Feb 11, 2020

The Other Latif: Episode 2

The Other Latif

Radiolab’s Latif Nasser always believed his name was unique, singular, completely his own. Until one day when he makes a bizarre and shocking discovery. He shares his name with another man: Abdul Latif Nasser, detainee 244 at Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. government paints a terrifying picture of The Other Latif as Al-Qaeda’s top explosives expert, and one of the most important advisors to Osama bin Laden. Nasser’s lawyer claims that he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that he was never even in Al-Qaeda. This clash leads Radiolab’s Latif into a years-long investigation, picking apart evidence, attempting to separate fact from fiction, and trying to uncover what this man actually did or didn’t do. Along the way, Radiolab’s Latif reflects on American values and his own religious past, and wonders how his namesake, a fellow nerdy, suburban Muslim kid, may have gone down such a strikingly different path.

 

Episode 2: Morocco

Latif travels to Abdul Latif’s hometown of Casablanca, Morocco, to try and find out: was he radicalized? And if so, how? Latif begins by visiting the man’s family, but the family’s reaction to him gets complicated as Latif digs for the truth. He finds out surprising information on a political group Abdul Latif joined in his youth, his alleged onramp to extremism. Tensions escalate when Latif realizes he’s being tailed. 

Read more about Abdul Latif Nasser at the New York Times’ Guantanamo Docket. 

This episode was produced by Sarah Qari, Suzie Lechtenberg, and Latif Nasser. With help from Tarik El Barakah and Amira Karaoud. Fact checking by Diane Kelly and Margot Williams. Editing by Jad Abumrad and Soren Wheeler. Original music by Jad Abumrad, Alex Overington, and Amino Belyamani. 

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate

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Speaker 1:

Listener supported WNYC Studios.

Intro Voices:

You're listening to Radiolab from WNYC.

Latif:

I'm Latif Nasser, and this is The Other Latif. Episode two: Morocco.

Latif:

Over the past few years since I discovered I share my name with a Guantanamo detainee, I've interviewed his lawyer... Shelby Sullivan [Benis 00:00:43]... 10 times. Every time I do talk to her...

Latif:

Hey.

Shelby:

Oh hey, how's it going?

Latif:

Good. How are you? It sounds like...

Latif:

It goes something like this.

Latif:

Let me just run you through the laundry list of stuff we wanted to talk to you about.

Shelby:

I'm kind of nervous.

Latif:

No, no, no.

Latif:

I ply her with questions about new stuff I've learned or uncovered.

Latif:

What did he tell you? What percentage of that would you say is true and what percentage of that would you say is false?

Latif:

And she tells me what she can.

Shelby:

Yeah.

Latif:

Which is never much.

Shelby:

Again, I'm doing the internal brain vet of classified information versus unclassified.

Latif:

Sure, take your time.

Shelby:

There's a distinction between information that I know, information I don't know, and information that is either classified or declassified that the client has told me. I think I can't answer that question at all knowingly. I'm sorry.

Latif:

That's okay.

Latif:

See, Shelby is in a tough spot. As a defense attorney, she only wants to talk about stuff that helps her client's case, but she's only allowed to talk about stuff that's declassified. The government mostly declassifies stuff that hurts her client's case. The stuff she can talk about she doesn't want to, and the stuff she wants to talk about she can't. If by accident she talks about stuff she wants to but can't because it's classified, not only could she be disbarred, she could face criminal prosecution.

Shelby:

Yeah.

Latif:

Prison time.

Shelby:

I can't exactly speak to that, unfortunately.

Latif:

It gets stranger when it comes to this one key document... the Department of Defense Detainee Assessment that surfaced in April 2011.

Newscaster:

More leaked documents from Wikileaks, this time concerning the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Latif:

It's the thing I found on the New York Times website that has the list of supposedly horrible things Abdul Latif did.

Latif:

This is the JTF Gitmo Detainee Assessment.

Shelby:

I'm fairly certain that's off-limits.

Latif:

Oh, that's off-limits?

Latif:

Because that document was leaked...

Shelby:

I'm not supposed to talk about it, look at it, think about it, even the world can see it. It's very odd.

