The Pentagon called the first 20 prisoners sent to Guantánamo in 2002 "the worst of the worst." Just two remain there. Others are spread around the world — including four senior Taliban figures.
On January 11, 2002, at the desolate air strip at Guantanamo Bay, US Marines escorted 20 prisoners clad in orange uniforms from an Air Force cargo plane — "the worst of the worst," the Pentagon called them — making them the first inmates of the wartime detention centre that remains open to this day.
In the years that followed, 760 more would come and all but the 40 detainees still there today would go. But the fates and misfortunes of those first 20 — who were introduced to the world in a Navy photograph, penned and on their knees — illustrates both the complex two-decade history of Guantanamo Bay starting in the harrowing period after the September 11, 2001, attacks and the challenge that confronts the Biden administration as it develops a plan to try to close the prison.
Just two of those first 20 men are still at Guantanamo. One is Ali Hamza al Bahlul, the only prisoner there currently convicted of a war crime, and he is serving a life sentence. The other is a Tunisian man, Ridah bin Saleh al Yazidi, 56, who was cleared to go years ago but who has refused to cooperate with efforts to repatriate or resettle him.
The rest — a mix of hardened fighters, low-level combatants and men who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time — are long gone, repatriated or dispersed across the globe to 11 nations, including Australia and some in the Persian Gulf. Aside from Bahlul, who is in his 50s, only one other of the original 20 ever faced charges.
Some of the first 20 have managed to make good on Guantanamo dreams of marrying and having children. Some have sought obscurity. Many have not put the past behind them.
They include four men who have emerged as Taliban political and military leaders. Two others are languishing in a prison in the United Arab Emirates under a US diplomatic transfer arrangement that soured.
A Yemeni man who has been reunited with his family in the unlikely host country of Montenegro now struggles to make a living by selling works of art he made as a prisoner. Another original prisoner died this year in his native Sudan of physical and mental illness he suffered across a decade at Guantanamo Bay.
The Bush administration portrayed the decision to airlift prisoners 12,880km from Afghanistan to the US naval base in Cuba for interrogation and incarceration as a harsh but necessary response to the September 11 attacks and fears of more strikes.
But the torture of some detainees, the decision to deny them access to the civilian justice system, the choice to hold them offshore in crude conditions — and the fact that so few detainees were ever charged with war crimes — eventually made the facility a symbol to critics of all that was wrong in the Bush administration's response.
Now, two decades on, the detention operation at Guantanamo endures as a chapter in US national security that successive administrations have struggled to bring to closure. The 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks will come and go this year without the start of the trial of Guantanamo's most infamous prisoners — the five men accused of helping plot the attacks. Keeping the dilapidated prison and no-frills court compound running has come to cost the taxpayer about US$13 million per prisoner per year.
The extraterritorial enterprise began on a Friday afternoon when a C-141 Starlifter cargo plane bearing prisoners from Afghanistan touched down at the remote outpost. A small group of reporters watched as the military walked each of the 20 men down the ramp of the plane, masked, blinded by blacked-out goggles and shackled at wrists and sometimes at the ankles.
Thirteen hundred miles to the north, General Richard B. Myers, then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that the first flight contained "very, very dangerous people," men "who would gnaw through hydraulic lines" of a cargo plane "to bring it down."
It was four months to the day after the September 11 attacks. The brigadier general who established the prison, Michael R. Lehnert, a Marine, described them this way: "These represent the worst elements of al-Qaida and the Taliban. We asked for the bad guys first."
But none of those first men were charged in the September 11 attacks, nor were any accused of knowing in advance about the Qaida plot. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other men whom the United States now accuses of conspiring in those attacks were still at large and would not become military prisoners at Guantanamo until more than four years later.
Captives whom the Bush administration considered the true "worst of the worst" were sent to a secret overseas network of prisons, where the CIA interrogated and tortured its prisoners, a decision that even now casts a shadow over the troubled military commissions system.
The process of sorting out which detainees were true threats or could offer "actionable intelligence" started soon after the prison opened. Eight of the 20 were released during the Bush administration through downsizing and diplomatic deal-making.
The first to go was a Pakistani man, Shabidzada Usman Ali, who was 21 when he was sent home in May 2003, so early that his inclusion among the first prisoners was probably a mistake. He told a journalist soon afterward that he was an innocent man rounded up for a bounty.
At Guantanamo, military intelligence made other mistakes, too, notably the release in 2007 of Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, who arrived that first day and was held under an alias, Abdullah Gulam Rasoul, according to prison documents.
Soon after his return, he emerged as a commander of Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan. Now 48 and a senior Taliban military leader, he is seen as a hard-liner and sometimes opponent of the peace negotiations last year between US diplomats and Taliban representatives.
Three other men who were brought to Guantanamo the day the prison opened were part of the Taliban negotiating team based in Qatar whose agreement is under review by the Biden administration.
The three men, Mullah Fazel Mazloom, Mullah Norullah Noori and Abdul Haq Wasiq, all in their 50s, were among five Taliban prisoners the Obama administration sent to Doha, the capital of Qatar, in 2014 in a trade for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
After an initial period of confinement, they now live with their families in housing provided by the Qataris. They can move freely around the cosmopolitan capital — the women shop in local markets, the children study in a Pakistani-run school — but need the blessing of their host country as well as the United States and destination nation to travel abroad.
Their transfers were in line with a strategy adopted by the Obama administration of sending certain detainees to other countries because an intelligence review deemed it too risky to return them to their homes. From 2009 to 2017, US diplomats negotiated resettlement arrangements with friendly countries that offered rehabilitation, housing and, ideally, jobs to cleared detainees.
The Trump administration transferred only one detainee, an admitted Qaida terrorist who was sent to his native Saudi Arabia to complete a military commission prison sentence under a plea agreement negotiated during the Obama administration.
Among the 30 Yemeni prisoners taken in by the oil state of Oman was Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, one of the first 20. Now 43, he has found work in a factory, married and is the father to two children, according to another former Guantánamo prisoner, Mansour Adayfi, who has chronicled life after detention among some former prisoners.
Two other of the first 20 detainees, Ali Ahmad al Rahizi, 41, and Mahmoud al Mujahid, 40, both from Yemen, were not so fortunate. They were among nearly two dozen prisoners sent to the United Arab Emirates in the final years of the Obama administration.
They remain imprisoned there under conditions that the Life After Guantánamo project, based in London, describes as grim and threatening, in part because the Emirates has considered involuntarily repatriating them to Yemen, which is besieged by war and humanitarian crisis. Yemen is a dangerous destination for the detainees because it harbours a powerful Qaida affiliate.
Abd al Malik, 41, a Yemeni, was sent to resettle in a peaceful nation, Montenegro. He received a government stipend for a time after his release in 2016, but that ran out. He tried to raise funds by selling artwork he made at Guantanamo, but made his last sale last year. An ambition to work as a driver and guide there never materialised as the tourism-dependent economy tanked. And now he, his wife and 20-year-old daughter are isolated and mostly at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I don't know what I can do, especially now with corona," he said recently. "No work. Nothing."
Four of those first 20 men, all released by the Bush administration, could not be found.
Gholam Ruhani, 46, and the brother-in-law of one of the Taliban's negotiators, was returned home to Afghanistan in 2007, and that was the last his lawyer ever heard of him.
Feroz Abassi was sent home to Britain in 2005, Omar Rajab Amin to Kuwait in 2006 and David Hicks to Australia in 2007. All have intentionally dropped out of sight.
Hicks, 45, an Australian drifter and convert to Islam, was captured in Afghanistan in 2001. The only other of the original 20 to face charges beyond Bahlul, he went home after pleading guilty to providing material support for terrorism for serving as a Taliban foot soldier, a conviction that was overturned.
Ben Saul, a law school professor in Sydney, Australia, who in 2016 helped Hicks on a human rights case, said the last he heard, Hicks was "working in landscape gardening, and had ongoing physical and mental health issues as a result of his treatment by the US before and at Gitmo."
His last known public sighting was in 2017 entering a courthouse in Adelaide on a domestic violence charge, which was subsequently withdrawn.
Abassi, 41, told a reporter in 2011 that he changed his name soon after he returned home. Once outspoken, he rebuffed efforts through intermediaries to discuss how he was managing now.
Amin, 53, who graduated from the University of Nebraska a decade before his capture by Pakistani troops along the Afghan border in 2001, also spurned overtures through intermediaries to check on his well-being. Those who know him said he lives a quiet life with family in his native Kuwait.
