Call Me ‘Zak’: An insider’s view of the detainees in Guantánamo Bay

Detainee artwork on display in Camp Delta, July 18, 2013. Zak, the Muslim cultural adviser, says the detainees' artwork gives evidence of their change in attitude over the years.

Identified only as Zak for security reasons, the Muslim cultural adviser at the detention facilities in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who is a Pentagon employee, has served as a resource for U.S. military personnel and Muslim detainees from 2005 to the present. Zak was born in Jordan, raised in Kuwait and previously worked with the U.S. military in Iraq from 2003 to 2005. The interview, edited for clarity and length, took place on July 18, 2013, in Guantánamo Bay.

Luke Hansen: How has your work evolved over the years?


When I first came here we had over 550 detainees. [As of May 2014, the population is 154]. We have learned a lot over the years about how to manage the detainees and make sure they are being taken care of safely, humanely. We have tried, for example, to minimize the interaction between detainees and guards by introducing communal living. The detainees can hand out food to each other, go to shower anytime they want, sit down and watch TV. Since this is a detention camp and not a prison, we have to find reasons for them to comply. If prisoners do not comply, time can be added to their sentence. But here, time just continues to add up.

What role do you play in the operations today?

My role here is with everybody. I mean with everybody. With the media, I always do my best to give the correct image, the correct information, and try to be as transparent as possible. With the military, I make sure everybody understands the mission. I do training classes. For detainees, I make sure they understand how to deal with the guard force. For example, some detainees attempt to communicate in broken English, and it leads to miscommunications. So I tell the guard force and detainees to always use the linguist.

If I get asked a question about Islam, I will find the correct answer.

Are there parts of Islam the detainees will discuss with each other?

When the detainees first came here, they knew one thing: extremism. When we first introduced a TV, they broke it, in 2005 in Camp Four. That was O.K. They didn’t want it.

Now we have reintroduced a TV and asked the detainees where they wanted it. They said a central location. We gave them one sports station and explained that we have no control over who is in the audience and how they are dressed.

We moved from one TV station to 20-some TV stations and radio. At some point, we gave them the remote control. They opened the remote and operated on the electronics with the back of a pencil, an eraser, so they can download all the satellite TV stations. We closed our eyes and let them have it. We saw that they wanted something, a window to the world, that allowed them to listen to people different from their recruiters. They listened to TV stations from places like Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Once they started reading books from the library and listening to different people on TV, they started doubting what they had been told. We have a good number of detainees who started thinking for themselves and attending classes. They say, “We were fooled about what we were told.” The classes teach life skills, art and computers. They have access to all kinds of books. We give them the freedom to choose what they read and watch, because it allows them to think for themselves and change whatever they were told at a younger age.

David Rose: What gives evidence of their change in attitude?

You will see their artwork. In the past, before introducing classes, when they sat down and drew, it was all military thinking. Now it is all modern: they draw cars, themselves, a window to the world, a castle.

What is the overall mood in the camps?

The atmosphere right now [July 2013] is full of hope, since the president’s speech [in May 2013] at the National Defense University. They have seen the hiring of Mr. Cliff Sloan, the officer in charge of closing Guantánamo. They have seen delegates from Congress here. They see information from their lawyers, and the release of everybody’s status, so they know something is coming. So there is hope, light at the end of the tunnel.

What accounts for the earlier escalation of tension?

An accumulation of no action. They were excited for the executive order [to close the facility] in 2009. Then years pass. Then the office of the envoy gets closed. In the outside world, the instigators, the planners, say, “Hey, you gotta do something to have your voice heard.”

In the past, the hunger strike was different. They were hunger striking for quality-of-life issues. They wanted a TV, more food, different food, recreation time and exercise equipment. We were able to deal with those hunger strikes, but with this one, we cannot give them what they are asking for. The whole world is asking, “How come you are not negotiating with them?” Negotiate over what? We didn’t do anything wrong.

I wish I knew why they are hunger striking today. I mean, they are in detention, O.K. The whole world is saying, “Guantánamo is going to close.” How long will this process take? At least there is a process that’s going to happen. We don’t know.

Guantánamo is very different now. Back in 2003, the men had no access to news media, lawyers, very little mail contact, no phone calls.

Now they have phone calls to their families. They have Skype. We rarely refuse any newspaper or book or anything. They have religious books. They have access to TV. They can get on the phone with their lawyers and say whatever they want about us. The next day, we have a news article about it, so we know what happened on the phone call.

When they have more privileges, are they less difficult?

