Rare Words From Guantánamo, From “Forever Prisoner” Ghassan Al-Sharbi


The perimeter fence at Guantánamo, photographed on March 6, 2013 (Photo: Bob Strong/Reuters).

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When the prison at Guantánamo Bay was set up by the Bush administration, over 17 long years ago, the intention was to hide the men held from any kind of outside scrutiny, an intention reflected within the prison, where the prisoners were dehumanized, identified not by name but by what were known as Internment Serial Numbers (ISNs). The ISN system persists to this day, with the 40 men still held after first George W. Bush, and then Barack Obama, shrank the prison’s population to just 5% of the total number of men held since it first opened.

In addition, the effort to hold the men in a permanent state of dehumanization — to prevent any serious form of outside scrutiny — also persists. It is only because the Supreme Court granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights in 2004 that the men were finally allowed to have lawyers visit them, breaking through the shroud of total secrecy that had previously enveloped the prison, and that had allowed horrendous torture and abuse to take place in its first few years of operations.

Of the 40 men still held, most are unknown to the general public. The most prominent are the seven men facing seemingly interminable pre-trial hearings in the broken military commission system, but few people know who most of the others are — five men approved for release under Barack Obama, but still held, and 26 others, accurately described as “forever prisoners” by the mainstream media, whose ongoing imprisonment was recommended by Obama administration officials who reviewed all the prisoners’ cases after Obama took office, and decided that they were too dangerous to release, while conceding that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

Some of these men — allegedly — were involved with al-Qaeda, but others are not alleged to have been anything more than foot soldiers in Afghanistan when the 9/11 attacks took place, and only continue to be held as a seemingly perpetual threat because they are judged to have a bad attitude; something that is surely understandable when you have been held for up to 17 years in the uniquely lawless confines of Guantánamo.

Recently, lawyers for one of the “forever prisoners” — a Saudi named Ghassan al-Sharbi — reached out to The Intercept, bringing into focus an individual who is generally known only to those who have studied Guantánamo closely.

Way back in the mists of time (on March 28, 2002), al-Sharbi was seized in house raids in Faisalabad that led to the capture of a Saudi-born Palestinian, Abu Zubaydah, for whom the Bush administration’s torture program was developed, on the mistaken basis that he was a senior figure in al-Qaeda (it was later demonstrated that, in fact, he was no such thing, and was, instead, the mentally troubled gatekeeper of an independent training camp that had resisted efforts by Osama bin Laden to take it over).

Al-Sharbi, it transpired, had graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering from a US college in Arizona, and was fluent in English, an ability that immediately led to him being flagged by the US authorities as a particular threat (as were all English speakers who had ever visited the US). 

Charged in the military commissions set up by George W. Bush, he declared that he had fought against the US at a hearing on April 27, 2006, and that he was proud of the fact. When the Supreme Court ruled the military commissions illegal two months later, Congress ill-advisedly revived them, and al-Sharbi was charged for a second time on May 29, 2008, although the charges against him — and four other prisoners — were dropped just five months later, on October 21, 2008, by the commissions’ convening authority, Susan Crawford.

One reason for this may have been the men’s connection to Abu Zubaydah, and the unreliability of any of his statements, derived, as they were, though the use of torture. The primary reason, however, seems to have been the defection of Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a prosecutor in the military commissions, who had turned on the system — and resigned — when he discovered that potentially exculpatory evidence was not being provided to the defense teams. Vandeveld’s case involved Mohamed Jawed, an Afghan child prisoner, but it was considered, at the time, that the authorities were fearful of further interventions by Vandeveld, whose resignation was a powerful blow to the legitimacy of the commissions. 

Al-Sharbi was also one of the most prominent prisoners within the prison, as became apparent in the summer of 2005, when, in response to a prison-wide hunger strike, the authorities briefly allowed a Prisoners’ Council to be convened, which, of course, demanded better treatment for the prisoners. Tim Golden of the New York Times wrote about this period in the prison’s history in “The Battle for Guantánamo,” published in the Times’ magazine in 2006. 

