The Last Prisoner to Arrive at Guantánamo, an Afghan Fascinated with US Culture, Asks Review Board to Approve His Release


Afghan prisoner Muhammad Rahim, in a photo taken in Guantanamo by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and made available to his family, who made it publicly available via his lawyers.On August 4, Muhammad Rahim, an Afghan, became the 56th Guantánamo prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board. The PRBs were set up in 2013, and are reviewing the cases of all the prisoners still held who are not facing trials (just ten of the remaining 76 prisoners) or who were not already approved for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009.

33 men have so far been approved for release via the PRBs (and eleven have been released), while 17 have had their ongoing imprisonment held. This is a 67% success rate for the prisoners, and it ought to be embarrassing for the Obama administration, whose task force had concluded that they were “too dangerous to release” or that they should be prosecuted. See my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantánamo website for further information.

Muhammad Rahim, who was born in November or December 1965, was the last prisoner to arrive at Guantánamo, in March 2008, when he was described as “a close associate” of Osama bin Laden. He has been described as a “high-value detainee” — one of only 16 held at the prison — but if this was the case he would surely have been put forward for prosecution, suggesting that, as with so many of the prisoners held at Guantánamo, his significance has been exaggerated.

Little was subsequently heard of Rahim, but at the end of 2012 his attorney, Carlos Warner, a federal public defender for the Northern District of Ohio, released letters that showed a different side to his client than the associate of bin Laden described by the US authorities. In one letter, Rahim wrote, “I like this new song Gangnam Style. I want to do the dance for you but cannot because of my shackles.”

In other letters, he “asked Warner to appeal for help from radio personality Howard Stern,” as the Associated Press described it. “If he is the ‘King of All Media’ he can help me,” Rahim wrote. In another, “he criticize[d] Fox News’ ‘Fair and Balanced’ slogan, writing that if that were true the channel ‘would not have to say it every five minutes.’”

The AP also spoke to one of Rahim’s brothers, Abdul Basit, an asylum seeker in London, who told them that, having left Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, his brother “eventually got a job working for an Afghan government committee responsible for eradicating opium poppies, but that he was forced from the job by members of the Taliban.”

Basit, the AP revealed, was also detained by the US military — but in Afghanistan, for five years. He said that his brother “is a well-educated man who was not particularly interested in global politics,” and suggested that he was being “held more for who he might know rather than what he has done.” In broken English, he said, “There is no reason to put him in Guantánamo for this long time.”

In September 2015, Muhammad Rahim was in the news again. For Al-Jazeera, Jennifer Fenton wrote an article entitled, “‘Detained but ready to mingle’: Gitmo’s lonely heart on Tinder and Trump,” in which he wrote, “Donald Trump is an idiot!!! Sen. McCain is a war hero. Trump is a war zero,” adding, “How can a racist run for president? At this rate, Hillary [Clinton] has a chance.”

When he heard that millions of passwords had been stolen from the infidelity dating website Ashley Madison, he joked, “This is terrible news about Ashley Madison please remove my profile immediately!!! I’ll stick with … There is no way I can get Tinder in here.” Rahim doesn’t have any dating accounts, of course, but Warner described him as “detained but ready to mingle.”

Warner also described his client as a “funny guy” with “many ideas on a wide range of issues,” as Al-Jazeera described it. He added that the letters “give insight into the type of person Rahim is and should cause people to ‘look at his case and ask why is he being held.’”

Rahim is not only a joker. In another letter he wrote, “I am not high value. They call me high value because the CIA tortured me. How do we undo this injustice. Give me a trial. Let me be free.” He has never been charged, which suggests, as I mentioned above, that the US authorities do not have much of a case against him, and there are no records of him having undergone a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, which is required if prisoners are to face trials by military commission. A military lawyer was initially appointed to his case, but subsequently retired and was not replaced. In a letter, Rahim requested a military lawyer, asking, “I thought the military commissions wanted justice? How can I get justice without a military lawyer?”

