“Choose Peace”: An Inspiring Message of Tolerance From Former Guantánamo Prisoner and Torture Victim Mustafa Ait Idir


Former Guantanamo prisoner Mustafa Ait Idir, photographed after his release from Guantanamo in December 2008 (Photo: Amer Kapetanovic).Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


Last year, I was honored to be asked to write a short review to promote a Guantánamo memoir by two former prisoners, Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir, two of six Algerians living and working in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who had been kidnapped by the US authorities in January 2002 and flown to Guantánamo, where they were severely abused. The US authorities mistakenly thought they were involved in a plot to bomb the US embassy in Sarajevo, despite no evidence to indicate that this was the case. Before their kidnapping, the Bosnian authorities had investigated their case, as demanded by the US, but had found no evidence of wrongdoing. However, on the day of their release from Bosnian custody, US forces swooped, kidnapping them and beginning an outrageous ordeal that lasted for six years.

Five of the six — including Boumediene and Ait Idir — were eventually ordered released by a federal court judge, who responded to a habeas corpus petition they submitted in 2008, after the Supreme Court granted the Guantánamo prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights, by telling the US government, in no uncertain terms, that they had failed to establish that they had any connection to Al-Qaeda or had any involvement in terrorism.

Ait Idir, who had worked for Qatar Charities in Bosnia before his capture, where he had been widely recognized as a talented athlete and coach, was returned to his wife and family in Sarajevo, where he is now a computer science teacher at a secondary school, while Boumediene, an aid worker for the Red Crescent Society in Bosnia before his kidnapping, who gave his name to the Supreme Court case establishing the prisoners’ habeas rights, was resettled in France in May 2009.

Two of the other three, Mohammed Nechle and Boudella al-Hajj, were released with Ait Idir in Bosnia in December 2008, just after the ruling, while another joined Boumediene in France in November 2009. The sixth man, Belkacem Bensayah, whose ongoing imprisonment had been upheld by the judge in 2008, won his appeal in 2010, vacating the ruling, but his case was never reconsidered. He was finally released in Algeria (against his will) in December 2013.

Ait Idir and Boumediene’s memoir, Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantánamo, is an extraordinary indictment of the US authorities’ incompetence and brutality after the 9/11 attacks, which I wholeheartedly recommend. As I stated in my review:

Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir are two of the most notorious victims of the US’s post-9/11 program of rendition, torture, and indefinite detention. Kidnapped on groundless suspicions, they are perfectly placed to reflect on the horrors of Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” With a warmth and intelligence sadly lacking in America’s treatment of them, this powerful joint memoir exposes their captors’ cruelty and the Kafkaesque twists and turns of the U.S. government’s efforts to build a case against them.

Last week, Mustafa Ait Idir was given an opportunity to send a message to the US people via a column in USA Today, which he delivered with eloquence, and an extraordinary sense of tolerance and dedication to peace. In this he is not alone. Numerous former prisoners have emerged from the prison to spread a message of peace, and not, as so many US and Western observers expect, to be consumed by bitterness.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, for example, the best-selling author of Guantánamo Diary, who was subjected to a particularly harsh program of torture in Guantánamo, under the mistaken belief that he was member of al-Qaeda, recently told his editor, Larry Siems, that he forgave everyone who had mistreated him, because otherwise he would be poisoned by hatred, which would eat away at him. Those obsessed with vengeance — like those who seem unable to move on from the trauma of 911 — would do well to take heed of his comments.

Mustafa Ait Idir’s op-ed is posted below, and I do hope you have time to read it, and that you’ll share it if you find its message of hope and forgiveness useful.

Former Guantánamo Bay prisoner message to Muslims: No suffering can justify terrorism
By Mustafa Ait Idir, USA Today, July 13, 2017

There are those who ask why more Muslims haven’t spoken out against terror, all the while covering their ears so as not to hear those of us who do.

After illegally seizing me from my family in Europe, the American government held me in an island prison for almost seven years. During those years, I experienced and observed unspeakable suffering and abuse. I was bewildered and angry; America was torturing and tormenting me for no reason at all. It was as though no one cared that I had never wished harm on anyone. My innocence made no difference.

