Progress Towards Closing Guantánamo, As Periodic Review Boards Resume with the Case of a Seriously Ill Egyptian


Guantanamo prisoner Tariq al-Sawah as a young man, prior to his capture and transfer to Guantanamo, where his weight has ballooned. Photo made available by his family.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

The last three months have been a period of commendable progress at Guantánamo, as 27 prisoners have been released, reducing the prison’s population to just 122 men. On December 30, two Tunisians and three Yemenis were given new homes in Kazakhstan, and on January 14 five more Yemenis were given new homes — four in Oman, in the Gulf, and one in Estonia. All of these men had long been approved for release, having had their cases reviewed in 2009 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which issued its final report in January 2010.

Obstacles raised by Congress — and the president’s unwillingness to spend political capital overcoming those obstacles — had led to these men being held for so long after the task force unanimously approved them for release, as well as a particular fear throughout the US establishment of repatriating Yemenis, because of unrest in their home country.

Two years ago, 86 of the men still held had been approved for release by the task force but were still held. That number is now down to 50, of whom 43 are Yemenis, and just seven are from other nations, including Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison.

Four more men have had their releases approved in the last year by Periodic Review Boards, another high-level, inter-agency process established in 2013 to review the cases of the majority of the men not cleared for release, to establish whether or not they are still regarding as constituting a threat.

Of the 68 men not approved for release, only ten are facing — or have faced — military commission trials at Guantánamo. Of the 58 others, 23 were recommended for prosecution by the task force, until the appeals court in Washington D.C. began dismissing the handful of convictions secured in the military commissions’ contentious history, on the basis that they were for war crimes that were not recognized internationally, and had been invented by Congress.

35 others were recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the basis that they were regarded as “too dangerous to release,” but insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. This latter category ought to trouble anyone with respect for the law, because if there isn’t enough evidence to put someone on trial, then it’s not evidence — and in the case of the Guantánamo prisoners, this is because prisoners were routinely subjected to torture or other forms of abuse, or were bribed with the promise of comfort items, or because they simply grew exhausted by the pointless non-stop questioning, and began to tell their interrogators whatever they wanted to hear. The information obtained from the prisoners is, to be blunt, worthless to a shocking degree.

Here at “Close Guantánamo,” we are heartened to hear that the Periodic Reviews have resumed, after the nine prisoner reviews last year, which resulted in six of the men being recommended for release, and two being freed. The other four are Yemenis, who join their compatriots in the queue of Yemenis awaiting release. The last Yemeni to be cleared, Abdel Malik Ahmed Abdel Wahab Al-Rahabi (ISN 037), was recommended for ongoing detention in March 2014 after his PRB, but was approved for release in November after a second PRB.

The first review of the year took place on January 22, and was the first for any of the 23 prisoners who had initially been recommended for prosecution, but had been downgraded after the near-total collapse in the legitimacy of the military commissions.

The story of Tariq al-Sawah

Tariq al-Sawah (aka El-Sawah), in a photo from the classified military files relating to the Guantanamo prisoners, which were released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.The prisoner in question, Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed al-Sawah (ISN 535), is known to seasoned Guantánamo watchers. An explosives expert in Afghanistan — possibly with al-Qaeda connections, although he has always denied it — he became disillusioned with his former life and has cooperated extensively with the authorities in Guantánamo. He is also seriously ill.

As the Associated Press described it in October 2013, he is “in terrible shape after 11 [now nearly 13] years as a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, a fact even the US military does not dispute.” At the time he was 55 years old, and his weight “has nearly doubled” during his long imprisonment, “reaching more than 420 pounds at one point, and his health has deteriorated as a result, both his lawyers and government officials concede.”

As I explained at the time:

His lawyers — and a doctor who has examined him — paint what the AP described as “a dire picture” of “a morbidly obese man with diabetes and a range of other serious ailments,” who “is short of breath, barely able to walk 10 feet, unable to stay awake in meetings and faces the possibility of not making it out of prison alive.”

As I also explained in that article, the AP noted that al-Sawah had high-level support for his release, having “received letters of recommendation from three former Guantánamo commanders.” One, Rear Adm. David Thomas, recommended his release in his classified military file (his Detainee Assessment Brief) in September 2008, which was released by WikiLeaks in 2011, and only later contradicted by President Obama’s task force. In that file, al-Sawah’s health issues were also prominent. It was noted that he was “closely watched for significant and chronic problems” that included high cholesterol, diabetes and liver disease.

There was also a letter from an unnamed official who spent several hours a week with al-Sawah over the course of 18 months, who noted that he had been “friendly and cooperative” with US personnel, and stated, “Frankly, I felt Tarek [Tariq] was a good man on the other side who, in a different world, different time, different place, could easily be accepted as a friend or neighbour.”

