Parole board declines to release ‘20th hijacker’ from Guantánamo

The insignia of the Periodic Review Board bureaucracy at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo.
The insignia of the Periodic Review Board bureaucracy at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo.

The board reviewing the status of Guantánamo Bay prisoners has decided against releasing a Saudi captive who was allegedly chosen to be a hijacker in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

Lawyers for Mohammad al Qahtani, 40, last month asked the Periodic Review Board to return him to Saudi Arabia for treatment for severe mental illness.

The board denied that request in a statement released Wednesday. Among the reasons cited was his refusal to answer questions about his alleged role in al-Qaida.

Officials believe Qahtani was trying to be the 20th hijacker. He was denied entry into the U.S. by an immigration inspector at the Orlando, Florida, airport. He was later captured and taken to the U.S. base in Cuba. Charges against him were dropped after a Pentagon legal official concluded he had been tortured.

“In making this determination, the board considered the detainee’s past involvement in terrorist activities, to include almost certainly having been selected by senior al-Qaida members to be the 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks and, after failing in that effort, returning to Afghanistan and fighting on the front lines against the Northern Alliance.”

The panel urged him to collaborate with mental health officials while still at Guantánamo and suggested he might get assistance at the prison from a Saudi rehabilitation program.

“The board commends the detainee for his recognition of his mental health diagnoses, looks forward to reviewing the detainee’s file in six months, and encourages the detainee to be more forthcoming with the Board in future reviews.”

A 2009-2010 federal task force recommended that Qahtani be considered for trial by either federal court or military commission. The latest decision essentially rebrands him as an indefinite detainee in the war on terror, a “forever prisoner.”