Latif:

That was the confusing space I was stepping into. In any case, when I first sat down to investigate the story of Abdul Latif Nasser, I started with that document: the 15 page Department of Defense Detainee Assessment of him that Shelby couldn't talk about. It had a fair amount of detail not just about the bad things this guy supposedly did but about his whole life. He seemed to bounce from country to country, Morocco to Libya to Sudan to Yemen to maybe Czechia to Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay. He felt almost like a Forrest Gump of the War on Terror. It was hard to know where to start.

Latif:

I decide to take it from the top. If you look at the first paragraph of the section called prior history, here's what it says... I'm going to paraphrase it because the writing is really bad... "Detainee attended two years at the Hassan II University in his hometown of Casa Blanca. He studied chemistry and physics. While a student he was also an active member of the Islamic fundamentalist group Jamaat Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane." Then there's a footnote: "Jamaat Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane is," quote, "an extremist religious group that wants to replace the Moroccan monarchy with an Islamic state." The basic gist of this story is one we've heard a million times at this point: young middle class Muslim kid for some reason suddenly joins an extremist group. Is that what happened to Abdul Latif Nasser? Or is there more to that story?

Latif:

I decided that the best way to find out...

Intercom:

[inaudible 00:05:01].

Latif:

Was to get on a plane...

Latif:

We're somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.

Latif:

To Morocco and talk to the people who knew him best, the people who may have seen that transformation happen firsthand: his family.

Latif:

I don't know what I can say to the family that will make them want to talk to me.

Latif:

Two flights and 13 hours later we land in Casa Blanca.

Speaker 7:

Welcome to Morocco. Welcome.

Latif:

Right now we're in one of the local red taxis. Did not imagine a left turn was going to happen there.

Latif:

We made our way to the suburban neighborhood called...

Martina:

[Sidi Uth Mon 00:05:54]

Latif:

Sidi Uth Mon. That voice is Martina [Burcher 00:05:57] from Abdul Latif's law firm, Reprieve, who set up the meeting for us. We pulled up to this modest family home, got out of the car, and walked inside. It was me, my producer Suzie Lechtenberg, our interpreter [Tarik 00:06:18], all following Martina because she had been there before. She led us to a small mosaic-tiled sitting room near the front of the house.

Latif:

[foreign language 00:06:28].

Latif:

We told to sit on some couches and wait for the family to come say hello.

Speaker 9:

[inaudible 00:06:38].

Latif:

But no one came. So we just sat there.

Suzie:

[inaudible 00:06:50].

Tarik:

That's so funny.

Latif:

Yeah, of course.

Latif:

Tarik reminded us that the World Cup was on. We could actually hear it playing in the other room.

Latif:

Is that the whole family back there?

Latif:

I thought, "Maybe that's what's happening, or maybe they were suspicious of me. I mean a guy shows up, says he has your relative's name, but comes from the very country that has held that relative for over a decade and a half without a trial." If it was me, I'd be suspicious. As Suzie put it...

Suzie:

I've never walked into a reporting situation so blind where you really don't know what the tenor of the conversation is going to be.

Latif:

After a few minutes that felt way longer than they were...

Latif:

[Arabic 00:07:43].

Speaker 12:

[Arabic 00:07:43].

Latif:

An older man in a yellow shirt walked in. Martina says to him...

Martina:

[Arabic 00:07:49].

Latif:

"Do you know who this is? This is Abdul Latif Nasser."

Speaker 12:

Abdul Latif Nasser?

Latif:

He immediately grabs me and wraps me in a huge hug. Other family members start coming in. I start getting more hugs, kisses, even from older hijab-wearing women who don't typically embrace male strangers. More and more relatives kept piling into this tiny room. Turned out that Abdul Latif has seven siblings and most of them have kids and even grandkids. About a dozen relatives in all came out to meet me. In any case, after the greetings...

Martina:

They cooked us some lunch. It's called [pasilla 00:08:38]. It's a special Moroccan dish.

Tarik:

He asked if you can stop recording.

