By Narayan Lakshman
June 8, 2013
After a series of "life-altering conversations" with Detainee 590, Holdbrooks converted to Islam and took the name Mustafa Abdullah.
Around 2003 army specialist Terry Holdbrooks was just another guard on duty at the U.S.’ Cuban Guantanamo Bay prison, where many “illegal combatants” in the Global War on Terror are incarcerated.
As part of his day-shift duties he escorted prisoners to and from interrogations and monitored them in their cells to ensure they were not slipping notes to each other. But with his night-shifts being slow, he ended up spending many hours “sitting cross-legged on the ground, talking to detainees through the metal mesh of their cell doors”.
And then something changed.
After a series of “life-altering conversations” with Detainee 590, Moroccan inmate Ahmed Errachidi, Mr. Holdbrooks converted to Islam and took the name Mustafa Abdullah — only to lose his friends, receive violent threats, and being labelled a “race traitor” online.
However none of this shook his faith and Mr. Abdullah has come out with a self-published account of his experience at Guantanamo, titled “Traitor?” He also travels the length and breadth of America accompanied by Khalil Meek, a co-founder and Executive Director of the Texas-based Muslim Legal Fund of America, raising money to support the legal defence of U.S. Muslims “accused of vague crimes or placed on no-fly lists and other restrictions under the increasingly broad anti-terrorism provisions”.
Where does his passion for this cause come from? Not only conversations with inmates that showed their enduring faith but from the “atrocities” that he said he had witnessed committed at Gitmo.
The long list of such acts that Mr. Abdullah describes supplies further context to the hunger strike that more than 100 of the inmates in the prison went on this year. While President Barack Obama promised to close down Guantanamo even in his 2008 campaign run, he has thus far failed to deliver on that and in January this year the State Department said that it would be shuttering the prisoners’ resettlement office despite 86 inmates there being cleared for release.
For Mr. Abdullah, his time at the prison changed the very course of his life. After returning to the U.S. he said he spent “years trying to drink away memories of Guantanamo”, and ended up being honourably discharged from the Army in 2005 for “generalized personality disorder”. At that point he decided to renew his commitment to Islam and ended his reliance on drinking, smoking, and drugs to cope with his feelings about his Guantanamo experience. Finding discipline in prayer, he said, “Islam teaches you that if you see an injustice in the world, you should do anything within your power to stop it.”
His feelings about Guantanamo are however unequivocal and he argues that it would be wrong if he sat by and allowed Gitmo to continue to exist or let people think that Islam is America’s greatest enemy. “I may have become a Muslim, but I am not a traitor,” Mr. Abdullah said.