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Extending Humanity and Compassion at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp (University Press Week 2019)

By Peter Jan Honigsberg

A soldier stands guard on a cell block inside Camp Five at Guantánamo Bay.
A soldier stands guard on a cell block inside Camp Five at Guantánamo Bay. Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Jon Soucy, National Guard Bureau

University Press Week runs each year in November and was first established in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter to recognize “the impact, both here and abroad, of American university presses on culture and scholarship.” This year’s theme is Read. Act. Think., which emphasizes the role that scholarly publishers can play in moving national and international conversations forward on critical and complex issues. As a member of the Association of University Presses, Beacon Press is proud to participate in this year’s blog tour. In our contribution, we are sharing two selections from Peter Jan Honigsberg’s A Place Outside the Law: Forgotten Voices from Guantánamo about Guantánamo Bay prison guards who went off script and saw the humanity in the detainees.

The content of A Place Outside the Law comes from the interviews filmed by Witness to Guantánamo, an organization Hongisberg founded in 2008 to collect and preserve the personal stories from Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. The full-length interviews are held in perpetuity at the Duke University Human Rights Archive in Durham, North Carolina. Clips of them appear on the Witness to Guantánamo website.


Brandon Neely’s Story: Facebook Friends

When Brandon Neely sat down to interview with us in Houston, Texas, he brought his wife. She knew much of his story, but it seemed that he wanted her to hear him share his story with us. Maybe he would recall something new, something he had not told her before.

Neely had signed up with the military before the events of 9/11. “When I joined, it was quiet. There was nothing going on around the world. I wasn’t doing much. I was stocking groceries forty hours a week and I knew I needed change. I wanted really to go to college. I’ve been out of school almost two years. Because, you know, I grew up in a military household, so I figured I’d go get some training, something I want to do.”

Neely received his military training. But everything changed after 9/11. As a private, he was assigned to be a prison guard in Guantánamo. (Later, he was elevated to private first class.) Neely was part of the first wave of soldiers to arrive at the detention center before it opened on January 11, 2002. His job was to escort the second detainee off the bus.

One of Neely’s duties during the six months he was in Guantánamo was to walk through the cellblock each day and check on the prisoners. Military officials instructed the guards not to speak to the men. But when Neely heard several detainees speaking English, he could not resist. Perhaps conversing with the men would reduce his boredom. In his conversations, he discovered that the young men in the cells were similar in age and “were doing the same thing I was doing just two weeks ago.”

“I spoke to Ruhal [Ahmed, a detainee from Tipton, a town outside London]. We were talking about girls, nightclubs, music and that we had listened to a lot of the same music. I mean, this could be a guy that I would probably hang out with back in the States, but here he is in Guantánamo. At the time I thought everybody was guilty, so I was just like, he just had to do something to get here. Here we were at Guantánamo, but on opposite sides of the cage.”

Neely also conversed with several other English-speaking detainees, including Shafiq Rasul, who was also from Tipton.

Two years after he had completed his military service, Neely returned home and joined the Houston police force. Because he continued to be interested in Guantánamo, he noticed a story in the media about the Tipton Three. Neely turned to his Facebook account.

“I was like, yeah, I remember those guys. Just for kicks, I put in Shafiq [Rasul’s] name, and there it was. It just popped up with his picture and I said, man, no way this guy is on Facebook. So, I sent one message and we just started talking through [Facebook]. It was just weird.” Neely said, “You find everybody on Facebook now.”

I asked him whether he still communicated with them.

“I talk to Ruhal [Ahmed] and Shafiq [Rasul] through Facebook and text message, you know, maybe a couple of times a week, and we exchange photos of the kids, just normal conversation. Since we’re past the whole awkward stage, I would say that we’re friends.”

Neely flew to London in January 2010 for what he described as a reunion with the men he used to guard. That meeting is memorialized on YouTube.

When I asked Brandon Neely whether he was surprised in how he had once been a prison guard and had now become a good friend of the former detainees, he replied, “I used to be very close-minded. I’ve always said if I could change—anybody could change. I now look at stuff differently. I try to look at the whole picture instead of just one side of it. I really realized like not everything that the media says is what it is, and I’ve kind of opened myself up to different ways of life, ’cause not everything was the way they do it in Texas or any other place. I don’t know anything about their religion or kind of people. But now I’m just open to it all. I guess I’m more open to change and different cultures and different people and that part of it was positive. . . . I just look at it all different.”