Latif:

They didn't want us to record lunch, so I set my microphone down and went to wash my hands. One of the most striking things that's ever happened to me in my life happened next. I got intercepted by a petit women in a hijab whom I later learned was Abdul Latif's sister, [Katija 00:09:04]. She saw me and gasped and started crying. She started speaking Arabic really fast. I grabbed our interpreter Tarik. He told me what she said. She said that she'd known that I was coming and that she knew I had her brother's name, but what was she didn't expect was that I was his height, that I had his build, that I looked like him, and that I was around the same age that he was when she last saw him. Looking at me, she said... and would later say again and again... she felt like she had gone back in time.

Katija:

[Arabic 00:09:49].

Tarik:

You took them back 20 years into the past. It's like you're a younger Abdul Latif.

Latif:

Out of nowhere she grabbed my arm, switched into English, and said, "Call me sister."

Tarik:

"You are like my brother. You are my brother: my brother who is still to come." She said that you are like her brother who are waited for to come. "I see the innocence that's in his face and his features that are similar to their brother. You are a new member of the family." You are a brother of them. They have to know everything about you.

Latif:

They asked to see photos of my son back home.

Latif:

Here, is this a good one? Here. This is my son.

Tarik:

"How beautiful."

Latif:

Just then...

Latif:

Hi. [inaudible 00:10:56].

Latif:

One of the really little kids came into the room and hugged my leg. I kept laughing out of nervousness because it was a lot to take in. Not only did I remind them of their brother, they reminded me of my family too: middle class home, religious iconography on the walls... I had to keep reminding myself I had questions to ask them: difficult questions that I now wasn't sure how to ask.

Suzie:

Can I just test your mic for me?

Latif:

Check check check. Check check check.

Suzie:

I need you to scoot closer to him if that's okay.

Latif:

We all gathered into a circle. The family decided that Abdul Latif's older brother [Mustafa 00:11:41] would field all the questions. He sat directly across from me.

Tarik:

[Arabic 00:11:47].

Latif:

Blue button-up shirt with cuffed sleeves, gray hair. He runs a water treatment company for swimming pools.

Latif:

Probably the best way to start is that I should tell you who I am, what we're doing, why we're here.

Tarik:

[Arabic 00:12:01].

Latif:

And I'm Canada. I was born and raised in Canada. My parents were from east Africa but my roots go back to India. I live in Los Angeles but the show I work for is from a different city: New York. I am not in any way affiliated or related to the American government. I'm a journalist. We're very skeptical of the American government.

Latif:

My first question is who is Abdul Latif Nasser? Can you tell me about him as a person?

Tarik:

[Arabic 00:12:49] Abdul Latif Nasser?

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:12:53].

Latif:

Mustafa told me that his brother was actually born and raised in this very house. He was a quiet, nerdy kid. While the other two brothers would tussle with other kids in the neighborhood, Abdul Latif always had his nose in a book. "He just wanted to read. I'd find him with a book here, a book there..."

Tarik:

"It's because he was smart and he was into numbers and digits. That's what drew him into maths and sciences."

Latif:

He reiterated something that Shelby had told me.

Shelby:

He was the academic star of his family and of his neighborhood.

Katija:

[Arabic 00:13:42].

Latif:

His sister chimed in at this moment to point out that it was actually annoying how smart he was.

Tarik:

She hated that so much because he used to set the bar so high. She didn't like it because it was such a competition to her. The parents used to draw comparisons: "Look at what your brother did and you didn't do the same."

Latif:

One things I heard several times was that of the eight siblings he was clearly...

Tarik:

"He was her favorite child."

Latif:

Their mother's favorite.

Tarik:

"Latif. Mother used to call him Latif from [inaudible 00:14:17]."

Latif:

He and his mom shared this bond.

Tarik:

"She was a very conservative lady. They used to pray together and practice their religious duties together."

Latif:

He would wake her up in the mornings and they would pray together, almost as friends rather that mother and son. At the same time, everybody emphasized...

Shelby:

He was 100% secular academic for the most part.

Latif:

His mom was the one who encouraged him to pursue a career as a scientist.

Shelby:

His parents ran home after seeing his grades posted and that he that he had passed high school and was accepted into college.

Latif:

I have to say, the outlines of this were really familiar to me. My dad and I would wake up most mornings at like 4:00 AM to go to the mosque to pray, and I loved going with him. He was also the one who pushed me to be interested in science.

Latif:

In any case, Abdul Latif was the first of his siblings to go to university.

Tarik:

[Arabic 00:15:19].

Latif:

His dream according to Mustafa...

Tarik:

"His ambition was to pursue his studies until the very end. He wanted to go to Australia or Canada to pursue his studies."

Latif:

To Canada, really?

Tarik:

Yeah.

Latif:

My home country.

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:15:34].

Latif:

Mustafa grabbed a picture of Abdul Latif as a young man and handed it to me.

Tarik:

"That was taken back when he was in university."

Latif:

In the picture you see a young clean-shaven man, short black hair, angular jaw, piercing eyes. He didn't really look like me but I could see him being a good-looking older cousin of mine.

Tarik:

He said, "Look at the picture. This is not the picture of someone who will commit such things and be the subject of such charges."

Latif:

Yeah, the charges. By this point it was almost the end of the day and I still hadn't asked them about that.

Latif:

One thing I wanted to ask about is... I'm only asking because we found this in a... There's the US government documents that have been released. They said that he was involved with that group. You know the group I'm talking about?

Tarik:

The Moroccan group?

Latif:

The Moroccan group. The extremist group that the US government says he joined in college: Jamaat Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane.

Latif:

Was he ever affiliated with that group?

Tarik:

[Arabic 00:16:56].

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:17:01].

Tarik:

They said that maybe he was a sympathizer of the group but he was not a member. One thing that...

Latif:

Should we pause?

Suzie:

No, it's fine by me.

Tarik:

Okay, it's good. They said that...

Latif:

Their house is right across the street from their neighborhood mosque.

Maluda:

[Arabic 00:17:27].

Latif:

Abdul Latif's sister, [Maluda 00:17:37], was clearly agitated by the question and kept saying, "They cleared him!" And Mustafa...

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:17:52].

Tarik:

He's sure that his brother has done nothing wrong. "It's obvious for college kids to horse around every now and then, but it has nothing to do with any political or religious groups."

Latif:

Is everything okay? I feel like I'm getting a vibe that they're upset. I want to make sure...

Tarik:

[Arabic 00:18:10].

Mustafa:

No.

Latif:

I decided not to push it.

Latif:

So maybe we can take a break until tomorrow.

Latif:

We had more day of interviews, so I figured, "Let's go back to the hotel and start fresh in the morning."

Suzie:

I'm tired.

Latif:

On the way home, I replayed the answers I got to the final question about the group: that Abdul Latif sympathized with the group but was not part of it. Even Shelby acknowledged that he had been part of that group. But the other part of the answer... about how college kids experiment and try out things without fully meaning them, I get that. When I was in college I went to all kinds of religious ceremonies: church services and satyrs. At one point I even tried out being a wiccan.

Latif:

Oddly, one of the places that that spiritual flailing took me was to Morocco. When I left my fairly devout home to study I had a real crisis of faith. I started missing prayers, so much so that I started keeping track of how many how I was in the hole so that I could make them up later. The reason why I was flipping was that I didn't know what my faith meant to me any more: whether and how much I wanted it to define me. By my second year of university I decided that the best way to figure it out was to study and major in Islam. I signed up for a foreign study three month course in Fez, Morocco. I remember thinking, "This is the place where I'm going to figure this out once and for all."

Latif:

When I got there, I realized this weird thing.

Speaker 16:

What's your name?

Latif:

If I introduced myself as Latif...

Latif:

My name is Latif.

Latif:

Nobody would call me by my name.

Speaker 17:

Latif is a name of God. God has 99 names. Latif is a name of God.

Latif:

The reason why, which was explained to me over and over, is that Latif is one of the 99 names of God in Islam. It means the Most Gentle, or the Most Kind. Whereas in a place like Canada you can get away with naming a kid that... my parents found my name in a book from our mosque library... in a Muslim country like Morocco it's plain weird. It's like naming your kid God. So you put Abdul in front of it.

Speaker 17:

Abdul Latif. Slave of... Abdul. Slave. "I am slave of..." Abdul Latif. Slave of God.

