Alleged Al-Qaida Bomb-Maker Faces Periodic Review Board at Guantánamo

26.5.16

Photos of some of the Guantanamo prisoners, made available when classified military files were released by WikiLeaks in 2011.Last Thursday, Jabran al-Qahtani, a Saudi national, became the 39th prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board at Guantánamo.

Set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners who were not facing trials (just ten men) or the rather larger group of men who had already been approved for release by the high-level inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009, the PRBs involve representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and, since January 2014, they have approved 22 men for release and have defended the ongoing imprisonment of just seven men, a success rate for the prisoners of 76%.

The results are a damning verdict on the task force’s decision to describe 41 men facing PRBs as “too dangerous to release,” even though the task force members also acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial; in other words, it was not evidence, but unreliable information extracted from prisoners at Guantánamo and elsewhere in the “war on terror” — including the CIA’s “black sites” — through the use of torture, other forms of abuse or bribery (with better living conditions, for example). It has also become apparent that another reason some prisoners were described as “too dangerous to release” was because the authorities regarded them as having a threatening attitude towards the US, even though it is, to my mind, understandable that some men confronted with long years of abusive and generally lawless detention might react with anti-social behavior and threats.

The PRBs are also reviewing the cases of 23 men recommended for prosecution by the task force until the basis for prosecutions largely collapsed in 2012-13, when appeals court judges in Washington, D.C. — in what was generally considered a predominantly conservative court — threw out some of the few convictions secured in Guantánamo’s military commissions, on the rather embarrassing basis that the war crimes for which the men had been convicted — primarily, providing material support for terrorism and conspiracy — had been invented by Congress.

Jabran al-Qahtani, a graduate in electrical engineering from King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, is one of the prisoners who had initially been recommended for prosecution, under George W. Bush. In June 2008, he was put forward for a trial by military commission with two other men facing PRBs — Ghassan al-Sharbi (who has no date yet set for his PRB) and Sufyian Barhoumi, whose PRB took place on May 26, and which I’Il be writing about next week — and Noor Uthman Muhammed, a Sudanese prisoner who accepted a plea deal in his military commissions trial and was sent home in December 2013.

These three — and a handful of other men — were seized in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan on March 28, 2002, at which Abu Zubaydah was also seized. The first victim of the CIA’s torture program, Abu Zubaydah was initially and mistakenly regarded as a significant member of Al-Qaeda, and was subjected to horrendous torture, even though it eventually became apparent that he was not a member of Al-Qaeda at all and had, instead, been the gatekeeper for an independent training camp that was not aligned with Al-Qaeda.

As a result, it may well be that there is little basis for the US’s historical claims that the men seized in Abu Zubaydah’s house were actively involved with terrorism, as the house may, primarily, have been functioning as part of a network of houses used for moving people — civilians and soldiers — out of Afghanistan, after the US-led invasion.

When al-Qahtani was charged, I wrote the following about him:

[He has] had little to say about the allegations against him: that he traveled to Afghanistan after 9/11 “with the intent to fight the Northern Alliance and the American forces, whom he expected would soon be fighting in Afghanistan,” and that he was part of a group at Abu Zubaydah’s house who were provided with money to buy the components to make remote-controlled explosive devices. He refused to take part in his tribunal at Guantánamo in 2004, and spoke very little in April 2006, during the pre-trial hearing for his first, aborted Military Commission, when he was concerned only to refuse the services of his military lawyer.

As with the other three men, the charges against him were dropped in October 2008. New charges were filed in January 2009, but were once again dismissed in January 2013, and it was just a few months later that the Periodic Review Boards were set up.

In its unclassified summary of al-Qahtani’s case for his PRB, the US authorities described him as “a self-radicalized electrical engineer who traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan in October 2001 to fight against US forces in Afghanistan.” It was also noted that he “received abbreviated weapons training at an al-Qa’ida camp in Afghanistan,” and the emphasis must surely be on “abbreviated,” because, post-9/11, all the camps closed following the US-led invasion on October 6, 2001 – and the summary continued by suggesting that he was then “selected by a senior al-Qa’ida military commander to receive explosives detonator training in Faisalabad, Pakistan,” where “he learned to construct circuit boards for radio-remote controlled improvised explosive devices with the intention of teaching bomb making techniques to operatives attacking US and Coalition forces in Afghanistan.”

