In President Barack Obama’s drive to close the Guantánamo prison, his administration struck deals with about three dozen nations to take in lower-risk detainees from dangerous countries. Resettling them in stable places would increase the chances they would live peacefully, officials argued, rather than face persecution or drift into Islamist militancy.
But a decision this month by Senegal to deport two former detainees to their chaotic birth country of Libya has raised the prospect that the resettlement system is starting to collapse under President Donald Trump. After a traumatic journey, the Libyans fell into the hands of a hard-line militia leader who has been accused of prisoner abuse – and then they vanished.
The case sets a worrisome precedent, current and former officials said. The danger, they say, is that other countries may follow Senegal in forcibly moving more of the nearly 150 Obama-era resettled former detainees home to unstable places where they risk being killed – or could end up becoming threats themselves.
Their uncertain fate opens a new chapter in the fallout from the Bush administration’s decision to bring hundreds of men swept up in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks to Guantánamo Bay, and to hold them there for many years without trial. Both the Bush and Obama administrations decided that many detainees were too low-level to necessitate continued detention, but sought to avoid sending home those who came from dangerous places like Libya and Yemen.
The breakdown of the Senegal resettlement also appears to be at least partly a consequence of the disorganization that has afflicted the State Department since Trump took office. The Obama administration set up a high-level, centralized office charged with monitoring former detainees indefinitely and dealing with any problems. But Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, shuttered it, so that function was added to the long list of things individual embassies are supposed to track.
“This is what is going to happen when you close down the Office of Guantánamo Closure for political reasons,” said former Ambassador Daniel Fried, the first special envoy who negotiated detainee transfers in the Obama administration. “Countries conclude that we don’t care anymore, and there is no follow-up.”
A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, resisted any suggestion of negligence. The official said the United States continues to hope that resettlements will be permanent and insisted that U.S. diplomats remain engaged with host governments to consult on issues that arise and next steps if a resettlement is not working out.
Some resettlements have gone well. Former detainees learned their new local languages, found jobs and even married. Others have been rockier. From Uruguay to Kazakhstan, ex-detainees have struggled to fit in while complaining of inadequate support, distance from relatives and heavy-handed security. In still other countries like Ghana, the former detainees appear to be doing better, but the government there was heavily criticized by political opponents for agreeing to resettle them.
Nearly all resettled detainees impose some level of headache on host governments, which generally provide basic assistance while monitoring them. Typically, the receiving countries also agreed not to let the former detainees travel for two or three years, leaving ambiguous what would come next. Against that backdrop, there are reasons to believe Senegal may be the first of many nations that could seek to shed that burden by deporting resettled detainees.
For instance, a Yemeni man resettled in Serbia in 2016 has struggled to learn the local language while complaining that a Guantánamo stigma was wrecking his job and social-life prospects, though he has been taking university classes lately. He was resettled alongside a former detainee from Tajikistan, who has more readily adapted.
But both lack legal status, and a Serbian official told one of their lawyers that the government has begun reviewing whether to deport them this summer, after the two-year travel ban ends. A government spokesman said no decision has been made.
Beth Jacob, the Yemeni’s lawyer, said her client fears repatriation but she could “not even find someone in the U.S. government to discuss our concerns with.” And Matthew O'Hara, a lawyer for the other former detainee, said his client would likely be persecuted or tortured in Tajikistan, which revoked his citizenship. “My level of concern went through the roof when I saw what happened in Senegal,” he said.
Senegal took in the two former detainees from Libya in April 2016 as a favor to Obama by its president, Macky Sall. The two men, Salem Abdul Salem Gherebi and Awad Khalifa, were given apartments in the same building in Dakar, with a minder living nearby.
The two captives who were transferred to Senegal in 2016 in photos provided to McClatchy by the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks organization from their 2008 Guantánamo prison profiles.