Latif:

Moroccans would only ever call me Abdul Latif.

Speaker 16:

In Morocco we have a name: it's Abdul Latif.

Latif:

It was so weird to imagine as university students me and Abdul Latif... the other Latif... we may have been walking these same streets, going by the same name, asking ourselves the same kind of questions just 20 years apart. "Who am I? What does my faith mean to me? What kind of future do I want?"

Latif:

That said, I didn't join a radical fundamentalist group. I never even flirted with a group that was dangerous or violent in any way. Did he? And if so, why? An answer I definitely didn't expect after the break.

Andre:

This is Andre [Caramero 00:22:07] from the border town of [Lorito, 00:22:10] Texas. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation: enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

Speaker 19:

Whether you're new to Pocket Casts or have been a fan for years, we're offering you a free three month trial of Pocket Casts Plus, giving you all the great features of our free mobile app plus more. Listen to the podcasts you love and discover even more when you redeem your trial at pocketcasts.com/wnyc.

Latif:

This is The Other Latif. I'm Latif Nasser. Casa Blanca, day two. The day got off to a strange start.

Latif:

Oh, he's here. He's here.

Latif:

Abdul Latif's brother Mustafa picked us up in his car.

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:23:14].

Latif:

[Arabic 00:23:15].

Latif:

He was happy to see us. Our interpreter Tarik sat in the front seat while Suzie and I sat in the back with Martina.

Martina:

There is a willingness to ask for...

Latif:

We started driving back towards the family's house for the second round of interviews.

Martina:

There is this one guy, but we already agreed that he can come back, yet he didn't come back.

Latif:

Martina and I were chatting. In my head I was going over my questions for the day when all of a sudden Mustafa... who is driving... started acting strange. Speeding up, slowing down, making sharp turns seemingly out of the blue. Something was weird. We sped through traffic. When we finally got back to the house, Mustafa pulled up the curb, turned the car off, but didn't get out. We all just sat there in silence, confused.

Tarik:

[Arabic 00:24:28].

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:24:31].

Latif:

Finally, we got out...

Latif:

Oh my god, it's so hot.

Latif:

Walked into the house, took off our shoes, then Tarik turned to me and translated for me what Mustafa had told him.

Tarik:

We were being chased.

Latif:

Sorry?

Tarik:

We were being chased by the police, but they were not wearing the uniforms. He was trying to lose them. He took different roads to lose them. But some of them eventually succeeded.

Latif:

We looked out the door and parked across the street was a car. Three men were sitting in it, watching us.

Tarik:

Maybe the house is under constant control or surveillance.

Latif:

Should we be worried?

Latif:

"I'm not sure," Tarik says. The three guys in the car never came in. They just stayed there in the car watching the house and taking pictures every so often. I would later call the Moroccan Embassy in DC and ask them, "Who were those guys? Were they police? Intelligence? Were they monitoring the family? Were they following us?" They basically said there's no way of knowing, but in the moment I remembered what I had read in that DOD Detainee Assessment: that the Morocco government had cracked down on that group that Abdul Latif may have been affiliated with. Is this what it would've been like for him? Did they follow him?

Latif:

I looked at Mustafa and he was clearly spooked. I asked him, "Is everything okay?"

Tarik:

[Arabic 00:26:21].

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:26:22].

Latif:

"Everything is okay," he said. Not very convincing. Just to jump forward for a second and then we'll come back to the family, I realized that this group that might've led Abdul Latif to be surveilled, I didn't know anything about them at all. I wouldn't learn about them until later, because when I got home I ended up making some calls.

Vish:

Hello?

Latif:

Hey.

Vish:

Hi.

Muhammad:

Hey Latif. How are you doing?

Vish:

Can you hear me well?

Latif:

Yeah. Can you hear me?

Vish:

I can hear you really well.

Latif:

Muhammad [Datowe 00:26:59].

Muhammad:

Professor of political science at Oklahoma City University.

Latif:

And [Vish Stocktovel 00:27:03].

Vish:

I do research on Algerian Islamist politics and I'm a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Latif:

I read them passages from some of the leaked government documents just to get a gut check from them about that group.