The council involved six men: the charismatic British resident Shaker Aamer (eventually released in 2015), Ghassan al-Sharbi, Abdul Salam Zaeef, described by Golden as “a former Taliban cabinet minister and ambassador to Pakistan who was the pre-eminent leader of Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo before his release in the late summer of 2005,” Saber Lahmar, an Algerian-born Islamic scholar kidnapped in Bosnia in connection with a non-existent conspiracy to bomb the US Embassy in Sarajevo, who was released in France in December 2009, and two Egyptians, Ala Muhammad Salim, described by Golden as an influential religious leader, and Adel Fattoh Algazzar, described as “a former Egyptian Army officer with a master’s degree in economics.” Both men were also subsequently released (Salim to Albania in November 2006, and Algazzar to Slovakia in January 2010, subsequently returning to Egypt in 2011, where he was imprisoned for another six months), leaving only al-Sharbi still held. 

In the summer of 2005, after the authorities shut down the council, Col. Mike Bumgarner, the warden of the prison, who had played a major role in setting it up, turned on Shaker Aamer, moving him to total isolation in Camp Echo, but “developed a rapport” with al-Sharbi, as Golden described it, adding that al-Sharbi “was described by people who know him as an intelligent, almost ethereal man from a wealthy Saudi family.” Bumgarner told Golden that “he found al-Sharbi a useful interlocutor and met with him repeatedly,” whereas, after August 2005, “he never spoke with Aamer again.”

Since this time, however, al-Sharbi has largely disappeared from sight. In Obama’s last three years in office, he was one of 64 men subjected to Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process in which prisoners were able to present reasons why they wished to be released to a panel of military officers, although he refused to engage with the military officials assigned to represent him, or with a lawyer, and this lack of cooperation essentially ensured that his ongoing imprisonment would be upheld, as indeed it was.

However, al-Sharbi did take part in the interview by video link with US officials on the mainland as part of his PRB, making a shadowy allegation about Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks that was later picked up on by the Associated Press — and the Daily Mail, which noted “that he heard a religious figure in Saudi Arabia used the term ‘your highness’ during a telephone conversation,” and that the religious figure “then urged al-Sharbi to return to the US and take part in a plot against the country that would involve learning to fly a plane.”

Nearly three years later, the state of Saudi politics has prompted al-Sharbi to speak out again, this time via a letter to his lawyers, at the Immigrant and Non-Citizen Rights Clinic at the City University of New York School of Law, in which he has praised Congress, Lindsay Graham, Thomas Friedman and parts of the US media “because of their courageous stand against the Saudi royals.”

In a telling passage, al-Sharbi explains how he feels that, over the years, he has been used — first by clerics in his homeland, and then by US attorneys. “I was used by Saudi clerics first and that stuck with me. It caused me a complex,” he wrote, adding, “And then came the American liberal attorneys who wanted to use me for their own causes. I didn’t want to be used ever again.”

Most of all, though, al-Sharbi is disillusioned with the Saudi royals, complaining that the royal family “overtly fights terrorism to please the West, while covertly supporting it to please the clerics and others,” and adding that they “also do this so that they are always desperately needed by the United States and the West.” As Murtaza Hussain, the author of The Intercept’s article, noted, his “decision to speak out is itself a product of growing turbulence in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia in recent years. The killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led war in Yemen have fed a growing public backlash toward the Saudi royal family,” and al-Sharbi “took notice of the changes.”

Below I’m cross-posting The Intercept’s article, in the hope of reaching new readers who may not have come across the original post. I hope you find it interesting, and will also take note of al-Sharbi urging Donald Trump to end conflict between the US and the Muslim world by stopping “supporting dictatorships in Muslim countries,” as well as his closing words, expressing his fear that, following the publication of this article, he may end up being transferred to Saudi Arabia against his will, and then being “disappeared” even more effectively than the Americans have done with him at  Guantánamo.

