The United States sent home to Sudan on Tuesday one of Guantánamo’s longest-held prisoners, a 52-year-old confessed al Qaida foot soldier and sometime driver for Osama bin Laden whose release was seen as a crucial test case of the Barack Obama-era war court.
Ibrahim al Qosi pleaded guilty to terror charges in July 2010 in exchange for the possibility of release after serving a two-year sentence.
U.S. troops spirited him from the remote base days after his war crimes sentence ran out and dropped him off in the capital city Khartoum about 8 p.m. Miami time Tuesday night, Wednesday in Sudan, U.S. government sources said.
The Pentagon has not yet disclosed the transfer — which reduced the number of foreign prisoners at the Navy base in Cuba to 168 — to give Sudanese officials time to put the returnee in a rehabilitation program in the Horn of Africa nation. But the repatriation demonstrated that the Obama administration is still in the business of deal-making and downsizing the prison camps even as the Defense Department is planning to spend $40 million on an undersea telecommunications cable to the base in southeast Cuba.
Now-grown “child soldier” Omar Khadr could go next, to a lock-up in his native Canada. The White House is also reportedly considering transferring some Taliban captives at Guantánamo to Afghanistan as part of a regional peace accord there.
The release of Qosi was the first of a convicted war criminal since the Bush administration sent home Yemeni Salim Hamdan in 2008. Qosi’s attorney argued the U.S. had no reason to fear the Sudanese man.
“He is now in his 50s, eager only to spend his life at home with his family in Sudan — his mother and father, his wife and two teenage daughters, and his brothers and their families — and live among them in peace, quiet and freedom,” said Washington, D.C., attorney Paul Reichler, who defended Qosi without charge for seven years.
Although Qosi finished his prison sentence, repatriation wasn’t certain. Under Obama doctrine, like George W. Bush’s before, the U.S. argues it can lawfully hold a convict indefinitely after his sentence is over by moving him out of the maximum-security Convict’s Block to the communal POW-style lockup where most Guantánamo captives are held.
Instead, camp guards moved Qosi last week to special quarters that had a flat-screen TV, a refrigerator that let him eat at his leisure and a small outdoor gravel-topped patio, all inside a locked enclosure, said his Pentagon defense lawyer, Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier. It also had a real bed rather than a steel bunk topped with a mat. Qosi spurned the bed, the lawyer said, because he suffers from a bad back and slept on the floor in the days before his departure.
Word of the repatriation in the camps may break a logjam in plea deals attributed to the Khadr case.
The Canadian, now 25, could have gone home in October to serve more of an eight-year sentence he got for pleading guilty to hurling a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002. But Canada has yet to formally ask for his return, and the lack of any release, defense lawyers say, has meant that prosecution plea deal offers have fallen on deaf ears.
“Clearly if the government can’t carry through on their end of the bargain, it has a chilling effect on the willingness of others to plead,” said Marine Col. Jeffrey Colwell, chief defense counsel for military commissions. “Certainly there was an expectation by all parties involved that Khadr was going to be home last fall,” he said. “It’s July, and he’s not.’’
Qosi’s case was more straightforward.
Pakistani forces captured Qosi in December 2001, fleeing the U.S. assault on al Qaida at Tora Bora. He was in a pack of Arab men suspected of being Bin Laden’s bodyguards. Qosi was turned over to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who shipped him to Guantánamo when the Pentagon opened Camp X-Ray a month later.
His native Sudan had been seeking his release for years — and had already successfully resettled nine former Sudanese captives, all of them released through Bush administration’s downsizing efforts.
Then, in July 2010, Qosi sealed a secret deal to plead guilty to providing material support for terrorism in exchange for a two-year prison sentence. A military jury that summer deliberated a for-the-record punishment and returned a symbolic 14-year term. But a side deal under seal on the Military Commissions docket cut that sentence to two years of confinement as a war criminal.
His return to his homeland ends more than two decades of association with al Qaida from its earliest inception in Sudan and training camps in Afghanistan.
Qosi, a trained accountant, kept the books for a bin Laden business in Khartoum in the early ’90s, according to Pentagon documents made public by WikiLeaks. He then followed Bin Laden to Afghanistan in 1996. Because the timeline for war crimes only covers the era in Afghanistan, Qosi pleaded guilty to foot-soldier crimes — sometimes driving for Bin Laden, working at al Qaida’s Star of Jihad compound in Jalalabad, and fleeing the post-Sept. 11 U.S. invasion to Tora Bora, armed with an AK-47 rifle.
He was also one of the first to formally allege torture — the use of strobe lights, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, being wrapped in the Israeli flag — in an unlawful detention petition his Air Force attorney filed in federal court in 2004. It was never heard. Instead, he withdrew the habeas corpus suit as part of his 2010 plea agreement.
Once Qosi completes a re-entry program in Khartoum, according to documents filed at the war court last year, he was planning to settle in his native Atbara, a town 150 miles to the north, to help run a family shop. His wife moved there from her native Morocco last year to await him with their two daughters.
Among those captured with Qosi in December 2001 was his wife’s father, Abdullah Tabarak, a Moroccan identified in leaked Defense Department documents as Bin Laden’s chief bodyguard. Tabarak was inexplicably transferred elsewhere from Guantánamo in July 2003.
Qosi’s wife is Mariam al Bashir, Tabarak’s daughter. They wed in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks.
“He is an intelligent, pious, humble and sincere individual who has endured much hardship the past 10 years,” said Reichler. “But he returns home without hatred or rancor.”
At Guantánamo, Qosi had acquired a small personal library of books provided by his lawyers that included Obama’s Audacity of Hope and Bush’s Decision Points. It was not immediately known if he was allowed to take the presidents’ memoirs with him to Sudan.