Saudi Arabia is home to four men who got to Guantanamo the day the prison opened — three Saudi citizens and a Yemeni man whose sister is a citizen. Each has married and most have children, according to a Saudi official who provided the information on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic in the kingdom.
The best-known among them was Guantanamo's most determined hunger striker, Abdul Rahman Shalabi, 45, who was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia on his return in September 2015.
He was transferred to a rehabilitation programme more than a year later and received a "good behaviour" release before his three-year sentence was over in 2018. He has since married and become a father, making good on a wish his lawyer set before the Guantanamo parole board in 2015 "to settle down, get married and have a family of his own, and put the past behind him."
The other three original prisoners sent to Saudi Arabia — Mohammed al Zayly, 43, Fahad Nasser Mohammed, 39, and Mohammed Abu Ghanem, 46 — all completed the rehabilitation programme. None were "implicated in any legal wrongdoing" since their release, the Saudi official said.
Nor was Ibrahim Idris, a Sudanese man whom doctors at Guantanamo treated for schizophrenia, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure and who was repatriated through a court order in 2013. He never found a job, never married and essentially lived as a shut-in at his mother's home in Port Sudan before he died February 10 of illnesses related to his time at Guantanamo. He was 60.
The original 20 Guantánamo detainees: A roster, and where they are now
Starting with the Bush administration, the United States has gradually transferred all but two of the first 20 prisoners at the wartime detention facility to other nations. Here's who, and where, they are.
Shabidzada Usman Ali, sent to Pakistan in 2003
Ali, a Pakistani citizen, was among the earliest people repatriated from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at a time when the main prison facility, Camp Delta, held 680 detainees. Journalist Mark Bowden wrote that he travelled to Pakistan to meet some former Guantanamo prisoners and found Ali and another detainee, who said they had not been abused in American custody "except for some roughing up immediately after they were captured." Both were in their 20s, he wrote in a later account, from tiny villages in the mountainous region of Pakistan where al-Qaida and the Taliban hid, and he described them as "hapless young Pakistanis" who were rounded up by "Afghani warlords" for a bounty of $4,000 a head.
Feroz Abassi, sent to Britain in 2005
Abassi returned to England, attended university and assumed a new name. He was among a group of former prisoners who received compensation in 2010 from the British government. By 2011, he was divorced, had a son and was working part time for a moving company and for Cage Prisoners, an advocacy group based in Britain for people taken prisoner during the war on terrorism. Friends and lawyers who knew him from his Guantanamo days say he decided not to keep in touch, and he resisted overtures through intermediaries to discuss how he was doing.
Omar Rajab Amin, sent to Kuwait in 2006
Little is known about what became of Amin since his repatriation. Moazzam Begg, a former detainee who is now a human-rights activist in London, said that he had heard through an intermediary that he "has a happy home and family and is taking it easy." Lawyers who had worked on his case said that, unlike other Kuwaiti detainees, Amin adopted a low profile. He graduated from the University of Nebraska about a decade before his capture by Pakistani troops along the Afghan border in 2001.
Mohammed al Zayly, sent to Saudi Arabia in 2006
The Saudi government sent an aircraft to fetch Zayly, along with 15 other citizens, from Guantanamo Bay. It was part of a brisk period of transfers under the Bush administration that sent some former detainees to prison, typically for leaving the kingdom without permission, and then to an early rehabilitation programme for jihadis. Zayly spent a year in the rehabilitation programme, married and became a father. He now works in the private sector, according to a Saudi official who provided the information on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic in the kingdom. "He lives in Saudi Arabia and has not been implicated in any legal wrongdoing since his release," he said.
David Hicks, sent to Australia in 2007
Hicks was among the best known of the early detainees because he was a Western convert to Islam at Guantanamo. He left the wartime prison after pleading guilty to a terrorism charge, a conviction that was overturned. In 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Australia violated his rights by imprisoning him for seven months on his return. He spurned efforts to reach him through intermediaries, but people who know him say he still suffers both physical and emotional distress because of his time in Guantanamo and no longer works as a landscape gardener. His last known public sighting was in 2017 entering a courthouse in Adelaide on a domestic violence charge, which was subsequently dropped.
