It’s not unusual for a new Muslim to share his story but the man who spoke on a Friday at the Islamic Center of Bloomington was quite unusual. He used to be a military guard at the Guantanamo Bay prison where America says it is keeping the world’s most dangerous terrorists.
The man’s name is Terry Holdbrooks and is now a devout Muslim. Here is his story:
Holdbrooks was born in 1983 in Phoenix, Arizona. He grew up at his grandparents home because his parents marriage broke up when he was 7 years old. During his teenage years, he loved hard rock music, alcohol and tattoos. He briefly researched many world religions looking for the truth but reached the conclusion that all religions were evil and chose to not believe in any God.
He joined the military in 2002 as a way to escape poverty. He was first assigned to the 253rd Company of Military Police and in 2003 he was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to work as a guard at the prison camps. Before leaving for Guantanamo he says that the army made the new prison guards attend 2 weeks of training that taught them that the prisoners “were Al Qaeda and Taliban, people who hate America and hate freedom”. Adding “We were not taught anything about Islam. We were shown videos of September 11 and all we kept being told was that the detainees were the worst of the worst – they were Bin Laden’s drivers, Bin Laden’s cooks, and these people will kill you the first chance they get.”
He was given the job of taking prisoners to interrogation rooms, watching prison cells making sure detainees do not exchange things between themselves, cleaning, etc. He says he witnessed atrocities committed by his fellow American soldiers that he never thought were possible.
Reflecting on his time at the Guantanamo prison camps he said “Gitmo was supposed to be a cushy deployment since we were just going to babysit detainees. But it changed me… I saw people put in stress positions for eight hours until they defecated themselves, then the guards would come in and emasculate them… I saw prisoners shackled to the ground with the air conditioner set high, then doused with cold water. Menstrual blood was smeared on their faces and they were forced to hear the same music on repeat for hours.”
What Holdbrooks noticed during his time at Guantanamo is that most of the guards were miserable, including himself. They would abuse alcohol, porn and sports as a way to escape the pain deep inside. On the other hand the Muslim prisoners were content and smiling despite the abuse they were enduring. They were very attached to their religion and performed their rituals with devotion.
He was trying to understand how these men still believed in a loving God given the trials they were going through “I had all the freedom in the world, but I was waking up unhappy while these men were in cages, smiling and praying five times a day.”
Holdbrooks started speaking to the detainees “I knew nothing about Islam prior to Guantanamo, so this was a complete culture shock to me. I wanted to learn as much I could, so I started talking to the detainees about politics, ethics and morals, and about their lives and cultural differences, we would talk all the time.” One prisoner that Holdbrooks talked to a lot was Ahmed Errachidi: “We’d talk for hours and hours. We’d talk about books, about music, about philosophy: we would stay up all night and talk about religion.”. Errachidi is a Moroccan who lived in the UK for 18 years and that the other prisoners called the General. US authorities accused him of attending Al Qaeda training camps but found no proof and ended up releasing him.
During this time Holdbrooks was also doing research on his own, reading the Quran, chatting with Muslims on the internet. He started to feel good about Islam. “The Quran is the simplest book in the world to read. It doesn’t have magic. It doesn’t contradict itself. It’s simply an instruction manual for living.” He saw the detainees as living proof that the instruction manual does work even in extreme situations.
Finally one day in December 2003, while talking to Errachidi he repeated the shahada, the statement of faith, and became a Muslim while still a guard at Guantanamo. he said “It was not easy praying five times a day without my colleagues finding out. I told them I had to go the bathroom a lot.”
In 2004, Holdbrooks left Guantanamo and in October 2005 left the army as well. He was not doing well: His marriage broke and he started drinking alcohol and living a chaotic life. “I was having nightmares about my time in Guantanamo and I spent the best part of three years just trying to drink Guantanamo out of my mind.”
Then, by the grace of Allah Holdbrooks decided to go back to Islam. He started practicing salat again, stopped drinking and smoking. He says “Islam is a very disciplined, regimented faith and it requires a great deal of effort and conviction. I’ve had an unbelievable fascination with structure and order for as long as I can remember: structure, order and discipline – I just love them.”
From there his life completely changed: he started speaking out about the atrocities of Guantanamo “Gitmo is 100 percent antithetical to the basis of our legal system. That’s not the America I signed up to defend… Islam teaches you that if you see an injustice in the world, you should do anything within your power to stop it.”
In May 2013, Terry Holdbrooks published the book “Traitor?” about his experiences at Guantanamo Bay. The book has suprisingly received a lot of positive reviews from readers but also attracted hate and death threats. He also works as a speaker for the Muslim Legal Fund of America and is pursuing his PhD in Islamic Theology.