Gitmo awaits more?

19 Jan 2017


DONALD Trump says he wants to be unpredictable. But with the inauguration nearly with us, there is one group that can be certain that having Mr Trump in the White House will make a big difference to their lives — the remaining detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

A few weeks ago, Trump tweeted that there should be no further releases from Guantanamo. “These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield,” he said. He has even vowed to “load up” the facility “with some bad dudes” once he is in the White House.

For his part, President Obama has been trying to move some prisoners out before his term of office ends. Four Yemenis were released in the first week of January. There are now 55 inmates remaining.

Of the 72 Pakistanis sent to the detention centre since it was opened in 2002, 66 have been transferred out. Of the remaining six Pakistanis, three are categorised as high-value targets.

The spectrum of the detainees still in Guantanamo is striking.

The best known of the three is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who has been charged with war crimes, as has Abd Al Aziz Ali (also known as Ammar Al Baluchi). The third high-value target from Pakistan, Majid Khan, pleaded guilty to war crimes and was consequently convicted in the Military Commissions System amidst speculation that he would receive a reduced sentence in return for testifying against other “high-value” detainees.

Majid Khan was picked up in Karachi on March 5, 2003. According to a leaked 2008 US assessment largely based on confessional evidence, he had been a Tablighi missionary and was recruited to violent jihad by Pakistani relatives who were members of Al Qaeda and who knew Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. The US documents claim that Khalid Sheikh Muhammad persuaded Majid Khan to go back to the US to plan attacks on gas stations and water reservoirs. Majid Khan has given detailed accounts of how he was tortured by the US. He has also apologised for his actions.

That leaves three other Pakistanis still in Guantanamo. Although they have not been designated high-value targets, in 2016 all three were told that their period of detention had been extended. Despite this, they could have reasonably expected that, if Hillary Clinton were being inaugurated, their chances of release would have improved. Clinton was expected to follow Obama’s policy of gradually clearing prisoners for transfer to third countries, subject to security guarantees.

The oldest of the three is 69-year-old Karachi businessman, Saifullah Paracha. After obtaining a physics degree in Karachi, he attended the New York Institute of Technology where he studied computer systems analysis. Saifullah Paracha — who has said he did meet Bin Laden but denies involvement in violent jihad — has been held for 12 years and three months. In April 2016, the US refused to clear him for release on the grounds that he still poses a threat.

The two remaining Pakistani detainees are the brothers Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani and Mohammed Ahmed Rabbani. The latter’s case has raised issues as to how dangerous some of the remaining detainees are. According to the US, he met Osama bin Laden in 1997 and became a travel facilitator for Al Qaeda working directly for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.

Rabbani’s own account is rather different. He told his lawyers that he was a taxi driver and, because he knew the Arabic language, would pick and drop many Arab passengers to and from the airport. He has denied that he knew that his passengers included militants. Rabbani has been in detention for over 12 years. His detention was confirmed in August 2016.

Even if all the American accusations against Rab­bani are accepted as accurate (and, in fact, many are strongly disputed) his case casts doubt on the idea that those remaining in Guantanamo are “the worst of the worst”. He was, after all, a taxi driver. Even if he knew his passengers were militants, it’s difficult to see how he could be perceived as an important figure in the world of international violent jihad.

The spectrum of the detainees still in Guantanamo is striking. While Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s alleged role in organising the 9/11 attacks makes him, by any account, a major player of real significance, others still in Cuba seem to have been, at the most, low-level operatives of relatively little importance. The continued detention of some Guantanamo inmates may reflect not the seriousness of their offences but rather the attitude of their own governments. Most of those left in Cuba are Afghans and Yemenis whose governments have little interest in taking them back.

In any event, under the Trump presidency the likelihood is that, far from releasing the remaining detainees, more suspects might be captured and sent to Cuba.

The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2017