Guantánamo Bay “Forever” Prisoner Speaks Out — To Praise Congress, Lindsey Graham, and Thomas Friedman
By Murtaza Hussain, The Intercept, March 17, 2019

For the past 17 years of his imprisonment at Guantánamo Bay, Ghassan al-Sharbi was a mystery to the American public. A prisoner at the notorious prison since his capture in 2002, al-Sharbi has never sought to speak publicly, unlike many other detainees held at the prison. He even refused legal counsel. But now, the Saudi national, known as one of the most defiant prisoners held at Guantánamo, has been moved to speak out for the first time — in order to praise the U.S. Congress, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and even New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

“My faith in many US politicians and media outlets has recently risen dramatically, because of their courageous stand against the Saudi royals,” al-Sharbi conveyed in letters and communications submitted through normal processes at the prison, and provided exclusively to The Intercept. “The Saudi royal family overtly fights terrorism to please the West, while covertly supporting it to please the clerics and others. They also do this so that they are always desperately needed by the United States and the West.”

Communicating with detainees at the facility is notoriously complex. Al-Sharbi’s words were conveyed through his attorneys at the Immigrant and Non-Citizen Rights Clinic at the City University of New York School of Law. They were also passed through a team of U.S. government censors.

Al-Sharbi’s decision to speak out is itself a product of growing turbulence in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia in recent years. The killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led war in Yemen have fed a growing public backlash toward the Saudi royal family. Al-Sharbi, held in an isolated U.S. prison in the Caribbean, took notice of the changes.

Graham and Friedman were among the public figures who have previously backed Saudi Arabia but have since changed their tune — particularly with regard to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “I’m not blindly optimistic that the change of position by the likes of Senator Lindsay Graham and Thomas Friedman regarding the Saudi royals is not merely pragmatic flip-flopping. I hope that it is a truly ethical correction on their parts,” al-Sharbi stated.

Al-Sharbi said his outlook began to evolve during the public debates in the United States over the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Known as JASTA, the law was passed in 2016 and opened the Saudi government up to facing charges of supporting terrorism. Al-Sharbi said, “The change began for me during the congressional debates around JASTA and its subsequent approval.” Congress overrode a presidential veto to put the law on the books.

Now age 44, al-Sharbi was captured in a 2002 raid by Pakistani forces. In June of that year, he was transferred to Guantánamo Bay, where he has remained ever since. Al-Sharbi’s statements speak less to his own case than to the broader geopolitical changes that have occurred since his detention, particularly the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

As for remaining silent for years until now, al-Sharbi described his decision as an effort to take control of his own fate. “I was used by Saudi clerics first and that stuck with me. It caused me a complex. And then came the American liberal attorneys who wanted to use me for their own causes,” he said. “I didn’t want to be used ever again.”

While many Guantánamo detainees protested their innocence over the years, al-Sharbi is known as one of the most defiant prisoners held at the facility. A fluent English speaker who attended college in Arizona, he denounced the legitimacy of the process during a 2006 military commission hearing, referring to it as “the same circus, different clown.” Accused by the U.S. government of providing English-language translation at a militant camp and training on the use of explosives, al-Sharbi bluntly admitted that the allegations against him were true.

“I’m going to make it short and easy for you guys: I’m proud of what I did and there isn’t any reason of hiding. I fought against the United States. I took up arms,” he said at the hearing, speaking in plain English. “I came here to tell you that I did what I did and I’m willing to pay the price, no matter how many years you sentence me. Even if I spend hundreds of years in jail, that would be a matter of honor for me.”

Due to the notoriously flawed nature of the legal process at Guantánamo, where, among other things, evidence has been frequently tainted by the use of torture, the U.S. government has never been able to convict al-Sharbi of a crime. Today, he is one of the many detainees who the government is unable to convict, but also unwilling to release.

A 2016 decision by the prison’s Periodic Review Board determined that al-Sharbi remained a security threat and could not be let go. The review noted his continued hostility in detention and refusal to discuss future plans were he to be released. “The Board appreciates the detainee’s candor at the hearing,” the review concluded.

