Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

Home at Last: After more than 20 years, two former inmates of Guantanamo reach Afghanistan

Kate Clark 10 min

Two more Afghan former inmates of the United States’ Guantanamo detention camp have finally returned home after more than two decades incarcerated or in exile. Abdul Zahir from Logar was detained by US forces and rendered to Guantanamo in July 2002, while Bostan Karim from Paktia was arrested by Pakistan a month later and handed over to the US, which took him to Guantanamo in March 2003. In 2017, after the US deemed the two men not to be a risk to its national security, it transferred them, not to Afghanistan, but to Oman. Finally, they are now back on home soil. As Kate Clark reports, the cases against them were among the flimsiest she has looked into of the Afghans who were rendered to Guantanamo.

Bostan Karim (L) and Abdul Zahir (C), two former prisoners held at the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, arrive at Kabul airport in Kabul airport. Photo: AFP, 12 February 2024Bostan Karim (L) and Abdul Zahir (C), two former prisoners held at the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, arrive at Kabul airport in Kabul airport. Photo: AFP, 12 February 2024

As they stepped off a plane from Oman at Kabul International Airport on 12 February 2024, Abdul Zahir and Bostan Karim were given a hero’s welcome.[1]The Islamic Emirate released their names as Mullah Abdul Zahir Saber and Haji Abdul Karim, for example, here. There were garlands and flowers, hugs from officials and uniformed members of the security forces kissed their hands. See this video released by the Ministry of Interior, with its celebratory nashid (Islamic anthem) soundtrack, which praises those who defend Afghanistan, the ghazis (fighters of jihad). Billboards showing the two men had been put up at the airport and all along the main route towards the city centre.

A statement from the Emirate’s interior ministry on X said the two men’s return had come about as a “result of the continuous efforts [made by] the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” while another post by Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, expressed the Emirate’s gratitude and appreciation to the fraternal Sultanate of Oman for hosting and taking care of the two individuals.”

Abdul Zahir and Bostan Karim both featured in an in-depth study by the author into the cases of the last eight Afghans held in Guantanamo, which was published in 2016, ‘Kafka in Cuba: The Afghan Experience in Guantanamo’.[2]AAN’s reports and special reports about the Afghan experience in Guantanamo (the first from 2012) were gathered together in a dossier published in October 2023. Each had been caught up in the wave of mass arrests carried out by the US as it sought information about the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and to hunt down what it referred to at the time as ‘Taleban remnants’. There was little or no actual Taleban resistance at this time – most in the ranks had melted back to their villages, while senior figures who had slipped across the border to Pakistan were often trying to get security guarantees to come home. Even so, the US was determined to detain those ‘remnants’ and its willingness to accept tip-offs and pay for intelligence led to many Afghans being falsely accused by their personal enemies or informed on for money, either by individuals or by the Pakistani state. [3]The mass arbitrary detentions, often accompanied by forced nudity, use of dogs in people’s homes and torture, during this period, were one driver of the insurgency. For more, see the author’s … Continue reading Zahir appears to have been one such person, as well as Karim. 

The cases of Zahir and Karim

Abdul Zahir’s official Guantanamo photo taken from his Joint Task Force Guantanamo Detainee Assessment, dated 19 November 2008, and subsequently published by Wikileaks, available here https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/ISN_00753%2C_Abdul_Sahir%27s_Guantanamo_detainee_assessment.pdf.
Abdul Zahir’s official Guantanamo photo taken from his Joint Task Force Guantanamo Detainee Assessment, dated 19 November 2008, and subsequently published by Wikileaks, available here https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/ISN_00753%2C_Abdul_Sahir%27s_Guantanamo_detainee_assessment.pdf.

Abdul Zahir, born in Hesarak district of Logar province in 1972, was detained by US forces in a house raid after an anonymous tip-off that he had chemical weapons stored at his house. This turned out to be untrue: the suspicious substances found at his house turned out to be salt, sugar, and petroleum jelly[4]This was according to Zahir’s Guantanamo Detainee Profile released by the Periodic Review Board from 3 February 2015, the link to which no longer works. However, more details about this and … Continue reading However, during his interrogation, he told his captors that, before 9/11, he had worked as a choki dar (doorman) and occasional translator for an Arab commander, Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi (real name Nashwan al-Tamir), who was also taken to Guantanamo. During the first emirate, this would have been an uncontroversial job – times were hard, work was scarce and working either for the Taleban’s ‘Arab guests’ or their ‘foreign guests’ (in NGOs) was no indication in itself of ideological persuasion. Even so, the US military accused Zahir of having been a “trusted member” of al-Qaeda.

