Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The Guantanamo Guard Who Found Islam
When Hidayah came looking for you, it came in many forms. May Allah blessed those who seek the truth.
Army specialist Terry Holdbrooks had been a guard at Guantánamo for about six months the night he had his life-altering conversation with detainee 590, a Moroccan also known as "the General." This was early 2004, about halfway through Holdbrooks's stint at Guantánamo with the 463rd Military Police Company. Until then, he'd spent most of his day shifts just doing his duty. He'd escort prisoners to interrogations or walk up and down the cellblock making sure they weren't passing notes. But the midnight shifts were slow. "The only thing you really had to do was mop the center floor," he says. So Holdbrooks began spending part of the night sitting cross-legged on the ground, talking to detainees through the metal mesh of their cell doors.
He developed a strong relationship with the General, whose real name is Ahmed Errachidi. Their late-night conversations led Holdbrooks to be more skeptical about the prison, he says, and made him think harder about his own life. Soon, Holdbrooks was ordering books on Arabic and Islam. During an evening talk with Errachidi in early 2004, the conversation turned to the shahada, the one-line statement of faith that marks the single requirement for converting to Islam ("There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet"). Holdbrooks pushed a pen and an index card through the mesh, and asked Errachidi to write out the shahada in English and transliterated Arabic. He then uttered the words aloud and, there on the floor of Guantánamo's Camp Delta, became a Muslim.
When historians look back on Guantánamo, the harsh treatment of detainees and the trampling of due process will likely dominate the narrative. Holdbrooks, who left the military in 2005, saw his share. In interviews over recent weeks, he and another former guard told NEWSWEEK about degrading and sometimes sadistic acts against prisoners committed by soldiers, medics and interrogators who wanted revenge for the 9/11 attacks on America. But as the fog of secrecy slowly lifts from Guantánamo, other scenes are starting to emerge as well, including surprising interactions between guards and detainees on subjects like politics, religion and even music. The exchanges reveal curiosity on both sides—sometimes even empathy. "The detainees used to have conversations with the guards who showed some common respect toward them," says Errachidi, who spent five years in Guantánamo and was released in 2007. "We talked about everything, normal things, and things [we had] in common," he wrote to NEWSWEEK in an e-mail from his home in Morocco.
Holdbrooks's level of identification with the other side was exceptional. No other guard has volunteered that he embraced Islam at the prison (though Errachidi says others expressed interest). His experience runs counter to academic studies, which show that guards and inmates at ordinary prisons tend to develop mutual hostility. But then, Holdbrooks is a contrarian by nature. He can also be conspiratorial. When his company visited the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Holdbrooks remembers thinking there had to be a broader explanation, and that the Bush administration must have colluded somehow in the plot.
But his misgivings about Guantánamo—including doubts that the detainees were the "worst of the worst"—were shared by other guards as early as 2002. A few such guards are coming forward for the first time. Specialist Brandon Neely, who was at Guantánamo when the first detainees arrived that year, says his enthusiasm for the mission soured quickly. "There were a couple of us guards who asked ourselves why these guys are being treated so badly and if they're actually terrorists at all," he told NEWSWEEK.
Neely remembers having long conversations with detainee Ruhal Ahmed, who loved Eminem and James Bond and would often rap or sing to the other prisoners. Another former guard, Christopher Arendt, went on a speaking tour with former detainees in Europe earlier this year to talk critically about the prison.
Holdbrooks says growing up hard in Phoenix—his parents were junkies and he himself was a heavy drinker before joining the military in 2002—helps explain what he calls his "anti-everything views." He has holes the size of quarters in both earlobes, stretched-out piercings that he plugs with wooden discs. At his Phoenix apartment, bedecked with horror-film memorabilia, he rolls up both sleeves to reveal wrist-to-shoulder tattoos. He describes the ink work as a narrative of his mistakes and addictions. They include religious symbols and Nazi SS bolts, track marks and, in large letters, the words BY DEMONS BE DRIVEN. He says the line, from a heavy-metal song, reminds him to be a better person.
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