Just as important is the fact that, back in March 2010, in an important article for the Washington Post, Peter Finn reported that al-Sawah and another prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian whose heart-rending memoir, written in Guantánamo, has just been published as a book, even though he is still held in the prison, “had become two of the most significant informants” in Guantánamo. As a result, they were “housed in a little fenced-in compound at the military prison, where they live[d] a life of relative privilege — gardening, writing and painting — separated from other detainees in a cocoon designed to reward and protect.”

What was particularly shocking about this was the refusal of the authorities to reward the men for their extensive cooperation by releasing them. As Finn noted, “Some military officials believe the United States should let them go — and put them into a witness protection program, in conjunction with allies, in a bid to cultivate more informants,” an eminently sensible suggestion that was endorsed by W. Patrick Lang, a retired senior military intelligence officer. “I don’t see why they aren’t given asylum,” Lang said. “If we don’t do this right, it will be that much harder to get other people to cooperate with us. And if I was still in the business, I’d want it known we protected them. It’s good advertising.” Finn also noted that a military official at Guantánamo at the time of his article had “suggested that that argument was fair,” although he stated that it was “a hard-sell argument around here.”

It is to be hoped that his release will not be such a hard-sell now. His detainee profile, for his PRB, stated that he “met numerous senior terrorist leaders, but there are no indications he held a leadership position,” adding that while he “openly admits to having taken part in terrorism, there are no indications that he is interested in reengaging in extremist activity. He has told interrogators that he hopes to reunite with family members-some of whom live in Egypt, Bosnia, and the US.” Those drafting the profile added that there were “no indications that [al-Sawah] is in communication with extremists outside of Guantánamo,” and also explained that, if he “were repatriated to Egypt, he probably would seek to reside temporarily with family members while pursuing opportunities to resettle elsewhere,” which may be optimistic given his previous history, and it may be that, if approved for release, he will need to be resettled in a third country.

We will be watching the progress of the PRBs closely, hoping that President Obama can release all the prisoners approved for release, and that the review boards will also approve the release many of those who come before them, and who, we are willing to demonstrate through an analysis  of the so-called evidence, are not, and have never been “too dangerous to release.”

Note: Five more PRBs are forthcoming. Saeed Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah Sarem Jarabh (ISN 235), a Yemeni, has his hearing on January 27, and Khalid Ahmed Qasim (ISN 242), another Yemeni, follows on February 4. The three others were notified of their forthcoming PRBs on January 13. They are Mashur Abdullah Muqbil Ahmed Al-Sabri (ISN 324), a Yemeni, Abdul Shalabi (ISN 042), another Yemeni (and a long-term hunger striker), and Omar Khalif Mohammed Abu Baker Mahjour Umar (ISN 695), aka Omar Mohammed Khalifh, a Libyan whose habeas corpus petition was turned down in 2010.

Saeed Jarabh, in a photo included in the classified US military documents (the Detainee Assessment Briefs) released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.POSTSCRIPT January 28: On January 27, the second PRB of the year took place — for Saeed Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah Sarem Jarabh (ISN 235), a Yemeni who is 36 years old, and has been held since he was 23. The military representatives assigned to represent him stated that he “desires to return home to Yemen and reunite with his wife, his aging parents, and especially with his 2 daughters,” adding, poignantly, “His oldest daughter is engaged to be married in the next two years and Saeed dreams of being there on this special day for his daughter.”

They also stated, “While detained at Guantánamo, Saeed has maximized every opportunity available to him for personal growth and education … [H]e has pursued the study of English and Spanish languages, both spoken and written. This effort will greatly benefit him should he be transferred to a country other than Yemen. Additionally, Saeed has studied to increase his business acumen. Notably, he led a detainee project which developed a formal business plan for an agrarian farming operation. These skills are in high demand and are transferrable to any environment Saeed should find himself in.” The representatives also noted, “Saeed has engaged in constructive hobbies in order to keep his mind active and healthy while detained. His pursuit of the art of painting preserved both his sense of hope and love of life.”

In its detainee profile, the military claimed that he had “possibly” fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan, but conceded that he “has provided no information of intelligence value since his initial debriefings at Guantánamo.” In addition, the military noted that there are “no indications he harbors strong anti-American sentiments relative to other Guantánamo detainees, extremist beliefs, or intentions to reengage.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — 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).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

20 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Dave Reed wrote:

    How is it Shaker Aamer is still held? Incredible.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, agreed. Incredible in all the most horrible ways, Dave. It defies logic.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Talat Gilani Hamdani wrote:

    Thank you Andy for keeping track & being the voice of Justice.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Talat, for the kind words. Your support is greatly appreciated.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Talat Gilani Hamdani wrote:

    I joined CCR & others on Jan 11 at the protest outside the White House demanding closure of GITMO

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Me too! All the best people were there! 🙂 (except for all my lovely friends who couldn’t make it, that is!)

