: Whomever I meet, whomever I meet.
Holly Williams: Yeah. “To chortle.”
Mohamedou Slahi: “To chortle.”
Holly Williams: That’s-- that’s a very-- that’s a very good--
Mohamedou Slahi: “Snorting a joyful laugh.”
Holly Williams: --word, to chortle.
Mohamedou Slahi: Chortle. Ha, ha, ha.
Holly Williams: “Skyscraper. Riot. Suicide.” You were just working on building your vocabulary?
Mohamedou Slahi: It’s what I do. I take this, and then I just go in myself back and forth, and memorizing everything, every day.
Holly Williams: “She threaded her fingers through that thick mane of exquisitely dyed hair.”
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes.
Holly Williams: What were you reading?
Mohamedou Slahi: I think that was, “Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”
In 2005, three years after he arrived at Guantanamo, Slahi used his new language skills to demand his immediate release. He hand wrote his own petition for a writ of habeas corpus, a legal document challenging the U.S. government’s right to imprison him. He also began a correspondence with his American lawyers that became the “Guantanamo Diary.” It’s been translated into 27 different languages but it took seven years for his legal team to convince the government to allow its publication, and they only permitted a heavily censored version.
Mohamedou Slahi: So it’s like it was-- I was shouting in the dark for years. Then I saw a very small hole that I could shout through, which was my lawyer.
Holly Williams: I don’t know if you’ve seen this before. It is the original copy of the review of your book in the New York Times. Have you seen it before?
Mohamedou Slahi: Never. First time.
Holly Williams: You were locked in a prison with so little contact with the outside world. And meanwhile your work was being discussed
Mohamedou Slahi: That shows the greatness of American people. Not-- my greatness because American people believe in justice. And they decided to give me a forum, to give me a voice.
By 2004, the U.S. government regarded him as a cooperative prisoner, so Slahi was living in a special segregated hut. He had access to books, movies and his own vegetable garden, but he was still a prisoner, struggling with solitude, 4,000 miles from home.
Mohamedou Slahi: You can bet your bottom dollar that I was lonely.
Holly Williams: I mean, in the book you describe the guards as your family.
Mohamedou Slahi Yes.
Holly Williams: Was that true?
Mohamedou Slahi: They really-- a lot of them treated me as one-- as a brother.
We found one of Slahi’s former guards who asked us to disguise his appearance and withhold his name. He had security concerns because of his work at Guantanamo.
Holly Williams: How long did you guard him for?
Guard: Ten months.
Holly Williams: And when was that, the first time you met him?
Guard: In July of ‘04.
Holly Williams: Any first impressions?
Guard: Just that he wasn’t this horrible terrorist that, you know, I was expecting to go guard. You know, that-- I was told it was-- everybody there was the worst of the worst, and this guy comes out with a smile on his face.
Holly Williams: So straight away you started thinking, “This was not what I was expecting.”
Guard: Yeah, I felt something was off. Definitely.
Holly Williams: You didn’t think he was gonna harm you?
Guard: No. If he wanted to-- I mean, there were times where we slept while he was sleeping and his door was open. And, like, if-- if he wanted to kill us he could’ve.
Holly Williams: But you were pretty sure he wasn’t gonna do that?
Guard: Yeah. I had no issues.
Holly Williams: You trusted him?
Mohamedou Slahi: He was very shocked because he told me they told him this is the worst of the worst. And, I wasn’t very open to the guards because I was afraid of them. He kept poking me until we open up to each other -- it was very good time with him.
Guard: We’d play Monopoly, a lotta Rummy, watch movies, like, over and over. And-- yeah, and just hang out with us.
Holly Williams: We heard there was one film in particular that you guys watched over and over.
Guard: “The Big Lebowski.” Like, nonstop. Like, he could quote it, like, word for word like-- a giant portion of the movie. It was hilarious.
Holly Williams: I mean, I was struck by that. What’s interesting about “The Big Lebowski” is they get the wrong guy.
“The Big Lebowski”: You got the wrong guy. I’m the dude man.
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes, I am not your guy.
Holly Williams: You played a role in Mohamedou Slahi’s release. You wrote a letter to the review board that decided on whether he would finally be released.
Guard: Uh-huh (affirm).
Holly Williams: And I think-- is that the letter, there?
Gaurd: That is.
Holly Williams: Yeah?
Guard: That is.
Holly Williams: I just want to read you a section of it. You said, “Based on my interactions with Mr. Slahi while in Guantanamo, I would be pleased to welcome him into my home. Based on my interactions, I do not have safety concerns if I were to do so. I would like the opportunity to eventually see him again.”
Guard: For sure. That’s totally honest.
Last year, when the military’s periodic review board finally cleared him to go home, Slahi says his guards and interrogators seemed even happier than he was, including the officer in charge.