Latif:

This is from the first one: "Detainee was an active member of the Islamic fundamentalist group Jamaat Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane. Detainee held a lower leadership position. Jamaat Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane is an extremist religious group that wants to replace the Moroccan monarchy with an Islamic state. Jamaat Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane is an Islamic fundamentalist group."

Muhammad:

Interesting description. The only thing that they got right about that is the name of the group.

Latif:

Really?

Vish:

Yeah. Anyone that knows a little bit about the organization would raise an eyebrow at the characterization in the DOD report.

Latif:

Each of them separately told me the story of this group: how it dated back to a time when Morocco was a very repressive monarchy.

Speaker 22:

[Arabic 00:28:09].

Latif:

This is the Morocco of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, when Abdul Latif was young.

Vish:

Those are known are the Years of Lead.

Latif:

L-E-A-D?

Muhammad:

Exactly. The Years of Lead.

Latif:

Lead, as in...

Speaker 22:

[Arabic 00:28:25].

Latif:

The king...

Vish:

Hassan II.

Latif:

Was a tyrant.

Muhammad:

He ruled as an absolute monarch.

Vish:

The king ruled with a heavy hand. There was no room for dissent.

Muhammad:

He jailed a lot of political activists.

Vish:

There was a lot of torture.

Newscaster:

Thousands have been tortured, killed, and disappeared.

Muhammad:

It was very repressive.

Latif:

You had this very violent western-leaning monarchy. Along comes a man named [Abdah Salam Yasim 00:28:55]

Speaker 23:

[Arabic 00:28:55].

Latif:

An elementary school inspector.

Muhammad:

In the Ministry of Education. Basically, he would go and inspect the methods and pedagogy of classes and so on.

Latif:

He got fed up living under a brutal king and went through a spiritual crisis and eventually he formed and illegal political grouped guided by three principles called the Three Nos.

Muhammad:

Which is no to violence and no to violent methods, no to secrecy and clandestine activity, and no reliance on foreign intervention or reliance on foreign forces and so on.

Latif:

According to Vish and Muhammad, this was a pacifist that was trying to overthrow the monarchy but to bring about peace and free elections. Their methods? Marches. Sit-ins.

Vish:

They would have literacy classes. They would have soup kitchens.

Latif:

And to make it even ironic, this group that supposedly started Abdul Latif Nasser's journey to Guantanamo Bay was formed in part to demonstrate against unlawful detention of people for no reason. The DOD report makes the group sound like ISIS, but when you look at it it sounds more like the Founding Fathers without the muskets. Learning this, it was almost like a journalistic whiplash where I was like, "What?! What does it even mean to be radical if you're living in radical times? Even more than that, is that the kind of bogus intelligence they're using to lock this guy up for 18 years without a trial?"

Cynthia:

But you're not seeing all of the other sources of information.

Latif:

This is Cynthia [Storer 00:30:47].

Cynthia:

Former CIA senior terrorism analyst and adjunct professor at John Hopkins University.

Latif:

Cynthia is a Bin Laden expert and has studied patterns of radicalization. She told me, "Look, even if the government was wrong here... even this was a pacifist group... that might help the case that Abdul Latif got radicalized."

Cynthia:

It takes a long time. It takes many steps to become a terrorist. This isn't like, "I pull the switch and I'm terrorist." The pattern we saw was that the beginning is innocent: some kind of, "I'm looking for something." Then the next thing is joining a group that does social justice stuff.

Latif:

Trying to help people.

Cynthia:

Trying to help people. Aid work and also protest. The protest comes because they don't feel like they're getting done what they need to get done with the aid work. I'll tell you what usually triggers the next step; what normally triggers the next step is repression by the government.

Latif:

In this case, that did happen. During the Years of Lead, Yasim did something suicidally dangerous.

Muhammad:

It was unprecedented.

Latif:

He sent the king an open letter.

Muhammad:

Demonishing the king of Morocco.

Latif:

The king promptly banished Yasim to a mental asylum. By the time Abdul Latif joined the group years later, Yasim had gotten out of the asylum. The DOD said that Abdul Latif said that he and Yasim were attending a peaceful protest one day when they were both arrested. Then, according to the government, that's when Abdul Latif left the country.

