Ahmed Al-Darbi, Admitted Terrorist at Guantánamo, Receives 13-Year Sentence Following 2014 Plea Deal


Guantanamo prisoner Ahmed al-Darbi, with a photo of his children, in a photo taken several years ago by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


Last Friday, the US authorities secured a rare success at Guantánamo, when a panel of US military officers gave a 13-year sentence to Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi prisoner, for what the New York Times described as “his admitted role in a 2002 attack by Al Qaeda on a French oil tanker off the Yemeni coast.”

Al-Darbi had pleaded guilty in his military commission trial in February 2014, but his sentencing had not taken place until now because it was dependent upon him providing testimony for the trials of other prisoners, testimony that he undertook this summer, providing videotaped testimony against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is on trial for his alleged involvement in the bombing off the USS Cole in 2000, and a deposition in the case of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, another prisoner facing a trial by military commission.

Under the terms of the plea deal, as Charlie Savage described it in the New York Times, “the commission could have imposed a sentence of 13 to 15 years.” However, the prosecutors joined with al-Darbi’s defense team to ask for “the minimum available term in light of his extensive assistance to the government.” As Savage put it, al-Darbi “has renounced Islamist ideology and lived apart from the general detainee population for years.”

His attorney, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University New York (CUNY), told the jury that his client “was a changed man from the time of his capture,” as Carol Rosenberg described it in the Miami Herald, who has kept himself apart from detainees who “espouse extremist or violent ideology, and he has counseled other detainees to abstain from useless, disruptive behavior.” According to “a document Kassem read into the record that was signed by a prosecutor,” he also “had ‘respectful and professional relationships’ with war court prosecutors and law enforcement agents.”

Charlie Savage noted that al-Darbi “received no credit for the nearly 12 years he was in custody before his guilty plea, so he would complete his sentence in February 2027.” However, he added that “the Pentagon official who oversees the commission system may waive the remainder of his sentence after February 2023.” Carol Rosenberg added that, under the plea agreement, and unknown to the jury, al-Darbi’s sentence began after his plea deal was first agreed in February 2014. She also noted that the military jury “did not know that the deal has him returning to his native Saudi Arabia in February to finish the sentence.”

Before the sentence was announced, al-Darbi, who was “wearing a dark suit and glasses, stood at a lectern and said he took full responsibility for his actions, for which he apologized.”

He also “thanked Guantánamo staff members and guards who he said had been kind to him, forgave those he said had ‘treated me harshly’ and expressed remorse about the hardship and shame he said his actions brought his wife and children.”

As he put it, “I wish that I could talk now to myself years ago, or to any young man considering the same path, and tell them: ‘Don’t lose your life and future for something that is not real.’”

Carol Rosenberg reported that he said, “The time I have spent at Guantánamo has taught me to see clearly who I was, where I was going and what I was doing. It gave me time to think and to see that the violence is wrong and does not stand on any solid foundation. I am thankful for these lessons.”

Rosenberg also noted that, “In his last court appearance, at the prodding of a prosecutor, he described how a US Army interrogator abused him in Bagram,” which including an incident when “the soldier pulled out his penis and stuck it in [his] face.” Nevertheless, at his sentencing, al-Darbi said he forgave those who mistreated him and declared himself “grateful to each person who has dealt with me since my capture, even those who treated me harshly, because I have learned something from each one. The guards who showed me kindness even though they believed I was their enemy, they are a lasting legacy to me. I leave this place a better man thanks to them.”

According to al-Darbi’s plea deal, as Charlie Savage proceeded to explain, “he admitted that from 2000 until 2002, he helped plan and arrange for a Qaeda operation to sink at least one civilian oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz, resulting in the attack on the French ship, the Limburg. Yemeni suicide bombers rammed an explosives-laden boat into the ship in October 2002, killing a Bulgarian crew member and wounding 12 other sailors.”

By that time, al-Darbi was already in US custody. Seized in Azerbaijan four months earlier, he was one of those unfortunate enough to be subjected to particular abuse in Bagram, and continuing at Guantánamo, as he explained in a statement in 2009 that I made available here.

Charlie Savage also explained that al-Darbi’s attorney, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University New York, “told the commission on Friday that as early as August 2002, his client had provided detailed information about the members and last known locations of the Qaeda cell plotting to attack ships,” which, frankly, renders inexplicable the abuse he subsequently suffered at Bagram and Guantánamo, as described in his 2009 declaration.

The question now, of course, is whether Donald Trump will honor al-Darbi’s plea deal, but I suspect that he will — not through his own irredeemably broken attempts to understand the situation, but because his advisors will point out that it would be absolutely unacceptable to mess around with the terms of a plea deal — not only on its own terms, but also because it would so thoroughly undermine any future efforts to secure cooperation from prisoners with information that might help in military commission cases.