Mohamedou Slahi: She was smiling the most beautiful smile I ever see in my life. Said, “You know you’re leaving?” I said, “No, I-- I-- I didn’t know.”
Holly Williams: What were you feeling?
Mohamedou Slahi: I was feeling happy. But I always learned not to over celebrate. Because so many people received clearance, but they lingered in prison for so many years, including to this day.
Holly Williams: You didn’t want to jinx it.
Mohamedou Slahi: I never heard jinx it, but I presume it’s the right word here.
He says he was flown home from Guantanamo Bay the same way he arrived: shackled and blindfolded.
Mohamedou Slahi: Strapped on a chair too. It’s very painful. More than 10 hours in a chair.
Holly Williams: Did you ask, “Why are you doing this to me?”
Mohamedou Slahi: Why in the world should I ask any questions? I didn’t want them to change their mind. I said, “Do whatever you got to do. I need to go home and go home quick.”
Slahi’s long road to Guantanamo began not with the war on terror but with another war covered here on 60 Minutes. In 1988, correspondent Harry Reasoner and producer George Crile traveled to Afghanistan to tell the tale of a congressman from Texas named Charlie Wilson.
He persuaded the U.S. to arm the mujahideen, a band of holy warriors who were fighting the Soviet Union and their Communist allies.
A few years later, Slahi who was studying in Germany, decided along with thousands of other Muslim men from around the world, to join the battle against the Communists.
Mohamedou Slahi: This was a big coalition, including my country and your country.
Holly Williams: What made you decide to go to Afghanistan as a young man?
Mohamedou Slahi: I saw those horrific pictures of people, children being gassed. And I said, “I want to do something.” Then that’s when I decide to travel. And I took a visa and then I went there, twice.
Holly Williams: You thought you were fighting for a just cause.
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes, I was sure then. I did not know. Today, I know.
In Afghanistan, Slahi was trained to fight, not by the Afghans, but by a group of foreign fighters dedicated to the cause. At the time they were led by a young charismatic leader called Osama bin Laden. Slahi says he left Afghanistan the second time without ever firing a shot in battle.
Mohamedou Slahi: When I saw that the Afghanis were butchering each other-- I was completely disgusted.
Holly Williams: The first time you-- you went to Afghanistan, what did your family think?
Mohamedou Slahi: They thought I was a nitwit.
Holly Williams: A nitwit?
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes. I should never have gone to Afghanistan. I had a scholarship that many people in the whole world dreamed to have. And what I did, I threw everything away and I went to Afghanistan. This is the definition of a nitwit.
Holly Williams: And when you left Afghanistan for the second time, did you still consider yourself a member of al Qaeda?
Mohamedou Slahi: Absolutely not. I cut all my ties with the organization. To me, I joined for the sake of participating in jihad in Afghanistan. Jihad in Afghanistan turned into a quagmire. I did not want to be part of a civil war. And I went back. Thank God I resumed my studies. I finished college. And I worked to help my family.
Slahi denies he ever had anything to do with terrorism, but he doesn’t deny that some of his friends were still members of al Qaeda. He also had a cousin who was a spiritual advisor to Osama bin Laden.
Mohamedou Slahi: That was really the trouble. That where the trouble began.
One day, in 1999 he got a phone call from that cousin, a man known as Abu Hafs.
Holly Williams: And if you had known at the time that he was calling you from bin Laden’s satellite phone?
Mohamedou Slahi: I would have burned his house down.
Holly Williams: Would you have--
Mohamedou Slahi: No.
Holly Williams: --taken the call?
Mohamedou Slahi: Absolutely not. But looking back, it’s better than I took it, that the people who were listening s-- know what I was talking about. That where the trouble started honestly.
After 9/11, the United States government made catching Slahi a priority and the Mauritanians were happy to help their powerful ally. On November 20th, 2001 secret police knocked on the door of his mother’s house. He followed them back to their station, driving his own car.
Holly Williams: Is it over here? That’s the car.
Fifteen years later it still sits in the exact place where he parked it.
Holly Williams: Wow, it’s a bit of a wreck. It’s the right license plate? It’s yours?
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes it’s my license plate…It’s caput.
After eight days in a Mauritanian jail, his government handed him over to the CIA who flew him to a prison in Jordan where he spent eight months. U.S. agents then took him to Bagram Air Base near Kabul, Afghanistan. After two weeks there he was put on a military transport plane for the long trip to Cuba.
Holly Williams: At what point did it hit you in the stomach, “I’m really in a jam here”?
Mohamedou Slahi: It doesn’t actually you would be surprised. We-- if there is no hope, there is no life.
In Guantanamo, Mohamedou Slahi’s special interrogation plan was personally approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The treatment he received has since been outlawed. In a moment, Slahi describes what happened to him.