It was also noted that he was “captured by Pakistani authorities,” just “five months after leaving Saudi Arabia,” at the safehouse of Abu Zubaydah, who was described, mistakenly, as a “senior al-Qa’ida facilitator.”

Turning to Guantánamo, it was noted that al-Qahtani “has been mostly compliant with guard force personnel” at the prison, “but has not cooperated with interrogators.” It was also noted that, “[e]arly in his detention, he expressed his support for the Taliban and repeatedly stated that he intended to rejoin the extremist fight against the US and its allies,” according to Joint Task Force-Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) in a report in January 2009, but that he “has not been forthright about his expertise in electronics or his time in Afghanistan, and made conflicting statements about the extent of his affiliation with al-Qa’ida before discontinuing his participation with interrogators in late 2002.”

The authorities also noted that his electrical engineering degree “could provide him with credentials for employment if he is released,’ but that “[h]is education and training also make [him] a skilled bomb maker, however, whose electronics expertise would be in high demand by terrorist organizations.” The authorities assessed that, if he were to return to Saudi Arabia, he could “seek out prior associates who could provide him a path to reengage in hostilities and extremism, if he chose to do so,” although it seems unlikely that the Saudi authorities will not be very closely monitoring all released prisoners.

Below I’m posting the opening statements made by al-Qahtani’s personal representative, a member of the military appointed to help him prepare for his PRB, and an extensive submission by his civilian attorney, Judson Lobdell (of the San Francisco branch of Morrison & Foerster LLP), who stressed in particuar how al-Qahtani regretted his actions of 14-15 years ago, describing how he “has come to deeply regret what he did while he was young, ignorant, and swept away by a movement he did not understand.”

Prisoners expressing remorse is an important part of the review board’s deliberations, which are akin to parole boards, but it remains to be seen whether the review board members will accept the scale of his regret, when set against the authorities’ concerns about his perceived lack of forthrightness “about his expertise in electronics or his time in Afghanistan,” and his “conflicting statements about the extent of his affiliation with al-Qa’ida.”

Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing, 19 May 2016
Jabran Al Qahtani, ISN 696
Personal Representative Opening Statement

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the Board. I am the Personal Representative for ISN 696, Mr. Jabran Saad al Qahtani. I will be assisting Mr. Qahtani with his case this morning, along with the assistance of his Private Counsel.

Jabran has been overjoyed and eager to participate in the Periodic Review process since I first met with him in mid-April 2016. He has maintained his positive attitude throughout all of our meetings and has always been gracious and respectful towards me.

Mr. Qahtani has expressed his desire to return home to reunite with his family. However, he is open to transfer to any country, but would prefer an Arabic-speaking country, if possible. He is willing to participate in any rehabilitation or reintegration program as well. He looks forward to life after his transfer from Guantánamo Bay and reconnecting with his large family. As the youngest son of his parents, he hopes that at some point his many sisters and brothers could visit him and he could get to know the youngest members of his close-knit family who were born during his detention.

Jabran has been a compliant detainee with a relatively low number of infractions since his arrival at Guantánamo Bay and has taken advantage of the communal living opportunity here at the detention facility. He earned an electrical engineering degree from King Saud University and comes from a large close-knit family of educators, government workers, and small business owners. Additionally, over the past 14 years, Jabran has attended art, computer skills, and English courses offered at the camp. By being exposed to so many people of various cultural and religious backgrounds here at GTMO, Jabran has had many opportunities to better understand and appreciate their beliefs and customs. These adaptive skills, along with his formal education in Saudi Arabia and coursework completed at Guantánamo Bay, will serve him well wherever he is transferred.

I am confident that Jabran’s desire to pursue a better way of life if transferred from Guantánamo Bay is genuine and that he bears no ill will towards anyone. I remain convinced that Jabran does not pose a significant threat to security of the United States or any of its allies.

Thank you for your time and attention and I look forward to answering any questions you may have during this Board.

Statement of Mr. Judson Lobdell
Written Submission in Support of Jabran Said Wazar al Qahtani (ISN 696)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This submission is to support the release of Jabran Said Wazar al Qahtani (ISN 696). Mr. al Qahtani has been confined at Guantánamo Bay for the past fifteen years as a result of actions that he took when he was twenty four years old. He is now thirty nine and has come to deeply regret what he did while he was young, ignorant, and swept away by a movement he did not understand.

Mr. al Qahtani realizes that he cannot recapture the years he lost or the other consequences of his actions. But he is committed to starting his life afresh, focusing on what he has come over time to recognize are most important to him: building a family and contributing to his community through work and service.

