Panel recommends transfer of Guantánamo detainee suspected of 9/11 role

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WASHINGTON — The case of a mentally ill detainee at Guantánamo Bay, Mohammed al-Qahtani, has long baffled the United States government. Suspected to be the 20th hijacker planned by Al-Qaeda during the September 11, 2001 attacks, he was tortured by military interrogators early in his detention at the US naval base in Cuba.

A senior Pentagon official later determined that because of the way Mr. Qahtani was initially treated, he could not be prosecuted. Security officials also considered him too dangerous to be released, so he remained detained for two decades.

On Friday, the Pentagon said a parole-style board had recommended Qahtani’s repatriation to Saudi Arabia as part of a custodial rehabilitation and mental health care program for extremists. The Biden administration should send him there as early as March.

The move follows a report released last spring by a Navy doctor who concluded that Mr. Qahtani, who is in his 40s, should be transferred because he could not receive the medical treatment he needed at Guantánamo and was too weakened to pose a future threat – particularly if he was sent for inpatient psychiatric care, according to people briefed on the report.

In June, the Periodic Review Board, a six-agency group that reviews cases of uncharged Guantánamo prisoners, unanimously adopted the recommendation, officials said. But the Biden administration, apparently as it negotiated a security deal with Saudi Arabia for Mr Qahtani’s repatriation, delayed making the decision public until Friday.

“Counsel recognizes that the detainee poses some level of threat in light of his past activities and associations,” the panel said, explaining why it believed the threat could be “sufficiently mitigated” making his indefinite detention unnecessary.

Among them, he cited Mr Qahtani’s “significantly compromised state of mental health”. He also cited his “available family support” and Saudi Arabia’s ability to provide “comprehensive mental health care”, as well as its ability to monitor him and restrict his movement if he completes treatment.

Ramzi Kassem, Mr Qahtani’s attorney and a law professor at the City University of New York, called the decision to recommend his client’s transfer “long overdue”. He cited his client’s severe mental illness, including recent repeated suicide attempts.

“Despite the severity of his illness, Mohammed poses no risk to anyone but himself,” Mr Kassem said. “He needs psychiatric treatment in Saudi Arabia, not continued incarceration in Cuba.”

Mr. Qahtani is one of 39 remaining detainees at the prison of war and one of 19 recommended for transfer subject to security arrangements. By law, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III must tell Congress 30 days before such a transfer that he is happy with the deal.

But most of those 19 detainees cannot be sent home because they come from unstable countries like Yemen and Somalia, which by law cannot receive Guantánamo detainees. The Biden administration must therefore find other countries willing to take them. Because Mr. Qahtani may be repatriated, he could be the first to go.

Mr. Qahtani’s notoriety is linked to his attempt to enter the United States on August 4, 2001, when an immigration inspector at the Orlando airport turned him away. Authorities later discovered that Mohamed Atta – a leader in the attack by 19 hijackers that killed nearly 3,000 people the following month – had come to meet him there.

Circumstances led authorities to believe al-Qaeda had sent Mr. Qahtani to be part of the team that hijacked United Airlines Flight 93. The flight’s passengers returned fire and caused the plane to crash into a field in Pennsylvania rather than its likely intended target, the United States Capitol.

(Mr. Qahtani was never tried or found guilty of having participated in this plot. Even if he had been, it is not clear whether Mr. Qahtani, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in his youth and was diagnosed with schizophrenia before trying to enter the United States, had no specific knowledge of what the government suspects Mr. Atta was planning for him.)

By the time the United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the September 11 attacks, Mr Qahtani had drifted into jihadist circles and was captured along the Pakistani border in December 2001 with a group of foreign fighters. He and suspected bodyguards of Osama bin Laden were sent to Guantánamo in early 2002.

Later that year, the U.S. military acknowledged that he may not have been an ordinary inmate. With the permission of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, he was forced to endure two months of continuous and brutal interrogation by the US military inside a wooden shack at Camp X-Ray in late 2002 and early 2003.