Latif:

This time I wrote down a bunch of my questions so that I don't forget any. One of the first questions I have... because...

Latif:

Back to my visit with the family. I very cautiously brought this up with Mustafa.

Latif:

They said that the reason that he left was because there was a crackdown on that... He was affiliated with that group and then there was a crackdown on the group and then he left. Was that the reason? Did that have anything to do with why he left or not? We just saw the...

Mustafa:

No. [Arabic 00:33:00].

Latif:

Mustafa says, "Absolutely not true at all." Him leaving the country had nothing to do with this group, which he disputes Abdul Latif was ever even a part of. According to Mustafa, it had to do with his mom. In the mid 1980s, their mother died: they say of old age.

Latif:

How old was he when his mother died?

Tarik:

[Arabic 00:33:35]?

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:33:35].

Tarik:

"Approximately 18 years old."

Latif:

According to Mustafa...

Tarik:

"He was devastated when his mother died."

Latif:

Her death upended his whole life. On top of that, he got frustrated with his school: hated his teachers, who he said were lazy political appointees. And he felt like a financial burden on the rest of the family. He decided to drop out and move to Libya.

Tarik:

"His brother was in Libya, and he was not married and had no children. There are more job opportunities there and well paying jobs there."

Latif:

Libya's GDP at the time was five times that of Morocco.

Latif:

So then they would send money back here?

Tarik:

Yeah, they'd send their money back to the family.

Latif:

Not only that, his plan... as best as I can gather... was while living rent-free with his brother he would save enough money that he could apply to schools abroad and travel there to study. He takes a bunch of jobs in Libya: tried buying and selling things in the market like shoes, clothes, building material. Worked hard for two years. Pretty much all he did was work. Didn't make friends or go to the mosque. But here's the worst part: he didn't make much money. So I'm now I'm trying to imagine what this would've felt like for him. You grow up the favorite, the only one to go to university, dreams of advanced science degrees, but now you're broke in a foreign country crashing on your brother's couch feeling underemployed, your dreams of studying and teaching science slipping further and further away. According to Shelby, things got worse from there.

Shelby:

His brother went back to Morocco to be with his wife.

Latif:

Abdul Latif lost his place to live, and that's when the full-on existential crisis really kicked in.

Shelby:

Like, "What am I doing, exactly, that's making the world a better place or that's... What point is there right now? I'm living alone, I have this job, but what is my life?"

Latif:

I understand that feeling. I think a lot of us do.

Shelby:

He and I have spoken about this. Whenever he talks about those decisions it sounds a little aimless, like he had this general idea that he wanted to discover Islam and find true meaning. I don't think he knew exactly what that looked like. He knew that he wanted to help others.

Latif:

Did he want to be an aid worker of some kind of or...

Shelby:

I'm laughing at the humor in such a very serious set of allegations that have crippled his life. The man didn't have a plan. He was just, "I want to live in a society that has this greater meaning and understanding god better." I don't think he had a plan.

Cynthia:

We call this a cognitive opening. Something happens in your life that makes you rethink what you believe and who you are. That's when people tend to get sucked into groups like cults or groups with a more radical framework. For those people it happens to, it's when they're facing this extenstensial dilemma in their life. And there are some people out there who say that they figured it out and they can totally predict what a person would decide to do. I'm very skeptical of that. I think what a person will decide is a mystery.

Latif:

At that point, Abdul Latif makes a mysterious decision. Even though he hadn't been going to the mosque recently and wasn't the most pious Muslim, he seems to get this idea: "What would it be like to live in a perfect Islamic society, one that wasn't based on the whims of a king or how much money you made selling concrete at the market or what kind of education you were lucky enough to access, but rather how good and faithful a person you are?" You can imagine the seed for it planted in him from the group he may have been involved with in university hoping for a pacifist Muslim utopia, or perhaps the seed was planted even deeper: a yearning to go back to the times he prayed with his mom before she died. Who knows?

