‘The US should be held accountable’: Guantánamo survivor on the war on terror’s failure

Show caption Mansoor Adayfi: ‘We could not talk, we could not stand, we could not pray, we could not even look at the guards.’ Photograph: Mansoor Adayfi Guantánamo Bay ‘The US should be held accountable’: Guantánamo survivor on the war on terror’s failure After endless years during which he was routinely tortured, Mansoor Adayfi, who now lives in Serbia, asks: ‘What if that had been American boys?’ Poppy Noor @PoppyNoor Mon 16 Aug 2021 08.00 BST Share on Facebook

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When a shackled Mansoor Adayfi was lumped on to a heap of shivering, naked bodies in the pitch black, a hood over his head and muffs around his ears, he assumed he was going to die. He had just been conducting research in Afghanistan, and was expecting to begin university at the end of the year. Instead, he was accused of being an al-Qaida leader, kidnapped by Afghan warlords and handed over to the CIA.

He was kept in a prison camp in Afghanistan, then shipped to Guantánamo Bay. He remained hopeful. Aged 18, coming from a tribal area of Yemen with no electricity or running water, Adayfi did not know much about US values, but he assumed some principles held true in most of the world: that every person should be innocent until proven guilty; that if you have nothing to hide you should tell the truth; and that all humans, regardless of who they are, have rights.

He also believed common sense would prevail. After all, how could an 18-year-old from Yemen be an Egyptian al-Qaida leader when he couldn’t even speak the language captives accused him of speaking?

Unfortunately, his assumptions were wrong. This was the beginning of 20 years of hell for Adayfi, who was held captive in Guantánamo until 2016. His new memoir, much of it written while chained and shackled to the ground with cameras and guards watching him (“I was like, I’m going to make it, my friend!” he laughs) is a harrowing account of the injustices detainees faced.

“At the beginning, we had no rights. We could not talk, we could not stand, we could not pray, we could not even look at the guards – you had to follow orders 24/7,” he says, describing the value system there as “what’s wrong is right, and what’s right is wrong”.

Detainees sit in a holding area under the surveillance of US military police at Guantánamo in January 2002. Photograph: Shane T Mccoy/AFP

But his book and its message remains hopeful. Heartwarming, even. “They tried to break us, to prove that we were animals. Instead we were proving we were human,” he says. “Even through the hardship, the torture, we created a strong bond, a brotherhood with each other.”

Adayfi was part of a detainee population that was thought to be largely innocent. A startling 86% of detainees at Guantánamo were captured after the US distributed flyers in Pakistan and Afghanistan offering huge bounties for “suspicious people”. Many were handed over by rival farmers. Only 8% of inmates were thought to be al-Qaida fighters.

But prison officials didn’t care.

“When we went on hunger strike, they called it jihad. Like we could bring down this superpower with nuclear weapons just with our hunger strike!” he laughs. “In order to survive at Guantánamo, you have to have a sense of humor.”

Adayfi was thought to be one of the most dangerous prisoners. Lawyers were advised against working with him, and notes written by interrogators called him the “worst of the worst”. He became the much feared “Detainee 441”, not because of his terrorist sympathies, but because of the years he spent organizing detainees to fight for better rights; gaining media attention through hunger strikes and causing chaos in the prison when his fellow inmates were mistreated.

When we speak via Zoom, he is wearing a bright orange cloth around his neck, reminiscent of the jumpsuits made notorious by the prison. “I am wearing this because I’m still there. I haven’t left yet. I’m not going to leave until it closes.

“People still ask: should Guantánamo exist? Are you crazy? What if that had been American boys who were kidnapped, shipped to a place they never knew, imprisoned, tortured, experimented on and held indefinitely for five, 10, 20 years, without charge?”

Mansoor Adayfi, before he was kidnapped. Photograph: Hand out

“Until my brothers are released, I am still inside.”

Barack Obama promised to close the prison when he was first elected in 2008, later calling it “a stain … a facility and a process where not a single verdict has been reached”. Joe Biden has also vowed to close it.

But what has been given less attention is the lives detainees lead after they are released, and the protections put in place to keep them safe. The truth is not becoming of a government supposedly sorry for its crimes.


Adayfi’s life since he left Guantánamo has involved many successes. He has written his book, won a prestigious Sundance fellowship, starred in an award-winning podcast, and is a vocal advocate for human rights across the world.

But in Serbia, where he lives, he is still considered a terrorist, and his ambitions have been thwarted. He has found it hard to make friends because people fear associating with him; a tabloid ran a two-page spread calling him a terrorist, and his acquaintances have undergone interrogation just for knowing him.

He can’t get a job. He can’t leave the country, or drive. He has no healthcare. His relationship with a woman he loved ended after he was denied a travel document to visit her.

But this is not unusual. In fact, others have fared worse.

