'The Other Latif,' A Podcast Run About A Man With The Same Name — In Guantanamo
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This is Latif Nasser of WNYC's Radiolab.
LATIF NASSER: My name is one of those names where, as a kid, I would go to, you know, truck stops and spin that wheel of key chains looking for my name, and I would never find it.
KELLY: Because it was such an unusual name, which made it all the more surprising when it turned up three years ago on Twitter, a single tweet that prompted an investigation Nasser has been working on ever since. He tells the story of his journey in a new podcast. It's called The Other Latif.
NASSER: So I saw this tweet that I thought was about me, but it didn't make any sense. It was a tweet from a lawyer from a nonprofit law firm who was writing an open letter to President Obama on behalf of a guy who had my name who was a detainee at Guantanamo Bay.
KELLY: Detainee No. 244 at Guantanamo Bay.
NASSER: Exactly right. And I just started to learn more and more and more. I stumbled upon this leaked document on The New York Times' website that had this kind of laundry list of very damning things that this guy supposedly did.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE OTHER LATIF")
NASSER: He was a top explosives expert for al-Qaida. He helped blow up the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Two-thousand-year-old stone Buddhas carved into cliffs.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Cultural wonders of the world.
NASSER: He was directly associated with Osama bin Laden before and after Sept. 11, quote, "one of the most important military advisers to Osama bin Laden." He allegedly commanded troops against U.S. and coalition forces on the frontlines of the battle of Tora Bora.
So there's a pretty big list of things that the United States government does or at one point thought he did.
KELLY: He's been at Guantanamo Bay, imprisoned since 2002. He's in his 50s now. He's been there - what? - a third of his life.
NASSER: Yeah. Yeah. So since 2002, no charges, no trial and tortured.
KELLY: So you go about trying to investigate this. You reach out to his lawyer, who you've now interviewed multiple times. She, not surprisingly, since she is his lawyer, maintains - what? - that he that he didn't do any of the things the U.S. government has accused him of doing?
NASSER: Pretty much. So her name is Shelby Sullivan-Bennis. She - her version of his life - she's sort of circumscribed in what she's allowed to say about his life. But basically, her version is that the reason this guy was in Afghanistan, where he got picked up, was that he was a religious guy. He wanted to go there to help his fellow Muslims to live in a perfect Islamic society, but that he was not a fighter on the frontlines. He was not going there with this sort of militant intent. And that he basically was sold for a bounty to the United States. And he just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, swept up by Afghan forces and sold to the U.S.
KELLY: As you set about trying to investigate this, you're trying to obviously interview everybody here in the U.S. that you can. But you also are trying to figure out, well, what did happen to this guy in his life? I will say Episode 2, which I've listened to, finds you in the home where the other Latif was born and raised and sitting down trying to talk with his family in Morocco. What did you learn?
NASSER: Well, I went in just thinking, how am I going to get this family to trust me, to talk to me, given that I'm coming from this country that has kept their brother, in some cases, for over a decade and half without a trial? And I went there thinking that there was no way they were going to trust me. And what I found was exactly the opposite.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE OTHER LATIF")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You are like my brother. You are my brother, my brother who was sent to come. She said that you are like her brother who are waiting for to come.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking non-English language).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I see the innocence that's in his face and his features that are similar to their brother.
NASSER: They kept saying, you know, I knew you had his name, but I didn't expect you to have his height and his build and to look like him and to be the age that he was when we last saw him. They sort of embraced me in this way that was - I had tried to approach these stories with a kind of distance, and this became so personal so quickly.
KELLY: Yeah, you can hear it in that episode where you're interacting with his siblings and nephews and nieces. And I can hear the struggle in your voice at having to ask some of the really hard questions you need to ask them, like, is there any chance he was mixed up with something really bad? Is there a chance this - he was a terrorist?
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE OTHER LATIF")
NASSER: I'm only asking because we found this in a - in - so there's, the you know, the U.S. government documents that have been released. They said that he was involved with that group. You know the group I'm talking about?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The Moroccan group.
NASSER: The Moroccan group.
Yeah. And how do you even ask that, especially to a family who - they basically lost track of their brother for 10 years or so. They were, in a way, as clueless as I was.
KELLY: So the other Latif, Abdullatif Nasser, was cleared for release four years ago, back in 2016. I would say all charges were dropped, but he was never actually formally charged with anything. Why is he still at Guantanamo?
NASSER: So this is a terrific puzzle. Six representatives from six top agencies of the U.S. government decide unanimously that he should be cleared to go, be transferred back to his home in Morocco. They tell him, effectively, like, you're - in days, if not weeks, like, you're going home. But then what happened was there was some kind of bureaucratic exchange, a diplomatic exchange between the United States and the Moroccan governments.
And something in that exchange got delayed such that by the time Morocco finally sent in their acceptance of this guy saying, yup, send him over, it was too late. The Obama people were on their way out. The Trump people were on their way in. President Trump at the time, right before he'd become president, he had tweeted that nobody should be released from Guantanamo. And so this guy then - his lawyer had to go back to him and say, look, you're going to be here for at least another four years, maybe more. I don't know. What that actually means looking forward this year is that depending on who wins this upcoming election, this guy's freedom really hangs in the balance.
KELLY: So this would be a dramatic and compelling story if that was all there was to it. But there are quite a few other twists. Without giving away the ending, do you feel like you've arrived at what the truth is and who this guy is and what he did or didn't do?
NASSER: Yeah. I still change my mind constantly. But I think I've settled at some shade of gray that feels right to me. That said, though, I think what I've kind of learned at the end of this whole journey is that so much of this story is actually not about this guy. It's about us. It's about the way that we've treated this guy and the way that we have, in a way, stashed this guy in a place we've purposely created where the rules don't apply.
What does it mean to keep a guy in American custody and not have American laws, freedoms, values that we hold dear apply to him? So there is - in the end, I do come up with kind of who I think this guy is, what he did. But it also - in the end, I think it's not just about him, it's about all of us.
KELLY: That's Latif Nasser of WNYC's Radiolab. his podcast is The Other Latif. The first two episodes have dropped. There are four more to come. Latif Nasser, thank you.
NASSER: Mary Louise, thank you so much.
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