The Mauritanian Myths: A Film Review

The acting in the film “The Mauritanian” is superb. The look and feel of it are more authentic than not, with many accurate details. The production values and film making are excellent. Who would expect less from a part seasoned, part up-and-coming cast, accomplished director and solid production company? The film is a success, technically.

This issue comes with the claim in the opening credits that it is a “true story.”

That is a very high bar, considering the subject, Mohamadou Auld Slahi, unlawful combatant Global War on Terror participant, is known to have lied and changed his story multiple times during his incarceration at the US military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Which truth are they talking about?

According to his own statements, and classified documents released by Wikileaks, published by the New York Times (Guantanamo Docket), Mr. Slahi is a trained al Qaeda operative, who may or may not have recruited at least three 9/11/2001 terrorists, led a terror cell in Germany, pledged Bayat (allegiance) to Usamma bin Laden, and planned the failed Millennial Bombing plot at Los Angeles International Airport. He is also under suspicion of having close associations with other known al Qaeda operatives and high-ranking officials.

In other words, Mr. Slahi was not an “innocent” foot soldier just following orders and kidnapped for bounty. Not that that would matter even if he were a lawful combatant POW. He was not.

According to the Geneva Conventions and Law of Land Warfare, unlawful combatants are entitled to ZERO legal rights and may be shot on sight on the battlefield. If captured they may be denied habeas corpus and tried in a military commission as unlawful combatant war criminals. So how did it come to be that Mr. Slahi and 730 of his comrades were RELEASED from Gitmo, and NONE have been beheaded, executed, blown up, hacked to death, dragged naked and lifeless through the streets, drowned or burned alive? All things our enemies have done to us, and/or our allies.

The movie mentions early on, an incident that occurred in 1942, during WWII, in which six of eight German saboteurs were caught dry-foot on US soil and then several weeks later, after being denied habeas corpus and tried by military commission, were executed by electric chair. The Mauritanian failed to mention that the saboteurs had actually never committed any acts of sabotage. They hadn’t hurt a fly nor destroyed any property. They simply had the means and will to do so. They were convicted as spies and of having broken the Laws of War and the Geneva Conventions. The Mauritanian used the incident as a segway into mentioning that the case against their hero, Slahi, would be a capital case seeking the death penalty. This is a disingenuous portrayal of the incident. The producers could have used the illustration to point out that unlawful combatants were vulnerable to war commissions (tribunals) and execution BECAUSE they did not follow the Geneva Conventions or the Law of War.

In fact, The Mauritanian never discusses applicable international or US military law. The German saboteurs were tried by the book, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ); the same standards and rights a US soldiers would be tried under should they be accused of crimes while on Active Duty. My colleagues and I were trained and ready to support tribunals at Gitmo, and fully anticipated doing so. But the focus, especially in the early years at Gitmo was not on prosecution, but on gathering information. Valuable information that could save many lives. Lawfare (using the American legal system to disrupt operations and gain early release) was the focus of detainees, especially those accused of war crimes.

In the George W. Bush years, following the attacks of 9/11/2001, Don Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, says in his autobiography, “Known and Unknown,” that he sought out the greatest legal minds of the time to help create an updated legal foundation for dealing with the detainees, especially the high value, “worst of the worst” that would be accused of war crimes. More a reaction to boisterous allegations of abuse and torture, and confusing legal basis of trying foreigners on foreign soil, they came up with the Military Commissions Act of 2006. This act gave unlawufl combatant Gitmo detainees additional legal rights not afforded in the Geneva Conventions, Law of War or UCMJ. Rumsfeld said he wanted there to be transparency and fairness in how the detainees were processed for adjudication.

When Barack Hussein Obama came along, he replaced the 2006 MCA with his own 2009 Military Commissions Act, which went even further in granting rights to the detainees accused of war crimes. In fact, the 2009 MCA gave detainees virtually the SAME rights a US citizen may enjoy in a federal court of law! Unheard of! Unprecedented! Outrageous! Absurd! But no one complained. And so here we are today, in 2021, several military judges and attorney’s later, still in pre-trial hearings for those accused of war crimes at Gitmo, and still with the 2009 MCA.