Latif:

Ultimately, Abdul Latif decides to move to a country where he seems to have known nobody: Sudan. This is at a time before Facebook, WhatsApp, when you really could disappear. His family says that's what happened. They completely lost touch with him. Didn't hear from him for about a decade until in 2005 they get a knock on the door from a woman named Rose who worked for the Red Cross who told them, "Your relative is being held at Guantanamo Bay."

Latif:

One of my questions is a hard question. Do they believe it's possible that their brother could've done anything like this? Could he have done anything wrong, do they think? Is there a possibility that their brother did anything wrong?

Tarik:

[Arabic 00:39:32].

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:39:32].

Maluda:

[Arabic 00:39:32].

Tarik:

She has no doubt that he's an innocent person. "What's in the American documents is completely false."

Latif:

Let me ask this: there are times when good people get confused. They hang out with the wrong people. Do they think there's a possibility... They say he was with all these bad people: Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Is it possible that he was just running with the wrong people?

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:40:19].

Tarik:

He says it's possible that he fell victim to bad people who maybe took advantage of his innocence and swayed him into the wind of bad things. He doesn't rule out that possibility.

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:40:47].

Tarik:

"Are you convinced that he's a good person? A loving, helpful person?"

Latif:

That's all I've heard. In a way, part of the challenge of this story for me is that I can't talk to the person at the center of the story. I can't talk to him myself. That's why I have to talk to them. What's difficult is that person they're telling me about seems so drastically different from all those records. They're different people.

Katija:

[Arabic 00:41:20].

Latif:

But as sister Katija reminded again, "They cleared him. Don't forget. He should be back home."

Latif:

Before we left, Katija and Mustafa took Suzie and I up this narrow flight of stairs to the third floor to show us the room they built for Abdul Latif when they heard he was getting out.

Latif:

If he's a tall guy, he's going to have to duck like me. Oh wow.

Latif:

It was a tiny room about six feet wide, but it was fully furnished, big bed.

Katija:

[Arabic 00:42:10].

Tarik:

"This place is newly built. This is built for him. When he comes back, he finds a place where he can sleep."

Latif:

We walked over to a little window that looked out on a courtyard that was between their house and the mosque. There were a bunch of kids playing soccer.

Mustafa:

[Arabic 00:42:28].

Tarik:

This is the exact place where they used to play football when they were still young. That's why he chose to have this window here, so he can remember all the memories they had together.

Latif:

I thought about what it would be like for him if he ever does get out to look out this window, when for 18 years he hasn't had a window. We stood and watched the kids play soccer for a while. I wondered what makes one kid go one way and the next one go a different route. Myself, when I got to Morocco, I decided that my faith was not going to be the center of my life any more. I was going to keep studying. Maybe become an academic. Abdul Latif, from what I can tell, went in the reverse direction, but I still wasn't sure why. What happened next? What version of his life story to believe, or even what the next steps were to try to tell the story?

Latif:

As I was reading Abdul Latif Nasser DOD report to Muhammad Datowe...

Muhammad:

It will be interesting to see, once he left Morocco, what really happened to him.

Latif:

Going through his life story...

Muhammad:

You said, Libya and Sudan.

Latif:

His sense was that whatever happened to this guy didn't happen in Morocco.

Muhammad:

It has to be later, Latif. I think it's later.

Latif:

It probably happened...

Muhammad:

Sudan, I think. That's probably your best bet.

Latif:

In Sudan.

Latif:

Next time on The Other Latif, Sudan. This episode was produced by Sarah Qari, Suzie Lechtenberg, and me, Latif Nasser, with help from Tarik El Barakah and Amira Karaoud. Fact checking by Diane Kelly and Margot Williams. Editing by Jad Abumrad and Soren Wheeler. Original music by Jad Abumrad, Alex Overington, and Amino Belyamani. Tune in next week for episode three: Sudan.

Debra:

Hi, this Debra from San Francisco, California. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster, with help from [Shima Olele 00:46:23], W Harry Fortuna, Sarah [Sanback 00:46:27], Melissa [O'Donnel 00:46:28], Chad Davis, and Russel [Grag 00:46:30]. Our fact checker is Michelle Harris. I'd really like to add I will miss you, Robert.

 

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