Guantánamo prison today houses a collection of captives seized across the globe — from Azerbaijan to Kenya, Thailand to Turkey — mostly by foreign forces.
In fact, 15 years to the day after U.S. Marines opened Camp X-Ray with 20 captives in orange jumpsuits airlifted from Afghanistan, just one captive here was seized by U.S. troops in a classic combat zone. He’s an Afghan and has been cleared for release as a victim of mistaken identity.
With President-elect Donald Trump poised to take over the prison that George W. Bush created and Barack Obama could not close, the population today reflects both the global scale of the conflict the U.S. waged after the 9/11 attacks, as well as the unorthodox nature of the battlefield.
All are Muslim. None are American. A third aren’t Arab. Moreover, just 10 of the last 55 prisoners were captured in Afghanistan, a Miami Herald study has found.
Yemeni Tawfiq al Bihani, 44, who has been cleared for release since 2009, is a case in point.
He fled Afghanistan as U.S. troops invaded, made it to Pakistan, then Iran, whose security forces turned him over to Afghanistan security forces, who in turn gave him to the U.S. military, according to his lawyer and leaked U.S. documents.
“He’s never been in a battlefield in his life,” said attorney George Clarke, who called him “a failed recruit” of al-Qaida’s al Farouq training base near Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The Saudi-born Yemeni is described by his lawyer as a one-time hashish addict who ran away from home to join a genuine jihadi brother, Mansur, who was likewise captured in Iran but let go rather than returned to Afghanistan. Mansur did indeed return to an al-Qaida war zone — Somalia — and was killed in a clash in 2011.
Meantime, Tawfiq went from an Iranian prison to an Afghan prison to U.S. custody and wound up in a CIA black site for about 50 days before he was sent to Guantánamo, according to the portion of the so-called Senate Torture Report released in 2015.
In that regard, he is not unusual among the last captives of Guantánamo. Nearly half of them, not just the high-value detainees Bush ordered delivered to the base in 2006, spent a month or more in the secret CIA prison network before winding up at the wartime prison in southeast Cuba.
The Bush administration opened the prison with 20 “worst of the worst” captives flown in from Afghanistan on Jan. 11, 2002 — four months to the day after the 9/11 attacks killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field. A Navy photographer captured the manacled and masked men kneeling in the crude open-air compound called Camp X-Ray, framing a narrative of captives caught in combat that still captures the world’s imagination today. Even though it’s not true.
“Many of them were not captured in the course of shootouts with American forces,” says Columbia Law school professor Matthew Waxman, who oversaw detainee policy at the Pentagon in 2004 and 2005.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations “embraced a very broad understanding of the battlefield,” says Waxman, one that extended far from the “places where U.S. military forces are actively engaged in combat” to sites around the globe “where al-Qaida is operating from in significant ways.”
“The boundaries of that idea have never been clearly defined,” he said.
The prison enters its 16th year with just two of those first 20 worst of the worst still here — Yemeni Ali Hamza al Bahlul, 47, the prison’s lone convict, and Tunisian Ridah bin Saleh al Yazidi, 51, who has been cleared to go since at least 2009 but no country has agreed to take him. The rest were released, like 725 others who passed through the prison, in a series of transfers negotiated by both the Bush administration Waxman served and the Obama administration that failed to achieve the departing commander in chief’s goal of closing the detention center. Bush released about 540 of them; Obama hopes to have resettled or repatriated close to 200 by the time he leaves office next week.
Pakistani forces captured Bahlul and Yazidi in an Afghan border region after the battle of Tora Bora, according to prison and court records. U.S. intelligence would profile them as suspected bodyguards of Osama bin Laden, part of a group called the Dirty 30 — and Bahlul would go on to be convicted of war crimes for making recruiting videos and other activities in the service of bin Laden.
But first they spent a week or more as Pakistani detainees, something that more than half of the remaining captives have in common.
Some prisoners were taken captive in a joint operation by U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services. A combined team seized the alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 51, in Rawalpindi in March 2003, according to Terry McDermott, the investigative journalist and author of “The Hunt for KSM.”
The April 2003 arrests of two other alleged 9/11 plotters in Karachi, Pakistan, Mohammed’s nephew Ammar al Baluchi, 39, and Walid bin Attash, 38, were more typical, resulting from a unilateral Pakistani operation that would turn them over to the CIA.
All three men got to Guantánamo in September 2006 from CIA black sites, something that 26 of the last 55 captives also have in common.
The 2015 Senate study of the spy agency’s secret prison network shows the longest-held CIA prisoner now at the U.S. Navy base prison is Zayn al Abdeen Mohammed al Hussein, 45, known as Abu Zubaydah. He was brought here after 1,610 days in a CIA black site. A Yemeni known as Hani Saleh Rashid Abdullah, 47, logged the shortest tenure, around 30 days in CIA custody after the Pakistanis captured him in a series of raids in Karachi that netted another alleged 9/11 plotter, Ramzi bin al Shibh, 44.
Of the first “worst of the worst,” former Guantánamo investigative task force Special Agent in Charge Mark Fallon said last year, most “weren’t battlefield captives” at all. He called them “bounty babies,” men handed over by Afghan warlords or Pakistani security forces and sent to Guantánamo “on the sketchiest bit of intelligence with nothing to corroborate.”
The one man still here who was actually seized by U.S. troops in Afghanistan is among those designated for transfer to a rehabilitation program in a U.S. ally Arab nation.
Afghan Abdul Zahir, 44, was cleared for release last year after U.S. intelligence agencies declared him a victim of mistaken identity. U.S. Rangers seized him from his home in a July 11, 2002, raid because he shared a nickname with a sought chemical weapons maker.
Now he’s among 19 of the last captives who might be released in the twilight of the Obama administration in deals that could send some to Oman and others to the United Arab Emirates before Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
Trump campaigned on a pledge to load the prison up “with bad dudes,” which leads to the question of who might supply the next load of captives.
Allies in the battle against the Islamic State? U.S. law enforcement handing over suspected homegrown terrorists? Pirates picked up at sea by U.S. or allied navies? None of these have been taken to Guantánamo before. Both Waxman and his successor at the Bush administration, Cully Stimson, caution that this should be approached with care.
“For a long time, we haven’t been in that position. I think it became too difficult and costly. Politically costly. Legally costly. Operationally costly. It became easier to say, if Country X captures an al-Qaida planner, let’s work our relationship with Country X to make sure we’re getting access to the intelligence,” Waxman said.
“Any new category that you try to bring there would really carry tremendous litigation risk,” he said, an invitation to the federal courts to question military detention authority in what some have dubbed The Forever War.
And it comes down to the meaning of “the battlefield” in Year 16 in the War on Terror.
“I think the term ‘battlefield’ means very different things to very different people,” Waxman said. “I have no idea what it means to Donald Trump.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the locator map that accompanies this story incorrectly drew the boundaries of Azerbaijan. It has been replaced with an updated version.