The Defense Department has announced the transfer of two Guantanamo detainees to the West African nation of Ghana. The now former detainees, Mahmud Umar Muhammad Bin Atef and Khalid Muhammad Salih Al Dhuby, are citizens of Yemen.
The government of Ghana said in a statement that it was providing “humanitarian assistance” by taking in the pair, as well as refugees from Rwanda and Syria.
“At the request of the US Government, we have also agreed to accept two detainees of Yemeni origin who were detained in Guantanamo but have been cleared of any involvement in terrorist activities, and are being released,” Ghana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Regional Integration claimed. “They are unable to return to Yemen at the moment, and we have indicated our willingness to accept them for a period of two years, after which they may leave the country.”
But Ghana’s statement is not accurate. Neither Bin Atef, nor Al Dhuby has been “cleared of any involvement in terrorist activities.” And they are not supposed to be outright “released.”
The Defense Department said in its statement that the two Yemenis were “approved for transfer” by President Obama’s interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force.
The task force made it clear in its final report, released in January 2010, that “the term ‘transfer’ is used to mean release from confinement subject to appropriate security measures.” The task force did not approve any of the remaining detainees for outright “release,” which was “used to mean release from confinement without the need for continuing security measures in the receiving country.”
“It is important to emphasize that a decision to approve a detainee for transfer does not reflect a decision that the detainee poses no threat or no risk of recidivism,” the task force wrote. “Rather, the decision reflects the best predictive judgment of senior government officials, based on the available information, that any threat posed by the detainee can be sufficiently mitigated through feasible and appropriate security measures in the receiving country.”
Moreover, the task force continued, “all transfer decisions were made subject to the implementation of appropriate security measures in the receiving country, and extensive discussions are conducted with the receiving country about such security measures before any transfer is implemented.”
The task force also stated that “[f]or many of the detainees approved for transfer…the review participants found there to be reliable evidence that the detainee had engaged in conduct providing a lawful basis for his detention.” In other words, many of the detainees approved for transfer were thought to be jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces.
Recommended for “conditional detention”
There were two sets of Yemeni detainees who could be transferred, according to President Obama’s task force. The first set of 29 Yemeni detainees were approved for transfer subject to security measures being put in place. However, Bin Atef and Al Dhuby were not placed in this group. Instead, along with 28 other Yemeni detainees (30 in all), they were recommended for “conditional detention pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001), as informed by principles of the laws of war.”
The task force determined that because of the poor “security situation in Yemen” these 30 Yemenis, including Bin Atef and Al Dhuby, could not be immediately transferred to their home country. But they could be eventually transferred if the security situation in Yemen improved or other options, such as “resettlement” in a “third-country,” became feasible. For Bin Atef and Al Dhuby, Ghana is that third-country.
The task force explained in its final report that these 30 Yemeni detainees were considered a “lower threat” than the 48 jihadists slated for continued detention (and considered to the most dangerous individuals held), but this did not mean they could be transferred without any concerns. Indeed, the task force determined that the 29 Yemeni detainees “approved for transfer” were lower risk than the 30 Yemenis, including Bin Atef and Al Dhuby, approved for “conditional detention.” Therefore, the lower risk Yemeni detainees were to be transferred before men such as Bin Atef and Al Dhuby.
Joint Task Force – Guantanamo: Bin Atef a “high risk”
The task force’s recommendations often differed from previous assessments made by Joint Task Force – Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the detention facility and assessed the threats posed by each detainee. The threat assessments for both Bin Atef and Al Dhuby have been leaked online.
In a memo dated Dec. 28, 2007, JTF-GTMO determined that Bin Atef (seen on the right) was a “high risk,” who is “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies.” As such, JTF-GTMO recommended that he remain in the Defense Department’s custody.
Bin Atef was allegedly recruited in a mosque in Saudi Arabia by a facilitator who arranged his trip to Afghanistan. Once there, Bin Atef was admitted to al Qaeda’s Al Farouq training camp. JTF-GTMO’s analysts found an especially interesting nugget of information concerning Bin Atef’s training.
While in custody, Bin Atef identified one of his trainers as jihadist known as “Abu Hurayah.” JTF-GTMO concluded that this same “Abu Hurayah” was in fact Qasim Yahya al Raymi, the current head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al Raymi, whose brother is still detained at Guantanamo, is known to have served as an instructor at Al Farouq.
