Guantánamo parole board approves 21st captive for release, 29th ‘forever prisoner’

A war-on-terror detainee talks to a guard, separated by chain-linked-fencing at Guantanamo’s Camp 6 on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, 2016 in a photo approved for release by a U.S. military officer at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.
A war-on-terror detainee talks to a guard, separated by chain-linked-fencing at Guantanamo’s Camp 6 on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, 2016 in a photo approved for release by a U.S. military officer at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

The Obama administration parole board has approved the release of a 21st Guantánamo prisoner, recommending after a lengthy evaluation that a Saudi man who was once accused of helping assemble bombs in Pakistan be sent home to possible prosecution and rehabilitation.

It took the Periodic Review Board six months, including review by national security Cabinet members, to approve the repatriation of Jabran Qahtani, 39, and seven months to reject the release of another captive, Yemeni Hani Saleh Rashid Abdullah, 47.

With all first hearings complete, 21 of Guantánamo’s current captives are cleared for transfer with security conditions. Another 29 are “forever prisoners.”

The dual decisions disclosed Tuesday wrapped up the first round of hearings that President Barack Obama ordered be undertaken within a year in 2011. Instead it took more than five years as the Pentagon set up a multi-agency bureaucracy and the intelligence community developed fresh detainee assessments.

The decisions also meant that, of the 60 war-on-terror captives at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, 29 are “forever prisoners” — board-approved indefinite detainees — and 10 are in war crimes proceedings at military commissions, six of them death-penalty tribunals.

The other 21, including Qahtani, are approved for release to security arrangements approved by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter after 30 days notice to Congress, suggesting some of the men may not be gone from Guantánamo by Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.

MORE NEWS: What will President Trump do with Guantánamo?

It is also not known whether President-elect Donald Trump will continue the process of releases, some of which will likely not be concluded before he takes office. Nor is it known whether his administration will retain the federal, interagency review panel Obama ordered set up in March 2011 at the urging of the International Committee of the Red Cross to align detention policies with Geneva Conventions norms.

Qahtani was captured in a March 2002 raid on a suspected al-Qaida safehouse in Faisalabad, Pakistan, at the same time as the prized CIA captive known as Abu Zubaydah Zayn al Abideen Mohammed al Hussein.

While Abu Zubaydah spent years in the spy agency’s Black Sites, Qahtani was sent to Guantánamo within months and for a time charged at the Bush-era war court with supporting terrorism for allegedly building circuit boards in Pakistan meant to trigger bombers in Afghanistan aimed at U.S. troops. The case was abandoned after an appeals court ruled the charge of providing material support for terrorism was not a legitimate war crime, meaning Qahtani could only be tried in federal court, something the U.S. Congress forbade for any Guantánamo prisoner during the Obama era.

In approving Qahtani’s repatriation, the board recommended “transfer only to Saudi Arabia for potential prosecution” and participation in the kingdom’s rehabilitation program for returning jihadists. It also said the “Special Envoys” — State and Defense Department appointees whose service is expected to expire with the Obama administration — should negotiate “appropriate security and humane treatment assurances” for Qahtani’s return.

The board in its release decision also said Qahtani, an electrical engineering graduate of Riyadh’s King Saudi University, had “past terrorist-related activities,” links to al-Qaida leaders and “training in building electronic circuit boards.” It also said Qahtani, whose 2006 charge sheet said he went to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terror attacks to fight the U.S invasion, supported the Taliban.

MORE INFORMATION: The Herald’s Periodic Review Board guide

In rejecting release of Abdullah, also known at Guantánamo as Said Salih Said Nashir, the board cited his “past ties with al-Qaida’s external operations planners and senior leadership, including 9/11 conspirator Walid Bin Attash,” perhaps anticipating the inevitability of the war court conviction of Bin Attash, one of five men awaiting a death-penalty tribunal for the Sept. 11, 2001 plot.

It also cited Abdullah’s “recent expressions of continued support for jihad against ‘legitimate’ military or government targets and statements celebrating the idea of Muslims killing invaders, including continued interest in seeing footage of past al-Qaida attacks.”

He was captured in Karachi, Pakistan, and was for a time profiled as a member of a terrorist squad that U.S. intelligence nicknamed The Karachi Six — until the U.S. intelligence community retreated from that assessment. The Pentagon said on Tuesday, however, that he would get another hearing with the board on Dec. 8, and invited reporters to watch a portion of it.

MORE NEWS: New Guantánamo intelligence upends old ‘worst of the worst’ assumptions

Qahtani and two other men captured at the same time and place as Abu Zubaydah were known for a time at Guantánamo as the “Faisalabad Three,” described as al-Qaida trainees who fled the U.S. war on Afghanistan to set up a bomb-making cell in Pakistan. Algerian Sufiyan Barhoumi, 43, was similarly approved for repatriation but the board declared the third member, Saudi Ghassan al Sharbi, 41, a forever prisoner.

Qahtani shares the same surname but has no known relationship to Guantánamo detainee Mohammed al Qahtani, 37, who was subjected to some of the cruelest interrogation techniques at the U.S. Navy base. Because of that treatment, a Bush-era appointee disqualified that Qahtani from death-penalty prosecution as an alleged 9/11 conspirator and would-be 20th hijacker.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg