WASHINGTON — He was selling vegetables in Yemen at age 16 when he first embraced jihad, rising quickly in al-Qaida and eventually being tapped for a Sept. 11, 2001, suicide operation in Asia that was scrapped in favor of the airplane attacks in New York and Washington, according to U.S. intelligence records.
He served as a trusted bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, and his sister became the terrorist leader’s fourth wife.
But the jihadist’s career came to an end 12 years ago when he was captured near the mountains of Tora Bora by Pakistani forces and sent to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, becoming another nameless, faceless “high-risk” terrorism suspect with little hope of release.
On Tuesday, the man identified by U.S. officials as Abd Malak Abd Wahab Rahbi will get his first shot at freedom under a long-delayed review process designed to help empty the facility. Rahbi will become the first Guantanamo detainee to receive a partially public hearing to determine whether his status as an enemy combatant should be changed, making him eligible for release.
The program was unveiled two years ago by President Barack Obama, who continues to face pressure to make good on a campaign promise to close the prison. After encountering resistance from lawmakers in shutting down the facility completely, Obama set up a system of review board hearings to accelerate the release for prisoners no longer deemed a risk.
Seventy of them will appear before the review boards this year. With a defense attorney and a uniformed U.S. military officer acting as their representatives, the detainees will have the opportunity to argue why they are no longer enemy combatants and should be moved to the list of 77 other prisoners eligible for possible release.
This past fall, the Pentagon held its first periodic review board in secret. In that case, Mahmoud Abd Aziz Mujahid, also a Yemeni and former bin Laden guard, was no longer deemed a “significant” threat. But his case sparked concern that the process was not transparent, as the White House had promised.
So beginning with Rahbi, reporters and representatives from nongovernment watchdog organizations will be permitted to watch part of the unclassified portion of the daylong hearings through a closed-circuit television feed in a Pentagon annex. Only the opening summaries will be shown.
The detainee’s own statements, discussions of classified material and the board’s deliberations will not be broadcast. A redacted transcript of the detainee’s comments may be made public later.
As described by Pentagon officials, the detainee and his advocates will meet in a small Guantanamo prison room. Sitting around a table, military officials will lay out the prisoner’s current threat assessment, and the defense can offer a rebuttal. The board consists of national security representatives including senior officials from the departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security and State, as well as the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The panel’s primary mission is to assess whether the detainee still poses “a significant threat to the security of the United States.” Board members can also review his complete prison file and other materials, including statements other detainees have made about him and documents supporting his release.
The board “will not rely on information that has been obtained as a result of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” to continue holding the prisoner indefinitely. It can, however, take into consideration testimony from officials of foreign nations willing to have the detainees transferred there, such as their home countries.
If a case is rejected, the detainee cannot appeal the decision. However, the system allows a new review board hearing every three years.
Rahbi’s board gets under way as civil rights organizations mark the anniversary of Obama’s executive order at the start of his first term to close Guantanamo. But, said Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, “indefinite detention and unfair trials continue five years later.”
Thirty-one retired generals and admirals sent the president a letter Tuesday urging him to finally close the prison. Even with review boards finally under way, they said, transfers out of Guantanamo “will have to increase dramatically to achieve closing the prison” by the end of Obama’s second term.
Details about Rahbi’s life in al-Qaida are contained in a 2008 Detainee Assessment by Guantanamo officials that listed him as a high risk of threatening the U.S. and also as someone with a “high intelligence value” to this country. Included in his file was his picture — hair cut razor-short, eyes dark, beard thick.
He was born in 1979, sold vegetables and briefly taught the Quran at a village mosque. He underwent militant training in 1995, joined al-Qaida three years later and moved with his pregnant wife to Afghanistan. He soon left his family to join bin Laden.
Other Guantanamo detainees told U.S. authorities that Rahbi “worked his way up” as one of the leader’s top “personal bodyguards.” In August 2000 he wrote a letter to bin Laden, asking for forgiveness if he had not lived up to his expectations. He soon was designated as a suicide operative for a Qaida plot to crash airliners into U.S. military facilities in Asia.
But that plan was scrapped because of “the difficulty involved in synchronizing the attacks,” intelligence records show, and two weeks after Sept. 11, Rahbi, expecting U.S. reprisals, wrote a last will and testament urging Muslims to support bin Laden “with their lives and their money.”
He was captured three months later and sent to Guantanamo. While there, he has thrown urine at a guard, damaged property and fashioned a weapon from a bent, two-inch nail tied to an orange string.
He also has remained of great interest to officials. “Detainee,” the records state, “is assessed to have abundant knowledge concerning high-level al-Qaida members and other operations.”