The Pentagon announced that it had released two Yemeni prisoners from Guantánamo to new homes in Ghana. These releases are the first since November, when five Yemenis were given new homes in the United Arab Emirates, releases that followed the release of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the Mauritanian Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, at the end of October. With these releases, 105 men remain at the prison — including 46 also approved for release, ten facing (or having faced) trials, and 43 others awaiting reviews promised five years ago but not yet delivered. Three others had their ongoing imprisonment approved by the review boards, and another three are awaiting the results of theirs.
The release of these two Yemenis is progress, of course, and, as we heard last month, another 15 releases are expected in the near future. With the 14th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo taking place on Monday, this is a good time for President Obama to be making sure that men are being freed, to maintain the focus on his intention to close Guantánamo before he leaves office, and to neutralize the sting of critics pointing out that, on January 22, it will be seven years since he promised to close Guantánamo within a year.
The two Yemenis released — who were both born in Saudi Arabia, but to Yemeni parents — are men I identified in June 2012 in a major article about the failures to release prisoners approved for release, entitled, “Guantánamo Scandal: The 40 Prisoners Still Held But Cleared for Release At Least Five Years Ago.” The five years in the title, of course, is now eight and half years, and both of these men were first approved for release long before President Bush left office. They were then approved for release again under President Obama, following the deliberations of the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009.
156 men were approved for release by the task force, but 30 of these men, all Yemenis, were assigned to category called “conditional detention,” invented by the task force, which stipulated that their release was dependent on some perceived improvement in the security situation in Yemen. However, as the entire US establishment is unwilling to repatriate any Yemenis, their release, like their remaining compatriots approved for release without a “conditional detention” tag, has instead become dependent on third countries being found that are prepared to take them in, and that can meet the US’s security concerns. Of the 30, the first was one of the five men released in the UAE in November, and the two men released in Ghana are the second and third of the 30.
The first of the two men released in Ghana is Mahmoud Bin Atef (ISN 202), born in 1979, who was actually approved for release over ten years ago, as I explained in my June 2012 article:
In the classified US military files relating to the Guantánamo prisoners, which were released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, bin Atef’s file was a “Recommendation for Continued Detention Under DoD Control (CD),” dated December 28, 2007, which repeated a similar recommendation issued on December 16, 2006. However, he was approved for transfer/release after Administrative Review Board Round One, which was held at Guantanamo in 2005 (see PDF).
The discrepancy, as is typical at Guantánamo, came about because of the existence of multiple review processes and the complete absence of any competent oversight. Similar discrepancies can be found in many other cases between the military reviews (the Combatant Status Review Tribunals and the Administrative Review Boards) and the files released by WikiLeaks (the Detainee Assessment Briefs), and it is also worth noting that eleven men approved for release by reviews then had their habeas corpus petitions successfully challenged in court by the Justice Department — again, without anyone providing competent oversight.
The second man freed in Ghana, Khalid al-Dhuby (ISN 506), born in 1981, was approved for release nine years ago, on Christmas Day 2006. In my June 2012 article, I wrote:
In the classified US military files relating to the Guantánamo prisoners, which were released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, al-Dhuby’s file was a “Recommendation for Transfer Out of DoD Control (TRO),” dated December 25, 2006. A transfer recommendation was also made after his Administrative Review Board Round Three, on May 22, 2007 (PDF, p. 195).
I can’t really explain sufficiently how disgraceful I find it that men approved for release years before President Obama took office were held until the eve of the 14th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, but that is part of the disgusting reality of Guantánamo, and the lamentable truth is that, as I have been saying for many years, when President Obama inherited around 66 men already approved for release under President Bush — including these two men — he should have released them immediately.
The failure to do so gives a rather longer perspective to the comments in the Washington Post about the state of Guantánamo following these releases. After noting that 105 men now remain in the prison, the Post stated, “That figure includes 46 inmates who have already been approved for settlement overseas but whose release has been held up amid negotiations with potential host countries and, more significantly, by lawmakers’ distaste for prisoner transfers.” The Guardian, in turn, wrote that, although Obama’s task force “decided both men posed a minimal risk to national security and ought to be transferred … years of a self-imposed ban on transferring detainees to Yemen, congressional acrimony and internal bureaucratic “foot-dragging”, according to [a] US official, kept both men at Guantánamo, alongside dozens of others.”