Slahi won a legal case against the US for the right to apply for habeas corpus (due process rights) and was ordered released, only to find his case bogged down again in federal legal red tape, and ended up serving another 7 years in captivity. His written confession to being a member of al Qaeda, and mapping out the terror network throughout Europe gained him special privileges at Gitmo (which, by the way would not have happened if they’d found he LIED about those things). But his claims of abuse and torture drowned out the reality of his association and participation in the terror network.

Just because you believe someone was “coerced” into saying things doesn’t make them FALSE. It simply calls into question their validity, which is why the information is VETTED. If INTEL feel the information was accurate, there are benefits and rewards given – which Slahi readily accepted, including television, laptop computer, DVDs, better living conditions, etc.

During WWII, the United States held over 400,000 mostly German lawful combatant POWs without charge or trial, “until the end of hostilities,” as per the Conventions and Law of War. No powerful Hollywood types came to their rescue or demanded their release; no movies were made of their plight. The claim by Jodie Foster’s portrayal of defense attorney Nancy Hollander in the beginning of the The Mauritanian that American justice was in play and anyone held by the US is entitled to be charged and defended, is an intellectually dishonest statement in light of the fact that Slahi was an unlawful combatant, and therefore not entitled to anything, but for the benevolence of the United States, and Obama’s 2009 MCA. The film does not adequately address the real military legal status of Slahi, nor under what authority (AUMF) he had been captured and was being held.

When my boss, the Camp X-Ray Commandant and I arrived to Gitmo in early 2002, Donald Rumsfeld told him and the Joint Task Force 160 staff, that even though the detainees were not entitled to the rights, privileges and treatment of the Geneva Conventions, we would “treat them within the spirit of Geneva.” That’s all we needed to hear, for we don’t train to mistreat detainees. We train one way, the right way.

The US military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is the finest military detention facility on earth. International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) physicians I worked with at Gitmo, and later on in Iraq, told me, “No one does [detention operations] better than the US.” There is no moral comparison between Gitmo and how our enemies treat captives. Our enemies do not keep their captives alive for long. Islamist Sharia Law allows only for the enslavement, conversion, tax or death of captured kafir (non-believers, deceivers).

The constant fake news, MSM, leftist assertions that Gitmo is a torture chamber, gulag, embarrassment are unfounded and erroneous, even after this “true story” makes outlandish and incredible assertions about Mr. Slahi’s treatment. That is my OPINION.

What do I know about it?

As the ranking US Army Medical Department officer with the Joint Detainee Operations Group, Joint Task Force 160, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, I served from early February to Mid June, 2002. My job was medical S-1 (Personnel), supervision of good guy urgent care and sick call facilities, liaison between the Guard Force Command and the Navy Detention Medical Command, Camp X-Ray Medical Facility, military medical intelligence reporting, observation and control of detainee medical care from touchdown at Leeward Airport through in-processing at Camp X-Ray, assist with writing detainee medical SOP (Standard Operating Procedures), JTF Medical service asset, medical, preventive medical and environmental service observation and consultation of new construction of Camp Delta medical and incarceration facilities, and anything else that stuck to the wall.

My background is five years as a Combat Medic/Medical Specialist, and then 17 years as a Medical Service officer (think hospital administrator or Field Medical Assistant – advisor to field commanders on medical, preventive medical and environmental services). The last 9 years of my career (I retired at the rank of major in 2008) was spent with Army Military Police Enemy Prisoner of War liaison units, or Brigade Liaison Detachments (BLDs). We studied the Geneva Convention and Law of Land Warfare among military Field Manuals, regulations, SOP, DA PAMs, etc., all before 9/11/2001. We studied lessons learned from the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), when Saddam Hussein’s weary, starving and ill-armed troops surrendered in droves, outstripping our ability to contain them all properly and challenging command and control efforts. Small 12 person liaison detachments (BLDs) were created to act as eyes and ears for the incarceration command brigade with the detention groups, or incarceration battalions. I served in two of these liaison detachments from 1999-2008, with deployments to Gitmo and Iraq.

