Lockdown Listening: Radiolab’s Six-Part, Four-Hour Series About Guantánamo Prisoner Abdul Latif Nasser, Cleared for Release But Still Held


An image produced by Will Paybarah for Radiolab’s series “The Other Latif,” about Guantánamo prisoner Abdul Latif Nasser.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

As the coronavirus continues to impact massively on our lives, via lockdowns and a global death count that has now reached over 250,000, spare a thought for the prisoners at Guantánamo, who are more isolated than ever. Although it is profoundly reassuring that the virus has not reached the prison — despite a US sailor contracting it on the naval base in March — the 40 men still held have not had any contact with anyone other than their captors since the US lockdown began.

Their attorneys are no longer able to fly out to see them, and, last Saturday, Carol Rosenberg of the New York Times tweeted that the International Committee of the Red Cross had “canceled its quarterly visit because of the virus.”  As she proceeded to explain, ICRC delegations have been “meeting with the detainees and prison commander since Camp X-Ray opened in 2002,” and the visit on May 22 would have been the ICRC’s 135th visit to the prison.

As the lockdown continues — and so many of us have more time on our hands than previously — now seems like a good opportunity for those of you who are interested in Guantánamo to listen to “The Other Latif,” an unprecedented six-part, four-hour series about one particular prisoner, Abdul Latif Nasser, the last Moroccan national in the prison, whose case we have covered many times over the years — see, for example, Abandoned in Guantánamo: Abdul Latif Nasser, Cleared for Release Three Years Ago, But Still Held, from last August, and Trump’s Personal Prisoners at Guantánamo: The Five Men Cleared for Release But Still Held, from last November.

Of the 40 men still held at Guantánamo, Abdul Latif Nasser is one of the most unfortunate, having been unanimously approved for release in July 2016 by a high-level US government review process, the Periodic Review Boards (PRBs), which was established under President Obama, but not released.

By the time the Moroccan authorities finalized the necessary paperwork and got it back to the US government, President Obama had just 22 days left in office, whereas, for many years, Congress had demanded that 30 days’ notification be given to lawmakers before any prisoner could be released — meaning, as a result, that Nasser missed being released by just eight days.

Donald Trump, of course, has no interest in releasing anyone from Guantánamo under any circumstances, leaving Nasser trapped, along with four other men approved for release but still held when Obama left office, 26 other men appropriately identified by the mainstream media as “forever prisoners,” who were approved for ongoing imprisonment by their PRBs, and just nine men facing, or having faced trials.

“The Other Latif” is the first ever multi-part series produced for Radiolab, part of WNYC Studios, which, in turn, is part of the esteemed New York Public Radio, and the series was inspired by a single tweet seen by Radiolab’s Latif Nasser — a tweet by Reprieve, dated January 19, 2017, which stated, “Read our urgent letter to @POTUS seeking intervention for Abdul Latif Nasser, cleared yet stranded at Guantánamo Bay.”

As the Radiolab website explains, “Latif Nasser always believed his name was unique, singular, completely his own,” until he made “a bizarre and shocking discovery,” that “he shares his name with another man: Abdul Latif Nasser, detainee 244 at Guantánamo Bay.” As the website proceeded to explain, the US government painted “a terrifying picture of The Other Latif as Al-Qaeda’s top explosives expert, and one of the most important advisors to Osama bin Laden.” However, Nasser’s lawyer, Shelby Sullivan Bennis, told Radiolab’s Latif that “he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that he was never even in Al-Qaeda.”

In seeking to establish the truth about his namesake, Latif was led “into a years-long investigation, picking apart evidence, attempting to separate fact from fiction, and trying to uncover what this man actually did or didn’t do.”

Some have criticized the end result for its tone. Josephine Livingstone of the New Republic, for example, lamented that Radiolab’s “house podcast style holds back what is otherwise an extraordinary series.” She stated that the series “contains what I can only call some beautiful lines of inquiry,” adding that “Nasser chases the story through sunflower fields in Sudan, through his own uncertain youth, along the halls of Guantánamo Bay itself,” and that “[t]hese investigations throw an unexpected and rather poignant light across the subject matter,” but suggests that “the show is constrained by a few flaws that feel endemic to trends within the medium of podcasting itself, rather than to Nasser’s particular work.”

