Who Are the Four Guantánamo Prisoners Freed in Saudi Arabia, Leaving 55 Men Still Held?


The four prisoners released from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia in January 2017. From L to R: Mohammed Rajab Abu Ghanim, Mohammed Ali Abdullah Bawazir, Salem Ahmad Hadi Bin Kanad and Abdullah Yahia Yousef al Shabli.Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my work on Guantánamo over the next two months.


Good news from Guantánamo, as four men have been released to Saudi Arabia, reducing the prison’s population to 55, the lowest number since its opening weeks 15 years ago.

The four men are Yemeni citizens — although one was born in Saudi Arabia, but to Yemeni parents, meaning that he was not given citizenship. A third country had to be found that was prepared to take them in, because the entire US establishment agrees that it is unsafe, from a security perspective, to repatriate any Yemenis. The men will go through Saudi Arabia’s well-established rehabilitation program, although, to be honest, it is obvious upfront that none of these men can be regarded as a threat.

Two were approved for release by President Obama’s cautious, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2009, while the other two were approved for release more recently by the latest inter-agency review process, the Periodic Review Boards, which consider the prisoners’ cases in a manner similar to parole boards — except, of course, for the crucial fact that the men in question have never been convicted of any crimes.

The first of the four, whose case has rarely been discussed, is Abdullah Yahia Yousef al Shabli (ISN 240), who, according to US records, was born in Jeddah on September 10, 1977. Al-Shabli was approved for release by the task force in 2009, but is one of 30 men the task force placed in a category of their own invention, “conditional detention,” which was only supposed to end when someone — it was not determined who, or how — established that the security situation in Yemen had improved. As I explained in August, when 12 Yemenis were released in the UAE, “those in the ‘conditional detention’ group languished until the Obama administration began finding countries that would offer new homes to them, a process that only began last November and that, before [the August] releases, had led to 19 men being given new homes — in the UAE, Ghana, Oman, Montenegro and Saudi Arabia.” Six of the 12 Yemenis freed in August were from the “conditional detention group,” and with the two releases to Saudi Arabia from this group, just three men from this group are left — plus another two men from the 126 other men approved for release by the task force.

In a profile of al-Shabli that I wrote in September 2010, I stated:

The US authorities allege that al-Shabli was “recruited to go to al-Farouq camp by a mujahideen fighter who had fought in Afghanistan,” that he was “supplied with a false Yemeni passport, travel funds, tickets and the locations of guest houses in Afghanistan,” and that he trained at al-Farouq, and at another camp in Kabul, although he was not at either camp for long, as he only arrived in Afghanistan in August 2001, and al-Farouq closed after the 9/11 attacks.

The authorities also made an attempt to link him with Osama bin Laden, but it was not entirely convincing. It was alleged that he stated that he “saw Osama bin Laden passing by in the Tora Bora mountains,” but it not clear that he was ever in Tora Bora, because, elsewhere in the government’s evidence, it was stated that, after fleeing Kabul, he stayed in a house in Jalalabad for three weeks, and then traveled in a convoy towards the Pakistani border. When the convoy came under fire, he and others were taken in by Afghan locals, who then arranged for them to be seized by Northern Alliance soldiers. At no point in this story, therefore, was there any suggestion that he engaged in combat, or had even been in a position where he might have engaged in combat, and it is surprising that he was not released in 2006 or 2007, when dozens of Saudi prisoners were released. (The reason, I recognize now, is that he was not a Saudi citizen, as listed by the US, but a Yemeni).

The second “conditional detention” prisoner to be released is Mohammed Ali Abdullah Bawazir aka Bwazir (ISN 440), who, according to the US records, was born in 1980. As I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files, he claimed that all the allegations against him — including a claim that he attended Osama bin Laden’s daughter’s wedding in Kandahar — came about because he was tortured. “When I came to Mazar-e-Sharif they questioned me [and asked] me if I was from al-Qaeda,” he said. “They used to hit me physically until they broke my skull … Then I had to say yes I had met Osama bin Laden, that I talked with the Taliban, that I knew about nuclear rockets, and that I know everything about what al-Qaeda is up to.”

Bawazir was approved for release by the US military under George W. Bush in May 2007, after it evidently became apparent that the case against him was worthless, and he was approved for release again under Obama’s task force in 2009, but he had to wait until February this year for the US authorities to offer him a new home — in an unspecified foreign country that was so troubling to him that he chose, at the last minute, to stay at Guantánamo rather than accept the offer.

