Ghaleb al-Bihani is either a one-time, gun-toting cook from war-torn Afghanistan turned yoga-practicing pacifist inside Guantanamo’s communal prison blocks — or he is a trained extremist ripe to rejoin al-Qaida if he’s returned to his native Yemen.
Those are the competing views being presented Tuesday in the latest closed session of a Guantanamo parole board. And the case of al-Bihani, 34, who has spent a third of his life in U.S. military detention, brings into sharp relief the issues confronting the Obama administration 13 years into the war on terror.
Al-Bihani has never been charged with a crime and is the youngest of seven sons to join the jihad in Afghanistan. Now, as the U.S. is extricating itself from Afghanistan, al-Bihani wants out of Guantanamo — but not back to his native Yemen.
As his attorney Pardiss Kebriaei tells it, al-Bihani has argued for years that he wants to get away from the turbulent region still rattled by the legacy of al-Qaida.
“I want a new life, independence — a new country with a better chance,” she quotes him as saying from their first phone call in 2011.
For Tuesday’s session, that’s all the public can hear from him. The Pentagon prohibits the press from listening in to anything but select, pre-approved opening statements.
But documents released on the eve of the hearing — the fourth since the Pentagon launched the process this summer — show the dilemma of what to do about the man who got to Guantanamo in the first days of the detention center and now has the status of a “forever prisoner.”
His lawyer and a military officer assigned to his case describe him as a one-time foot soldier who was the rank equivalent of a U.S. Army private. They say he’s now fed up with life on the fringes of jihad, a sickly man with unchecked diabetes who finds escape on the cellblocks in yoga.
An intelligence assessment describes al-Bihani as a sometime prison camp troublemaker and “almost certainly” a trained former member of al-Qaida whose brothers are former Afghan jihadists.
One brother, not identified, is said to be a member of Yemen’s feared al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula franchise. Another is a prisoner at Guantanamo, Tawfiq al-Bihani, 42, already approved for conditional release, if the situation in Yemen improves or another country is found to rehabilitate and settle him.
The U.S. intelligence estimate provided to the parole board says his family would “almost certainly” induce him “to re-engage with extremist activities if he were repatriated to Yemen.”
The assessment was released Monday.
He doesn’t want to go to Yemen, anyway. Since 2008, he’s made clear that he’s afraid of repatriation, “and would prefer to be transferred to Europe to establish a life away from jihad,” according to the intelligence summary.
“Most often, he talks about wanting a new life in a new place,” says Kebriaei, who said he reads yoga magazines at their attorney-client meetings to cope with his pain, depression and anxiety. “His parents passed when he was young, his siblings all have their own lives, so there’s not the usual picture waiting for him. It’s really about a new start for him.”
Half of Guantanamo’s 154 detainees are cleared for release in one fashion or another. And al-Bihani wants to join the list of captives for whom the State Department’s special envoy is trying to negotiate safe resettlement, says Kebriaei, an attorney at New York’s Center for Constitutional Rights.
Like many of Guantanamo’s parole-board-eligible prisoners, Bihani’s name is not a familiar one.
He only emerged from anonymity in a 2009 federal court decision that put him in the company of one of history’s greatest military commanders, the one-time emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Al-Bihani had admitted in a habeas corpus hearing that, around the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he carried a rifle and worked in the kitchen of a pro-Taliban Arab militia, the 55th Arab Brigade, whose ranks included al-Qaida members.
That was enough for U.S. District Judge Richard Leon to uphold his detention.
“Faithfully serving in an al-Qaida affiliated fighting unit that is directly supporting the Taliban by helping to prepare the meals of its entire fighting force is more than sufficient,” Leon wrote. “After all, as Napoleon himself was fond of pointing out, ‘An army marches on its stomach.’ ”
Suddenly, the captives held at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba included not just “the worst of the worst” but a cook.
Now al-Bihani’s case illustrates a new effort to define whom to let go and whom to retain in this second decade of the war on terror:
— He’s been described as among the prison’s “high-risk detainees from a health perspective” in a leaked U.S. intelligence profile. Now prison medical staff are talking more and more about how to cope with an ailing and aging captive population through costly expeditionary medicine that brings in U.S. military medical specialists rather than sending sick patients to U.S. facilities because Congress forbids it.
— He’s a Yemeni citizen, for whom a parole board transfer decision is more theoretical than certain release from Guantanamo. The majority of the U.S.-held prisoners in Cuba are from Yemen, but the United States has yet to reach a repatriation agreement with the Yemeni government on how to rehabilitate and keep watch on them.
Al-Bihani becomes the fourth person to go before the Obama administration’s Periodic Review Board — an anonymous panel of officials representing six U.S. bureaucracies, two within the Department of Defense plus the departments of Justice, State, Homeland Security, and the Directorate of National Intelligence.
So far, the board has ruled in favor of transfer of one, the continuing indefinite detention of another, and has yet to decide what to do about a third man. All, like al-Bihani, are Yemenis.
At issue is whether letting the man go presents a “significant threat” to U.S. national security.”
An unidentified U.S. military officer assigned to his case said in a document released Monday that Bihani does not pose such a threat.
“I say this as both a warfighter and as someone who has years of experience performing vulnerability assessments,” the officer wrote in a prepared statement in the slice of the case the public can see.
He argued that al-Bihani’s service in Afghanistan was inconsequential: “He was not involved in any specific attacks. Twelve years ago, he was an assistant cook in one of the groups that fought against the Northern Alliance, prior to U.S. combat operations, and then surrendered.”
Or as Kebriaei describes him: “A kitchen aide for a group that had been disbanded.”