Libyan “Forever Prisoner” Ismael Ali Bakush Approved for Release from Guantánamo, Joining 21 Others Out Of the Remaining 36 Prisoners


Guantánamo prisoner Ismael Ali Bakush, in a photo included in his classified military file, released by Wikileaks in 2011.

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On September 23, a Periodic Review Board at Guantánamo — a parole-type process introduced under President Obama — approved the release of Ismael Ali Bakush, a 54-year old Libyan who has been held at the prison without charge or trial since August 2002.

Bakush was one of 22 ”forever prisoners” that President Biden inherited from Donald Trump — men held indefinitely without charge or trial because Obama’s first review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, had concluded after reviewing their cases in 2009 that they either still constituted a threat to the US, whilst also conceding that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial (as was the case with Bakush), or, in other cases, because they had been recommended for prosecution by the task force, but that option had been dropped when the viability of Guantánamo’s unique trial system — the military commissions — had been rocked by a number of successful appeals.

64 men were initially put forward for the PRBs, when the process was established in 2013, and, between 2014 and 2016, 38 of them had their release recommended (and all but two were freed before Obama left office), but Bakush, whose first review took place in July 2016, was one of the 26 others who had failed to persuade the board members that it was safe to recommend him for release, even though the only alleged evidence that connected him with Al-Qaeda was his membership of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an organization of Libyan exiles committed, primarily, to the overthrow of the Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, but which, the US authorities claimed, “had merged with al-Qaida.”

Bakush’s story

A more mundane explanation of Bakush’s activities was provided in his Detainee Assessment Brief, released by WikiLeaks in 2011. That assessment indicated that, as a young man, he had traveled to Afghanistan, where, in 1991, he had trained for two months in a camp run by Abd al-Rasul Sayyaf, described as the “second in command to Ahmad Shah Masoud,” who later led the opposition to the Taliban via the Northern Alliance, and was assassinated just two days before the 9/11 attacks. Astonishingly, a footnote in Bakush’s file claimed that Sayyaf “was a mentor for Khalid Shaykh Muhammad” and other alleged Al-Qaeda terrorists, even though this made no sense whatsoever. Sayyaf was implacably opposed to the Taliban, and, by extension, Al-Qaeda. A member of the Afghan Parliament from 2005 onwards, he fled to India when the Taliban re-established control of Afghanistan in August 2021.

After his training, Bakush became involved in the civil war that followed the Russian departure from Afghanistan, fighting against “the communist-supported Najibullah government,” and then spent two years living in Torkham, on the border with Pakistan. From 1994, he apparently “worked in Sudan for approximately two years selling perfume imported from Pakistan,” where he allegedly became involved with the LIFG. In 1997, after being ”apprehended by the Sudanese government and ordered to leave the country,” he apparently flew to Damascus, in Syria, where “he claimed he was arrested and tortured for three months on suspicion of being an Israeli spy,” and, on his release, traveled to al-Zarqa, in Jordan, “where he was supported by the LIFG for three to four months,” until “security concerns” prompted him to return to Afghanistan, where he allegedly “stayed in an LIFG-operated safe house” in Jalalabad until 1999, with other exiles, “awaiting orders to return to Libya which never came.”

After moving with his companions to “the predominantly Arab Wazir Akbar Khan District of Kabul,” the LIFG apparently undertook negotiations with the Taliban “about providing assistance in the struggle against the Northern Alliance,” and “decided to ally with the Taliban.” Bakush then “fought with the Taliban on the front lines,” and, after 9/11, “fought against the Northern Alliance in and around Kabul” until the capital fell. Crucially, he “said he never conducted attacks against US and Coalition forces, and denied prior knowledge of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks,” and there seems little reason to doubt him.

After the fall of Kabul, he made his way to Pakistan, where he ended up in a safe house, and was seized in April 2002 with three other men who also ended up at Guantánamo, but were released many years ago.

Prior to his PRB, Bakush’s only publicly reported appearance was in 2004, when he told his Combatant Status Review Tribunal (the process set up by George W. Bush to rubber-stamp the prisoners’ designation, on capture, as “enemy combatants” who could be held indefinitely without any rights) that his “main concern” was “Libya and the overthrow of [Colonel] Gaddafi,” reiterated that that he “had never met bin Laden,” and that “at no time did he conduct any operations against the American Forces,” and also explained that “the reason he decided to help fight with the Taliban was because he lived in Afghanistan both prior to Taliban control and after Taliban control. Prior to Taliban control there were robberies, thefts, and fights between groups. After the Taliban took over the area became safe.”

