First flight: 8 of first 20 ‘worst of worst’ still at Guantánamo

In this handout photo from the Department of Defense, Taliban and al-Qaida detainees in orange jumpsuits kneel in a holding area at Camp X-Ray at Navy Base Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, under watch by Army MPs the day the detention center opened, Jan. 11, 2002.
In this handout photo from the Department of Defense, Taliban and al-Qaida detainees in orange jumpsuits kneel in a holding area at Camp X-Ray at Navy Base Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, under watch by Army MPs the day the detention center opened, Jan. 11, 2002. U.S. NAVY PETTY OFFICER

Thirteen years ago today, a U.S. Air Force C-131 Starlifter cargo plane set down at the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, dislodged 20 men in orange jumpsuits brought from Afghanistan and started the Pentagon’s experiment in offshore detention.

Within days, the U.S. military would release a photo of those first men kneeling in shackles, heads bowed and eyes covered by blackout goggles in their first hours at Camp X-Ray — for the world to see the “worst of the worst” first prisoners in the so-called Global War on Terror.

Today, eight of those first captives remain at Guantánamo, five of them approved for transfer. The others were freed across the years in near equal measure by the Bush and Obama administrations.

And that whittling down of the first “worst of the worst” says a lot about the detention center that today enters its 14th year with the last 127 captives of the 780 foreign men and boys who passed through the prison as terror suspects.

Of those remaining eight from the first group, only one has been put on trial — Ali Hamza Bahlul, Guantánamo’s lone war criminal. As other men convicted by military commission have gone home, the 46-year-old Yemeni is serving a life sentence for his work as Osama bin Laden’s media aide while Pentagon-paid defense lawyers systematically chip away at his conviction through the war court’s appeal system.

Of the five first-day arrivals who are there but approved to go, three were cleared through President Barack Obama’s sputtering Periodic Review Board system. Two more were cleared by a 2009 inter-agency task force.

And two more are so-called forever prisoners, indefinite detainees, who haven’t yet gone before the parole board.

The Miami Herald looks back each year at those first 20 men. This year, as some in Congress resist a White House push to move more men out and make good on Obama’s promise to close the prison, it’s to consider the meaning of Guantánamo. If those first were the worst, why are so many gone? What of those now cleared but still there?

“They are not ‘the worst of the worst,’” says just departed State Department special envoy for Guantánamo closure Cliff Sloan, “but rather people with the worst luck.”

Sloan’s efforts thinned the detention center staff by 28 men last year, including three first-day detainees — Afghan men considered senior Taliban members, in an exchange for long-held U.S. prisoner-of-war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on May 30.

None of them were cleared to leave by the national-security panel that evaluates the risk of freeing Guantánamo’s prisoners. The swap sent them to the custody of Qatar for a year before they can go home to Afghanistan, a deal that continues to stir controversy in Washington over its wisdom. Meantime, they’ve kept a low profile.

“They’re certainly not re-engaged in terrorist activity,” said Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a Pentagon spokesman responsible for Guantánamo. “I don’t know what else they’re doing.”

Only one of those first arrivals, Taliban military commander Abdullah Zakir, is known to have qualified for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence list of Guantánamo recidivists.

The Bush administration held him as Abdullah Gulam Rasoul, Detainee 008, and sent him back to Afghanistan in 2007 to a short stint at the then U.S.-controlled Policharki prison. A little over four years later he was featured in a House Armed Services Committee report on “detainees returning to the fight.”

It is not possible to say, definitively, that none of the others are on the secret intelligence community list of suspected or confirmed recidivists. The ODNI, which keeps the list, won’t comment.

Perhaps the best known of those first day captives was David Hicks, held as “the Australian Taliban.” He got out in 2007 on a guilty plea at the war court that he is now contesting as coerced and illegitimate.

Three of the men who arrived that day were profiled as suspected Osama bin Laden bodyguards. They were held as indefinite detainees — forever prisoners, as the Miami Herald dubbed them — until one by one Mahmud Mujahid, 37, Abdel Malik Wahab al Rahabi, 36, Ali Ahmad al Razihi, 35, persuaded their parole boards that they were safe for transfer.

Their attorney, David Remes, calls the bodyguard profile “laughable. They were just caught up in the net.” At least two of them, he said, would like fresh starts in countries other than their homeland, Yemen. “Abdel Malik wants to go to a place where he can live in peace with his wife and daughter,” he added.

Interestingly, even 13 years after the arrival, the identity of one man on the flight is still a mystery.

Across the years, the Miami Herald identified 19 of the captives through interviews and analysis of both leaked and released documents — and narrowed down several possibilities as the 20th man, all of whom have since been released from Guantánamo.

Here is what is known about the men in that iconic, Pentagon photo from Camp X-Ray:

Sent home

▪ David Hicks, 39, an Australian held as Detainee 002, pleaded guilty to providing material support for terror as a Taliban foot soldier in Afghanistan in a plea deal that sent him to less than nine months imprisonment in his homeland in 2007. He has since married, published his memoirs and is appealing his sentence. He showed up in the news recently heckling an Australian government official during a human rights award ceremony. A flight manifest drawn up in Afghanistan before the airlift profiled him as a member of the Taliban.

▪ Gholam Ruhani, 40, an Afghan held as Detainee 003, was transferred back to Afghanistan Dec. 12, 2007, with 12 other Afghans.