Years later, in 2016, the body set up by President Barak Obama to assess the threat posed by Guantanamo detainees, the Periodic Review Board, ruled that Zahir had “probably [been] misidentified as the individual who had ties to al-Qaeda weapons facilitation” and had had only “a limited role in Taliban structure and activities.” It deemed him safe to transfer out of Guantanamo.

Bostan Karim’s official Guantanamo photo taken from his Joint Task Force Guantanamo Detainee Assessment, dated 5 June 2008, and subsequently published by Wikileaks, available here https://int.nyt.com/data/documenttools/82387-isn-975-bostan-karim-jtf-gtmo-detainee-assessment/2944f0abe6fdb320/full.pdf.
Bostan Karim’s official Guantanamo photo taken from his Joint Task Force Guantanamo Detainee Assessment, dated 5 June 2008, and subsequently published by Wikileaks, available here https://int.nyt.com/data/documenttools/82387-isn-975-bostan-karim-jtf-gtmo-detainee-assessment/2944f0abe6fdb320/full.pdf.

The other Afghan who has returned home from Oman, Bostan Karim, was a businessman who had been born in Paktia in 1970. He had a shop in Khost selling plastic flowers and was arrested by Pakistan as he crossed the border by bus in August 2002 and handed over to the US in February 2003. He alleged he was tortured with sleep deprivation at Bagram before being rendered to Guantanamo on 6 March 2003. Of all the eight cases of Afghans which the author has looked into, Karim’s file contains some of the most glaring mistakes and muddled accusations.[5]For more on Karim, see pages 42-45 of the author’s 2016 report. The closely linked case of Obaidullah can be read about on pages 32-42.

The evidence handed over to the Americans by Pakistan alleging he was a terrorist consisted of him possessing a satellite phone and some US dollars. Yet both were normal for a trader from Khost province to carry at that time. Unfortunately for Karim, his former business partner (with whom he had fallen out), Obaidullah, had also been detained in Afghanistan a month earlier after an anonymous tip-off accusing him of being an al-Qaeda bomb-maker. During his interrogation, Obaidullah named a ‘Karim’ as his co-conspirator; the US assumed this was Bostan Karim, even though Karim is a common name and that Obaidullah had a brother called Faizal Karim. Moreover, it looks likely that the name had been revealed under torture – at least, evidence for Obaidullah’s having been tortured was presented to the US courts as part of his habeas petition and the government chose to drop allegations based on his ‘confession’ rather than contest his claims of torture. The US decided Karim was the leader of Obaidullah’s bomb-making cell.

Problematic for Karim as well is that he was an active member of the quietist, apolitical missionary organisation, Jamat al-Tabligh, along with millions of other South Asians. US intelligence had decided it was a front for al-Qaeda and that a detainee’s membership automatically pointed to terrorist involvement. Jamat al-Tabligh was not on the US government’s list of terrorist organisations. Indeed, during the first Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as Karim testified, he had been targeted by the authorities because of his membership of Jamat al-Tabligh and indeed, the group has regularly come under fire from violent jihadists because of its quietist approach to politics.

Such gross misunderstandings, outlandish errors and fantastical assertions litter the classified intelligence files of the Afghan detainees; they came to light after they were published by Wikileaks in 2011.[6]The Joint Task Force Guantanamo Detainee Assessments came to light after they were published by Wikileaks in 2011. The assessments contained background information on the detainees and something of … Continue reading As evidence of Karim being “a veteran extremist,” for example, one file said he had an uncle who had fought in the “Afghan-Russian war” with Hezb-e Islami, which it described as “one of the seven Al Qaida terrorist groups operating in Pakistan.” Hezb-e Islami was, of course, one of the seven Afghan mujahedin groups, which the US had supported and helped fund, and which was fighting the Soviet army, seven years before al-Qaeda was even established. More examples of the US’ general dearth of knowledge about Afghanistan or apparent ability to find out even basic information can be read about in the author’s 2016 report.