MR. AL QAHTANI POSES NO THREAT TO THE SECURITY OF THE UNITED STATES

The Background to Mr. al Qahtani’s Actions

Jabran Said Wazar al Qahtani is the eighth child of Sa’id Wazur al Qahtani. He has 13 brothers and eight sisters. His father built a successful real estate business in Riyadh.

As a boy, Mr. al Qahtani was raised in a family where an education was highly prized. Math, science, and engineering came naturally to many of Mr. al Qahtani’s older brothers, who achieved early success. Two of Mr. al Qahtani’s brothers are chemical engineers, one is an electrical engineer, one is a petroleum engineer, one is a computer scientist, and two are college professors. None of his siblings has had any involvement in extremist movements.

Mr. al Qahtani greatly admired the success and achievement of his father and his older brothers. Although studies did not come as easily to him as some his older brothers, Mr. al Qahtani was able, through long hours of study as a boy and a young man, to earn an electrical engineering degree specializing in high voltage from King Saud University in Riyadh. This led him to accept a position at the Saudi Arabian Electric Company in Riyadh. Around that time, Mr. al Qahtani met Nawal. They married and began to plan a family of their own.

In 2001, however, Mr. al Qahtani got caught up in a wave of enthusiasm for defending Islam against what he heard described as a “crusade” by the United States and its allies. His understanding of battle at that time came from story books. He had no training or experience with combat or military affairs.

In what he has come to recognize as the greatest mistake of his young life, Mr. al Qahtani left Saudi Arabia for Afghanistan in 2001 and, after a series of misadventures, ended up in a training camp north of Kabul. The camp lasted for ten days. While it included weapons instruction, most of that consisted of classroom lectures. He spent much of his time digging a bunker and ducking fire from the Northern Alliance. He never fired a shot in anger.

After the ten days were over, Mr. al Qahtani retreated into hiding for approximately twenty days. He ended up in a safe house in Faisalabad, where he was captured by Pakistani soldiers. Plans to exploit Mr. al Qahtani’s knowledge of engineering by training him to train others on the making of triggering devices came to nothing. Nobody was ever harmed by a device made directly or indirectly by Mr. al Qahtani.

Mr. al Qahtani was the furthest thing from a hardened Mujahadeen. In the words of one of those captured with Mr. al Qahtani in Faisalibad: “His background and actions weren’t that of a fundamentalist. He liked to joke, have fun.”

Mr. al Qahtani’s attempts to puff himself up as tough and dangerous following his capture — for example, calling himself a “terrorist” — were nothing more than a misguided attempt to fit into the extreme society of his fellow Guantánamo Bay detainees.

Mr. al Qahtani’s Family are Committed to Supporting His Plans to Start a Family and Live a Quiet Life

Mr. al Qahtani comes from a well-respected Saudi Arabian family that, despite his mistakes, is willing to support his reintegration into modern society.

None of Mr. al Qahtani’s brothers is involved in extremist activities. They were all dismayed by Mr. al Qahtani’s actions and would have tried to stop him had they known his intentions in 2001-2002.

Mr. al Qahtani’s family statements, enclosed with this submission, evince a loving family ready to support Mr. al Qahtani:

  • Mr. al Qahtani’s brother has collected letters from all available members of his family. He says that Mr. al Qahtani’s release would return the “smile and happiness” to every member of his family.
  • His other brother hopes that Mr. al Qahtani’s life is stabilized “with marriage, suitable work, and [a] house to be a productive individual serving his home and his society.”
  • His brother-in-law says that his entire family was shocked when he left home but hopes that the Board gives Mr. al Qahtani an opportunity to join his family once again.
  • Another brother describes him as, among many other things, “gregarious,” “humorous,” “moderate,” “patient,” and “loved by others.”
  • Another brother says that Mr. al Qahtani’ s leaving home was “terrible” and that he hopes to help Mr. al Qahtani “proceed his life which will be the new better beginning to him.”
  • An additional brother remarks fondly on how Mr. al Qahtani taught his younger siblings school lessons and hopes that his family can help Mr. al Qahtani start a family of his own soon.
  • His sisters and his father’s second wife express excitement for his release and note that his family plans to help provide him a home and financial support upon his release.

Mr. al Qahtani plans to reintegrate into society by finding a wife, a job, and starting a family. These are not the plans of a potential recidivist, but rather the plans of a man ready to live the rest of his life quietly.