In past hearings at the Guantánamo prison, al-Sharbi suggested that he was encouraged to become a militant by individuals associated with the Saudi royal family. He repeated these claims in his recent statements, stating among other things that he had communicated online with bin Salman — who was then a teenager — during the time that the prince’s father had been the governor of Riyadh. (The Intercept was unable to independently verify the decades-old communications, and the Saudi Embassy did not return a request for comment.)

A declassified document from the 9/11 Commission report — which was first flagged in 2016 by the 9/11 disclosure advocacy website 28pages.org — alleged a possible link between al-Sharbi and the Saudi government. According to the document, at the time of al-Sharbi’s detention in Pakistan, a cache of papers was located nearby that included his U.S. flight certificate. The document, investigators said, was found inside an envelope marked with the logo of the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C.

The 9/11 Commission found no evidence of official Saudi support for the September 11 attacks, though it did reveal circumstantial links between the hijackers and Saudi government employees.

Saudi Arabia has nonetheless been accused of playing both arsonist and firefighter when it comes to the issue of extremist violence.

In his recent remarks, al-Sharbi cited the alleged inconsistency in both the Saudi and U.S. position in dealing with militant groups.

He said, “The flip-flopping, the constant branding, marketing, and re-branding of ‘freedom fighters,’ ‘extremists,’ or ‘terrorists’ at certain times, certain locations, and against certain enemies, as it suits political needs is confusing.”

Growing unease in the United States over its support for the Saudi war in Yemen was punctuated last October by the brazen murder of Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. His killing is widely believed to have been ordered by bin Salman himself. The historic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia have come under unprecedented scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers, the press, and an increasingly vocal American public.

Amid this rising tide of discontent, one of the most notable holdouts has been President Donald Trump himself. In addition to close relationships between the Trump family and Saudi royals, Trump justified continued U.S. support for the Saudi government on economic terms.

On this subject, al-Sharbi took it upon himself to offer some advice for the U.S. president.

“The current president of the United States faces fierce opposition at home and abroad. He relies on his base and believes that creating jobs for them would make him stronger overall. He thinks that Saudi arms deals are essential to achieve that goal of political survival,” al-Sharbi said. “But, I think that his base would admire him more if he walked away from those arms deals and told his base that he was doing it on principle, so that American homes are not built on the ruins of Saudi ones.”

Nearly two decades after 9/11, the metastasizing global war against extremist groups shows little sign of abating. After more than a decade and a half spent in prison, al-Sharbi’s fate remains unclear. His decision to speak out after so many years of silence was not taken lightly, given the potential consequences, he said.

While acknowledging the hesitance of the U.S. public to hear the words of a man once described by the former Guantánamo commander, Maj. General Jay Hood, as “one of the most dangerous men” held at the prison, al-Sharbi nonetheless offered a unique perspective on how the United States may dissuade future generations from joining the ranks of anti-American militant groups.

“Conflict between the United States and the Muslim world can be resolved or eliminated quite simply: If the United States stops supporting dictatorships in Muslim countries. I hope that what I have to share will benefit both Americans, as well as my own people,” al-Sharbi said. “After this story is released, if I am transferred to Saudi Arabia against my will and I meet my fate there, I hope this won’t prevent the media from continuing the true effort of making America great again.”

* * * * *

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 see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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, The Complete Guantánamo Files, 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.

One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a cross-post, with my own detailed introduction, of an article in The Intercept drawing on letters sent by Ghassan al-Sharbi, a Saudi prisoner in Guantanamo, to his lawyers. Al-Sharbi, one of 40 men still held at the prison, is critical of the Saudi royal family, and has broken a long silence to support criticism of the royals from US politicians and parts of the US media.

    In my introduction, I recall how he was a respected spokesperson amongst his fellow prisoners during prison-wide hunger strikes in 2005, how he was charged in the military commissions under George W. Bush, but how the charges were later dropped, and how his ongoing imprisonment, as one of 26 “forever prisoners” still held at Guantanamo, was approved by a Periodic Review Board under Barack Obama.

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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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