Karim’s perplexity at being in Guantanamo and at the accusations against him was revealed in his statement to an early review body, the Combatant Status Review Tribunal, in 2004:

First of all, I am not a member of the Taleban and I’m not a member of al-Qaida. I’m a business man. I have two stores. In one store, I sell plastic flowers. In the other store, I rent furniture and dishes for special occasions. I am a missionary; I go house-to-house, village-to village, spreading my religion.

Also concerning was how the US courts treated Karim in his long-running petition for habeas corpus. There was some evidence that his supposed ‘co-conspirator’, Obaidullah, may have been a low-level insurgent, although most of the US government’s contentions against him were found to be false during his petition. However, there was no evidence that Karim had been involved in the insurgency. Nevertheless, the judge in each case used the assumed guilt of the other petitioner to incriminate the man whose case they were examining. The judge in Obaidullah’s case said his “long-standing personal and business relationship with at least one al Qaida operative [ie Boston Karim]” was one reason why he must also have been an al-Qaeda member. The judge in Karim’s case quoted that fellow judge, saying that Obaidullah was more likely than not “a member of an al Qaeda bomb cell committed to the destruction of [US] and Allied forces” as evidence against Karim.

In June 2016, his Periodic Review Board, while still believing he presented “some level of threat in light of his past activities and associations,” decided to transfer him anyway, noting that he had been “highly compliant while in detention, has not expressed any intent to reengage in extremist activity or espoused any anti-US sentiment that would indicate he views the US as an enemy.” These were the last months of Barak Obama’s presidency, and after he had failed on his campaign promise to close the camp, his administration did strive to clear as many detainees out of Guantanamo as possible before the end of his second and final term. However, escaping Guantanamo did not mean getting home.

One of the dozens of billboards set up to welcome former Guantanamo inmates, Abdul Zahir and Bostan Karim, home after more than 20 years in incarceration and exile. Photo: Ali Sabawoon Mohammad, 13 February 2024
One of the dozens of billboards set up to welcome former Guantanamo inmates, Zahir and Karim, home after more than 20 years in incarceration and exile. Photo: Ali Sabawoon Mohammad, 13 February 2024

Leaving Guantanamo … but only eventually reaching Afghanistan

In 2017, the US organised for Zahir and Karim to be sent to Oman and for four other Afghans, who had also been cleared for transfer, to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Republican-controlled Congress had blocked any Afghan returning home (despite not blocking more than 200 transfers during President Bush’s time in office). The four men sent to the UAE were immediately detained and only finally brought home during President Ashraf Ghani’s tenure; one was from a prominent Hezb-e Islami family and a Hezbi minister had pushed for his repatriation. (For more on their incarceration in the UAE and final homecoming, see the author’s December 2019 report, Freed at Last: Three Afghans sent to Guantanamo in 2002 and 2003 are finally home.) Zahir and Karim, sent to Oman, were treated far better, allowed to settle in the country and for their families to join them. (For more on this, see pages 19-20 of the author’s 2021 report.) Only now, however, have they been allowed to come back to Afghanistan.

On the day of his homecoming, Karim said in a short video tweeted by Hurriyat Radio that returning home meant he felt “I have not travelled at all, nor spent any time in any prison.” Zahir said his joy was such that he had not “the words for expressing my happiness.” Both men thanked God and the ‘mujahedin’ (the Emirate) for getting them home.

Those like Zaher and Karim who have experienced such long-term arbitrary detention, and often torture as well, and the people who have supported former inmates of Guantanamo all say the road to full recovery after such trauma is long and uncertain. Symptoms, wrote Katie Taylor and Polly Rossdale, who have both worked on Reprieve’s programme to help former detainees adjust to life outside Guantanamo typically include persistent insomnia, memory loss, inability to concentrate, confusion, anger, fear and an inability to trust. The particular harm done by conditions in Guantanamo, they say, goes even further:

In Guantánamo mistrust and paranoia have also arisen as a result of specific circumstances: sensory deprivation, isolation, inhumane treatment, humiliation and attacks to identity, the indefinite nature of the detention, administrative and legal practices that exert psychological control, a profound sense of personal injustice, opacity and deception. A lack of confidence is especially noteworthy. According to Reprieve clients, interrogators often pretended to be a doctor or the Red Cross (ICRC) or a detainee’s defence lawyer. … Paranoia and mistrust after many years of experiencing such practices are logical responses to illogical events.[7]See Polly Rossdale and Katie Taylor, ‘An Account of ‘Life after Guantánamo’: a rehabilitation project for former Guantánamo detainees across continents’, in Torture, vol 37, no 3, 2017, … Continue reading

Taylor told the author that three factors could help ex-detainees recover from Guantanamo.