Of the nearly 800 men who’ve been incarcerated at some point in Guantanamo Bay, prisoner 760, Mohamedou Slahi, was the only one to detail his treatment there in a book that came out while he was still detained in the prison. Published in 2015, it is a unique first person account of life in Guantanamo and America’s now outlawed enhanced interrogation program. When Slahi arrived at the prison, his time spent in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and connections to al Qaeda made him a top priority for U.S. intelligence. We begin the second part of our story by asking Slahi the same questions his interrogators asked him over and over.
“They broke me. I told...the boss of my team, ‘You write anything and I sign it. And if you buy, I’m selling.’” Mohamedou Slahi
Holly Williams: Did you meet any of the 9/11 hijackers?
Mohamedou Slahi: No.
Holly Williams: Did you have any prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks?
Mohamedou Slahi: Absolutely none whatsoever.
Holly Williams: And when you saw on television those attacks, what did you think?
Mohamedou Slahi: It was heartbreaking, you know, knowing that those people, just like my family, children, men, women, just regular people who went to their work. They didn’t do anything to anyone. But they were-- yet they were killed in cold blood
Holly Williams: When you discovered that it was the work of al Qaeda, what did you think?
Mohamedou Slahi: I thought, “This is evil. Thank God that I left Afghanistan so many years.”
Living freely in his home country of Mauritania, Slahi is working on a new edition of his book, “Guantanamo Diary” that fills in some of the blanks put in by the U.S. government.
Slahi arrived in Guantanamo in August 2002. For several months he was interrogated by the FBI. In 2003, the military began subjecting him to so called enhanced interrogation that included both physical and psychological abuse.
His uncensored story, which you’re about to hear, is supported by several reports and investigations from Congress and the Departments of Justice and Defense.
Mohamedou Slahi: They had plans. Very careful thought plans.
He says those plans began when he was moved to a special cell in the India block section of the prison…a place he nicknamed “the fridge.”
Holly Williams: Why the fridge?
Mohamedou Slahi: Yeah, it’s a very small holding cell that is cold. And you don’t see anything, you don’t see outside. Completely cut off .
Holly Williams: No daylight?
Mohamedou Slahi: Nothing.
Mohamedou Slahi: I remained there 70 days, continuous interrogation.
Holly Williams: What do you mean by continuous?
Mohamedou Slahi: That mean I had three shifts of interrogators.
Holly Williams: Every day?
Mohamedou Slahi: Every day.
Holly Williams: Were you allowed to sleep at all?
Mohamedou Slahi: There is between the night shift and the day shift. Maybe two hours. I don’t know, it’s not long. I didn’t-- I didn’t have any feeling for time really.
Holly Williams: What did it do to you?
Mohamedou Slahi: I lived in a haze. I was very nervous, very angry, very easy to be angry. And I was crying for the simplest reason.
Holly Williams: What else happened?
Mohamedou Slahi: Then they brought another Marine guy. He wore Marine; it does not mean that he’s a Marine. I’m just saying this for the record. And then he kept pouring this water on me. Then I kept really shaking.
Holly Williams: He was pouring water on you?
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes. And then he said, “Answer me.” But I couldn’t talk because-- because my mouth couldn’t move because I was very cold (brrr).
Holly Williams: You were just too cold to talk.
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes, I couldn’t move my lips.
But it was another tactic that brought Slahi close to the edge.
An interrogator who claimed he’d been dispatched from the White House gave Slahi grave news.
“[He] was … shown a fictitious letter … stating that his mother had been detained… and … might be transferred to GTMO.”
Holly Williams: There was no implication that she’d done anything?
Mohamedou Slahi: No, they said only because I wouldn’t-- I wouldn’t-- confess.
Holly Williams: The idea that she was going to be held with male prisoners was terrible for you.
Mohamedou Slahi: That is an understatement.
Holly Williams: What was your fear?
Mohamedou Slahi: I can’t even think about it. I don’t want to think about it.
Later he was dragged from his cell and put on a boat.
Mohamedou Slahi: They opened my mouth and pouring salt water until I-- start choking.
Holly Williams: They were forcing you to drink salt water?
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes.
Holly Williams: What happened next?
Mohamedou Slahi: So they start to-- fill me with ice cube. Ice cube--
Holly Williams: Inside your uniform?
Mohamedou Slahi: Inside your uniform. Ice cube, full. My body was full. And then I was like shaking uncontrollably like this. They start hitting me everywhere, hitting.
Holly Williams: Beating you?
Mohamedou Slahi: Yeah, beating me, everywhere.
Holly Williams: For how long?
Mohamedou Slahi: Again, I didn’t have feeling for time. But it must have been three hours.
Holly Williams: How much pain were you in?
Mohamedou Slahi: I was moaning like a woman giving birth.
Holly Williams: And what did you decide to do?