My oldest son first learned I was in Guantánamo when his classmates, having read an article about me online, mocked him about my plight. Another of my sons, born a few months after I was interned, first met me on the telephone. I missed the first six years of his life. As much as anyone, I have earned a right to rage against an American government that acted out of fear and prejudice. A government that, as we saw with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ visit to Guantánamo last week in apparent preparation to refill it with prisoners, sadly has yet to demonstrate a capacity to learn from its mistakes.

And so I hope I have earned the right to be taken seriously when I say this, to any of my Muslim brothers and sisters, and to anyone else, contemplating violence: I beg of you, choose peace. Whatever complaints one might have about particular policies and politicians, and I assure you I have several, violence will only make matters worse.

The bigots and fear-mongers, the Donald Trumps and Dick Cheneys, are emboldened and empowered by acts of terror. And no matter what you have been through, regardless of what hell you have been forced to endure, nothing could possibly justify propelling nails into a throng of teenagers, ramming a bus into a crowd, or flying a plane into a building. It is one thing to be upset, even enraged; it is another to be heartless. Neither Allah nor any god of any religion could ever support such cruelty to our fellow man.

I worry that this plea may fall on deaf ears, or rather, ears that are capable of hearing but unwilling to listen. And I wonder if my voice will also be ignored, as countless others have, by those who find it easier to think of all Muslims as bad.

There are those who ask why more Muslims haven’t spoken out against terror, all the while covering their ears so as not to hear those of us who do. There are those who support unfair measures that prevent people from entering the United States because they are Muslim, and who defend or even promote Guantánamo. Those people, through their words and deeds, lend weight and voice to the extremists and drown out the rest of us. This is exactly what the extremists want.

But I am home again with my wife and family, and I have overcome far too much to give up hope now. Violence is not inevitable. I am a schoolteacher, and I know that children will only learn to hate if adults teach them to. Right now there are young Muslims deciding whether to hate the West, and young Westerners deciding whether to hate Islam. There are voices, including mine, urging them not to. Extremists and Islamophobes are trying to drown us out. Will we let them?

Mustafa Ait Idir, a computer science teacher in Sarajevo, was seized in Bosnia at the demand of the U.S. in October 2001, ordered released by two Bosnian courts, and illegally handed over to American forces who brought him to Guantánamo in January 2002. A U.S. judge ordered his release in 2008. Idir and Lakhdar Boumediene are co-authors of Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantánamo. They were co-plaintiffs in the 2008 Boumediene v. Bush case before the Supreme Court, which gave Guantánamo prisoners access to federal courts.

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 the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for 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).

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, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see 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.

7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a cross-post, with my own commentary, of an inspiring op-ed in USA Today by former Guantanamo prisoner Mustafa Ait Idir, one of six men kidnapped in Sarajevo and taken to Guantanamo in January 2002 in connection with a non-existent terrorist plot. After six years of abuse, he was freed after a judge ordered his release in 2008, and earlier this year had a memoir published, Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantanamo, co-written with Lakhdar Boumediene, another of the Bosnian kidnap victims, for which I was honored to have been asked to write a review as a cover blurb. The op-ed by Ait Idir, a high school teacher, is wonderful in its insistence on the importance of peace and tolerance. I hope you agree, and will share it if you find it useful.

  2. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, thanks for reproducing Idr’s moving op-ed.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I was very pleased to do so, arcticredriver. His decency and humanity shines through.

  4. Anna says...

    Will have to read their book.
    Wonder what the ‘comments’ were on USA Today to this wonderful testimony of true humanity and wisdom? Also in the light of the avalanche of hatred which apparently has followed the apology (and I suspect mainly the financial reparations) awarded to Omar Khadr, another example of an amazing capacity to not-hate.
    I take this opportunity to advertise this letter of support ‘I Stand with Omar Khadr’: https://act.leadnow.ca/i-stand-with-omar-khadr/.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Anna,
    Comments are generally to be avoided, I find, on mainstream media articles involving the topics that concern us. I had a glance, but I don’t recommend it.
    Thanks for highlighting the Omar Khadr letter. I just did so on another comment here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2017/07/05/canada-agrees-to-pay-10m-compensation-to-brutalized-former-child-prisoner-omar-khadr-held-at-guantanamo-for-ten-years/comment-page-1/#comment-1354302

  6. Tom says...

    And now, 60 seconds of peace.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    A whole minute’s silence, Tom? What will our masters say? Surely every waking minute must be devoted to economic activity! 😉

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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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