The Trump administration closed a diplomatic office designed to keep track of released Guantánamo inmates and make sure they didn’t return to their insurgencies. And now the U.S. government has lost track of several of them, including one who has returned to a terrorist-held part of Syria, a McClatchy investigation has found.
The Obama administration created the office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure with a mandate to negotiate and follow up on prisoner releases. President Donald Trump’s State Department emptied the office to underscore his campaign promise to keep open the U.S. military prison in Cuba, which today has 40 detainees.
One of the most glaring examples is that of former captive Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian who vanished from Uruguay last summer. Jose Gonzalez, executive adviser to Uruguay’s Interior Minister, told McClatchy that Dhiab walked across the Uruguay-Brazilian border, took a bus to Sao Paolo and caught a flight to Turkey. The Turkish Embassy in Washington said a search of Interior Ministry records found no evidence that he had arrived there.
Dhiab has been detected in south central Turkey where he has slipped in and out of the rebel held Idlib province, controlled by the al-Qaida affiliate al Nusra Front, according to a Syrian diplomatic source, citing Syrian intelligence. His mother is receiving medical care in Turkey, the Syrian said.
Dhiab fled Syria in 2000, according to both his leaked U.S. intelligence profile and the Syrian diplomat. He kept company with jihadists before his 2002 capture in Pakistan and transport to Guantánamo. While there, he was an incessant irritant to his American jailers — a committed hunger striker who underwent painful forced feedings to protest his detention without charge.
An aide at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was allowed to brief McClatchy on condition of anonymity, called Syria “the worst place for an angry [former detainee] to turn up.”
Dhiab’s disappearance is a perfect storm of a troubled Obama administration resettlement deal that went off the rails at a time when the State Department had no meaningful monitoring of detainee releases.
U.S. intelligence and State Department officials would not discuss Dhiab’s whereabouts. Spokesman Alexander Vagg said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently assigned the Counterterrorism Bureau to start addressing “any issues stemming from the arrangements made between the Obama administration and foreign partners regarding the resettlement of former Guantánamo Bay detainees.”
The last State Department envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, Lee Wolosky, said he had been receiving phone calls from foreign envoys and other concerned people — even though he left government at the close of the Obama administration — because “they have no one to talk to in the U.S. government.”
He described the disappearance of Dhiab as particularly worrisome.
“We worked pretty hard to make sure that he stayed in Uruguay in the Obama administration,” he said. During that time, however, Dhiab found his way to Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela and at one point on a flight to South Africa, only to be sent back to Uruguay through U.S. intervention. In 2017, he also used a forged passport to fly to Morocco, which returned him to Uruguay. “He was not only damaged but he was someone who I thought was dangerous,” Wolosky said.
Syria is of particular concern because that’s where a former Guantánamo prisoner could return to the fight. The U.S. has about 2,000 U.S. troops there, according to Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson.
In Uruguay, Dhiab never really settled, unlike the other five former detainees who were sent there with him. He organized protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo and resumed his hunger strikes there to protest separation from his family.
FROM BATTLEFIELD TO GITMO AND BACK
The most recent figures from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence say about 30 percent — or 222 former Guantánamo captives — have or are suspected of having returned to militant or terrorist activities after leaving the wartime prison. Of those, 196 men were among the 532 captives repatriated by the Bush administration in massive transfers, mostly to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The Obama administration took a different approach to detainee transfers. It negotiated deals with 30 countries to take in men who could not be sent to their home countries because of domestic instability or poor human rights records, generally in small numbers and with specifically fashioned social welfare arrangements. Terms of the deals have never been made public but Obama administration officials said the host countries would provide housing, living stipends and language classes if necessary to help them adapt. As a rule, the host countries agreed to not provide them travel documents for their first two years.
The Obama administration released nearly 200 prisoners — nine returned to the battlefield and another 17 are suspected of doing so, according to the ODNI’s CounterTerrorism Center.
By the time Trump took office, the State Department special envoy office had sent 142 men to 30 nations for rehabilitation, resettlement or safe haven — and another 52 back to their homelands. Most of the resettled captives went to Europe, Africa and Persian Gulf nations.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson closed the office and assigned the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs to handle any problems that arose in the transfers — a move House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., protested as ineffective, according to the committee aide. Then, deals with some third countries began to unravel:
▪ In April, Senegal abruptly sent two Libyan former detainees back to Libya, declaring it was done with its obligation to host them. One of them, Awad Khalifa, resisted repatriation out of fear. . The two vanished, according to Khalifa’s U.S. attorney, Ramzi Kassem. Efforts to locate Khalifa through “the United Nations and other entities” have failed, he said. Had Khalifa known he could be forcibly returned to Libya, Kassem said, he would have refused to leave Guantánamo in April 2016. “As horrible as Guantánamo is, and it is horrible, my client has good reason to fear that Libya would be even worse.”