Family support is huge…. Secondly, time. It really is a matter of time and that has to be safe time – not under threat of prison, deportation or other arbitrary things…It takes time for men to recover. [I’ve seen men that] when they first got out, I honestly felt quite pessimistic about their prospects, but after three to four years, such a transformation can happen, it’s really heartening. Thirdly, adaptability or capabilities. This is to do with them as individuals. All of us have our own pockets of resiliency.

These two men, who were wrenched from their homes more than twenty years ago, will find much has changed in their absence. There will be personal losses. Abul Zahir’s mother, for example, died just a year before his transfer to Oman. “She was very anxious,” his brother told AAN in 2018, “and she had a heart problem because of the grief [over her son’s absence].” At least the US army is no longer in Afghanistan. That was a source of dread for earlier released detainees.

Zahir and Karim are almost the last of the 225 Afghans rendered by the US to Guantanamo who are able to come home. Three Afghans died in the camp, but one remains: Muhammad Rahim from Nangrahar, was detained by Pakistan in 2007, rendered first to Afghanistan where he was tortured by the CIA and then to Guantanamo, where he has spent much of the last almost two decades in solitary confinement. As AAN reported in December 2023, the US continues to insist he would be a threat to its national security if released. The “horrors and harms” of Guantanamo[8]The quote is from the now former Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin. In 2023, she became the … Continue reading for that one Afghan continue, even as his two newly-returned compatriots try to restart their lives back in their homeland.

References

References
1 The Islamic Emirate released their names as Mullah Abdul Zahir Saber and Haji Abdul Karim, for example, here.
2 AAN’s reports and special reports about the Afghan experience in Guantanamo (the first from 2012) were gathered together in a dossier published in October 2023.
3 The mass arbitrary detentions, often accompanied by forced nudity, use of dogs in people’s homes and torture, during this period, were one driver of the insurgency. For more, see the author’s 2013 report, ‘Talking to the Taliban: A British perspective’.
4 This was according to Zahir’s Guantanamo Detainee Profile released by the Periodic Review Board from 3 February 2015, the link to which no longer works. However, more details about this and Zahir’s case in general can be read in the author’s 2016 report, pp30-33.
5 For more on Karim, see pages 42-45 of the author’s 2016 report. The closely linked case of Obaidullah can be read about on pages 32-42.
6 The Joint Task Force Guantanamo Detainee Assessments came to light after they were published by Wikileaks in 2011. The assessments contained background information on the detainees and something of their version of events, as well as allegations against them and the threat they were deemed to pose. There is information about each person’s capture and the reasons for his transfer to Guantanamo and continuing detention. Detainees’ behaviour at Guantanamo and mental and physical health are also detailed. The allegations made are usually very serious, but the Assessments are littered with factual errors, gross misunderstandings and hearsay.

Much of the sourcing is raw intelligence, defined by the FBI as “unevaluated intelligence information, generally from a single source, that has not fully been… integrated with other information, or interpreted and analysed.” An analysis of the sourcing by Tom Lasseter and Carol Rosenberg also revealed dependence on a handful of ‘supergrasses’, eight detainees whose testimony formed the basis of accusations against 225 other detainees, roughly a third of the camp’s population. The reporters noted that such testimony found its way into government evidence presented in court. Because the Assessments were unlawfully disclosed, they cannot be cited in court by defendants or habeas petitioners.

7 See Polly Rossdale and Katie Taylor, ‘An Account of ‘Life after Guantánamo’: a rehabilitation project for former Guantánamo detainees across continents’, in Torture, vol 37, no 3, 2017, 44-58.
8 The quote is from the now former Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin. In 2023, she became the first independent United Nations investigator to visit the camp. Read her report here, and AAN analysis here.

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