When a Times reporter visited the men on April 3, Gherebi complained that Senegal would not permit his wife and children from Libya to come stay with him. Both wanted larger grocery rations. But there were also signs the resettlement was working. Khalifa, for example, was warmly greeted by his neighbors, displayed photos of neighbors’ children as his screen saver, and said he was engaged to a woman who worked as a housekeeper in the building.
Senegalese officials have refused to discuss what prompted them to consider deporting the men. Relations between African countries and the United States have generally deteriorated under Trump, especially since reports surfaced in January that he insulted African nations using a crude term.
Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who is a volunteer lawyer for Khalifa, said his client was first told in January that he might not be allowed to stay in Senegal. Kassem emailed two officials at the U.S. Embassy but received no reply. On March 26, the men were told in writing that they would be deported.
While Gherebi apparently did not strongly object because at least in Libya he could be reunited with his family, Khalifa was terrified, telling a Times reporter that he feared he would be killed in Libya. Hours after that interview, neighbors said, Senegalese security officials took the men away.
Lee S. Wolosky
Courtesy Boies, Schiller & Flexner
Later that week, Gherebi called a human rights organization from an airport in Tunisia, apparently during a layover to Libya, but then disappeared. The fate of Khalifa was even more mysterious. Initially, a Senegalese official told Lee Wolosky, a former State Department special envoy for Guantánamo closure who had negotiated the details of the Libyans’ resettlement, that Khalifa would not be forcibly deported.
But it now appears that he, too, was sent to Tunisia, and that both men were ultimately flown on to Tripoli and taken into custody by a hostile militia, according to both an intelligence official with Libya’s Government of National Accord, an interim body that is backed by the United Nations but exercises little real authority, and a Libyan airline employee.
Separately, a spokesman for Libyan Airlines said both men took its flight from Tunis to Tripoli, although he did not know what happened to them afterward. And Wolosky said the Senegalese official later told him that Khalifa was no longer in Senegal, although the official suggested that Khalifa departed several days after Gherebi.
While in Tunis airport, one of the men — it was not clear which — began protesting loudly and bloodied his head by banging it against a hard surface, according to the intelligence official and the airline employee. A pilot balked at taking him to Tripoli, they said, and a replacement had to be sent.
The former detainees had wanted to be flown instead to Misrata, a city about 130 miles east of Tripoli, both sources said, and sought to avoid the Tripoli airport because it is controlled by Abdulrauf Kara, a militia commander who runs a counterterrorism detention camp where human-rights group say mistreatment is rife. But Kara was determined to take the two men into custody, and sent a group of guards to Tunis to escort them back, they both said.
Ahmed bin Salam, a spokesman for Kara’s group, denied it was holding the men. “I think they are with the mukhabarat,” he said in English, using an Arabic term for an intelligence service. He declined to elaborate.
Kassem, noting that international law prohibits forcibly sending people to places where they are likely to be abused, said he held both Senegal and the United States responsible for any harm his client might suffer. But the issue, he said, was bigger.
“If the other countries that took in Guantánamo prisoners interpret the deafening U.S. silence throughout the Senegal debacle as a signal that the Trump administration no longer cares about past undertakings, then it could soon be open season on those former prisoners,” he added. “Nothing could be less conducive to the humanitarian ideals the United States professes, nor even to the security objectives it often proclaims.”
In a statement, the State Department said it had “reiterated to the government of Senegal our expectation that it will uphold its international obligations with respect to both individuals,” adding: “We cooperate closely with our foreign partners to ensure that former Guantánamo detainees do not pose a threat to the United States.”
But Wolosky said he believed the State Department, under previous administrations, would have persuaded Senegal to take steps to keep the men safe while making its leaders feel like the United States still cared about successfully resettling them. The human-rights concerns raised by the fact that the two men apparently ended up in cells in Tripoli, he said, should be cause for alarm.
“The last two administrations tried to responsibly release individuals in a way that took into account both legitimate U.S. security interests and also human rights and the rule of law,” he said. “This result just utterly frustrates that policy.”
Be the first to know.
No one covers what is happening in our community better than we do. And with a digital subscription, you'll never miss a local story.