On the civilian side, I am a husband, father of five, church trustee, and I have been an educator for over 35 years. Starting out as a teacher of health and physical education, Dean of Students and coach in New York City public high schools. Later, after moving to Long Island, NY, with my wife, a special education teacher, I became a public school administrator, including physical education department chair, sport chairman, Director of Health, Physical Education and Athletics. After 9/11 and through my deployments I was promoted to District Administrator for Operations, which saw me take responsibility for facilities, school security and health services. I am a graduate of The University of Alabama, with a composite degree (Bachelor of Science in Education) in health, physical education, recreation and dance (also where I independently studied the Nuremberg Trials from transcripts of the proceedings). I earned a Master of Arts Degree in curriculum and teaching at Teachers College – Columbia University (also where I studied education law and the psycho-social aspects of human movement, and met my wife). I also completed coursework for a School District Administrator’s certificate at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

I initially became interested in war time incarceration when I was a teen, after having met a friend of my mother’s, Horst, a former Wermacht lieutenant who commanded a unit fo taube (deaf), jungen (youth), and elderly troops during and then after the Battle of the Bulge at the end of WWII. Horst was captured by US forces and told amazing stories of how well he was treated, which led him to seek and then obtain US citizenship after he was released at war’s end. I was also a Civil War buff, through my mother’s posession and writings of my 2nd Great Grandfather Freeman Woodman’s diaries of his service in the Union Army, and march with Sherman to the sea. I read about Andersonville, a living hell of a Confederate POW camp.

At Gitmo, I was involved with the very first detainee repatriation of a man who was found to be a cold turkey heroin addict and un-medicated schizophrenic form Afghanistan. Determined to no longer be a threat nor an intelligence asset, this detainee was released. Weeks later, the Island (Gitmo) Spooks (CIA) told my boss (Camp X-Ray Commandant), that the detainee we had released was executed upon his arrival in Kandahar, Afghanistan. That shocking news devastated us emotionally. Our whole purpose in life was to keep these guys (detainees) alive. Terrorist leader or wrong-place wrong-time foot soldier, our responsibility was the care and treatment of the detainees; to treat them with dignity and respect, to heal their wounds and to keep them “fat & happy.” I narrate this incident in a short documentary film on YouTube called “Heroes of GITMO,” from my book, “Saving Grace at Guantanamo Bay: A Memoir of a Citizen Warrior.”

Four weeks after the detainee’s release we found a news story online showing a picture of this detainee, healthy and happy and sitting on a Kandahar hospital bed and talking about how well he was treated at Gitmo! The Island Spooks had LIED. Why? Because they could, and it was fun to them to lie. It gives a person in authority extra power, in fact ultimate power. If you control information you control “the truth.” The same holds true for al Qaeda operatives who are trained to LIE about their treatment in captivity. We know this from captured training manuals we read upon arrival to Gitmo. All the tricks of the trade, the most powerful of which is the LIE. Mohamadou Auld Slahi had mastered this art.

This mission became an emotional train wreck for us, as many of us blamed the detainees for us being at Gitmo, and away from our families, while at the same time we were expected to care for them. Our orders said, “In support of the Global War on Terror,” and these guys were responsible for that. We hated them, some passionately so. That hatred was rarely if ever manifested in abuse, but it did happen.

What kind of abuse?

Some of the US Army Military Police guards would slap awake detainees in the Navy Fleet (detainee) Hospital 120. Blankets were whisked off of detainees, leaving them shivering in the well-cooled tent hospital next to the sea. These incidents were handled with the utmost seriousness and severity. Soldiers found to be abusing detainees were reassigned, sent home and/or prosecuted under the UCMJ.

Military Police resented the kind bedside manner of the Navy medical personnel who cared for the detainees. MPs are trained never to speak with a detainee unless directing him to do something. No conversations, no chit chat, no personal information. Navy medical personnel on the other hand were trained to use professional bedside manner, and to treat the whole person, not just the patient or ailment.

There are many reasons for bedside manner. One, it reduces stress and helps control vital signs in the patient, and can distract them from sometimes painful applications of medicine or therapy. Many detainees had been transported directly from the battlefield in Afghanistan and had war wounds in various stages of healing or festering. Two, medical personnel needed detainee’s cooperation – and approval for medical procedures, medications, physical therapy, etc. A friendly, supportive approach made for more effective healing.

There was an understandable mutual mistrust between captors and captives. Detainees were shackled in the wards, mostly to their beds. Medical personnel sometimes had to work with detainees who were NOT shackled, which caused high levels of anxiety among the medical personnel and the guard force who were sworn to protect the corpsmen. Most detainees were unfamiliar with modern western medicine, and refused procedures or medications out of hand. Translators said the detainees were afraid of being poisoned, a myth some of the detainee leaders perpetuated.

Guards perceived the chit chat between detainees and Navy medical personnel as giving comfort to the enemy. These were serious perceptions that worked into the psyches of the personnel. Detainees were sworn to DISRUPT detention operations, just like US personnel would be were the roles reversed. My daily trips to the Fleet Hospital to attend staff meetings and make hospital ward observations for the detention commanders were always tense.

This disruption by detainees manifested itself in them talking to each other in different languages (forbidden), trying to engage anyone around them in conversation, and stealing items to use as weapons or tools to escape with. Ballpoint pens could be both. Sharp medical instruments. Toothbrushes, the handles filed down to a razor sharp shiv. Stress? You bet. Professionalism saved the day, along with talking about thoughts and feelings in orientations and debriefings. But some US personnel couldn’t handle it. Troops were supposed to self-report violent feelings or abusive thoughts.

Shorthanded, it wasn’t always possible to transfer someone who wasn’t well suited for detention duty in the hospital. To make things even more challenging, there were mandatory troop rotations every few weeks for Military Police guards, and shifts were 12-14 hours days (including transition overlaps), 7 days a week. No days off. Month after month. This led to repeated similar stress-related issues with each new group assigned to Fleet Hospital 120.

I know Muhamedou Auld Slahi. He and I met on Twitter several years ago. We had direct message (DM) conversations about Gitmo and life. On the few occasions I wanted to ask him about al Qaeda, he would clam up, not respond. At one point we agreed to exchange books, his, “Guantanamo Diary,” mine, “Saving Grace at Guantanamo Bay: A Memoir of a Citizen Warrior.” He purchased a copy of his book online and then used my address as the shipping address. Smart. Since no book sellers were willing to send my book to Mauritania, I had to get DHL to deliver it. The only carrier who said they could do it. Finally, Muhamadou got my book.

Our conversations tapered off after I asked about al Qaeda once too many times. I had read the Guantanamo Docket on Slahi on the New York Times website and had questions about it. He was not engaging with me on it. I wonder if he would now?

The claim from the movie was, anything he may or may not have done, including murdering innocent people, were moot because he claimed torture and abuse at the hands of . . . none other than US Army Military intelligence officers, including female participants who sexually abused him.

In the film, Mohamadou is interrogated for years by a two person male, salt & pepper (one white and one black officer) civilian (CIA?) team. When the “special treatment” begins in the film, it is folks in US Army uniforms to do the beatings, sexual assaulting, water torture (not controlled Enhanced Interrogation Technique (EIT) waterboarding), stress positioning and sleep deprivation. My OPINION on this is that it is at least misleading and at worst fabricated to make us believe it was regular Army Military Intelligence personnel performing the worst of the abuse.

Why do I think this is a lie?

Not only my training, knowledge and experience, but in Donald Rumsfeld’s autobiography, “Known and Unknown,” he states that “No DoD personnel were ever trained in EIT. Only CIA were trained in EIT.” That includes ALL uniformed military personnel, and all civilian DoD personnel. So no Pentagon types are trained in those techniques. The Army are interviewers, not physical interrogators. That’s left to the alphabet soup guys, you know, the Spooks, Secret Squirrels, Shadow Warriors, the trained liars.

Why did the producers of the film, the director Kevin Macdonald and Jodie Foster allow this misleading portrayal into their film? Did Slahi tell them that’s what happened? Did the CIA tell them not to implicate them? Military Intelligence (MI) are the minor league team, CIA and other alphabet soup are the Show, the big leagues. Why would we go from big to small in the interrogation and expect better results, especially considering that the military are not trained in such techniques? It doesn’t add up, and for me it was an obvious attempt at deception. One leaves the film with a decidedly poor impression of the military, and a neutral or ambivalent impression of whoever the civilian personnel were supposed to portray – CIA, “The Agency,” FBI? The initial interrogation team could have been anyone, or no one.