As I wrote at the time:

His lawyer, John Chandler, told the Guardian he “had traveled to Afghanistan as part of a ‘charitable organization,’” and was “sold to the US for $5,000 by the allied warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, now Afghanistan’s vice-president.” He was also described as “[a] former longtime hunger striker whose forced feeding became an issue in federal court after Bawazir likened it to torture.” He currently weighs just 130 pounds, but at one point weighed just 90 pounds.

However, when it came to leaving Guantánamo after 14 years — to be rehoused in a country “[n]either US officials nor Bawazir’s lawyer would identify … claiming that doing so could jeopardize the country’s willingness to take subsequent Guantánamo detainees,” Bawazir rejected it, “because it meant not being able to be with his family.” As recently as last Friday, according to Chandler, “Bawazir, who is described as ‘mercurial’ and fearing the unknown, had agreed to go there.”

Chandler told the Miami Herald that Bawazir “understood he couldn’t go home to his native Yemen but wanted to go to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia or Indonesia where he had his mother, brothers or aunts and uncles.”

The first of the other two men sent to Saudi Arabia, who were approved for release by Periodic Review Boards, is Mohammed Rajab Abu Ghanim (ISN 044), who was born in 1975, according to the US records. His case was reviewed in May 2016, and he was approved for release in July.

At one point, he was regarded as having been a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, but he and others seized with him, known as “the Dirty Thirty,” and all regarded as bin Laden bodyguards, were mostly young Yemenis, who had not been in Afghanistan for long, and it is, frankly, inconceivable that they would not have been trusted with such important positions.

Nevertheless, Ghanim was reportedly subjected to torture in Guantánamo, as I stated at the time of his PRB:

In a report from a former prisoner published by Cageprisoners, it was stated that Ghanim was subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation in Guantánamo, as part of what was euphemistically termed “the frequent flier program,” and was also denied medical treatment: “Every two hours he would get moved from cell to cell, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, sometimes cell to cell, sometimes block to block, over a period of eight months. He was deprived of sleep because of this and he was also deprived of medical attention. He had lost a lot of weight. He had a painful medical problem, haemorrhoids, and that treatment was refused unless he cooperated. He said he would cooperate and had an operation. However, the operation was not performed correctly and he still had problems. He would not cooperate. [H]e was [then] put in Romeo Block where the prisoners would be made to stand naked. It was then left to the discretion of the interrogators whether a prisoner was allowed clothes or not.”

The last of the four is Salem Ahmad Hadi Bin Kanad (ISN 131), who, according to the US records, was born in 1975. Bin Kanad, sometimes referred to as Salem Ben Kend, had fought with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, and, as I explained at t time of his first PRB, he “had ended up imprisoned in Qala-i-Janghi, a fort controlled by the Northern Alliance commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, where he survived a notorious massacre by US, British and Northern Alliance forces. In his classified military file, released by WikiLeaks in 2011, it was revealed that, in the massacre, he was ‘shot in the chest and legs.’”

At the PRB it also became apparent, for the first time, that, as I described it, he “has two daughters, the youngest of whom was just two months old when her last saw her. His status as a father has not previously emerged in any reports, but his personal representatives made it clear that they are a central concern of his, and that he ‘wants to urge both daughters to complete their educations.’”

Bin Kanad first had his case reviewed by a PRB in April 2014, but he refused to turn up, making it impossible for the board to even contemplate releasing him. Three further file reviews then took place, in which the PRB officials reviewed his case again, on the third time approving him for a another full review, and finally he was interviewed by the officials by video link from Guantánamo. That review took place in April 2016, and he was approved for release in May.

In Riyadh, a reporter for AFP stated that the prisoners and family members “wept as they saw each other for the first time in years.” Salem bin Kanad told reporters “he felt ‘born again’ after seeing his relatives,” and Mohammed Bawazir “said he hoped to move on and forget the past,” as AFP put it. “I want to give back to my family the 15 years I lost,” he said.

AFP also noted, “The bearded ex-prisoners appeared healthy and were all dressed in two-piece Pakistani-style tunics. One prisoner was welcomed by 21 relatives, including children, but only a handful greeted the others. A lone woman waited for one of the inmates.”

These releases leave 19 other men at Guantánamo who have also been approved for release — five by the 2009 task force, and 14 by PRBs. Recent reports suggest that between 13 and 15 of these men will be freed before President Obama leaves office, leaving just six men approved for release when Donald Trump takes over. But that, of course, is six men too many, especially given Trump’s recently stated hostility towards releasing any prisoners. In addition, just ten men are facing trials, and 26 others are awaiting further reviews, which, as with Salem bin Kanad, will almost certainly end up approving  some of them for release, as is appropriate, unless Trump decides once more to lock Guantánamo shut, as he has threatened to do.

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.

