The sun rises over Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay’s detention facility on Nov. 29, 2018.

The sun rises over Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay’s detention facility on Nov. 29, 2018. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — A suspected African terrorist who has been in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than 20 years has been released and sent back to his home country of Algeria, the Defense Department announced Thursday.

Said bin Brahim bin Umran Bakush was captured 21 years ago in Pakistan as a “law of war detainee” during the widespread search for terrorist threats by the U.S. following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He arrived at the naval prison at Guantanamo in June 2002.

Bakush, now 52, was initially captured due to purported ties to known members of al-Qaida, according to the review board established in 2011 to assess Guantanamo prisoners. The detention center was opened in 2002 specifically to house suspected terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11.

The Periodic Review Board decided a year ago that keeping Bakush there “was no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the national security of the United States.” At the time, the board said he could be transferred to his home country if certain security measures were met — including monitoring, travel restrictions and “continued information sharing,” the Pentagon said in a statement Thursday.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress in February that Bakush would soon be repatriated in Algeria and all conditions of the transfer had been met.

Bakush was never charged, mainly because investigators couldn’t produce any hard evidence that he participated in terrorism.

“Because [he] has consistently denied involvement in terrorist activities and has provided conflicting information to interrogators, we lack insight into what motivated his activities before detention and whether he would pursue extremist activity after detention,” the review board said after a hearing about Bakush in 2016.

“Throughout our meetings, Said has expressed his desire to be transferred from Guantanamo Bay,” the board said. “He is willing to participate in any rehabilitation or reintegration program as well. Said looks forward to life after his transfer from Guantanamo Bay, meeting a woman to be his future wife, and starting a family together with her.”

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Bakush has already made it back to Algeria, a country in northwestern Africa that’s long been tied to various terrorist groups. Algeria is designated a Level 2 travel advisory from the State Department, which urges Americans to “exercise increased caution” there due to terrorism and kidnapping.

With Bakush’s release, 30 inmates remain at the Guantanamo prison, the Pentagon said. Sixteen are eligible to be transferred, three are eligible for a review board hearing, nine are still going through the military commissions process and two have been convicted by the commissions.

Former President Barack Obama, who promised to close the detention center, transferred 170 inmates out of the camp during his eight years in office and former President Donald Trump transferred one to Saudi Arabia in 2018. At one point in the early 2000s, there were close to 700 inmates jailed at the detention center.

Obama did not close the detention center because he was never able to clear bipartisan obstacles in Congress to get it done. Trump made the prospect more difficult by ordering the detention center to remain open indefinitely. President Joe Biden has said he wants to shut it down before he leaves the White House.

Biden’s goal, however, is fraught with obstacles. To move prisoners, for example, the U.S. must find a country that’s willing to accept them — if the inmate’s home country doesn’t — and comply with certain security conditions.

Biden has been successful in getting some of the detainees transferred. Besides Bakush, his administration has moved three other Guantanamo detainees in recent months — two to Pakistan and one to Saudi Arabia. They, too, were no longer considered a threat to U.S. security. Another detainee, Muhammad Rahim, is scheduled for a review board hearing May 9.

The detention center has been controversial due mainly to reports of human rights abuses and constitutional violations, such as holding the prisoners for decades without charges or a trial.

“The military commissions created at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp have been a complete failure through which the United States government has intentionally skirted U.S. and international law and abused the rights of those who remain imprisoned at the facility,” Amnesty International said in September on the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “It is time for the United States to close this chapter and provide genuine accountability for 9/11 victims and survivors, while respecting the human rights of the accused and those who continue to be unfairly detained indefinitely without charge.”

If Biden is successful in moving all the Guantanamo detainees who are eligible for transfer, it would leave fewer than a dozen at the detention center. But the U.S. government would have to figure out what to do with them before it could close the prison.

“Many of the remaining cases are so hard. Reducing the population through individual transfers makes the remainder problem smaller, but not very much easier,” Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia University Law School, told Defense One in 2021. “They need a solution for those high-profile cases.”

Perhaps the best-known inmate who remains at the detention center is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is considered to be the top architect behind the 9/11 attacks. He’s charged with numerous terrorist-related offenses but has yet to stand trial due to a series of delays.

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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