Could Slahi’s story be true? Of course, but the portrayal sets off all sorts of red flags, bells and whistles. I believe there is a fair chance that anyone who came into physical contact with Slahi during interrogations, less the US Army Military Police escorting him from and then back to his cell, were CIA or other alphabet soup agents.

[Arter releasing this review I have been contacted by several individuals who I believe were in close contact with Slahi during his stay at Gitmo. These individuals have corrected some minor misconceptions, but have also revealed information that confirms my suspicions that the Army never abused Slahi.

As the JTF S-1 for medical I was supposed to track all incoming personnel medical records. I can’t tell you how many “Smith’s” and “Jones’s” were on my civilian roster with the “Agency” column left blank. Medical records? None.

What other deceptions are in The Mauritanian?

A lie can be very subtle. A mood, a look, a tone, posture, lack of a statement, statement of falsehood. You don’t know what you don’t know, so when a slick Hollywood film comes along with a tour-de-force female lead actress (Jodie Foster), teams up with a solid second (Benedict Cumberbatch), and third (Shialene Woodley), and a spectacular antagonist (Tahar Rahim), I felt like I was Custer riding into the Little Big Horn. I didn’t stand a chance. Off the bat, in over five months at Gitmo, and having observed every single incoming detainee from stepping of the plane from Afghanistan through in-processing at Camp X-Ray, I never saw one detainee with a hood over their head. There was no need. Detainees were dressed warmly for the cold 30,000 foot 18 hour flight, including knit cap, coat, gloves. And sensory deprivation items such as blacked out goggles and headphones – these help calm the detainee and create a safe environment for them and the guards. But no hoods. Ever.

The movie depicts the blackout goggles being removed from Slahi’s face an the tarmac briefly for cinematic effect (he claimed to have seen a sign at the airport which showed where he was). I never saw any detainees have their goggles even touched once until they were stripped naked to take a shower during the beginning of the in-processing at Camp X-Ray, when the goggles and other sensory deprivation items were removed. The movie depicted Slahi as having abrasions on his face that went untreated all the way to when he was first put in his cell. I thinking the abrasions were also for cinematic effect, to perhaps suggest he had been mistreated or mishandled. Any open wound, scratch or scrape was immediately given first aid during in-processing, he would have been no exception. Finally, another lie was the scene when Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley first go to see Slahi. Ominous music palys as they are escorted through the sally ports (locked sections of screened fencing) leading to the interrogation hut where Slahi was, led by a Lurch-looking, emotionless sergeant of the guard, when just as they arrive in the section housing the guard shack, a military working dog leaps out at them, barking and growling, creating a “jump moment.” Yikes! Military working dogs are NEVER around civilians. They work the perimeter of the camp. They are present at aircraft touchdown, during in-processing, but never around visiting civilians. It is moments like these that sadly prove that the film is 100% biased against the military. Their portrayal of soldiers and sailors, especially early in the film was ominous and insulting.

But what’s not to like? They spent pains getting Gitmo really close to what it is/was. From the soldier’s appearance, to the fencing, landscape, detention cells and amenities. Really nice job.

But they made US military personnel zombie-like, rude and discourteous in the beginning of the film, both misleading and unnecessary. Military personnel, especially Military Police, are exceedingly polite towards civilians. All civilians. We pride ourselves in being apolitical and nonjudgmental on duty. Why the producers, director and Ms. Foster felt they had to portray military personnel in this manner is beyond me, unless of course you consider the sympathy with the devil perception and an anti-American narrative.

Time and again Hollywood has portrayed US military in films as evil, incompetent, abusive, ignorant, damaged (PTSD), ugly and mean. That’s in the last 20-30 years or so. Bad guys are usually Marines or Army types gone astray or conflicted between orders and conscience. Movies like, “A Few Good Men,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Hurt Locker,” and “Camp X-Ray.” Add “The Mauritanian” to this group.