Mansoor Adayfi has his beard combed at the camp. Photograph: Alamy

Guantánamo detainees are not afforded the privilege of being able to choose the country they are sent to once they were released, and many were sent to countries with their own appalling human rights records.

People have died in their host countries. Only eight detainees were ever convicted – four of whom had their convictions overturned – and yet they are still treated as terrorists: they face routine interrogation, abuse and imprisonment. Many have health conditions from their time as detainees that have led to death.

“You would think the US government would make every attempt possible to make sure [detainees] have decent lives,” says Antonio Aiello, who co-wrote the book with Adayfi.

“If there’s anything that comes out of this book, it’s that the United States should be held accountable and responsible for these men’s lives, after what they’ve done to them.”


In Guantánamo, guards and prisoners had an understanding. “You are going to kick our ass, we’re going to kick your ass, but no hard feelings,” says Adayfi.

Mansoor Adayfi: ‘Guantánamo left no one unscratched, no one unburned.’ Photograph: Slavoljub Milanović

Despite the torture he endured – being strapped to a chair and force-fed through unlubricated tubes in his nose until he soiled himself; having his bones broken; watching his friends die – he tries not to see Guantánamo as a reflection of American values.

“We knew not to see America through the filter of Guantánamo, even though most guards still saw us through the filter of 9/11,” he writes in his book. In our interview, he says the treatment at the camp was unbecoming of the country whose constitution rules against it; the place where so many immigrants hope to live one day, because of its values of freedom and dignity, and its promise of the American dream.

But he thinks the abuses at Guantánamo have set the tone for the rest of the world.

“Tyrants in the Middle East, they took it as an example of the bad they can do. Now, in China with the Uyghurs, in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and Egypt, [they think they can] take people and just indefinitely detain, torture, kill and beat them simply by saying ‘they are extremists’. They say, if our boss [America] can do it, why [can’t we]?”

Adayfi has huge sympathy for the guards who lived through Guantánamo with him, even though they played nasty tricks on the detainees – carting them around in aircraft telling them they were going home, only to subject them to further interrogation; hiding their correspondence from their families; and throwing their Qur’ans in the toilet.

“We were all following orders, we were all victims of the same machine,” he says.

The best times were when someone was leaving Guantánamo, the happiness of seeing him freed

“Guantánamo left no one unscratched, no one unburned,” he says. “Guards lived with us every single day. They watched us eat, drink, shit, sleep, fight, cry, laugh, talk, get sick. [Officials could] lie to guards at the beginning and tell them we are terrorists, but they are not robots or machines. They are humans, they have feelings, they have judgment. They knew the truth, they knew the reality of Guantánamo, they knew the bullshit.”

Still, his most vivid memories of the prison are not the tough times, but the friendships that grew even under such conditions.

“I remember the jokes, the singing, the dancing, the eating, the partying. The best times were when someone was leaving Guantánamo, the happiness of seeing him freed. We had a life there. The friendship, the brotherhood, the shared humanity was beautiful and something I won’t forget.”

A military doctor holding a feeding tube used to feed detainees on hunger strike. Photograph: John Riley/EPA

Some inmates had been involved in terrorism. He shared a block with Osama bin Laden’s driver, and with his bodyguard. Does he think those people deserved to be in a place like Guantánamo? “I don’t believe so,” he says. “Whether you are innocent or guilty, you should be tried. That is a human right. There are basic human rights for everyone regardless of who they are.”

One shocking part of the book is learning proven terrorists get released before Adayfi – bringing up the question of whether it was refusal to be subordinated rather than his guilt that kept him there. At one point, prison officials created a system of privileges for detainees, offering those who talked to interrogators a camp where they could play soccer, eat together, read books and watch TV, while others were left in solitary confinement for months.

Does Adayfi regret not being more compliant? “No,” he says, without a thought. “I had to stand for who I am. I got offered twice to leave Guantánamo – in 2002 and 2015. The FBI came and gave me the their best offer and I refused. I turned it down because I couldn’t live with myself.

“You can’t level with someone who tortures you and abuses others. I was not gonna go to their levels.”

With the current situation in Afghanistan, he worries that the war on terror is still not over. “Of course it’s not,” he says. “If a clown like Trump came to the White House and managed to scrub everything upside down just like that, it can still happen.

“The war on terror generates Islamophobia. Sometimes it feels like you’re committing a crime for being Muslim. Our faith is interpreted as terrorism.”

Guantánamo detainees have a right to rehabilitation under international law, but Adayfi, who is writing his university thesis on the subject, has been shocked to see the lack of effort on America’s part to rehabilitate survivors.

“All of us have scars in our souls, deformities, from living at Guantánamo. We have PTSD, psychological problems. That doesn’t mean you cannot recover, but you need a healthy environment, a healthy community, a family, friends, a wife and a life. You have to have alternatives.”

Mansoor Adayfi’s memoir, Don’t Forget Us Here, is out now