One evening late last year, Michelle Shephard, the national security correspondent of the Toronto Star, found herself on a "Spy Cruise" of the Caribbean, being given a one-on-one explanation by Porter Goss, the former head of the CIA, of just what the "waterboarding" 183 times of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda's number three, really meant.
This was not, however, a Christopher Hitchens-style personal immersion in the controversial interrogation technique, which simulates drowning so closely that Hitchens lasted only around 10 seconds before signalling he could endure no more. No wonder President Barack Obama called the procedure torture soon after taking office in 2009. To Goss, however, who was appointed as head of the CIA under the Bush administration, it was "effective" - and clearly no big deal.
"Do you know what 183 means?" Goss asked Shephard, who recalls how he then used a jar of bar nuts to demonstrate. "Out plopped an almond. 'One'. A cashew. 'Two'. Peanut. 'Three'. It looked so benign when crossing the Atlantic."Thus begins Shephard's account of 10 years of reporting since 9/11, a decade that took her from the twisted metal and ash of the World Trade Center hours after the attack to being shot at in Yemen, receiving unique pearls of wisdom about the superiority of the hereafter from an ex-Inter-Services Intelligence operative in Pakistan - "This life is like a toilet. It's a necessity. You have to use it but you want to get out very fast" - forging special bonds with a fragile child (and a tortoise) in Somalia, and to chronicling the absurdities and barbarities of Guantanamo Bay.
Many books and semi-academic treatises have been written on the narratives of the extremist movements, on the evolution of Al Qaeda and on the ill-fated campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Shephard's book is refreshingly different.
It is an intensely personal series of pictures and stories, sometimes concerning those whose importance needs little elaboration - bin Laden's chauffeur, or the schoolteacher who became president of Somalia - but even more movingly about people of whom most of the wider world would never hear: Cindy Barkway, a Canadian whose husband died in 9/11; Ismail Abdulle, a young boy condemned to a double amputation by the al Shahbab militia; and, for me, most poignant of all, Abdel Salem al Hila, snatched in autumn 2002 from the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo and flown first to Bagram Base in Afghanistan and then to Guantanamo Bay. The US accused al Hila of being a member of Al Qaeda. Human Rights Watch called his case a "reverse rendition" and the detainee himself, a prominent businessman and tribal leader in Yemen, vehemently denied any such involvement.
"I will not be considered an enemy to anybody," Shephard quotes him saying to a military panel in Guantanamo in 2004. "I hate fighting from the bottom of my heart. This is not because I'm here today; this is a fact. I want to let you know that I am a father. Even though I am not important in the American people's eyes because I am a prisoner, I am very important to myself. My kids and wife think that I am important, as do my mother and family. I hope that you consider that. I have already spent 28 months. I am in prison without any reason."
Since then, Abdel Salem al Hila's mother has died and his two boys were killed by a grenade. He has never been tried and remains in custody.
Although Shephard's experiences are varied and jump from country to country (she also emphasises their connections to Canada in a way that will feel novel to anyone not used to taking in their current affairs from the perspective of that country), several themes about the catastrophic and counter-productive missteps in the "war on terror" run throughout. As the opening of her book suggests, one is the fatuity, not to mention the illegality, of torture. Shephard makes her case convincingly with a handful of examples.
From / The National