The last Afghan still held in Guantanamo, Muhammad Rahim from Nangrahar province, has failed in his latest attempt to persuade the United States authorities to release him. The US continues to assert that he was a translator, courier and facilitator for al-Qaeda leaders and even though it is more than two years since US forces left his country, still claims his release would be a threat to its national security. As AAN’s Kate Clark reports, the US has detained Rahim without charge or trial for almost 17 years, never giving him the chance to have its claims against him independently scrutinised.Rahim’s mother, Safora Bibi, and one of his sons, Ismael, holding recent pictures of Rahim, address a press conference held at her home in Kabul to call for his release on 29 November 2023. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP.
For all previous AAN reports on the Afghan experience in Guantanamo, see our dossier, published in October 2023. It includes two special reports which give more detail about Rahim.
There had been hopes of a positive decision for Rahim as, for the first time, he had a lawyer representing him at his hearing in front of the Periodic Review Board, the body made up of senior officials from the US military, intelligence and government, which decides the fate of those at Guantanamo – to free them, put them on military trial or keep them locked up. However, it has again determined that his detention “remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the national security of the United States” (the unclassified summary of its decision, dated 21 November and published on 6 December, can be read here and all published documents related to the hearing here).
Rahim is one of only three men, out of the 30 still in Guantanamo, who remain in indefinite detention. 16 others have been cleared for transfer, but remain there, three for more than a decade, while 10 are on trial in what are called ‘military commissions’; one has been convicted. Rahim is also the only Afghan left in Guantanamo out of the 225 men and boys who were rendered to the camp, among them shepherds, taxi drivers, tribal elders, Taleban military and civilian officials, abused boys and old men with dementia.
Rahim was picked up in Pakistan by the ISI in 2007 and handed over to the CIA, which tortured him at a black site in Afghanistan and then rendered him to Guantanamo. The details of the torture were published in the US Senate’s 2014 report on the CIA. Rahim was the last detainee to go through this programme and the last man of any nationality to be rendered to Guantanamo.
What was said at the hearing, what was decided and the ‘peculiar injustices’ of the Periodic Review Board
Rahim’s counsel, James Connell, described Rahim to the Board as “an anomaly,” a “poor candidate to be one of the last” detainees neither cleared for transfer nor put on trial. He pointed out to the Board that in the four current military commission trials involving Guantanamo detainees, the Office of the Chief Prosecutor has named nearly 100 co-conspirators, but not a single case names Rahim. That, he said, casts “significant doubt on the allegation that Rahim played any significant role in al Qaeda.” He said Rahim was not alleged to have been involved in any attack on the US or its allies, nor to have personally committed any act of violence.
Connell’s arguments were in vain: the Board again asserted, without giving any details, that Rahim had advanced knowledge of many al-Qaeda attacks, including 9/11, and had financed, planned and participated in attacks against US and Coalition targets in Afghanistan.
The Board also cited what it called Rahim’s “consistent and long-standing expressions of support for violence against the United States and Coalition Forces.” It said he showed a “lack of candor when answering questions regarding pre-detention activities and beliefs prevent the Board from assessing whether he has had any change in mindset or his current level of threat.”
One of the peculiar injustices of the Guantanamo system is that detainees have to show remorse for what they are accused of, even if they have actually done nothing wrong. Indeed, after enduring what the former Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, called “the horrors and harms” of Guantanamo, men like Rahim, who have been tortured and detained without trial for almost two decades, much of it in solitary confinement, have to say that they really like America in order to try to persuade the Board that they are no longer a threat to US national security.
In his statement to the Board, Rahim clearly tried to do just that while still being true to what he has suffered. He spoke of the “lessons I learned at Guantanamo.” The “violations I experienced” had taught him, he said, the importance of respecting the human rights of every man, woman, boy and girl. From his long imprisonment, he said he had learned the virtue of patience and the pointlessness of violence. He admitted that he had struggled with remaining patient during his imprisonment and had “sometimes let my frustration get the better of me.” Connell also pointed out that Rahim had had no serious disciplinary issues for well over five years, despite living with high heat and humidity, in decrepit buildings with problems including sewage block-ups in the cells, conditions that were especially difficult for an “aging detainee” like Rahim (he is now 57) to bear, given he has mounting health problems and suffers from insomnia.
Rahim told the Board that he was not an enemy of the US. In the 1980s, he said, America had helped him and other mujahedin in their fight against the Soviet invasion and in the 1990s, he had worked alongside the US Drug Enforcement Agency, including assisting a US ambassador’s visit to Jalalabad. He condemned the 9/11 attacks, ascribing them to al-Qaeda and saying Afghans “did not and would never agree to attacks on civilians.” He also said he had learned that the “positive view of America I had as a young person was mostly justified… During the darkest days of my captivity, the biggest shock was that Americans could do these things to me.” It was not only American attorneys that had been kind to him, he said, but also medical staff, guards and officers.
It was all to no avail. The only hopeful part of the Board’s short statement was that it said it was “encouraged by the detainee’s participation and discussion of his future plans and hopes for further candor when discussing his pre-detention activities and beliefs so that any change in mindset can be evaluated.” This is a step forward from previous determinations which had turned down his transfer point-blank.
