The Magazine

The Real Gitmo

What I saw at America's best detention facility for terrorists.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Ironically, however, most of the roughly 210 detainees still held at Guantánamo are not in supermax-type facilities at all. At least 70 percent live in communal settings like Camp 4. They can play soccer, basketball, or foosball; exercise on elliptical equipment; and consort with their fellow detainees for up to 20 hours per day in the outdoor recreation area. They can take art classes or learn English. And while tensions flare every now and again, life in Camp 4 is generally calm. Camp officials prefer that the detainees live in this type of setting. It's easier on the guards and everyone else involved. As the commander of Camp 4 explains, the detainees have to "do something really bad" to get locked up in one of the more secure facilities.

The detainees have access to several satellite television channels and, as one DoD handout notes, a library consisting of "more than 14,000 books, magazines, and DVDs in 18 languages." During a visit to the library, I noticed a few copies of the poetry of Rumi--a 13th-century Sufi mystic whose writings explore deeply spiritual, ethereal topics. Rumi's view of the world is diametrically opposed to that of al Qaeda's jihadists. He searched for the universal deity who he believed resided in us all, regardless of race or creed. Jihadists, on the other hand, believe they are compelled to war against anyone who dares to oppose their intolerant beliefs.

I ask the head librarian, "Do you get many requests for Rumi's books?"

With a slight chuckle she replies, "No, we don't get many requests for him. They aren't too interested in Rumi."

Oddly, the detainees are interested in many aspects of Western culture. Harry Potter is very popular, and with each new movie that comes out the detainees request more of J.K. Rowling's books.

"Everything you know about out there, they know about in here," the librarian says. That includes news events. In addition to satellite television, most of the detainees have access to three newspapers--two from the Muslim world and USA Today. The papers are censored, but only to remove any material that the detainees may find lewd, such as advertisements showing a man and woman kissing.

A while back, one detainee smashed a television set when he saw a woman's bare arms during a broadcast of a soccer match. In response, camp officials bolted down the televisions and put protective plastic casings around them. They have also gone out of their way to make sure that the detainees are not exposed to any other material they may find objectionable. For example, the nondescript faces of the foosball table's characters have been chipped off so that the detainees will not be offended by any hint of idolatry.

It is also surprising to learn the identity of some of the terrorists currently housed in the open-air facilities of Camp 4. Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was slated to be the 20th hijacker on September 11, 2001, reportedly lives here. There is little chance that the Obama administration will release al-Qahtani, despite all of the controversy surrounding the methods used during his interrogations. (Al-Qahtani was unquestionably subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment during the early days of Guantánamo.) The public outrage would simply be too great. So, it is likely that al-Qahtani will be transferred to the new facility in Illinois--or some other similarly secure facility in the United States--and such terrorists will undoubtedly pine for their days in Cuba once they are locked away in one of America's more severe correctional facilities.

An Italian journalist who accompanies me throughout much of the tour says that two Tunisian detainees who were recently transferred from Guantánamo to Italy to await trial are probably very upset right about now. They are being held in a maximum-security prison in Milan that he describes as "hell" compared with Gitmo. The Italian gentleman tells me this right after we tour the food-preparation facilities. There we found that the detainees are offered six types of meals, totaling between 5,000 and 6,000 calories, daily. In their more candid moments, the detainees complain to camp personnel that it is difficult for them to claim they have been "tortured" when they have pot bellies.