WASHINGTON — A former bodyguard for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has been cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the first in a series of review hearings that the Obama administration is holding to speed up the eventual closure of the U.S. military prison for terrorist detainees, the Pentagon announced Thursday.
Mahmoud Abd Al Aziz al-Mujahid, who allegedly underwent militant training at a secret camp in Afghanistan, is no longer a “significant threat” to the United States and is eligible for transfer from the prison at some point, the review board members decided.
He has been a captive at Guantanamo since his arrest near Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains when U.S. troops were closing in on a bin Laden hideout not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. At one time, he was considered a “high risk” al-Qaida fighter and “a committed jihadist.” Bin Laden was killed in a U.S. military raid in 2011.
The review board hearing for al-Mujahid, a 33-year-old Yemeni, was conducted behind closed doors last fall under a 2011 directive by President Barack Obama to facilitate releases at Guantanamo. The Pentagon held it in secret to test how the process would work.
Of the 155 detainees at Guantanamo, 77 are cleared for release and 70 are likely to undergo review hearings this year. A few others, including suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, have been criminally charged and are not eligible for release.
“This is just the first of many reviews that must take place in order to finally close Guantanamo,” said Dixon Osburn of Human Rights First, an advocate for detainees. Obama has promised to shut the prison, but his efforts have been hampered by some in Congress and by difficulties in finding foreign nations willing to accept the detainees.
In changing al-Mujahid’s status, the Pentagon said that “by consensus” the review members found that continuing to hold him indefinitely was no longer needed “to protect against a continuing significant threat to the United States.” Al-Mujahid is now eligible for transfer to whatever country will accept him, subject to appropriate security measures and assurances of humane treatment.
According to Pentagon records assessing al-Mujahid in 2008, he was captured with a group of al-Qaida fighters known as the “Dirty 30” on Dec. 15, 2001, by Pakistani forces as the group attempted to cross the border from Afghanistan. Al-Mujahid was turned over to U.S. authorities 11 days later. He arrived on Guantanamo Bay on Jan. 11, 2002.
The records then listed al-Mujahid as a “high” risk for posing a threat to the U.S. and a captive with a “high intelligence value.”