These flaws involve, primarily, a kind of forced levity that is obviously very much at odds with the seriousness of the subject matter. As Livingstone describes it, Radiolab’s house style, “in this context — a very serious story with tragic consequences — feels like a deliberate signature imposed without concession to the topic.”

That said, she concludes her article by stating, “You’d be hard-pressed to listen to The Other Latif and not learn something, and that seems like success to me” — and there is indeed an extraordinary depth to Latif’s investigation, regardless of how it is often presented. Guantánamo is so rarely covered in depth in the mainstream media, and yet here is a four-hour radio series about a single prisoner in Guantánamo, defying every expectation that, at an editorial meeting, it would have been confined to, at most, a single one-hour show.

Instead, in the first episode, Latif begins to explore who his namesake may be, discussing the alleged evidence with Shelby Sullivan Bennis, and hearing about how he should have been released until Donald Trump happened; in the second episode he travels to Morocco to meet Nasser’s family, who welcome him so thoroughly that he feels his “objectivity” being threatened; in the third episode, he investigates Nasser’s time working on a sunflower farm in Sudan; in the fourth episode, he investigates his time in Afghanistan; in the fifth episode he visits Guantánamo; and in the sixth episode he visits Washington, D.C. to talk to those with knowledge of how and why Nasser was approved for release, but was not actually freed, which the website describes as “a surprisingly riveting story of paperwork, where what’s at stake is not only the fate of one man, but also the soul of America.”

We hope you have time listen to “The Other Latif,” and will share it if you find it useful.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    For these lockdown days, it you have time on your hands, why not have a listen to “The Other Latif,” a six-part, four-hour Radiolab series from New York’s WNYC Studios (part of New York Public Radio).

    Three years in the making, the series was inspired by Radiolab’s Latif Nasser discovering that there was a prisoner at Guantanamo with his name – Abdul Latif Nasser, the last Moroccan amongst Guantanamo’s remaining 40 prisoners, who was approved for release in 2016, but is still held.

    Latif’s journey takes him to Morocco, Sudan and Guantanamo, in search of the truth about his namesake, and while the tone sometimes underplays the seriousness of the topic, it’s genuinely quite extraordinary that a four-hour series about a Guantanamo prisoner made it to air without being cut down to, say, an hour at most.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Did you like it Andy? I’ve been meaning to ask you. I didn’t. I found it arrogant. The author says he was the first one to ever report on Nasser, when that’s not true. You did and others before he discovered the one in Guantanamo. I listened to the first two parts and just didn’t like it.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I definitely agree with those who have complained about the Radiolab house style, Natalia – a certain levity that is at odds with seriousness of the subject matter – and I’ve added some more information about that to my article which I didn’t have time to do last night.

    However, I can’t really complain about a major radio channel allowing a six-part series to be created dealing with the story of a single Guantanamo prisoner, or with the fact that it must have been listened to by numerous people who wouldn’t normally spend any time thinking about the injustice of Guantanamo.

    I do wonder, I have to say, what kind of a show Shelby and I would have come up with, if we’d been allowed to do so ourselves, but then nobody asked us!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Andy, you’re right. And yes, when I realized she [Shelby] was there I thought maybe I was not getting the tone and it was a good podcast. I couldn’t finish listening, though 🙊. Thank you for giving me your opinion, which for me is really very important.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    You are always welcome, Natalia!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Meanwhile Flynn in the US just dodged serving time for a crime he pled guilty to in a court. The US justice system is a travesty.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I always remember the lines that Bob Dylan borrowed from somewhere for his song ‘Sweetheart Like You’ in the 80s, David: “Steal a little and they’ll put you in jail / Steal a lot and they’ll make you a king”

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Me too, Andy

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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