As the countdown to the end of the Obama presidency continues (see the Countdown to Close Guantánamo we launched last month), and with just 329 days left for President Obama to fulfill the promise to close the prison that he made on his second day in office back in January 2009, we are reassured that progress continues in the Periodic Review Boards set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners not already approved for release and not facing trials — currently 46 of the 91 men still held, as one man has been approved for release, and another, seeking release, has had the military acknowledge that they exaggerated his role, and that he was “a low-level militant not part of an al-Qaida terrorist cell as previously believed,” as the Associated Press described it. Moreover, by extension, the same admission should apply to five other men seized at the same time as him, who are also still held and awaiting PRBs.
Just ten of the 91 men still held are facing trials, and of the 35 men already approved for release, eleven have been approved for release by PRBs, to add to seven others already freed after being approved for release.
In total, of the 21 decisions reached by the PRBs, 18 have led to recommendations that the men in question should be released — a success rate of 86%, which reveals the extent to which dangerous hyperbole has played such a significant part in the story of Guantánamo, as these are men regarded six years ago as “too dangerous to release” by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office, even though the task force also conceded that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.
That should have been a sign that the information used to continued imprisoning these men was profoundly unreliable, produced through the use of torture or other forms of abuse, or through bribing prisoners with better living conditions, but that has taken many years to come to light, in part through the release of formerly classified military files by WikiLeaks in 2011. However, it has also become apparent in the last six years that some of those decisions were based on fears that the prisoners posed a threat to the US, because, for example, they were regarded as non-compliant prisoners who came into conflict with the guard force, although all that may have proved in reality is that they resented their seemingly endless imprisonment without charge or trial.
On February 18, the 18th prisoner to have his release recommended by a PRB was Majid Mahmud Abdu Ahmed aka Majid Ahmad (ISN 41), a Yemeni whose case I discussed here, when his PRB took place last month. As I noted in that article, he “was just 21 when he was seized crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001. The group of around 30 men he was captured with were identified, by their captors, as the ‘Dirty Thirty,’ and implausible claims were made that this group of generally very young Yemenis were somehow bodyguards for Osama bin Laden, something that I have always found implausible.”
In approving his release, by consensus, having “determined that continued law of war detention of the detainee is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States,” the review board noted Ahmed’s “relative candor in discussing his time in Afghanistan, acceptance of the mistakes he made, and a credible desire to not repeat those mistakes. Further, the board considered the detainee’s age when he went to Afghanistan and having matured since entering detention, the detainee’s compliance while in detention at Guantánamo, and that the detainee has taken opportunities to educate himself while at Guantánamo.”
The board also “strongly recommend[ed] resettlement to an Arabic-speaking country and also recommend[ed] resettlement with reintegration support.”
The plot that wasn’t
Two days earlier, the 25th prisoner to face a PRB, Ayyub Murshid Ali Salih, aka Ayoub Murshid Ali Saleh (ISN 836), must have been reassured that the hyperbole about him is finally dying down after over 13 years in US custody without charge or trial. 37 years old, he is one of six Yemenis seized in house raids in Karachi, Pakistan on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This was the same day that “high-value detainee” Ramzi bin al-Shibh was captured, along with Hassan bin Attash, the 17-year old brother of Walid bin Attash, another “high-value detainee” captured in April 2003.
While bin al-Shibh entered the CIA’s network of “black sites” for the next four years, and bin Attash was flown for torture by proxy in Jordan before reemerging at Guantánamo in September 2004, Saleh and the five others seized in the Karachi house raids ended up in a “black site” in Afghanistan, known as the “dark prison,” for around six weeks, according to a chart released to accompany the Senate Intelligence Committee’s CIA torture report in December 2014, until they were flown to Guantánamo, where they have remained ever since.
Little is known publicly of their stories, as only one of them, Musa’ab al-Madhwani, had his habeas corpus petition examined by a judge, following the groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling granting the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights in June 2008. Al-Madhwani’s habeas petition was turned down by District Judge Thomas F. Hogan in December 2009, but Judge Hogan was not persuaded that he was dangerous.
[A]lthough Judge Hogan “said that the government had met its burden in proving the accusations [that he had connections with al-Qaeda] he did not think Madhwani was dangerous.” Noting that he has been a “model prisoner” since his arrival at Guantánamo in October 2002, he explained, “There is nothing in the record now that he poses any greater threat than those detainees who have already been released.”
Moreover, Judge Hogan refused to rely on any statements that al-Madhwani had made to interrogators at Guantánamo, ruling that they were “tainted by abusive interrogation techniques,” to which he was subjected in the weeks after his capture, before his arrival at Guantánamo, when he was sent to the “Dark Prison” near Kabul, a facility run by the CIA, which, in numerous accounts by released prisoners, resembled nothing less than a medieval torture dungeon, with the addition of extremely loud music and noise 24 hours a day.
Only one other man out of the six — Hail al-Maythali — has spoken openly about his torture, saying “there was very bad torture conducted on people,” including himself, which was “so bad that he knew by making up and agreeing to the training it would stop the torture.” He added that “his testicles were disfigured to the point where they cannot be repaired.”