Fahad Nasser Mohammed, sent to Saudi Arabia in 2007
Mohammed was sentenced to two years in prison and completed the kingdom's rehabilitation programme. He was released in mid-2008 for good behaviour, married, had children and found work in the private sector. "He has not been implicated in any legal wrongdoing since his release," a Saudi official said. At the time of his return, it was common practice to imprison and charge former detainees with offenses that included leaving the kingdom without permission and carrying a weapon. From there, the men would be sent to the rehabilitation programme.
Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, sent to Afghanistan in 2007
Zakir emerged as a powerful battlefield commander for the Taliban military in southern Afghanistan. At Guantanamo, he was held under an alias, Abdullah Gulam Rasoul, and was also identified as Mullah Abdullah. He was turned over to the Afghan government, which released him, said Bill Roggio, the editor of the Long War Journal, who carefully tracks the Taliban. Zakir is currently based in Pakistan, between Quetta and Peshawar, where he is associated with a senior Taliban chief, Mullah Muhammad Yaquob, the son of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the reclusive leader who died in 2013, and oversees jihadi troops that are trying to defeat Afghan's unity government. "He's one that shouldn't have been released from Guantanamo," Roggio said. "He's active to this day."
Gholam Ruhani, sent to Afghanistan in 2007
Ruhani was released in the same transfer as Zakir, but little else is known about what became of him. "I confirmed with his family that he had indeed returned and was not imprisoned there," said his pro bono lawyer at the time, Rebecca Dick. "But I never spoke directly to him and I don't know what happened to him." Roggio of the Long War Journal described him as "a ghost" whose whereabouts he could not pinpoint. Ruhani was captured with his brother-in-law, one of the Taliban's negotiators, after going to what they believed was a negotiated meeting with US forces.
Ibrahim Idris, sent to Sudan in 2013
The Obama administration agreed to repatriate Idris after, unusually, declining to contest his unlawful detention petition in federal court. He was treated at Guantanamo for schizophrenia and other health problems and later spent time in the psychiatric ward. Once released, he essentially lived as a shut-in, attended to by family in his native Port Sudan, disabled and unable to work. Another former Sudanese prisoner Sami al-Haj said that he suffered from ailments related to his torture at Guantanamo. Other early detainees and FBI witnesses described an early interrogation practice that shackled some prisoners nude inside an over air-conditioned cell, while blaring loud music and flashing strobe lights at them, to gain their cooperation. He died February 10.
Mullah Fazel Mazloom, sent to Qatar in 2014
Mazloom, sometimes identified as Mullah Mohammad Fazl, was among five Taliban members sent to Qatar in exchange for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held prisoner by the militant Haqqani network in the tribal area of Pakistan's northwest frontier. Mazloom, a former chief of the Taliban army, is accused of having a role in the massacres of Shiite Hazara in Afghanistan before the United States invasion in 2001, crimes that cannot be tried by a military commission. In Qatar, he has emerged as a member of the Taliban negotiating team devising an agreement to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and determine a power-sharing settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. He traveled to Pakistan as part of the negotiating team in the summer of 2020, with advance approval of the US, Qatari and Pakistani governments.
Abdul Haq Wasiq, sent to Qatar in 2014
Wasiq, a deputy minister of intelligence before his capture in 2001, was also included in the Bergdahl trade and has joined the Taliban's political office in Doha, Qatar. His brother-in-law, Ghulam Ruhani, was repatriated in 2007. Both men were captured after attending a negotiating meeting with US officials. Once transferred to Doha, where he remains, Wasiq also took part in the talks with the United States, which resulted in the release of more Taliban prisoners held by the Afghanistan government under a deal with the Trump administration that was meant to halt insurgent Taliban attacks on U.S. forces.
Mullah Norullah Noori, sent to Qatar in 2014
Noori, who was a provincial governor in Afghanistan, has also joined the Taliban's political office in Doha, Qatar. He and the other four Taliban prisoners who were traded for the release of Bergdahl live as guests of the Qatari government like many expatriates in Doha. They have been joined by family, send their children to a Pakistani school set up for foreign families, and live on government stipends in a compound. Their ability to travel is regulated by the Qatari government.