Mr. al Qahtani’s Behavior in Custody has Improved

The statements from Mr. al Qahtani’s fellow inmates and teachers reflect the maturing of his character. Mr. al Qahtani has taken a number of classes at Guantánamo, including English, life skills, and Photoshop courses, and his instructors in those courses speak highly of his studious nature and willingness to work with others. Similarly, while Mr. al Qahtani was formerly stand-offish at Guantánamo, he has slowly opened up to other inmates and has become social once again. Their statements evince his development while in Guantánamo Bay and his readiness to reintegrate into modem society.

THE BOARD SHOULD RELEASE MR. AL QAHTANI

Mr. al Qahtani poses no threat to the security of the United States. He deeply regrets his decision to leave home in 2002 and realizes that it was based on an immature, storybook notion of the world that has no basis in reality.

Mr. al Qahtani’s training as an electrical engineer should not stand in the way of his release. Mr. al Qahtani is not a bomb-maker. Indeed, he has never been alleged to have been a bomb-maker, only a young man who, because of his education, was picked out to receive training in that area. There is no reason to believe that formal electrical engineering training Mr. al Qahtani received twenty years ago would provide him with relevant specialized knowledge of bomb-making.

Regardless, Mr. al Qahtani has absolutely no desire to be a bomb maker. He wishes to live a quiet life, raise a family, get a job, and earn respect in his community.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, examining the Periodic Review Board at ‪Guantanamo‬ last week for Jabran al-Qahtani, a Saudi prisoner, seized in Pakistan 14 years ago with Abu Zubaydah – who was wrongly described as a senior Al-Qaeda members, and for whom the CIA torture program was set up. Allegedly recruited to work on bomb-making, al-Qahtani seems to be genuinely remorseful about being misguided in his younger years, but it is difficult to gauge if the PRB members will think this is enough to recommend his release.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Apologies for posting this so late, friends. I’ve borrowed my wife’s Macbook as mine is still with the Apple service people, who are doubling my memory and upgrading my operating system. I thought I’d have it back today, but there have been problems loading the new operating system. Hope to get it back tomorrow!

  3. Martin says...

    The PRB is willing to approve transfer for Saudis due to its rehabilitation program so I wouldn’t be surprised if Sharbi and Qahtani are sent back to their country.

    Here’s Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s intelligence assessment.

    http://www.prs.mil/Portals/60/Documents/ISN760/20160218_U_ISN_760_GOVERNMENTS_UNCLASSIFIED_SUMMARY_PUBLIC.pdf

    As expected, he is still alleged to have been a recruiter for Ramzi Binalshibh and two of the 9/11 hijackers, as former FBI agent Ali Soufan alleged in his book ”The Black Banners”. The allegations about his involvement in the Millenium Plot are not mentioned so that has to have been discredited. Incredibly, the government believes he will not re-engage at all. He is a model prisoner and has not threatened civilians. I now believe Slahi actually has a chance of being released as long as he shows candor and remorse about being a recruiter

  4. Martin says...

    Upcoming PRB hearings.

    Mohamed Mani Ahmad al Kahtani (ISN 063) 3/11/2016 6/16/2016
    Ravil Mingazov (ISN 702) 4/13/2016 6/21/2016
    Abdullah Al Sharbi (ISN 682) 3/4/2016 6/23/2016
    Musab Omar Ali Al-Mudwani (ISN 839) 4/6/2016 6/28/2016
    Hail Aziz Ahmed Al-Maythali (ISN 840) 3/22/2016 6/30/2016

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Just updated – my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantanamo website. The Periodic Review Secretariat has just announced the dates for five more reviews next month, to add to the four already scheduled: for torture victim Mohammed al-Qahtani, Ravil Mingazov, the last Russian in the prison, Ghassan al-Sharbi, seized with Abu Zubaydah, and Musa’ab al-Madhwani and Hail al-Maythali, the last two of the “Karachi Six” cell that the US government has conceded wasn’t a cell at all.
    http://www.closeguantanamo.org/Periodic-Review-Boards

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, you may well be right about Ghassan al-Sharbi and Jabran al-Qahtani, Martin. I think it would make sense.
    As for Slahi, I think the truth is that he bears no malice whatsoever against the US, so I think he can safely be freed, and I’m hoping the review board agrees.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Martin. Added to my PRB list earlier: http://www.closeguantanamo.org/Periodic-Review-Boards

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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