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

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009 (out of the 532 released by President Bush), and the 178 prisoners released from February 2009 to December 2016 (by President Obama), whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Filesand for the stories of the other 390 prisoners released by President Bush, see my archive of articles based on the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (herehere and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis1 Mauritanian1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; 13 Afghans (here and here); 3 British residents10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (herehere and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik2 Algerians; 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan), repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 —1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani); 4 Uighurs to Bermuda; 1 Iraqi; 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad); 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni; 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody; December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah); 2 Somalis4 Afghans6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 1 Uzbek to Switzerland1 Egyptian1 Azerbaijani and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania1 Palestinian to Spain; March 2010 — 1 Libyan, 2 unidentified prisoners to Georgia, 2 Uighurs to Switzerland; May 2010 — 1 Syrian to Bulgaria, 1 Yemeni to Spain; July 2010 — 1 Yemeni (Mohammed Hassan Odaini); 1 Algerian1 Syrian to Cape Verde, 1 Uzbek to Latvia, 1 unidentified Afghan to Spain; September 2010 — 1 Palestinian, 1 Syrian to Germany; January 2011 — 1 Algerian; April 2012 — 2 Uighurs to El Salvador; July 2012 — 1 Sudanese; September 2012 — 1 Canadian (Omar Khadr) to ongoing imprisonment in Canada; August 2013 — 2 Algerians; December 2013 — 2 Algerians2 Saudis2 Sudanese3 Uighurs to Slovakia; March 2014 — 1 Algerian (Ahmed Belbacha); May 2014 — 5 Afghans to Qatar (in a prisoner swap for US PoW Bowe Bergdahl); November 2014 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fawzi al-Odah); 3 Yemenis to Georgia, 1 Yemeni and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia, and 1 Saudi; December 2014 — 4 Syrians, 1 Palestinian and 1 Tunisian to Uruguay4 Afghans2 Tunisians and 3 Yemenis to Kazakhstan; January 2015 — 4 Yemenis to Oman, 1 Yemeni to Estonia; June 2015 — 6 Yemenis to Oman; September 2015 — 1 Moroccan and 1 Saudi; October 2015 — 1 Mauritanian and 1 British resident (Shaker Aamer); November 2015 — 5 Yemenis to the United Arab Emirates; January 2016 — 2 Yemenis to Ghana1 Kuwaiti (Fayiz al-Kandari) and 1 Saudi10 Yemenis to Oman1 Egyptian to Bosnia and 1 Yemeni to Montenegro; April 2016 — 2 Libyans to Senegal9 Yemenis to Saudi Arabia; June 2016 — 1 Yemeni to Montenegro; July 2016 — 1 Tajik and 1 Yemeni to Serbia, 1 Yemeni to Italy; August 2016 — 12 Yemenis and 3 Afghans to the United Arab Emirates (see here and here); October 2016 — 1 Mauritanian (Mohammedou Ould Slahi); December 2016 — 1 Yemeni to Cape Verde.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Great news from Guantanamo, with the release of four prisoners in Saudi Arabia, leaving 55 men still held. Two were approved for release by Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force in 2009 (one refused to leave at the last minute when he was supposed to be freed last February), and two were approved for release this year by Periodic Review Boards. 19 men approved for release are still held, and we’re told that between 13 and 15 will be freed before Obama leaves office. We must be prepared to demand that the men still held who have been approved for release are freed under Donald Trump – no excuses! – just as we must continue to demand that the prison must be closed once and for all.

  2. Anna says...

    One of those rare wonderful moments, seeing them (on AJE) reunited with family at the airport. Seems that some of the Yemenis have become the proverbial ‘Last Ones becoming First Ones’, in the sense that their fate seemed hopeless, but they ended up being released to a country where they know the language and can meet their families.
    Also recommend interview (text only) with Shaker Aamer on AJE, which highlights the continuing tragedy and indelible scars of both the former prisoners and their families. even those few lucky ones who were reunited with their loved ones. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/shaker-aamer-guantanamo-stain-obama-legacy-170107120717588.html
    PS : you’ll find some error in the reporter’s part, your recent AJE text continues to be quoted in their broadcast, and in ‘inconceivable that they would not have been trusted’, I assume that ‘not’ is a typo :-).

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Anna, and thanks for alerting me to both the Al-Jazeera footage of the Yemenis arriving in Saudi Arabia, and Shaker’s interview! Very glad to see him in the media!
    The footage of the freed Yemenis is here: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/yemeni-guantanamo-inmates-transferred-saudi-arabia-170105195938544.html

  4. Anonymous says...

    Thank God Bwazir is free and with his family!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your comment.

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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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