Abdul Rahman Shalabi, sent to Saudi Arabia in 2015
Shalabi became one of the best-known Saudi prisoners at Guantanamo because of his long-running hunger strikes, which at times required that he be force fed. After returning to Saudi Arabia in September 2015, he was immediately sent to prison on a three-year sentence that was cut short for "good behaviour" and he was released in 2018 after a year or more in a rehabilitation programme. He has married and became a father, making good on a wish his lawyer put before the Guantanamo parole board in April 2015 "to settle down, get married and have a family of his own, and put the past behind him."
Ali Ahmad al Rahizi, sent to the United Arab Emirates in 2015
Rahizi, a Yemeni citizen who the United States concluded could not safely be repatriated, is confined to a cell in the United Arab Emirates, according to activists who have spoken with the families of Yemenis who were sent there for resettlement by the Obama administration. US officials said that the Emirates had agreed to establish a step-down programme for detainees who could not go home — moving from prison to a rehabilitation programme to jobs in the area, which relies heavily on foreign labor. That never materialised. The Life After Guantanamo project, based in London, describes detention in the Emirates as grim and threatening, in part because the country has considered involuntarily repatriating former prisoners to Yemen, where they would be in danger.
Abd al Malik, sent to Montenegro in 2016
Malik, a Yemeni who went by the name Abdul Malik al Rahabi, is living in Montenegro, where the United States sent him for resettlement, and trying to sell works of art he painted while at Guantanamo. He was joined by his wife and daughter, who found life there socially incompatible, so the family moved to Khartoum, Sudan. But life was difficult there, too, and they returned to Montenegro. Art sales stopped some time ago and Malik's idea to work as a driver and guide for tourists soured when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, sent to Oman in 2016
As a Yemeni, Moqbel was ineligible for repatriation because of the civil war, which made it impossible for the Obama administration to negotiate safe security arrangements. Instead, neighboring Oman agreed to take him, along with 29 other detainees, in one of the most successful resettlement programmes. He has found work in a factory, married and is now father to two children, according to former Guantanamo prisoner Mansour Adayfi, who chronicles life after detention for some former prisoners. As a rule, former detainees in Oman refuse to speak with foreign reporters, apparently at the urging of the host nation.
Mahmoud al Mujahid, sent to the United Arab Emirates in 2016
Mujahid, a Yemeni, is one of 18 men imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates, which never made good on a deal with the Obama administration to rehabilitate the detainees and find jobs in the country, whose workforce is mostly made up of foreigners. Efforts to address the issue mostly stalled during the Trump administration, which dismantled the State Department office that managed Guantanamo transfers. To fill the vacuum, some United Nations experts have expressed concern about the men, particularly over reports that the Emirates planned to repatriate them to Yemen, where the prisoners fear persecution, including death.
Mohammed Abu Ghanem, sent to Saudi Arabia in 2017
Abu Ghanem, a Yemeni, has a sister who is a naturalised Saudi citizen and sponsored his transfer to Saudi Arabia, where he started off in a rehabilitation programme. The Obama administration made similar deals for several Yemeni men with strong family ties to the kingdom. Abu Ghanem was released a year later, is now married and has a job — something he said he aspired to do in his May 2016 appearance before the Guantanamo parole board. There is no implication of legal wrongdoing on his record, the Saudi official said.
Ali Hamza al Bahlul, still at Guantanamo
Bahlul, a Yemeni, was the closest person to the Qaida inner circle who was taken to Guantanamo on that January flight and is serving life in prison as the only sentenced convict among the 40 detainees there. He was convicted in 2008 of three separate war crimes for serving as Osama bin Laden's public relations director and personal secretary. Since 2011, appellate lawyers, who are paid by the Pentagon, have challenged his case and the legitimacy of the military commissions in the federal courts. They have successfully argued to have two of the three charges dismissed and are still appealing his remaining conviction, for conspiring to commit war crimes.
Ridah bin Saleh al Yazidi, still at Guantanamo
Yazidi, a Tunisian, was cleared for transfer in January 2010, but he has not agreed to meet with either Tunisian or US officials to discuss his repatriation. He has not met with a lawyer for years, and it is not known why he has resisted release. A notation in his case file says that in 2002, he was convicted in absentia in Tunisia for being involved in a terrorist organization abroad, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Although the Arab Spring toppled his nation's long-running dictatorship in 2011, the courts from the period remain intact and he could still face punishment on his return.