He is also mentioned in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program, for which the executive summary was made publicly available in December 2014. According to the report, “During sleep deprivation sessions, Rahim was usually shackled in a standing position, wearing a diaper and a pair of shorts … Rahim’s diet was almost entirely limited to water and liquid Ensure meal.” He was also subjected to sleep deprivation. Nevertheless, as the report also states, “the CIA’s detention and interrogation of Mohammad Rahim resulted in no disseminated intelligence report.”

Reflecting on his torture, he wrote in another letter, “How do I get out of here? I am innocent and I was tortured. Hung from the ceiling until I was dead.” He said that “animals were treated better” and “doctors and psychiatrist got rich off my blood,” although he also wrote, as Jenifer Fenton put it, that “he prays for them now.”

Rahim was also mentioned in a detailed Rolling Stone article about Guantánamo at the end of 2015, in which the author, Janet Reitman, who spoke to Carlos Warner and to Rahim’s brother Abdul Basit about his case, noted:

The government issued a press release about Rahim, allegedly detailing his enemy activity, but it appears to be about another person entirely. This account, which Warner views as an example of the government’s general confusion, describes a low-level Al Qaeda operative, not, as was alleged about Rahim, a close associate of Osama bin Laden with “ties to Al Qaeda … throughout the Middle East.” A subsequent government report, filed in federal court in response to Warner’s habeas corpus petition seeking Rahim’s release, portrays him as a member of bin Laden’s inner circle, information based mostly on the word of two fellow Gitmo prisoners, and an informant who may have been subjected to torture.

Warner says that there is no indication that Rahim was an associate of bin Laden’s. Rahim did fight in Afghanistan, notes his brother, Basit, who I interview via Skype from his home in London, but it was during the war against the Soviets. Indeed, he and Warner note, Rahim worked for a time with the CIA. “The irony is, the ISI [Pakistani intelligence] picked him up, and the first thing he said was he wanted to talk with the CIA,” says Warner. “He trusted them because he’d worked with them, and he thought they’d help him.”

Nevertheless, in their unclassified summary for Rahim’s PRB, the US authorities maintained their claims about his significance, describing him as “one of a small number of Afghans to become trusted members of al-Qa’ida,” and adding, “He served as a translator, courier, facilitator, and operative for the group’s senior leadership, including Usama Bin Ladin [sic]. His proficiency in several languages, including Arabic, made him invaluable for communicating with foreign fighters and local populations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as facilitating the movement of al-Qa’ida leaders and rank and file between the two countries, particularly after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom.”

It was also claimed that he “had advance knowledge of many of al-Qa’ida’s major attacks, including advanced knowledge of 9/11,” although I find that unlikely, and, it was also claimed, he “progressed to paying for, planning, and participating in attacks in Afghanistan against US and Coalition targets by al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and other anti-Coalition militant groups.” The summary also notes that he “has admitted to working as a translator for al-Qa’ida,” but “claims to have done so only for the money,” which, if accurate, rather plays down much of the above.

Turning to Guantánamo, the authorities noted that he “has been generally compliant with the guard staff” since his arrival at the prison in March 2008, “and has been highly compliant since August 2015, according to Joint Task Force Guantánamo.” The summary also noted that, although he “has committed relatively few disciplinary infractions compared to the general population at Guantánamo, he has remained mostly uncooperative and defiant,” adding, “He crosses the line into noncompliance when he thinks he is being disrespected, mistreated, or perceived as being weak.”

The summary also claimed that Rahim “views his time in detention as a continuation of jihad,” adding, “He claims the guard staff and the detainees’ lawyers are enemies, and has reprimanded fellow detainees for showing the slightest courtesy toward them. He has sought to intimidate and taunt his captors even if it means never being released and dying as a martyr, which he appears to welcome.” This, of course, is an analysis that makes no sense when compared with the letters made publicly available by Carlos Warner, and Warner’s own appraisal of his client, and I cannot see how the description in the summary can stand up against this alternative view.