So who are Mahmoud Bin Atef and Khalid al-Dhuby?
As I mentioned in an article in September 2010, Bin Atef was accused of arriving in Afghanistan for jihad in June 2001, training at al-Farouq, and fighting on the Taliban front lines. In an interrogation, he apparently stated that “his enemies were the Northern Alliance,” and also stated that “he never shot at or killed anyone,” and that, although he “was asked to take an oath to Osama bin Laden, [he] did not take one since he might have been obligated to do things that he might not want to do.”
Bin Atef is also one of around 50 prisoners held at Guantánamo who, as I described it in 2010, “survived the Qala-i-Janghi massacre in November 2001, which followed the surrender of the northern city of Kunduz, when several hundred Taliban foot soldiers — and, it seems, a number of civilians — all of whom had been told that they would be allowed to return home if they surrendered, were taken to a fortress run by General Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance. Fearing that they were about to be killed, a number of the men started an uprising, which was suppressed by the Northern Alliance, acting with support from US and British Special Forces, and US bombers. Hundreds of the prisoners died, but around 80 survived being bombed and flooded in the basement of the fort, and around 50 of these men ended up at Guantánamo.” With Bin Atef’s release, only about eight of these men remain at Guantánamo.
Speaking to the Washington Post, his attorney, George Clarke, said he was “nearly killed” during the massacre. He called his client “a low-level member of the group,” and said, “He wasn’t part of any planning.”
The Associated Press had more from Clarke, who explained how Bin Atef was “a block leader at Guantánamo, serving as a liaison between guards and detainees.” He said, “Do they think he is a threat? No. He’s a positive character. He’s a very smart guy and I really wish him the best.”
Clarke also pointed out how, “like many other prisoners freed from Guantánamo and forced to start new lives in unfamiliar places,” the two “will face a challenge in Ghana.” However, he added, “Bin Atef at least was eager for the opportunity to find a job and start a family,” as the AP described it. As Clarke said, “He wants to get the hell out of Guantánamo. I don’t think there’s a detainee there now who wouldn’t take any place.”
I wrote about Khalid al-Dhuby in an article in October 2010, when I stated:
Allegedly recruited for military training in Afghanistan after being shown videos of atrocities in Chechnya, al-Dhuby reportedly arrived at [the] al-Farouq [training camp] in late July 2001, and trained for a month and a half until the camp closed. He was then taken to Tora Bora, where he “stayed in one of several caves large enough to fit three or four people,” and then left the area with a group of other men. He said that as they passed through a valley he “saw planes dropping bombs on their location and stated the bombing went on for one night,” and added that he “hid from the bombs until the next morning,” but that many of the men traveling with him “were killed and injured by the bombing.” After the bombing, he was seized by Northern Alliance soldiers and held in an Afghan prison in Kabul before being handed over — or sold — to US forces. At Guantánamo, he maintained that he had never fired a shot at anyone, that he “was not a fighter or a killer,” and that he only “wanted to train to protect himself and his family as well as defend his country.”
In the Miami Herald, Carol Rosenberg noted that al-Dhuby “apparently had no lawyer, unlike Bin Atef, and nobody to speak for him on his release.” She also pointed out that he “had an older brother at Guantanamo,” who “was sent to Georgia,” in November 2014, adding, “The brother, Salah Mohammed al-Thabbi [aka Salah al-Thabi or Salah al-Zabe], also Saudi-born, was approved for release as far back as 2004 but had nowhere to go because he was Yemeni.”
The Guardian noted that the US official who spoke to them said that “quiet negotiations with Ghana to take Guantánamo detainees unfolded over the past year.” The AP had more. In a statement, Ghana’s foreign ministry suggested that the men’s stay may not be permanent. “We have indicated our readiness to accept them for a period of two years, after which they may leave the country,” it read.