Other lies include the portrayal of military personnel near the end of the film. After the “special treatment,” the military characters seemed to become more sympathetic towards Slahi, even to the point of saying, “I can’t tell you that,” (classified information), and then immediately telling him the classified information. A direct slap in the face to the integrity of the military. An unfair portrayal. To say the story is “true” means to the casual viewer that everything portrayed in the movie is the truth. It is not. It is crafted to portray the military in a bad light. The only sympathetic military characters are the ones who buck the system or quit.

What I don’t know.

I don’t know exactly what happened to Mohamadou Slahi. I wasn’t there when he was. I never met him face-to-face. But my trained and experienced OPINION is that very little if any of the harshest treatment happened to him, but if it did, it wasn’t perpetrated by Army personnel, and I doubt any DoD personnel participated in any abuse or EIT. I base that on what I have shared with you.

There is a lot more to say about it. My small piece to the big puzzle that is the enigma we call Gitmo, is my book. Rather than a true story, I call my book a REAL story. There are three sides to every story, yours, mine and the truth. I will let the reader decide what is true or not based on their own research, conscience and educated convictions.

The Mauritanian expertly tells the myths and deceptions of Mr. Slahi, who is shown spiking the football (figuratively speaking) at the end of the film as he is shown in a real video news clip of him being greeted by hoards of Mauritanian supporters upon his release in 2016, and then is shown doing a victory dance in the final credit scene. That infuriated me, sickened me and caused me, finally, to leave.

Post Script

Since the original publication of this review I have watched the movie a second time at the invitation of the Motion Picture Association of America. I asked why I was selected and I was told because I was [at Gitmo] and wrote a book about it. I was given access to a special screening online which I could control. I stopped and started the film many times to gather quotes and watch again things that seemed interesting or anachronistic. I took five pages of notes and have integrated some of my findings into the body of this review, which I will continue to edit as new information comes to light. My mission is to gather as much factual information as I can and then share it with you in context of the film review so that you can decide for yourself what is credible and what is not. I encourage anyone with first hand knowledge of events portrayed in the film to come forward and DM me on Twitter at @mjgranger1. Thank you.

Post Post Script

Since the original publication of this review I have had the opportunity to witness a Zoom conference including Mohamedou Auld Slahi and Nancy Hollander through an event sponsored by Georgetown University’s “Bridge Initiative Team.” They titled the event: The Human Cost of Guantanamo Bay: In Conversation with Mohamedou Auld Slahi and Nancy Hollander.” It was an hour long presentation that included Islamocentric ideology, anti-US military propaganda and bashing, by the moderators and Nancy Hollander. Interestingly enough, Mohamedou was subdued, distracted occasionally by his beautiful young son, who would come up to his father, sit in his lap for a second or two, and then run away. “Mo” reminded everyone watching and listening that he felt “free” to express his faith at Gitmo, and that “Forgiveness equals freedom.” Leading up to the event I was asked if I wanted to provide any pre-screened questions to the guest speakers. I did, and sent them along via email. When the even started we were encouraged to provide additional questions, which I did immediately. In fact I posted the first six of about 13 or so event watcher questions, among them asking Nancy Hollander about whether or not she ever considered researching international and military law for her defense, and how much did she know about Operation Pastorious, and whether or not she had studied the Nuremberg Trials. For Slahi, I asked if he had any doubts about who abused him, military or CIA? None of my questions were asked. I felt frozen out of the whole event, even though I was invited to attend! All the questions were tainted softballs that were promptly hit out of the ballpark by Nancy Hollander, who couldn’t help herself from bashing the US government and military every chance she got. Moderator, John Esposito made a point at the beginning of the presentation to say Mohamedou had been “tortured by the military, not the CIA.” why would anyone need to make that disclaimer? Unless, it wasn’t true. In the end, I was flabberghasted at not having had the opportunity to have even ONE of my several questions asked, nor challenge the bias and prejudice of the event. I said as much in a series of tweets between myself and moderator, Mobashra Tazamal (@mobbiemobs), the who loved bringing everything back to an us vs. them, pro-Muslim narrative. Mo balked at getting too deep into US or non-Muslim-bashing, to Ms. Tazamal’s discontent. “What a waste of an hour,” I tweeted her. She was aggressive and insulting in return. I accused them of censoring my voice, and why would they be so terrified of what I had to say? No responses to my queries. I reminded them to please never invite me to these events again.