After his CSRT, Bakush disappeared from view. When the prisoners secured habeas corpus rights, he was represented by a succession of attorneys, but, by 2013, the last of these representatives, Matthew Melewski, told The Talking Dog blog that Bakush had become “hopeless,” and had asked him to drop his pending habeas petition, which he did, stating that he “voluntarily dismissed” his case before the courts, “citing futility.” As he also explained, “Like most of the detainees, he understands the reality of the situation far better than most Americans. He realized long ago that if he ever got out of GTMO alive, it would be the result of some political calculation, not a legal determination. And certainly not the consequence of any sense of fairness or justice.” Asked when he had last seen al-Bakush, Melewski explained, “I haven’t seen Ismael in over a year. And he won’t return my letters any more. He has given up.”

Bakush’s 2016 and 2020 reviews

When Bakush’s first PRB rolled around, his Personal Representative (a military official assigned to represent the prisoners in their PRBs) told the board members that he was ”eager and excited to begin a new chapter in his life,” and “wishes only to move forward and to put the past behind him,” and also expressed confidence that his “desire to pursue a peaceful and productive life is sincere.” Bakush’s exchange with the board members was not made public, but it was clear that they had fixated on claims, in the summary of allegations against him, that he was an LIFG “explosives expert who trained al-Qa’ida members and probably associated with and provided operational support to key al-Qa’ida figures,” and that, after fleeing to Pakistan in 2002, “he probably helped al-Qa’ida and LIFG members plan external operations and communicated regularly with prominent al-Qa’ida figures, including possibly Abu Zubaydah (GZ-10016) and probably senior al-Qa’ida leader Abu Faraj al-Libi (LY-10017).”

Not only are those descriptions of Abu Zubaydah and Abu Faraj al-Libi disputed; it’s also important to note the many uses of the words ”probably” and “possibly” in the above, to get some idea of how shaky this supposed evidence was, especially as it was also noted that Bakush himself “has consistently denied his close association with al-Qa’ida and expertise with explosives, and he has presented himself to US interrogators as a low-level fighter.”

Nevertheless, the board members upheld Bakush’s ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial in August 2016, endorsing all the government’s claimed Al-Qaeda links, and also criticizing him for what they perceived to be his “lack of candor and evasive, implausible, and frequently absurd responses to questions regarding his past, activities, and beliefs,” as well as his “lack of effort to prepare for life after detention while at Guantánamo, and [his] failure to present a plan for life after transfer,” even though the latter was particularly difficult for Bakush, who, having cut off all communication with his attorneys, did not even appear to be in contact with his family.

It took until October 2020 for Bakush to be given another opportunity to address the board, but by this point almost all the prisoners eligible for PRBs had concluded that they had become a sham under Donald Trump, and boycotted them, as was the case with Bakush. Predictably, his ongoing imprisonment was again upheld, with the board members reiterating their concerns about his alleged “long history of working with the LIFG and al-Qaeda and the fact that he played a significant role in al-Qaeda operations including his role as an explosives expert and trainer,” and also complaining about their “inability to assess [his] current mindset and level of threat due to his refusal to meet with his personal representative, the lack of submission of any new materials, and his decision not to attend the hearing.”

Bakush’s latest review

As a result of all the above, I don’t imagine that anyone paying attention to the PRBs would have thought that his third review, which took place on March 22 this year, would deliver a different result, although it was clearly helpful that this time he had turned up for the hearing, and, although we don’t know what he said to the board members, we do know that his Personal Representative delivered a powerful statement in support of his release, stating that, “Although introverted by nature, Ismael attends every meeting I request with him and is open with me in discussing his past and future plans. If cleared for transfer, Ismael dreams of a simple life with modest goals. He wants to be resettled in an Arabic speaking country where he will be able to assimilate easily. Ismael is open to attending a rehabilitation program. He wants to work in a small shop or store and hopes one day to have his own shop to run. He dreams of finding a wife and having children one day. I believe that Ismael has the capacity to achieve all these goals, if released from Guantánamo.”