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    I hope your job will be done on this soon Andy and that President Obama is finally able to keep his word

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    That would be great, wouldn’t it, David, but I’m not quite holding my breath waiting for it. I very much hope it can be achieved before Obama’s presidency ends, but there are still issues to be dealt with – notably, even if Obama finds some way to bring the remaining prisoners to the US mainland, will federal court trials finally replace the military commissions, and will Obama be willing or able to persuade lawmakers that no one should continue to be held without charge or trial?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Patricia Sheerin-Richman wrote:

    I hope so too but Obama has already failed to keep his word by not closing Guantanamo Bay sooner, as promised. In his last months as president he should close it and hand back the stolen land to Cuba.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    And yes, Patricia, handing back the base to Cuba would also be good news – as would the US removing its military presence from numerous countries worldwide. But now I’m seeing some pigs flying overhead …

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    When my friend Jan Strain shared this on Facebook, she wrote:

    From Andy Worthington …the guy that actually does track America’s actions in Guantanamo like few others

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan! Always love your supportive words!

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Elena Sante wrote:

    Thank you for your work. It is important that people know we care.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Elena. Your kind words are very much appreciated.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Tina Braxton wrote:

    Well, this is good news, though it’s sad that we can’t have a higher standard for what kind of news we consider good.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, we have to be grateful that reviews are taking place, Tina, even though there’s no guarantee that prisoners cleared for release by the review boards will actually be released. I have begun comparing leaving Guantanamo to a series of air locks. Each time a prisoner is told they are to be freed, they actually just enter another airlock, and this can take place repeatedly, with no release ever actually taking place.
    That said, at least we can be reassured that two of the six men approved for release after the PRBs last year have been released, even if 50 other men – first approved for release in 2009-10 – are still held.

  17. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy! Tariq al Sawah has seemed to me to be one of the most important captives, because there are so many odd things about his case.

    You quoted from his PRB documents, that stated he

    “met numerous senior terrorist leaders, but there are no indications he held a leadership position … openly admits to having taken part in terrorism…

    I’ll bet that the part about him “openly admitting to taking part in terrorism” is a wild exagerration. Tariq al Sawah has acknowledged that he traveled to Bosnia. Of the more than a dozen captives who were characterized as being listed on the list of Bosnia mujahideen al Sawah may have been the only one who actually volunteered to help the Bosnians win their independence. Even though the wars Serbia had with the republics that broke away from Yugoslavia were dirty wars, I think it is unfair to allege he was a terrorist because he was a combatant there.

    American GIs committed atrocities and acts of terror. Some of them got caught at it. Most American GIs however didn’t commit atrocities. No one suggests we treat all American GIs as terrorists because of the few American GIs who were caught committing atrocities or acts of terrorism. I think the same principle should apply to people the USA should consider neutrals — people who were combatants, in other wars, who didn’t commit atrocities or terrorist acts, didn’t order atrocities or terrorist acts, and didn’t cover up atrocities or terrorists acts aren’t any more responsible for those acts than the American GIs who didn’t commit atrocities.

    What does “having met senior terrorist leaders” mean? We know from Fouad al Rabia’s CSRT testimony that he openly acknowledged having met Osama bin Laden four times — casual meetings at public events. Yet when duplicitous Guantanamo public affairs officers, like Commander Gordon, touted the incredible intelligence value of the Guantanamo interrogations they devoted a considerable portion of their misleading press release to Fouad al Rabia’s completely public and meaningless introductions to bin Laden. Merely meeting someone, months or years before they became known as a terrorist, doesn’t make one a terrorist. For all we know al Sawah could have met these individuals not only before they were widely known as terrorists, but before he knew they were terrorists. He may have met them before those individuals committed themselves to militancy.

    I believed al Sawah’s testimony. I believe it is perfectly possible, likely even, that just as a non-muslim can meet a terrorist like bin Laden, without becoming infected with terrorism, a muslim like al Rabia could have met bin Laden without becoming infrected with terrorism. I believed al Rabia that he was an America-phile, who guided Kuwait to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on US Boeing airlines, instead of European Airbus airliners. Similarly, I think it is quite possible that if al Sawah met individuals who were terrorist leaders, it did not infect him with terrorism. I suggest that any such meeting be considered completely innocent, if they occurred before those individuals made their commitment to terrorism.

    One of the doctors who was held in Guantanamo, one who was a Tajik or Uzbek — not even the right ethnic group to be accepted into the Taliban — was held because he served as a medic for a militia leader during the Afghanistan’s Soviet occupation, and, a decade later one of his former commander’s sons became a Taliban leader.

