your connection to The Boston Globe

Muslim adviser a wary presence

Bridges cultures at Guantanamo

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- The Middle Eastern man's name is a tightly held secret. No one in his family except his wife knows he works at this US military base, where nearly 400 men captured in Washington's war on terror are held.

Known only as Zak to the detention staff and Zaki to detainees, he is Guantanamo Bay's Muslim cultural adviser, a civilian employee who meets with them and helps their American captors understand their ways.

Zak says he has helped add books to the prison library, improve the prisoners' food, and at times has raised inmate concerns to the prison's military commander.

But he's no advocate for the detainees, and many don't like him very much. Zak says the inmates have branded him a traitor and an enemy of God -- and that they would kill him if they could.

That's why even Zak's native country is kept secret.

"I have to use my experience and my common sense. I don't want to put myself in any situation that will jeopardize my life," the 49-year adviser told The Associated Press in an interview.

Zak recounted how on a recent night, he had retired to his quarters when he learned that four prisoners wanted to see him right away inside the prison. Zak, the only Muslim cultural affairs adviser at Guantanamo Bay, quickly returned to work, but after talking to guards, decided against the meeting.

He suspected the men were planning to attack him -- most likely with a "cocktail" of bodily fluids.

"Sometimes I see into their games," said Zak, a lean man with salt-and-pepper hair, as he slowly shook his head as if talking about unruly children.

Zak, who works for a private contractor hired by the military, is vague about his background, saying only that he is an engineer and was educated in Europe and the United States.

He and his wife owned a convenience store somewhere in the United States. They closed it, he said, because customers taunted her after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Zak then became a translator for the United States, working in Iraq. He arrived at this base in southeast Cuba in 2005.

"I want a better future for my kids and your kids and to stop this extremism and terrorism in the Middle East," he said.

Zak sees himself as an educator. He teaches guards, doctors, and anyone else with access to the detainees about Islamic religious and cultural sensitivities.

It's an important job -- when reports emerged in 2005 that guards had mishandled the Koran, it triggered protests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even today, prisoners still claim that guards disturb them during prayers -- an allegation the military and Zak deny. He calls complaints of prisoner mistreatment "baloney."

"If anybody is getting tortured, it's the staff, the guards, and medical staff who get spit on, called names all day long," he said.

Zak meets with the detention center commander, Navy Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris, at least once a week, and meets with detainees, though he is quick to stress that he is not their advocate.

Zak insists he is making a difference and has relayed detainee concerns when he considers them legitimate. He declines to give examples, citing a military rule barring him from discussing anything specific about the prison.

Harris, in a separate interview, said Zak has been useful to the military.

"He helps us all understand better the detainee population and their motivations and their potential intentions," Harris said.

All the detainees at Guantanamo are Muslim and all but a handful are Sunni, the adviser said. A small number of Shi'ite detainees are held together to avoid conflicts, he added.

While Zak acknowledges that he's generally hated by the prisoners, he says he is gaining the confidence of some -- and that a few have even told him they regret having been recruited into militant groups.

The adviser does not worship with the detainees, who have chosen their own religious leaders from among themselves. Nor is he a Muslim chaplain, a job that primarily involves ministering to staff and military personnel, not prisoners.

A former Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, James Yee, said he is skeptical of the cultural adviser, dismissing him as "strictly public relations" to help the military improve the image of a prison camp that has sparked worldwide protests.

"He is in the position to just be a yes man," said Yee, who was an Army captain at the camp.

But the Council on American-Islamic Relations says having a cultural adviser at Guantanamo Bay is worthwhile.

"Anything that helps decrease tensions and helps maintain humanitarian treatment is welcome," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based organization.