The juxtaposition between the man revealed in the letters and the US authorities’ view continues in the assessment of him as “a hardened al-Qa’ida member and devoted Bin Ladin follower when he arrived at Guantánamo,” who “has become even more deeply committed to the group’s jihadist doctrine and Islamic extremism in general since that time.” The summary added, “He continues to view the US and the West as enemies, has expressed support for and praised attacks by other terrorist groups, and has said he intends to return to jihad and kill Americans.”

In conclusion, the summary’s authors “assess that given his language proficiency, al-Qa’ida bona fides, and extensive extremist connections established before his capture, [Rahim] has multiple conduits for reengaging should he be released,” adding that “one of his brothers in particular, Abd Basit Zahdran, could also provide him a path to reengage.”

In the publicly available documents for the PRB, nothing was made available by Carlos Warner, and nothing is known, as yet, of what Rahim himself said, although Courthouse News reported that “Walter Ruiz, one of the defense attorneys for suspected 9/11 plotter Mustafa al-Hawsawi, appeared at the table with Rahim during the hearing but did not offer an unclassified statement.”

However, in their opening statement, Rahim’s personal representatives (military personnel appointed to help prisoners prepare for their PRBs) also painted a portrait at odds with the military’s analysis, noting that he has shown regret for his past actions, which, he reiterates, he did only for the money, and hoping only for a peaceful life, and to be reunited with his two wives and his seven children. The opening statement is posted below.

Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing, 4 Aug 2016
Muhammad Rahim, ISN 10029
Personal Representative Opening Statement

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the Board. We are the Personal Representatives for ISN 10029, Mr. Muhammad Rahim.

Rahim has attended all scheduled meetings. During the meetings he has been respectful and eager to participate in the PRB. He has also shown regret for his past actions, saying he only did what he did for money, so he could feed his family.

Rahim has two wives and seven children. He eagerly wants to be reunited with his family. He believes he needs to be present to help guide his children on a peaceful path. He worries that without him there to guide them, they could be taken advantage of.

Rahim has spoken of wanting a peaceful life in the future.

Rahim has stated in our meetings that he has never had any ill will towards the US and this will continue in the future. We stand ready to answer any questions you have.

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’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). 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).

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.

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4 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the recent Periodic Review Board for Muhammad Rahim, an Afghan prisoner, and the last man to arrive at ‪Guantanamo‬, in March 2008. Allegedly involved with Al-Qaeda, he has nevertheless demonstrated a fascination with US culture and an ironic sense of humor that is not generally associated with dour fundamentalist terrorists. It remains to be seen if the board will recommend his release. Currently 33 men have been approved for release, while 17 have had their ongoing imprisonment approved.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m still on holiday in Spain (until the 20th), but posting this article I prepared just before I left the UK on the 6th. Since my departure, one more man has been approved for release (Sufyian Barhoumi), while another (Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani) has had his ongoing imprisonment endorsed. Updates to follow on my return. Also, two more men had their PRBs last week, and two more are scheduled for this week. See my definitive list on the Close Guantanamo website for more info:

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Updated again – my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantanamo website. Another prisoner was just turned down – Ismael Ali al-Bakush, a Libyan, so now 33 men have been approved for release, while 18 have been turned down:

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    With the news that 15 prisoners – 12 Yemenis and three Afghans – have been freed from ‪Guantanamo‬ and given new homes in the UAE, leaving just 61 men held at the prison, I’ve updated the definitive prisoner list on the Close Guantanamo website, and I’ll be writing an article soon about the 15 men. Six of the Yemenis were approved for release by President Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force in 2010, the rest of the men were approved for release in the last two and a half years by Periodic Review Boards. Why were they sent to the UAE? Because the entire US establishment agrees that no Yemenis may be repatriated, given the security situation in Yemen, and because Congress has imposed a ban on any Afghans being repatriated.

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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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