However, it is clear that all six were tortured, just as it seems reasonable to assume that, like Musa’ab al-Madhwani, all six do not “pose … any greater threat than those detainees who have already been released,” to echo Judge Hogan (for further information about the six, who have the ISN numbers 836-841, see my article from October 2010).
And in fact, the US military has finally acknowledged officially that it has spent over 13 years exaggerating the threat posed by Ayoub Ali Saleh — and I strongly suspect that similar back-pedalling will be apparent for the other five members of the spectral “Karachi Six.”
The unclassified summary of evidence for Ayoub Ali Saleh’s PRB describes him as “one of the Yemenis arrested during the 11 September 2002 raids in Karachi, Pakistan later labelled as the ‘Karachi Six’ based on concerns that they were part of an al Qa’lda operational cell intended to support a future attack.”
Crucially, however, the summary added:
Based on a review of all available reporting, we judge that this label more accurately reflects the common circumstances of their arrest and that it is more likely the six Yemenis were elements of a large pool of Yemeni fighters that senior al-Qa’ida planners considered potentially available to support future operations. Our review of available intelligence indicates that he probably did not play a major role in terrorist operations, leading us to disagree with previous US government assessments that he was involved in a 2002 plot to conduct an attack in Karachi, Pakistan.
After describing him as “a low-ranking Yemeni militant who we assess trained in Afghanistan before 9/11 and subsequently met senior al-Qa’ida figures in Pakistan,” the military noted that he “traveled from Yemen to Afghanistan in mid-2000, where he probably was trained in military tactics at al-Qa’ida’s al-Farouq camp,” although “[a]fter 9/11, be tried to return to Yemen by traveling through Pakistan to Iran. An Iranian crackdown on suspected al-Qa’ida associates, however, probably prompted him to return to Pakistan where Pakistani authorities arrested him at an al-Qa’ida safehouse in Karachi in September 2002.”
Regarding the so-called plot, the summary continued, “Our most credible information about the Karachi plot makes no mention of YM-836 and states that al-Qa’ida planned to recruit Pakistanis to carry out the attack. In addition, several other detainees have reported that YM- 836 was waiting to travel to Yemen when he was captured rather than involved in attack planning.”
It was also noted that Saleh “has had a poor compliance record” at Guantánamo, “including numerous incidents of assaulting or threatening to assault guards.” However, his behavior “has improved since 2013 … possibly because he now views compliance as a way to increase the likelihood of his transfer.” It was also noted that, as well as having been someone who was seized while trying to go home, he “has provided little information of value, has given contradictory accounts of his background — at one point completely recanting his previous statements — and has not been responsive to interrogators since 2004.”
Below is the opening statement by his personal representatives — the military personnel assigned to help the prisoners with their PRBs — who noted that he has acknowledged that “he has made mistakes in his past, to include transgressions with the guards at a time when most of the camp was on a hunger strike,” and stressed that he now “has a new outlook on life,” and wishes only to resume his civilian life in peace.
Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing
Ayyub Murshid Ali Salih, ISN 836
Personal Representative Opening Statement
Members of the Board, we are the personal representatives for Ayyub Murshid Ali Salih. Ayyub was extremely happy when we made our initial visit to notify him about the Periodic Review Board process. He realizes this review process provides him the best opportunity to leave Guantánamo and become a free man. He also recognizes that in order to get the Board’s recommendation for transfer, he must answer your questions truthfully and honestly. Ayyub is here and ready for your questions.
Ayyub admitted that he has made mistakes in his past, to include transgressions with the guards at a time when most of the camp was on a hunger strike. However, many things have changed since that time, and he has a new outlook on life. He hopes that his transfer from Guantánamo will make up for the lost years of his life.
Ayyub dreams to find a wife and start a family of his own where he can be a contributing member of society, avoid any political problems and enjoy living in a society that is acceptable of people from diverse cultures and different religions. So, he is willing to be transferred to any country to get on with his life.
Ayyub has experience as a shopkeeper, having worked in his family’s store when he was growing up. After securing a job, he would like to return to college and study business administration, work on his communication skills and gain some computer proficiency to help ensure his success. Additionally, his family is able to provide financial assistance during his transition to freedom, and they are willing to provide the support he will need to live a normal life with a wife and children.
Ayyub has not expressed any ill will or anger about his detention at Guantánamo. He has denounced terrorist acts and organizations that claim to base those acts upon religion. Ayyub wants to make it perfectly clear to the Board that he is not a threat to the United States or any other country.
Note: I will shortly be posting my report on the latest PRB, for Mohammed Al-Ansi (ISN 029), another Yemeni, which took place on February 23. Five more PRBs have also been scheduled: for Suhayl Abdul Anam Al-Sharabi aka Zohair Al-Shorabi (ISN 569), another Yemeni, on March 1, Saifullah Paracha (ISN 1094), a Pakistani, on March 8, Sharqawi Abdu Ali Al-Hajj (ISN 1457), another Yemeni, on March 15, Obaidullah (ISN 762), an Afghan, on April 19, and Abd Al-Salam Al-Hilah (ISN 1463), another Yemeni, on May 3.