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.
WASHINGTON — On Jan. 11, 2002, at the desolate air strip at Guantánamo Bay, United States 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 center 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 Guantánamo Bay starting in the harrowing period after the Sept. 11 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 Guantánamo. 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 Mr. 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 Guantánamo 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 an American 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 Guantánamo Bay.
The Bush administration portrayed the decision to airlift prisoners 8,000 miles from Afghanistan to the U.S. naval base in Cuba for interrogation and incarceration as a harsh but necessary response to the attacks of Sept. 11 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 Guantánamo endures as a chapter in American national security that successive administrations have struggled to bring to closure. The 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks will come and go this year without the start of the trial of Guantánamo’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 $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, Gen. Richard B. Myers, then the chairman 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 Sept. 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 Qaeda and the Taliban. We asked for the bad guys first.”
But none of those first men were ever charged in the Sept. 11 attacks, nor were any accused of knowing in advance about the Qaeda plot. Khalid Shaikh 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 Guantánamo 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 C.I.A. 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 dealmaking.
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 Guantánamo, 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 U.S. diplomats and Taliban representatives.
Three other men who were also brought to Guantánamo the day the prison opened were part of the Taliban negotiating team based in Qatar whose agreement is under review by the Biden administration.
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, U.S. 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 Qaeda 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 now 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 harbors a powerful Qaeda 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 Guantánamo, but made his last sale last year. An ambition to work as a driver and guide there never materialized 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.
Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Hicks on a human rights case, said the last he heard, Mr. Hicks was “working in landscape gardening, and had ongoing physical and mental health issues as a result of his treatment by the U.S. 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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo’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 program more than a year later and received a “good behavior” 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 Guantánamo 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 of the original prisoners sent to Saudi Arabia — Mohammed al Zayly, 43, Fahad Nasser Mohammed, 39, and Mohammed Abu Ghanem, 46 — all completed the rehabilitation program. None were “implicated in any legal wrongdoing” since their release, the Saudi official said.
Nor was Ibrahim Idris, a Sudanese man whom doctors at Guantánamo 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 on Feb. 10 of illnesses related to his time at Guantánamo. He was 60.
Reporting was contributed by Taimoor Shah from Afghanistan, Yan Zhuang from Australia, and Anna Joyce and Geneva Abdul from London.