The Pentagon delivered a Yemeni captive to Montenegro Wednesday after he spent 14 years at Guantánamo as a suspected Osama bin Laden bodyguard, leaving 79 captives at the U.S. Navy base detention center in Cuba.
The transfer left 79 captives at Guantánamo, 29 of them cleared to go.
Abdel Malik Wahab al Rahabi, 37, got to Camp X-Ray the day the prison camps opened and was among 20 men photographed on their knees in a cage. He was never charged with a crime across his 14 years and five months in Cuba.
The government of Montenegro said in a statement late Wednesday that it took in Rahabi — as well as another Yemeni granted sanctuary from Guantánamo in January — as a humanitarian gesture. Both men were applicants for asylum at no cost to “Montenegrin taxpayers,” the statement said.
The government added that both former detainees “will eventually be free to choose the country they want to live in.”
A federal, multi-agency review panel cleared Rahabi for release in December 2014, noting that return to his hometown of Ibb in Yemen was not wise because of extremism there. Instead it recommended that he be sent to a country where his wife and now teenaged daughter could join him.
“He’s been waiting for 14 years to reunite with his wife and the daughter he’s never met,” said Rahabi’s attorney, David Remes. “We are glad he’s been released at last.”
Remes said Rahabi has seen his daughter, Ayesha, in occasional Skype video chats in his years at Guantánamo but last saw her in person when she was three months old in 2001.
Rahabi was initially held as a member of the “Dirty 30,” a group of 30 men, mostly Yemeni. The military sent them to interrogation at Guantánamo on suspicion of being part of bin Laden’s security detail in Afghanistan. A May 2014 U.S. intelligence profile did not change that assessment.
The Yemeni got to Guantánamo the day Camp X-Ray opened. Now, just four first-day detainees are still there.
Wednesday’s was the first transfer since Saudi Arabia took in nine Yemenis for resettlement in April. It left 29 of the 79 captives currently held at Guantánamo approved for release. More transfers may occur in coming weeks.
In Washington, California Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement of concern.
“The troubling trend continues. In the president’s mad dash to close the terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay, dangerous jihadists are being released to foreign countries that are ill-equipped to handle them,” Royce said. “This is totally unacceptable.”
Rahabi was a committed hunger striker during the 2013 protests, so much so that Navy medics kept him on a force-feeding list. The Periodic Review Board twice reviewed his case before approving his transfer, to a suitable third country other than Yemen, with security assurances.
Rahabi became the second Yemeni taken in by the small Balkan country on the Adriatic Sea with a tiny Muslim population. (The CIA Factbook estimated that 3.3 percent of Montenegrins were Muslim in 2011.)
Freed detainee Abdulaziz al Swidi, 42, went there in January aboard a U.S. Air Force cargo plane after another Yemeni, Mohammed Bwazir, refused resettlement to an undisclosed country in southern Europe. U.S. government officials would not say if Rahabi got Bwazir’s slot.
The State Department’s special envoy responsible for negotiating transfers said the United States was grateful to Montenegro “for its continued assistance in closing the detention facility.”
“Montenegro now joins other U.S. friends and allies in Europe in accepting multiple detainees for resettlement, bringing us closer to our shared goal of closing the facility,” envoy Lee Wolosky said.
“The United States coordinated with the Government of Montenegro to ensure this transfer took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures,” a Pentagon statement added. It said that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter notified Congress “that this transfer meets the statutory standard.”
The transfer left four of those first Day 1 detainees at the prison.
A few years ago, the Yemeni took part in a prison project that envisioned a “Milk and Honey Farm” in Yemen as a pathway to release. He was a director. About the project, here.