▪ Of five detainees sent to Kazakhstan in December 2014, just two remain. Their lawyers said the five felt isolated with no prospects for assimilation in the non-Arabic speaking society. One, a Yemeni, died of kidney failure from a longstanding illness soon after he arrived. Then, after the U.S. resettlement office was shuttered, two Tunisians relocated to Mauritania with the assistance of the International Red Cross, said attorney Mark Denbeaux. State Department officials would not comment on whether they were even aware of the transfer.
▪ Twenty-three men sent to a rehabilitation program in the United Arab Emirates in 2016 have disappeared into what their American attorneys now believe to be a detention setting. “They’re incommunicado,” said attorney Gary Thompson who has tried to check on his client, Ravil Mingazov, an ethnic Tatar from Russia and a former Red Army ballet dancer who fled his homeland in 2000 and was captured in Pakistan two years later. Mingazov caught attention in the U.S. because, although cleared to leave, he feared persecution as a Muslimif he returned to his homeland. “Of course our current State Department could not care less and our own country is checked out. That leaves Ravil and these other detainees entirely at the mercy of the UAE government,” Thompson said. Lawyers for all 23 men wrote the foreign minister in Abu Dhabi in February that the men should be allowed “to safely rebuild their lives in the UAE.” They got no reply.
▪ Four of the eight detainees the Obama administration sent to to Slovakia between 2010 and 2014 are believed to still be there but the government did not respond to emails asking how many left and where they went. The State Department likewise declined to discuss individual detainee transfer cases. One of the eight, Rafik al Hami, returned to his native Tunisia in a repatriation that was worked with the Obama administration. Once there, Hami fell into a deep depression and disappeared, according to his former U.S. attorney Denbeaux. The oral history project, Witness to Guantánamo, which interviewed Hami in Tunis in 2012, said his mother was informed that he was killed in Syria. The U.S. intelligence community’s latest report to Congress says two of nine confirmed recidivists released by Obama are dead, but the National Counterterror Center won’t say if Hami is considered one of them.
By scattering the former detainees to 30 nations, the Obama administration cast it as a concerted effort to give men who had lost a decade or more at the U.S. military prison in Cuba a new chance in a new country. And not every deal had a bad ending.
It sent 18 former Uighur prisoners — former Chinese citizens whom a federal court found unlawfully detained by the U.S. military — across the globe to get them out of Guantánamo. Six were sent to the East Pacific nation of Palau, and moved on to Turkey with advance notice to the State Department. Two left El Salvador in 2013, also likely for Turkey, with notice to the United States.
Dan Fried, Obama’s first special envoy for Guantánamo closure, said when he negotiated the Uighur transfers the Bush administration had “already conceded” they were held unlawfully so there was no legal need to restrict their movements. As for currently dissolving deals, “one of the downsides of abolishing the Gitmo office is there was nobody in the State Department assigned to actually follow up. It may have sounded like a good idea to somebody. But who’s in charge of contacting, liaising the governments to find out what’s going on?”
The House Foreign Affairs Committee aide said the Obama administration, in its haste to try to empty Guantánamo prison, set up resettlement deals in countries with no capacity to keep an eye on them. Lawyers, and some former captives reached by McClatchy, said some of the countries were bad matches for Middle Eastern men.
Yemeni Abdul Malik Wahab al Rahabi, for example, found life in Montenegro culturally incompatible.
The Obama administration sent him and another Yemeni there in 2016. He described it as “a beautiful, beautiful” welcoming country, so much so that they helped him bring his wife and teenage daughter to join him.
But the language was too hard for his daughter, making it impossible for her to further her education. And his wife missed the company of fellow Arabic speakers.
He arranged to move to Sudan, where McClatchy reached him by telephone. Montenegro’s two-year stipend and housing was running out, Rahabi said, and he couldn’t find a job. He had hoped to make a living by selling artwork he took with him from Guantánamo, but his Twitter marketing campaign didn’t work out.
Once Sudan agreed to let him move there, “Montenegro brought me this travel document for refugees. Like a passport, you know,” he said. “I said, please make sure to ask the United States if there is no problem with me if I travel. I don’t want to go to Guantánamo or another prison.”
Rahabi said the government of Montenegro notified the U.S. Embassy, which did not object, and then bought tickets for his family. They traveled to Khartoum via Istanbul in a journey that he described as both scary and thrilling. It was his first unshackled flight in nearly two decades, one where he could both look out a window and listen. “I was afraid maybe in the airport they would refuse, tell me no. But they gave me a visa for me and my daughter and my wife.”
In Sudan, Rahabi said he has found other Yemenis who can’t go home to the civil war torn nation. “Life here is so difficult,” he said, explaining he has yet to find work — or sell the art he took from Cuba to the Balkans to Northeast Africa. “But it is good for another side for me and my family. Same language, same culture, it’s easy to get close with the people, buy something, go there and there and speak with everyone.”
Neither Trump State Department officials nor U.S. intelligence would comment on whether they were aware of the move.