Watch a clip of Brandon Neely’s interview from Witness to Guantánamo.


Terry Holdbrook’s Story: Convert

Before arriving in Guantánamo, Terry Holdbrooks’s military police unit went to visit Ground Zero in New York City, where the towers fell.

“I can only imagine that the purpose behind that was for propaganda, you know. Take us to the place where 9/11 happened, then tell us that Islam and Muslims are to blame. Take us to Guantánamo, obviously everyone is going to be riled up and it’s going to be an effective means of getting the job done,” he told us.

When Private Holdbrooks became a Guantánamo prison guard in summer 2003, the military described the prisoners as “the worst of the worst and a bunch of towel heads and dirt farmers and such.” He explained why the military used such phrases.

“They didn’t want us to trust them or develop any kind of friendship or relationship with them whatsoever. . . . Don’t have conversations with them. Don’t befriend them.”

However, many of the detainees were friendly to Holdbrooks, and he was encouraged by their openness to strike up conversations.

“I spent most of my time talking with detainees. If I was ever going to have an intelligent conversation, it was with a detainee. So, you know, talking about their lives, about where they came from, what society, education, and religion is like in the rest of the world. How often are you going to be in a place where you can meet people from forty some-odd different countries? It just wasn’t something I was going to pass up. I had to, you know, I had to take use of the opportunity,” he said.

Similar to the realizations of prison guard Brandon Neely, Holdbrooks recognized that “these individuals maybe listen to some of the same music that I do or they’ve watched the same movies, you know, we speak the same language, we’re really not all that different. So, I don’t understand why everything the military has told me is not equally up here.”

Becoming friendly with some of the detainees, observing their practices and learning about their lives and their Muslim faith had a powerful effect on Holdbrooks. He began to limit his drinking, changed his diet by eliminating pork and greasy foods, and cut down on the number of cigarettes he had each day. His health improved. He also tried to change his speech, using more descriptive words and eliminating profanity. And he worked on being more positive about others. “These are important in Islam,” he added.

At the time he was becoming more interested in the lives of the detainees and in their faith, it was also “right about that time my wife and I had truly hit our lowest point in our marriage.” It caused him to wonder what he was missing in life, and how other people dealt with life-affecting and life-transforming issues. He was feeling miserable during this period in his life, he told us.

But while feeling miserable, he would look at the detainees and observe that they were “always smiling and happy despite the interrogation, the abuse, and the being away from their families. They are still happy.”

Holdbrooks would wonder, “What are you guys so happy about? What do you have to be happy about? You have the same food, seven days a week. It’s awful. It’s hot out here, you don’t have any air-conditioning. What are you happy about?”

And he would answer his questions: “They got faith. It’s just a test. It’s all it was for them—a test. and seeing them have that cohesion, that brotherhood, that unity, that I didn’t even have with the military.”

Islam began to “make sense” to him. It felt right. “so, I should really just go with this wholeheartedly,” he thought.

He talked with a man known as the “General,” one of the leaders of the detainees in the prison, about converting to Islam. “He blew me off the first time,” Holdbrooks said. Holdbrooks persisted, and ultimately the General consented.

It happened on a midnight shift in December 2003, six months after Holdbrooks had arrived in Guantánamo. The prison was quiet and no other guards were around. Holdbrooks stood in the hallway outside the General’s darkened cell and said his Muslim statement of faith, his Shahada.

Holdbrooks was in Guantánamo for another six months. During that time, many of the detainees knew of his conversion. He kept it secret from the military, but he did reveal it to two of his closest friends. Holdbrooks left the military with the rank of specialist.

Holdbrooks wrote to me in spring 2019 that he is still practicing his Muslim faith.

Watch a clip of Terry Holdbrooks’ interview from Witness to Guantánamo.



About the Author 

Peter Jan Honigsberg is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and the founder and director of Witness to Guantánamo. His research and teaching focuses on the rule of law and human rights violations that occurred in the detention center in Guantánamo, as well as on the study of terrorism and post-9/11 issues. His books include Our Nation Unhinged and A Place Outside the Law. Honigsberg lives in Berkeley, CA.