    Even if terrorism was infectious, and just having met a terrorist made everyone they ever met a terrorist, I suggest it is completely unreasonable, crazy, to think it could be retroactively infectious, infecting even individuals the terrorist met before they decided to employ terrorism.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts as ever, arcticredriver. You’re certainly right about allegations that are slung about without regard to when and where the alleged incidents took place – Bosnia being a good example, of course, of a war in which Muslims regarded as freedom fighters became reclassified as terrorists after 9/11.
    In Tariq al-Sawah’s case, I believe the US always claimed he had undertaken explosives training, and had briefly taught at the Tarnak Farms training camp prior to 9/11. I have no idea whether these are accurate claims, but it does fit with the narrative of al-Sawah being a reformed jihadist, who should no longer be held because of that – and because of the supposedly useful information he provided (although I would imagine that latter point to be exaggerated).

  19. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy! If US intelligence officials really did suspect he taught explosives at Tarnak Farms, this suspicion would remain of limited significance for several reasons.

    First, as we have seen, they routinely claimed more moderate training camps, like the Khaldan Camp, were al Qaeda camps. Why not make this claim? It increases the severity of the threats they were reporting, and so, increased their funding. And who could contradict their claims, since they were based on classified evidence.

    Second, from the OARDEC documents, US intelligence officials clearly couldn’t tell the camps apart. The OARDEC documents name over fifty difference “al Qaeda camps”. I don’t believe al Qaeda ever ran fifty camps. Rather, I am convinced incompetent US intelligence officials did not realize they were using multiple names for the same camps. I also suspect that they applied some of the same names to multiple camps.

    With regard to Tarnak Farms, a camp within walking distance of Kandahar International Airport, that also served as one of Osama bin Laden’s homes — I believe that it is also the camp that US intelligence officials referred to as the “urban warfare training camp”, and the “airport training camp”. But some OARDEC documents place the “urban warfare training camp” in Nangarhar, or another eastern province.

    So, I am going to assume that if al Sawah really did serve as an instructor at a training camp, one US intelligence officials characterized as Tarnak Farms, it may nevertheless have been another camp. It may, nevertheless, have been a more moderate camp, not aligned with al Qaeda.

    How many camps did al Qaeda actually run? Well, Clinton used cruise missiles to bomb two camps in 1998, in retaliation for the bombing of the US embassies in Africa. Presumably those camps were abandoned. Then there was Al Farouq, and Tarnak Farms. All new trainees went through Al Farouq. Trainees who swore allegiance, and joined al Qaeda, may have been sent for more advanced training, at another camp. Did they go to a third or fourth camp for that advanced training? I am sure there weren’t fifty camps, or more than half a dozen.

    When I saw the Frontline documentary on the Lackawanna Six it confirmed something I had suspected. It seemed to me that the Lackawanna Six did not go to Afghanistan as militant, committed al Qaeda recruits. It seemed to me that their brief time at al Farouq did not succeed in recruiting them to join al Qaeda, or seduce them to betray the USA. It seemed to me that they were hapless victims of an unreliable US intelligence establishment who had a great interest in characterizing them as a “sleeper cell”.

    It seemed to me that muslims who felt they had an obligation to undergo military training, who traveled to Afghanistan, didn’t realize that they might end up at a more moderate camp, like Khaldan, or might end up at al Farouq.

    At al Farouq pressure was put on trainees to become more radical, and convert to al Qaeda’s brand of Islam, but, it seemed to me they did allow trainees who didn’t convert to go home.

    What happened to the recruits who did swear allegiance to OBL? I suspect none of them were sent home to form “sleeper cells”, at least not without a lot more indoctrination. A return home to their families, their homes and jobs would quickly erode a fevered commitment made on vacation.

    US intelligence press releases seem to imply that they classed every individual who was trained at al Farouq as if they were a member of an al Qaeda army, when it would have included men who weren’t recruited to al Qaeda during their stay, and when many of these men would have abandoned their oath after weeks or months of boredom. So, I suspect bin Laden’s ground forces would have been a lot smaller than US intellicence officials feared.

    If al Sawah had briefly been an instructor at an al Qaeda camp — but prior to the bombings of the US embassies in Africa — how responsible should he have been held for terrorist acts after he had no more ties to al Qaeda?

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    All good points, arcticredriver – about the paucity of genuine intelligence, and the scaremongering and pretence that there were far more camps than there were. The main thing in al-Sawah’s case, it seems to me, is that even if he was briefly an instructor at the camp the US alleges, then it wasn’t for long before 9/11. However, I agree that we can’t even necessarily trust the story we’ve been presented with.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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