The claims against Rahim
As to Rahim’s “pre-detention activities and beliefs,” in statements supporting his habeas corpus petition, Rahim admitted to working with Arab fighters before and just after 2001. This was not in itself unusual and did not necessarily point to any shared ideological stance; being in paid employment was much sought after in what was then a very poor country (even more so than now). The US military had previously claimed the job of another Afghan detainee, Abdul Zahir, for example, who had worked as a chokidar (doorman) and occasional translator for an Arab commander, was sufficient to detain him from 2002 to 2015, a position later overruled by a Periodic Review Board. When it finally decided to release him, it said he “was probably misidentified as the individual who had ties to al-Qaeda weapons facilitation.” (For details on Zahir’s case, see pages 30-33 of the author’s 2016 special report, Kafka in Cuba: The Afghan Experience in Guantanamo.)
What Rahim has denied is the US claim that he also cooperated with al-Qaeda beyond the immediate post-2001 era. He said that when he was detained he was living in Lahore making a living selling honey, something his family also said in recent interviews (more on this below). CIA statements to the media when it announced his detention that he was one of Osama bin Laden’s “most trusted facilitators,” “a tough, seasoned jihadist” who was “best known in counter-terror circles as a personal facilitator and translator” for bin Laden were undermined by the US Senate’s 2014 report on the CIA’s use of torture. It revealed that the agency’s interrogation of Rahim had “resulted in no disseminated intelligence report.” It suggested that the only information it had about him were the ISI’s allegations and that nothing useful had been ascertained from questioning him. Documents released in Rahim’s habeas petition also point to the basis of US accusations being hearsay, including ‘double hearsay’, ie what someone claimed someone else had said about Rahim, testimony from other detainees obtained under torture or duress and unverified and unprocessed intelligence reports.
However, whether or not Rahim was a seasoned al-Qaeda facilitator almost two decades ago, it is hard to fathom why the US would still consider him a risk to its national security now, especially given it no longer has forces in Afghanistan and there are plenty of men now in power in Kabul/Kandahar who have had working relationships with al-Qaeda over the years. Moreover, the US chose to withdraw its forces despite members of al-Qaeda and other similar groups being based in Afghanistan. Any risk a freed Rahim could conceivably pose would be marginal compared to existing threats. He, himself, was unconvinced that this was the real reason for his continued incarceration, telling the Board:
As a 57-year old man in poor health, I am confident that the United States does not fear that I would return to a battlefield that no longer exists. But I can understand that you might fear what I would say if released, so I will tell you the lessons I learned in Guantanamo.
Rahim has previously said explicitly that he believes it is the torture he endured that is behind his continuing detention: he is kept locked up not for anything he did, but because of what was done to him and the US authorities’ reluctance to free a man who could speak about CIA practice. Connell also told the Board that he believed Rahim had probably not been cleared for transfer before “as a result of the circumstances which brought him” to Guantanamo (see Connell’s statement here), again, an allusion to his being a victim of torture.
The author is not convinced that this is the only reason, however, because of the peculiar way the US authorities understand risk when it applies to those incarcerated at Guantanamo. The casting of anyone who arrived at Guantanamo as, in the words of US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld in early 2002, the ‘worst of the worst’ created monsters in the public imagination. In the absence of any proper scrutiny of allegations and evidence, there has been nothing to reduce these imagined monsters down to size or create a space to deal with them rationally. Nothing in US files on the last eight Afghans held at Guantanamo (many classified but published by Wikileaks) scrutinised by the author suggested the eight were especially dangerous individuals. Most of the claims failed to stack up at all. Yet the inertia fundamental to the Guantanamo system means that assertions made against detainees can stand in the eye of the US authorities for years, even, as was the case with some of the Afghans, that they were ludicrous.
Exacerbating this is the way that, after Barack Obama took office in 2008, Republican members of Congress who had been unconcerned about transfers suddenly strived to block them, complicating all subsequent transfers or attempts to close the camp. Moreover, at the end of the day, both detention and any release are arbitrary, given that the US authorities exercise unrestrained power over the individuals they hold in Guantanamo.
At his hearing, Rahim and his counsel tried to paint a future for Rahim that was less frightening for the Board. If released, Rahim said he would like to cook and open a restaurant or a mobile ‘food truck’. His counsel described him as the best in “a field of good cooks” among Guantanamo detainees and said that he, himself, would be first in line to eat at any outlet Rahim established. His spinach curry was the best Connell had ever eaten. For now, however, a future outside Guantanamo remains a dream. Rahim is still incarcerated and about to enter (in February) his seventeenth year away from his family.
Meanwhile, in Kabul, where Rahim’s family now lives, members have been speaking to the media about their son/father’s long detention and absence. In a video published by BBC Pashto (see clips on X, formerly Twitter) on 29 November 2023, which was actually eight days after the Periodic Review Board had decided to keep him incarcerated, but had yet to publish its determination, one of Rahim’s four sons, Ismael, said they needed their father home; they missed him so much. He described his father’s arrest in Lahore in 2007:
We were very small when our father was arrested when we were with him. My little brother, Daud, was two years old and was sitting in my mother’s lap when my father was arrested.… We don’t remember our father sitting with us at all.
Ismael is now, of course, a grown man. Alongside him, Rahim’s mother, Safora Bibi (see also ToloNews), old and crying, said that after he was dragged forcibly from his car and taken away, they heard nothing about him for four years. Then came a message from the International Committee of the Red Cross that he was alive and in Guantanamo. “Everyone has now been released,” she said, “but not my son.”
Edited by Roxanna Shapour
This article was last updated on 9 Dec 2023