Hour-by-hour logs leaked to Time magazine showed that military interrogators placed Mr Qahtani in solitary confinement, stripped him naked, forcibly shaved him and subjected him to prolonged sleep deprivation, dehydration, exposure to cold, and various psychological and sexual humiliations like making him bark like a dog, dance with a man, and wear women’s underwear on his head. They extracted a confession, which he later retracted.

Mr. Qahtani’s treatment was so degrading and abusive that the Bush administration official overseeing the military commissions, Susan J. Crawford, concluded in 2008 that he could not be prosecuted. Because “we tortured him,” she told the Washington Post that year, she refused to allow his capital prosecution with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the attacks, and four other inmates accused of have helped them.

Mr. Mohammed and the other four men – whose cases before the military commission system have been in preliminary hearings for nearly a decade – have also been tortured in US custody. But it happened in overseas CIA prisons, with graphic depictions emerging years after Ms Crawford’s decision about Mr Qahtani. Their torture by the CIA was a major issue in this case.

As early as 2009, then-Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. acknowledged the enigma surrounding Mr. Qahtani. “We inherited a very difficult situation,” he said a few days before taking office. “Not everything is clear.”

As vice president, former administration officials recall, Mr. Biden was dedicated to President Barack Obama’s commitment to end detention operations at Guantánamo, including personally calling on foreign leaders to helping to relocate detainees who could not return home. While Congress passed legislation that thwarted Obama’s plan to close the prison by moving some inmates to another facility in the United States, the administration still managed to drastically reduce the number of prisoners.

The only inmate to leave prison under President Donald J. Trump has also been transferred to Saudi Arabian custody. A year into Mr. Biden’s presidency, his administration has transferred just one more. Mr. Biden has described the closure of the facility as a political goal, but he has not pushed Congress to overturn the law that prevents bringing inmates to high-security prisons on national soil or appointed a special envoy to negotiate transfer agreements, like the Obama administration had.

Mr. Qahtani’s approval for repatriation follows litigation brought by his defense attorneys, Mr. Kassem and Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights. They argued that he deserved medical release in Saudi Arabia under both the Geneva Conventions and a US military regulation.

Credit…defense department

His lawyers hired a psychiatrist who treats US Army veterans for post-traumatic stress, Emily Keram, to assess Mr Qahtani over the years, starting in 2015. Dr Keram also reviewed his records of Saudi Arabia showing that he had suffered an acute psychotic attack. pause attributed to schizophrenia long before his arrival at Guantánamo.

Torture has only made him sicker, the psychiatrist wrote in a series of court reports, and Mr Qahtani is suspicious of US military health care providers, likely because military doctors were used during his interrogations. He refused mind-altering drugs and in recent years has made several attempts to kill himself, including by hanging, cutting and swallowing broken glass, according to court documents.

In 2020, based on Dr. Keram’s work, a federal judge ordered an independent review by a panel of three doctors, including two foreigners. Trump’s Justice Department resisted the order, which would have been the first foreign medical intervention in the prison of war.

Instead, Congress created a position of Navy doctor who would be assigned to the base but would work independently. Mr. Qahtani’s lawyers have agreed to postpone settlement of the case while the official reviews military medical records and Dr. Keram’s findings. The government has a Monday deadline to tell the court its position on the judge’s order requiring an independent review.

In May, Navy Surgeon Corry J. Kucik agreed with Dr. Keram’s findings, according to people familiar with a seven-page report he prepared for the Periodic Review Board.

Dr Kucik agreed that Mr Qahtani was damaged by his childhood brain injury and the schizophrenia he developed as a teenager, and that his abusive interrogation and continued detention only made this worse.

Dr. Kucik, the people said, also agreed that Mr. Qahtani could not be adequately treated at Guantánamo and that he was extremely unlikely to pose a threat if sent to a Saudi psychiatric hospital. close to his family where his mental health could be more efficient. addressed.

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