Mohamedou Slahi: I decide I will tell them everything they want to know.
Holly Williams: They broke you.
Mohamedou Slahi: Absolutely. They broke me. I told the captain, that the boss of my team, “You write anything and I sign it. And if you buy, I’m selling.”
Holly Williams: And you were lying to them?
Mohamedou Slahi: Not everything I said lie-- my life, I told them my life truthfully. But the crimes, I was lying about. Every single crime, I falsely confessed to.
Slahi says he told his interrogators that he was an active recruiter for al Qaeda, and was involved in a plan for a bombing in Toronto but that plot never actually existed.
Holly Williams: Your life got a lot better--
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes.
Mohamedou Slahi: Dramatically better. No more beating. No more-- I was allowed to sleep.
Mohamedou Slahi: I was afraid of false confessing, but it was a relief because now he-- the captain could not torture me anymore because I gave him what he wanted. Now he had to sell this-- first to the F.B.I., to C.I.A. And then they have to sell this to the prosecution, military prosecution, and those people are intelligent and smart. And then what they-- pretty much told him, “This is a bunch of B.S.”
Holly Williams: You told them what they wanted to hear.
Holly Williams: Because you wanted the torture to stop.
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes. Absolutely.
Mohamedou Slahi: I falsely confessed to crime. It was bad business. Bad business.
In 2004, the military officer chosen to prosecute Slahi resigned from the case saying later that he was quote … “convinced that Slahi had… been the victim of torture—not by anything Slahi said, but solely from U.S. government documents from the intelligence databases, detailing, specifically, what had been done to him during the interrogations.”
In 2010, a federal judge ordered Slahi’s release and wrote “there is ample evidence … that Slahi was subjected to extensive and severe mistreatment at Guantanamo.”
Evidence gathered through torture has complicated the government’s military prosecutions at Guantanamo. There have only ever been eight convictions and three were later over-turned.
Holly Williams: You were one of the worst tortured in Guantanamo, so you’re in a unique position to answer this. Does torture work?
Mohamedou Slahi: In what way? If working’s bringing pain on me, yes. If working is giving false confessions, yes. If “works” is giving good intelligence, no. If it works resulting in my conviction, hello! I’m here, after 15 years and not even charged, let alone being convicted. So how can you convince anyone possibly who has a shred of intelligence that it works?
Holly Williams: How did you manage to not lose your sanity?
Mohamedou Slahi: Thank you very much, that-- the premise is that I did not lose my sanity. This psychiatrist told me 760. That what they call me. “You are really very sick.”
Holly Williams: Sick with what?
Mohamedou Slahi: Psychologically. I was hearing noises.
Holly Williams: Hearing voices?
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes.
Holly Williams: What were they saying?
Mohamedou Slahi: It was my family just talking to me every day. And this wouldn’t stop. And then he came to me, this doctor, And they help me. They gave medications over many years, heavy medication. And I was helped.
Holly Williams: They gave you psychiatric medicine--
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes.
Mohamedou Slahi: Paxil, Klonopin, and you see “The Sopranos”?
Holly Williams: Yes.
Mohamedou Slahi: Yes, that medication he took. Prozac.
Holly Williams: Ah.
Mohamedou Slahi: Things like that. They gave me a lot of this stuff.
Holly Williams: How’s your health today?
Mohamedou Slahi: I don’t have time to think about pain, which is good. The pain will go away.
Holly Williams: But you didn’t really answer my question, Mohamedou. Are you dealing with psychological trauma?
Mohamedou Slahi: I’m not a doctor.
Holly Williams: Do you sometimes relive the torture in your head?
Mohamedou Slahi: Of course. I still have nightmares. I still wake up and I think I’m in Guantanamo Bay.
At 46 years old, freedom has been a major adjustment. So has fame. He returned to Mauritania a national hero. Many here are angry about what the U.S., one of their allies, did to Slahi, but are also proud that he’s come home with his dignity in tact.
He’s been embraced by a large extended family, including some members who weren’t yet born when he disappeared.
There have also been losses. It’s been more than 15 years since he got in his car and headed to the police station on his way to Guantanamo. Slahi’s mother said goodbye that night but she wasn’t there to welcome him home. She passed away in 2013.
Holly Williams: And you didn’t see your mom again?
Mohamedou Slahi: No, I never see her again. It was the last time. It’s seared in my memory, that picture frozen in time.
Holly Williams: If you had to sum up the last 15 years of your life, what would you say?
Mohamedou Slahi: Pain and suffering is part of growing up, and I grew up.
Mohamedou Slahi says the U.S. government is holding several other books he wrote while in prison: two novels and a self-help book about staying positive no matter the situation. At times, during our trip to Mauritania he seemed exhausted but there was almost always a smile on his face. He told us getting out of Guantanamo was like being born again.