In the leaked threat assessment, Bin Atef is described as a “fighter” in Osama bin Laden’s “former 55th Arab Brigade” and as “an admitted member of the Taliban.” The 55th Arab Brigade “served as [bin Laden’s] primary battle formation supporting Taliban objectives, with [bin Laden] participating closely in the command and control of the brigade.” This fighting force was overseen by Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who once served in Saddam Hussein’s military before becoming one of bin Laden’s top men. Al Iraqi is currently held in Guantanamo. Bin Atef is believed to have fought under one of al Iraqi’s direct subordinates.
Bin Atef was captured in November 2001 and initially held at the Qala-i-Jangi prison outside of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. He was present during a prison uprising in which a CIA operative named Johnny “Mike” Spann was killed. Also present was John Walker Lindh, an American who joined the Taliban. During questioning, Lindh identified Bin Atef as “Abu Walid” and said he saw him on the front lines and during a retreat.
JTF-GTMO found that Bin Atef remained hostile to Americans during his time in detention. He “continues to demonstrate his support of [bin Laden] and extremism” and threatened Americans, JTF-GTMO’s analysts wrote. “All Americans shall die because these were the rules of Allah,” Bin Atef is quoted as saying in the leaked threat assessment. Bin Atef also allegedly said “he would research guard force personnel’s names and faces on the internet and sneak into their homes to cut their throats like sheep.”
Al Dhuby wooed to Afghanistan by the jihad in Chechnya
In a memo dated Dec. 25, 2006, JTF-GTMO’s analysts concluded that Al Dhuby was a “probable member” of al Qaeda and a “medium risk,” who “may pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.”
JTF-GTMO recommended that Al Dhuby be transferred out of the Defense Department’s custody, but he remained at Guantanamo for an additional eight years.
Despite being a Yemeni, Al Dhuby “lived his entire life in Saudi Arabia” before traveling to Afghanistan for training, according to JTF-GTMO’s assessment. While studying at a mosque in Mecca, a recruiter showed him “videos of fighting and training in Chechnya,” convincing Al Dhuby that “all Muslims must know how to fight.” The recruiter then facilitated Al Dhuby’s travel to Afghanistan, making the necessary travel arrangements and funding his trip.
Once in Afghanistan, Al Dhuby allegedly stayed at al Qaeda guesthouses and received light arms training at Al Farouq. Al Dhuby’s brother, Slah Muhamed Salih al Zabe, also visited the camp during this time. Al Zabe, who was similarly suspected of serving al Qaeda, was detained at Guantanamo and eventually transferred to the country of Georgia on Nov. 20, 2014. Another of Al Dhuby’s brothers was imprisoned in Yemen at one point, because of his “alleged links to terrorism and extremism.”
“The noted familial ties to extremism may indicate additional ties originating from [Al Dhuby’s] immediate family,” JTF-GTMO’s analysts wrote. “As such, [Al Dhuby’s] family would be assessed to serve in a supportive function to [Al Dhuby’s] reengagement with extremist elements, should he be released.” In other words, JTF-GTMO expressed concern that Al Dhuby’s family could facilitate his return to the jihad once he was freed.
Al Qaeda selected Al Dhuby for more advanced training, according to JTF-GTMO’s threat assessment, but it is not clear if he received any. He was assigned to a fighting unit run by an al Qaeda commander known as Abu Thabit, whose men fought in the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001. JTF-GTMO found it was likely that Al Dhuby participated in the fighting. Because of heavy American bombing in the area, however, Al Dhuby and his comrades retreated for Pakistan in December 2001. They were detained and some were handed over to the Americans. In May 2002, Al Dhuby was transferred to Guantanamo, where he was held for more than a dozen years.
Believed to have withheld intelligence from American officials
JTF-GTMO found that neither Bin Atef nor Al Dhuby was fully forthcoming during their many years in American custody. Al Dhuby “has provided minimal reportable intelligence and is routinely non-cooperative,” JTF-GTMO concluded. The American intelligence analysts believed he was withholding information about his jihadist family, as well as details concerning al Qaeda’s network.
Bin Atef “initially cooperated with interviewers, relating an account assessed as plausible, fairly accurate, and complete.” But from April 2003 to when JTF-GTMO’s threat assessment was written in December 2007, he “refused to answer questions.” JTF-GTMO’s analysts believed Bin Atef was withholding information about his training at the Al Farouq camp, as well as about his time at the Qala-i-Jangi prison. Bin Atef “probably holds unique intelligence information,” but “is unlikely to cooperate in the near future,” JTF-GTMO concluded.