Guantanamo Bay waits for Donald Trump’s ‘bad dudes’
On March 14, 2008, Muhammad Rahim al-Afghani, a close aide and “procurement specialist” for Osama bin Laden, having been captured by Pakistani authorities and handed over to the CIA, was processed and imprisoned at the U.S. detainment site at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Exactly a decade later, al-Afghani remains the last inmate to enter Guantanamo despite President Trump’s vow to “load it up with bad dudes.”
The Pentagon has a haul of Islamic State fighters, but it now says it would rather hand them off to other countries.
At its height under President George W. Bush, Guantanamo held 750 suspected militants captured in the global war on terror. Today, just 41 remain.
U.S. military leaders say they have received no order to kick-start operations at Guantanamo despite Mr. Trump’s announcement in his State of the Union address this year directing Defense Secretary James Mattis to “re-examine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay” in the next 90 days.
Prison officials say they are ready to take in more detainees.
“We are prepared to receive more should they be directed to us,” Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, who oversees the military’s Southern Command that includes Guantanamo, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. “As of today, we have not been given a warning order that new detainees might be heading in our direction, but our responsibility will be to integrate them in effectively.”
The admiral has publicly estimated that the prison site could immediately take in another 24 detainees without needing additional guard or processing staff.
But with no prisoners in the pipeline, U.S. commanders say, Washington and its allies are facing a growing problem with Islamic State terrorists who have been captured.
“Currently, there are no plans to move anyone to Guantanamo,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said this month.
She said Defense Department officials were drafting options for Mr. Mattis on how to handle Islamic State terrorists captured by American and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria. One option was transferring some of them to Guantanamo.
Kathryn Wheelbarger, the principal deputy assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, told reporters last month that Syrian allies of the U.S. were capturing as many as 40 Islamic State militants a day.
Mr. Trump and the Pentagon share a concern that Islamic State and al Qaeda fighters who are not securely held in the U.S. or elsewhere could find their way back to the battlefield. Mr. Trump said that happened repeatedly under President Obama.
“These fighters that are able to depart these war zones, are able to take with them experiences and tactics that could potentially be applied in other places ... are the principal concerns,” Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Central Command chief, told the House Armed Services Committee this month.
Human rights groups long opposed to Guantanamo also have been energized by Mr. Trump’s announcement. Amnesty International in late February issued an “urgent action” alert to its chapters to launch a letter-writing campaign to Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson to encourage them not to send any more prisoners to the site.
Ms. White said the Defense Department is still staffing the effort to come up with a new detainee program, including mapping the future of Guantanamo.
Mr. Mattis raised the issue of the backlog with his NATO counterparts last month on a trip to Europe but got little public sign that key allies were ready to take back their nationals who were captured on the Middle Eastern and Afghan battlefields. Britain and France were among the countries that balked at bringing back Islamic State terrorists, saying they should be dealt with where they were detained.
“They are fighters. They are French, but they are our enemies. The conclusion is that they will be judged by those who they fought,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters last month.
“It was not resolved in a final way; it is being worked,” Mr. Mattis told reporters after the gathering of defense ministers in Rome.
The backlog shines an even harsher spotlight on the status of Guantanamo, which is operating far below capacity and hasn’t accepted a new prisoner since the last year of the Bush administration.
Ms. White declined to comment on specifics regarding the proposals being drafted for Mr. Mattis and his staff or what role Guantanamo could play in the pending strategy.
It’s unclear how Mr. Trump’s executive order countermanding an order from Mr. Obama setting a goal of eventually shuttering Guantanamo will change the debate.
“We must be clear: Terrorists are not merely criminals,” Mr. Trump said. “They are unlawful enemy combatants. And when captured overseas, they should be treated like the terrorists they are.”
That work has not focused on Washington taking the lead on the Islamic State detainee issue, but rather prodding partner nations to deal with the issue by repatriating captured foreign fighters to stand trial for their crimes.
In the end, the Pentagon, working with the Justice and State departments, is pressing for a “judicial process that holds [detainees] accountable and ultimately returns them to the countries from which they came,” not one that brings them to Guantanamo, said Gen. Votel.
A large number of the detainees in Syria are held by the Arab-Kurdish paramilitary coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The SDF, with the backing of American artillery and air power, liberated the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa last year.
Others are being held by Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iraqi security forces after the campaigns to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul last year. “The issue of foreign fighters is challenging ... but it’s not just a DOD or even just a U.S. government decision. It’s something that we have to work with the coalition, as well as with other nations, to deal with and to take responsibility for,” Ms. White told reporters last week at the Pentagon.
The last detainee
Pakistani officials captured Muhammad Rahim al-Afghani, a high-level al Qaeda member personally close to bin Laden, in 2007 and handed him over to officials from the CIA. Ten years later, the military tribunal at Guantanamo has filed no formal charges against him. However, he is one of several detainees at the facility whom Washington refuses to consider for deportation or release.
Before he was handed over to U.S. military custody, al-Afghani was one of dozens of suspected senior-level al Qaeda operatives subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” by American intelligence officials, under the agency’s “black site” detention program.
The sites, reportedly located in Poland, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and elsewhere, housed high-value detainees such as al-Afghani and accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Civil rights activists say the enhanced interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation, extreme isolation and waterboarding were tantamount to torture.
Agency officials have shuttered the sites in recent years, but defense attorneys for detainees at Guantanamo Bay have argued that information gleaned from their clients via torture is unreliable and calls into question the entire basis of the U.S. government’s case against them.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last month on behalf of an American citizen being detained in Iraq under suspicion of fighting for the Islamic State in Syria.
The individual, known only as “John Doe,” contacted the ACLU after months of detention by security forces in Iraq, The Guardian reported in early January. The individual was reportedly captured by Syrian Democratic Forces and handed over to coalition forces in Baghdad.
“The Trump administration illegally denied an American his rights to access a lawyer and a court for nearly four months, but those efforts have finally failed,” ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz said in a statement last month.
“We are still working with our colleagues at the Justice Department. This individual has had access to an attorney ... and we’re working with Justice to resolve it,” Ms. White said last week, declining to provide further detail as to when the individual may face terrorism charges in a U.S. court.
Despite Mr. Trump’s call to revive Guantanamo as a terrorist detainee site, the Pentagon plans to raze Camp X-Ray, the area of open-air chain-link fence “cells” where the first captives dressed in orange jumpsuits were held.