The Cleared Gitmo Detainees: Ridah Bin Saleh Al-Yazidi
This is part one of a five-part series on the remaining cleared Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Since 9/11, the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay has held more than 780 detainees. Using unknown criteria, the Bush Administration released more than 500 of these men. The Obama Administration instituted rigorous review processes for each detainee. Over the course of eight years, that led to the transfer of another 197 men. There are now just 41 detainees at Guantanamo, each imprisoned at the extraordinary cost of $10 million per year.
Five detainees, however, have been cleared for transfer by all relevant government agencies. Although each has been imprisoned at Guantanamo without charge for more than 14 years, the U.S. government has given no indication what it plans to do with them.
Of the five, Ridah Bin Saleh Al-Yazidi, a 52-year-old Tunisian, has been at Gitmo the longest. One of the first detainees in this makeshift prison, issued internment serial number of 38, he arrived in January 2002. Of the 12 Tunisians held at Guantanamo over the years, he is the last remaining. The others were either transferred home or to third countries.
A June 2007 assessment by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), the U.S. military group in charge of the prison, judged based on largely unknown sources that Al-Yazidi was a seasoned jihadist who fought in Bosnia and Afghanistan, a member of al Qaeda and leader of a Tunisian faction, reportedly connected to senior al Qaeda officials, including possibly Osama bin Laden. It further assessed that Al-Yazidi had fought coalition forces in Afghanistan before his capture by Pakistani forces with 20-some other possible members of al Qaeda in Tora Bora. JTF-GTMO deemed him “high risk” and recommended that he stay imprisoned at Guantanamo.
The JTF-GTMO document is part of a batch of detainee assessments released by Wikileaks in 2011. The reliability of these assessments has been repeatedly called into question by national security and intelligence agencies, as well as federal courts. That’s because, among other reasons, the assessments rely partially on claims of other detainees, some of whom provided information to curry favor or as a result of torture or other forms of coercion. Torture is notorious for procuring unreliable intelligence. Information in Al-Yazidi’s assessment, for example, comes from fellow Guantanamo detainees Abu Zubaydah and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who were both tortured.
After Al-Yazidi’s third review by the Bush Administration’s Administrative Review Board at Guantanamo, he was recommended for transfer in November 2007. He was again evaluated by the Obama Administration through its Guantanamo Review Task Force, made up of senior representatives from the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Director of National Security, and Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Task Force evaluated if any threat posed by the remaining detainees could be sufficiently mitigated. If this and other criteria could be met, the detainee could be cleared for transfer. Task Force determinations were unanimous, and Al-Yazidi was again placed in the cleared group in 2010.
The U.S. government has determined that Al-Yazidi no longer needs to be held at Guantanamo. He’s been waiting for a transfer deal for nearly a decade. No one from any U.S. administration has explained why he’s still imprisoned.
President Trump has a choice to make about whether he wants to continue the status quo of this failed and costly prison experiment, or whether he wants to recognize that the United States is perfectly capable of imprisoning convicted terrorists in U.S. prisons, as the country has done for decades. The country is equally capable of determining when a suspect no longer requires detention, and the government determined that was the case for the handful of detainees we will describe here. We hope the Trump Administration will see the wisdom of implementing those decisions.