As Charlie Savage put it, the question for the Trump administration is “whether it will live up to the Obama-era deal and transfer him to Saudi Arabia by February to serve the remainder of his sentence.” He noted that al-Darbi “struck the deal with the Pentagon official who oversees the commission system, who agreed to recommend a transfer,” but who also “lacks the authority to order the government to carry it out.”

For his part, Ramzi Kassem said after the sentencing that, as Savage put it, “it was in the United States government’s interest to live up to the deal.”

Kassem said, “Honoring the agreement with my client and Saudi Arabia would serve the Trump administration’s interests. It would encourage other witnesses to testify for the government in the military commissions and federal court. And it would avoid alienating an important ally.”

As Charlie Savage added, he also noted that “if the United States did repatriate Mr. Darbi, he would not be released, but would instead serve the remainder of his sentence in a custodial rehabilitation program for low-level Islamist extremists.”

While al-Darbi’s sentencing proceeded smoothly, elsewhere the troubled military commissions suffered another severe blow to their generally tattered credibility. Charlie Savage explained how Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri’s entire civilian defense team — Richard Kammen, a death penalty specialist, and two other civilian lawyers — “quit for ethical reasons related to a dispute over the confidentiality of their communications with their client,” as Kammen said in a statement; in other words, they quit because the government had been spying on them.

Savage added that the details of the dispute “are murky because filings related to the matter are classified,” but Kammen’s resignation, reported by the Miami Herald, “means pretrial hearings probably cannot proceed until Mr. Nashiri gains representation by a new death penalty expert.” and Brig. Gen. John Baker, the chief defense lawyer in the military commissions, “said in an email that he was looking for one but did not know how long it would take to find one.”

With the government’s track record off his it has been dealing with the defense team, I have to say that it could take some time — but for Ahmed al-Darbi, at least, some sort of justice does seem to have finally been delivered.

However, as I pointed out in an article in summer, The Absurdity of Guantánamo: As US Prepares to Release Ahmed Al-Darbi in Plea Deal, Less Significant Prisoners Remain Trapped Forever, al-Darbi’s sentencing only highlights the fact that less significant men than him are still held at Guantánamo without charge or trial, and if Donald Trump gets his way, will still be there when al-Darbi returns home, and when he competes his sentence — men like Khalid Qassim and Ahmed Rabbani, held without charge or trial, whose despair at ever receiving justice led them to embark on hunger strikes many years ago, and who now, instead of being force-fed, as has been the policy for 11 years, are being subjected to a new policy of being allowed to starve themselves until they suffer serious internal damage, at which point the authorities are threatening to intervene to force-feed them again to stop them from dying.

While men like Khalid Qassim and Ahmed Rabbani go through these agonies, the repatriation of Ahmed al-Darbi cannot be allowed to happen without concerted efforts to show how unfair that is for the majority of the men still held, and I urge everyone who wants to see Guantánamo closed to think about how we might mobilize, at the time of his transfer back to Saudi Arabia, to expose how unjust that is for the majority of the 40 other men at the prison, only nine of whom are facing, or have faced trials.

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 music is available 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, an analysis of last week’s sentencing at Guantanamo of Ahmed al-Darbi, who admitted to terrorism offences in a plea deal in his military commission trial in 2014, and has received a 13-year sentence, most of which is to be served in Saudi Arabia, where he is scheduled to be returned next February. The question now is whether Donald Trump will honor the deal (I think he will be told to), but another question of huge relevance is: how, after al-Darbi’s transfer, can the US justify continuing to hold less significant prisoners forever – men like Khalid Qassim and Ahmed Rabbani, driven to hunger strikes in despair at ever receiving justice, and now being left to die by Trump’s administration?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    As I note, the planned repatriation of Ahmed al-Darbi next February makes it even more intolerable that Donald Trump plans to keep less significant prisoners than him held at Guantanamo FOREVER – men like Khalid Qassim and Ahmed Rabbani, who are in such despair that they’re on long-term hunger strikes, and are now being told that Trump doesn’t care if they die. More on that here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2017/10/17/when-will-my-organs-fail-when-will-my-heart-stop-guantanamo-hunger-striker-khalid-qassim-fears-death-under-trumps-new-policy/

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    In the meantime, the hunger strikers continue to be deliberately neglected by the authorities, with their lives at risk as a result. if you haven’t already done so, please do sign Reprieve’s petition to Donald Trump calling for them to be allowed visits by independent medical experts, and calling for Guantanamo to be closed. It currently has nearly 21,000 signatures: https://act.reprieve.org.uk/page/s/close-guantanamo

  4. Miguel Sanchez says...

    Trump and Mattis refused to honor the deal. Darbi’s still at Guantanamo and probably won’t be transferred any time soon. He’s extremely pissed at Saudi Arabia for abandoning him.


    At least his sentence ends in 2027, long after Trump leaves office. I’m sure his successor wouldn’t oppose Darbi’s transfer by then.

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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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