by CNN's Tim Lister
Mahmoud Abd al Aziz is a balding 34-year-old Yemeni who has spent most of his adult life detained at Guantanamo Bay. He was one of the very first to be taken there, ten years ago this month, after being captured on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Al Aziz is one of 35 detainees who have been held at Guantanamo Bay since January 2002. Most are Yemeni; all are adjudged to represent a continuing threat to the United States. Al Aziz says he only confessed to knowing Osama bin Laden under duress; he’d gone to Kandahar to study the Koran. Prosecutors maintain others saw him at al Qaeda safehouses and a training camp.
Another Yemeni detainee, Allal Ab Aljallil abd al Rahman, said he went to Afghanistan for medical treatment; prosecutors say his name appeared on computer files recovered from al Qaeda safehouses.
He and 30 suspected al Qaeda members were detained on December 15th 2001 after they crossed into Pakistan on foot from the Tora Bora region. Most were young Yemenis who became known as the "Dirty Thirty" – and allegedly included at least several of bin Laden’s bodyguards. Sources cited in military reviews of the detainees’ cases say a "Pakistani warden told the group the best thing they could tell United States forces when interrogated was they were in Afghanistan to teach the Koran."
Most of the young men had been recruited from backgrounds of rural poverty by militant Salafist preachers in Yemen. They were then given money to travel to Afghanistan via Pakistan – ostensibly motivated to combat "religious ignorance in Afghanistan." But one of them told a tribunal at Guantanamo: "I am from a village; I cannot tell time."
Another of the first batch to arrive was Fahed Abdullah Ahmad Ghazi, then 18 or 19 years old. His story was somewhat different. He told a Review Tribunal that he had gone to Afghanistan "to learn to fight and defend myself and my honor" because Yemen was a dangerous place. He asserted he had only nine days of military training before ending up at Tora Bora.
"It would have been impossible for Osama bin Laden to trust a 17-year old with only nine days training to become a trusted bodyguard," he told the Tribunal. His passport had been "witheld" and he had no money, so he could not escape from Afghanistan, he claimed.
Ghazi told of his attempt to get away from Tora Bora. "After I started walking, toward the snow mountains, I met some people who were also running away." He joined them and surrendered to Pakistani authorities after crossing the border.
Some of that first group have challenged their detention through federal courts. This week, the habeas corpus petition of Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, now 32 or 33, reaches the Supreme Court. Like most of the Yemeni inmates he denied knowing the existence of al Qaeda, and said he had traveled to Afghanistan because he'd been told he would make money teaching the Koran. After the fall of the Taliban Uthman said he crossed the border into Pakistan and gave himself up to authorities there, who handed him over to the U.S. military.
In unclassified summaries of evidence against him, review boards at Guanatanamo relied extensively on the testimony of unnamed sources. They also say Uthman's name was on a list recovered from an al Qaeda safe-house and he was identified as a trainee at an al Qaeda camp. He had not given himself up but had been captured as one of the "Dirty Thirty".
Uthman is on the Obama administration’s list of 46 detainees too dangerous to release but "not feasible for prosecution." It was 48 before one committed suicide and another died while exercising.
David Remes, one of Uthman's attorneys, told the investigative project ProPublica last year: "It's monumentally difficult to fight these battles when the government holds all the cards."
In 2010 a federal judge ordered Uthman's release. Judge Henry Kennedy Jr., ruled that Uthman was being improperly detained and the government's reliance on the evidence of five other current and former detainees was unsafe. One had been classified as "psychotic" by military doctors. The identities of those witnesses were accidentally released before Kennedy's opinion was redacted by the Department of Justice.
A few Yemenis have been transferred home but dozens remain in limbo at Guantanamo. Complicating the Administration's calculations is the fact that Yemen is extremely unstable and has seen several prison breaks by al Qaeda members.
After the airliner bombing attempt on Christmas Day 2009, the Obama administration suspended all detainee transfers to Yemen – and the situation there has only worsened since. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other Islamist groups are in control of parts of Abyan province. A considerable political backlash would likely follow the transfer of any detainees back to Yemen given the instability there.
One Yemeni detainee, Mohammed Odaini, was transferred home in 2010 – after a U.S. court ruled there was "overwhelming evidence" that he'd been detained illegally. Again it was Judge Kennedy who granted his petition, saying: "There is no evidence that Odaini has any connection to al Qaeda." He was 18 when detained at a guest-house in Afghanistan that had allegedly been used by al Qaeda fighters, and 26 when he finally returned home.
But other Guantanamo detainees who have been transferred or released – among them several Saudis – have joined al Qaeda in Yemen also influences the administration. One Yemeni, Hani al-Shulan, was released in 2007 but soon returned to the ranks of al Qaeda and was reportedly killed in an air-strike against militants in 2009 – apparently a strike that targeted the militant preacher Anwar al Awlaki. Al-Shulan had told a Review Board at Guantanamo that if released he would go to university and then become a teacher.