Yes. Giving them contact with their families helped a lot because some of them get talked to by their parents, by their wives, by their uncles, whoever is living, and they kind of told them, “Just listen to the guards for the instructions. Don’t cause problems.” But not all of them are less difficult; some will never change.

How have you managed to stick it out for so long?

I love it. There are some results. Things are changing. The people I work with are listening. I feel like I am educating lots of people who work here. Iam helping them understand the differences in cultures. Al Qaeda wanted to use religion as a weapon. I said, “Well, let’s take away that weapon. Let me show you who I am.”

I always say to the guard force, “Follow your job, be consistent, don’t love, don’t hate, know why the detainees are here: they are not here because of their origin, nationality or religion. They are here because they were associated with somebody or something. It is not our job to decide whether the person is innocent or guilty.”

After the executive order in 2009, what signs did you see that it was gradually dawning on them Guantánamo might not close?

They use different methods, like a hunger strike or suicides, to pressure us. Out of the nine detainees that have died here, we only had two natural deaths. Everybody else was told [by another detainee] to kill themselves.

How do you know that?

I listened to them. I know.

So the camp leader said, “You will kill yourself”?

Yes, of course. Yes, people with education. We have detainees who tell us about other detainees. They talk to me, write letters about how they want to change, how this certain group of people is always manipulating them and recruiting them. Once we allow them to start thinking for themselves, they start breaking away from these groups of people.

The communal living and good life we provide them does not work into the equation of the instigators. They want others to be deprived, starving, living in hell, so it would be easier for them to recruit. Would you be able to recruit somebody who is comfortable in his life, has a good job and good family? It would be very hard.

Not one person was depressed and couldn’t take it anymore?

Maybe one. I don’t want to exaggerate. He just decided to do it on his own.

But isn’t it haram [sinful] to kill yourself in Islam?

Of course.

So how do they come to terms with that?

Ideology. It is how you manipulate and recruit. One of them told me that “kill Americans” is written in the Quran. I looked at him, “Written 1,400 years before America existed?” So they know how to manipulate them, brainwash them.

So those who commit suicide are mostly from very poor backgrounds, uneducated and easily manipulated?

[And] unmarried. Don’t have children.

[See the editor’s note at the conclusion of the interview.]

Luke Hansen: How has your work affected you as a person?

It just gives me more challenges. I want to continue to educate and teach people, because the world is falling apart, and we need human beings to wake up and learn how to live life. Maximum, we have 80 years on this earth. If we are lucky we live until 90. We don’t want to spend it killing each other.

David Rose: What would you do if you leave?

My goal is to find the next challenging job, maybe at the level of trying to get countries to work together. I am not going to stop. I want to do good. It’s about how I can make a better future for my kids and your kids. Instead of just making weapons, people can make more iPods and iPads.

Editor’s Note: Zak’s comments about detainee suicides warrant additional context.

On June 9, 2006, three detainees died suddenly—the first deaths at Guantánamo. The next day, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the commander of the detention facility, said the deaths were suicides. He added, “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.”

In August 2008, the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service issued a heavily redacted report that supported the claim that the deaths were suicides. In a statement, the N.C.I.S. said that early evidence resulted in “growing concern that someone within the Camp Delta population was directing detainees to commit suicide and that additional suicides might be imminent.”

In March 2010, Harper’s Magazine published “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides,’” an investigative report in which Scott Horton, the author, called the N.C.I.S. report “full of unacknowledged contradictions” and “simply unbelievable.” Based on available documents as well as interviews with four members of an intelligence unit based in Guantánamo at that time, Mr. Horton suggests that the three detainees were tortured to death by suffocation at a secret C.I.A. facility near the detention facility.

The most recent death at Guantánamo, another reported suicide, took place on Sept. 8, 2012. Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts. See “Obama’s Scandal,” Editorial, Oct. 22, 2012.

Click here for America's full coverage of Guantánamo Bay, including exclusive photos and videos of the detention facilities.

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Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 9 months ago
I don't know that I have ever read an article about Guantanamo from the perspective of a Muslim working with the Pentagon as a liaison with the detainees. This is really insightful (eye-opening) for me. I never thoroughly considered that these young men were brainwashed fanatics, and the way to turn the tide was not to punish or release them, but to EDUCATE them - show them how to think for themselves and value themselves as human beings within their own tradition. Thanks for this, Luke. It is impressive how this one man can make such a difference, just be being who he is: a Muslim who does not use his religion as a weapon. Love seeing the artwork.


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