The Personal Representative added, “I want to share a brief anecdote about Ismael that demonstrates his maturity, resilience and ability to cope with setbacks — all skills I believe will be incredibly valuable in reintegrating into society. I had only been meeting with Ismael for a short time when I was asked to give him some news that I knew would be upsetting and could make anyone in his situation feel angry, powerless or hopeless. I prepared myself for the variety of negative reactions I thought the news would elecit and worried that he would shut down and refuse to meet with me and participate in the PRS [PRB] process. Instead, Ismael accepted the news with a quiet disappointment. He asked insightful questions to try to understand the situation and if there was anything that could be done about it. He never lashed out in anger or frustration either with me or with the JTF guards or other detainees. His response demonstrated a level of emotional maturity and resilience that I believe will allow him to flourish wherever he is sent.”

It took six months for the board members to reach a decision in Bakush’s case, suggesting that some of those involved still had concerns about whether or not to approve him for release, but eventually a consensus was reached, and, after over 20 years in Guantánamo, he was finally told that the board members had “determined that continued law of war detention” is “no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the national security of the United States.” As a result of this decision, just three “forever prisoners” remain who have not been approved for release — Abu Zubaydah, Abu Faraj al-Libi and Muhammed Rahim.

In their Final Determination, the board members continued to maintain that Bakush “represents some level of threat given his history,” but found that “that threat can be adequately mitigated” through “[r]esettlement to a third country with strong rehabilitation capabilities and reintegration support and implementation of comprehensive set of security assurances including monitoring and travel restrictions.”

They also made a point of stating their consideration of what was finally described as his “low-level role in LIFG and lack of leadership in the Taliban or Al Qaeda,” and also took on board ”the lack of information indicating that [he] harbors extremist plans or anti-American sentiments.”

Nothing the US does can give back to Ismael Ali Bakush the 20 years they stole from him because, as with so many other prisoners, the authorities irresponsibly ramped up allegations against him to foster the illusion that low-level foot soldiers from across the Muslim world had any meaningful involvement with Al-Qaeda. However, it is to be hoped that the recent appointment of a “special representative” in the State Department, tasked with dealing with prisoner transfers and resettlements, will lead his swift release, along with the other 20 men approved for release by high-level government review processes, as well as the resettlement of Majid Khan, the Al-Qaeda courier who became a cooperating witness, and whose sentence ended on March 1 this year.

At this point in Guantánamo’s long and sordid history, the only valid measure of recognition of the scale of the prison’s enduring lawlessness is for the Biden administration to free all of these men as swiftly as possible, and to allow them to try to move on with their lives.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), 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 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 you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the 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 struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

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6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, about Ismael Ali Bakush, a Libyan prisoner at Guantanamo who has finally been approved for release, over 20 years since he arrived at the prison, by a Periodic Review Board, the parole-type system established by President Obama.

    When President Biden took office, there were 22 “forever prisoners” in Guantanamo, men held indefinitely without charge or trial because they were regarded as “too dangerous to release,” even though the authorities conceded that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

    Now, with Bakush’s approval for release, there are just three “forever prisoners” left who have not been approved for release. That’s the good news; the bad news is that almost all of the “forever prisoners” who have been approved for release are still held, and the Biden administration needs to arrange for them to be freed as swiftly as possible.

  2. Ethan Winters says...

    Thanks for the article, Mr. Worthington. I was hopeful, but not certain, that Bakush would be approved for transfer because the PRB had approved all of the other low value detainees for transfer. I hope more transfers happen soon.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Ethan. Now that so many of the remaining prisoners have been approved for release, it’s hugely important that further releases are forthcoming soon; otherwise, it discredits the entire notion of approving prisoners for release in the first place, reinforcing the sense of lawlessness that has plagued Guantanamo and its operations throughout its long and unfortunate history.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Roseanne Bellotti wrote:

    Hoping beyond hope that Biden will act and act as soon as possible.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, very much hoping so, Roseanne. Good to hear from you.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish translation, on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘El “prisionero para siempre” libio Ismael Ali Bakush fue aprobado para ser liberado de Guantánamo, uniéndose a los otros 21 de los 36 prisioneros que siguen ahí’:

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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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