▪ Abdullah Zakir, 41, known at Guantánamo as Abdullah Gulam Rasoul, Detainee 008, left in a Bush administration repatriation of 13 men Dec. 12, 2007, to a short stint in a U.S.-supervised Afghan lockup at Policharki in December 2007. He subsequently reemerged as a prominent Taliban military commander, a role that undoubtedly put him on the secret U.S. intelligence Recidivist List. Accounts in 2014 said he stepped down from the role in April either to facilitate peace talks with Kabul or due to ill health.

▪ Fahd Mohammed, 33, a Saudi held as Detainee 013 until his 2007 release during a period of large-scale Bush administration releases to a Saudi Arabian rehabilitation program. He was among 15 men the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia picked up on a repatriation flight on July 15, 2007.

▪ Feroz Abassi, 35, released in January 2005, is a Briton who after life at Guantánamo as Detainee 024 settled back into life in London, got a university degree and was last known to be working with the activist group CAGE. He is believed to be among 16 prisoners who in 2010 shared in a cash settlement from the British government to settle claims that Britain had abetted in their unlawful detention that landed them at Guantánamo.

▪ Ibrahim Idris, 54, a Sudanese man, was held as Detainee 036 and repatriated in December 2013 to family in Port Sudan after the Obama administration settled a habeas corpus petition that argued he was too sick to be a threat. He had already been approved for release by December 2009. The last his attorney Jennifer Cowan heard, in the spring of 2014, he was back home with family in Sudan and still struggling with mental illness.

▪ Mohammed al Zayla, 37, a Saudi held as Detainee 055, was released to custody of Saudi Arabia on the tarmac at Guantánamo along with 15 fellow Saudi citizens Dec. 13, 2006 at the start of a big Bush administration push to thin the prison of Saudis.

▪ Omar Rajab Amin, 47, a Kuwaiti held as Detainee 65, was sent to Guantánamo by the U.S. military, which hadn’t decided whether to call him Taliban or al-Qaida. A leaked intelligence assessment four years later showed the U.S. still had not decided, and instead called him an “Islamic extremist.” Kuwait fetched him with a royal jet Sept. 14, 2006. He has declined requests for interviews.

Sent away, but not home

▪ Abdul Haq Wasiq, 39, Mullah Norullah Noori, 47, and Mohammad Fazl, 39, Afghans held as Detainees 004, 006 and 007, were released to the custody of Qatar on May 31, 2014, with two other Afghan detainees who got to Guantánamo later. The release was an exchange for long-held POW Bowe Bergdahl. They have maintained a low profile, under a deal that would allow their return to their homeland in May 2015.

Awaiting release

▪ Mahmud Mujahid, 37, Abdel Malik Wahab al Rahabi, 36, Ali Ahmad al Razihi, 35, all Yemenis, held as Detainees 031, 037 and 045 arrived at Guantánamo as suspected Osama bin Laden bodyguards. One by one their status as “forever prisoners” was lifted through Periodic Review Board hearings last year. They likely can’t go home to Yemen, where U.S. officials fear they’ll be drawn toward a powerful offshoot of al-Qaida, suggesting the United States is likely looking for a third country to resettle them.

▪ Ridah Bin Saleh al Yazidi, 49, a Tunisian held as Detainee 038, has been cleared for release since late 2009 with appropriate security measures. The Obama administration has been mostly resettling cleared Tunisians to third countries, apparently due to violence and anti-American sentiment in Tunisia.

▪ Samir Naji al Hassan Moqbel, 37, a Yemeni held as Detainee 043, has been cleared for release since late 2009 with appropriate security measures. Because he’s Yemeni, that likely means finding a third country to take him. Moqbel and his lawyers with the London-based Reprieve group drew attention to his case when the New York Times published an op-ed column in his name, “Gitmo Is Killing Me,” describing his hunger strike and forced-feeding based on an account he provided to his attorney.

Ineligible for release

▪ Ali Hamza al Bahlul, 46, a Yemeni, is Guantánamo’s lone convicted war criminal — Prisoner 046 — serving life on a segregated cellblock for convicts. A military commission convicted him in 2008 for his role as the equivalent of Osama bin Laden’s public affairs officer, during which he created an al-Qaida recruiting video that capitalized on the suicide bombing of the USS Cole attack in Dec. 2000. His Pentagon lawyers have been appealing his conviction and got two of three charges thrown out. Conspiracy remains.

▪ Abdul Rahman Shalabi, 39, a Saudi who is Detainee 042, has been on a hunger strike since 2005, according to court filings. A leaked May 2008 prison document considered him a suspected member of the Bin Laden bodyguard detail who had trained on suicide operations — a profile attributed to many in the early days at Guantánamo. A 2009 Obama administration task force declared him an indefinite detainee ineligible for release. He is one of Guantánamo’s last 35 “forever prisoners” entitled to a Periodic Review Board hearing to contest his status. It has not yet been scheduled.

▪ Mohammed Abu Ghanim, 40, a Yemeni who is Detainee 044, is a forever prisoner who has been likewise profiled as part of the “Dirty 30,” men suspected of service in the Bin Laden bodyguard corps. Other captives who were similarly profiled at Guantánamo have been released, cleared or contested their status through a Periodic Review Board hearing. His has yet to be scheduled.

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