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Gitmo Detainee, Who the US Claims Was Bin Laden's Bodyguard, Argues for His Release

At a parole hearing on Tuesday, Abdul Rahman Shalabi will make the case that the US should release him to a Saudi rehabilitation program for extremists.

by Jason Leopold
Apr 21 2015, 12:55am

Photo by Jason Leopold/VICE News

A Guantanamo detainee who the US military claims was a bodyguard for late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a part of an aborted 9/11 suicide operation will try to convince a parole board Tuesday that he does not pose a national security threat to the United States — and should therefore be released from the detention facility.

Representatives for Saudi national Abdul Rahman Shalabi, 39, said in documents released Monday that Shalabi wants to attend a Saudi rehabilitation program for extremists, complete his university studies, get married, have children, and work for his family's real estate and construction business.

"Abdul Rahman is very optimistic and sincere about participating in the many prospects that await him in his home country," wrote the detainee's "personal representative," an individual whose name was not disclosed in documents presented to the Periodic Review Board, a panel of government officials that determines the fate of Guantanamo detainees who have been previously designated as too dangerous to release and too difficult to prosecute because of a lack of evidence.

Related: More former Gitmo detainees return to the fight, and more are killed by the US

"Mr. Shalabi is a teacher of Islam, which he believes is a religion of peace, not war," his private attorney for the past decade, Julia Tarver Mason, wrote in an opening statement for the parole board. "Mr. Shalabi will tell you that he does not support terrorism or the killing of innocent people; he steadfastly believes that such acts are contrary to the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. The bottom line is that Mr. Shalabi wishes to move beyond the past and look to the future. He is committed to spending his remaining days in peace with his family."

Shalabi was captured in December 2001 by Pakistani forces as he attempted to cross the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Shalabi was referred to as one of the so-called "Dirty 30," a phrase used by US intelligence personnel for men suspected of being bin Laden's bodyguards or those who were attached to his security detail. A month after the Pakistanis turned Shalabi over to US forces, he was rendered to Guantanamo, becoming one of the detention facility's first captives. He has never been charged with a crime. 

According to the military's file on him, Shalabi is considered a "high risk" detainee, exactly the type of captive that Republican lawmakers want to block from ever leaving the detention facility. Last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senate Armed Services Committee members Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asking him to further explain the findings of a biannual recidivism report that predicted some Guantanamo detainees would return to terrorism.

The board notes that Shalabi has 'generally been noncompliant with the guard staff, particularly between 2006 and 2011, when he committed numerous serious offenses.' The board does not identify any specific offenses.

"As our service members continue to defend our nation against enemies wishing to destroy our American way of life, it's disturbing to see that our own judicial system has allowed terrorist detainees to return to the battlefield. We need to know the extent of the damage caused by these ill-advised decisions so that we can work to prevent them in the future," Grassley said in a statement.

In January, Graham and Ayotte introduced legislation — the Detaining Terrorists to Protect America Act of 2015 — that calls for a moratorium on the transfer of medium- and high-risk detainees out of Guantanamo.

Shalabi said he was encouraged to travel to Afghanistan in the late 1990s by his college teacher and that while there he met an Imam at a local mosque who provided him with room and board. Shalabi attended the mosque every day and taught the Koran to Afghan children.

The military claimed this was a cover story. According to interrogations of other detainees, they said, Shalabi attended al Qaeda affiliated training camps.

The US military backs up its assertions by citing "intelligence" gleaned from the interrogations of self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who allegedly identified Shalabi as a bodyguard for bin Laden from a photograph. It has been well documented as recently as last December that Mohammed was subjected to brutal interrogations at CIA black site prisons, which lawmakers have said calls into question the integrity of information he provided to his interrogators.

Shalabi is one of Guantanamo's longest hunger strikers; he has protested the conditions of his confinement for nearly a decade by refusing to eat. As a result, he has been force-fed a liquid nutritional supplement through his nostril on a near daily basis.

In September 2009, Shalabi wrote a letter to Tarver Mason saying, "I am a human who is being treated like an animal." She filed court papers in his habeas corpus case a couple of months later claiming he was "two pounds away from organ failure and death."

Guantanamo detainees who engage in hunger strikes are considered "non-compliant," an issue that Mason and Shalabi's personal representative before the Periodic Review Board noted in separate opening statements that will be presented to the panel Tuesday.

"I would also be remiss if I don't take this opportunity to speak on behalf of Abdul Rahman regarding his long-term hunger striking," the personal representative wrote. "Although it is looked upon as a negative factor in the overall issue relating to compliance, it's important to emphasize that hunger striking is not an illegal act, but rather a non-violent and peaceful means of protesting camp conditions and continued detainment. Abdul Rahman has stated on multiple occasions that if hunger striking was illegal, he would have immediately ceased such protest."

The Guantanamo Periodic Review Board posted a copy of Shalabi's detainee profile on its website Monday, which contained much of the same information about him that military intelligence officials collected more than a decade ago. The profile, however, includes caveats not included in the military case file, stating that Shalabi "probably trained at al-Qa' ida-affiliated camps" and "probably received both basic and advanced military training."

The board, made up of representatives from six national security agencies, notes that Shalabi has denied any involvement with al Qaeda. It goes on to say he "generally has been noncompliant with the guard staff at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, particularly between 2006 and 2011, when he committed numerous serious offenses." The board does not identify any specific offenses.

"He has provided no information of value during interviews, has refused to respond to substantive questions, and as of August 2014 continued to be a long-term hunger striker," the board's profile of Shalabi says. "[Shalabi] probably continues to sympathize with extremists, but he has not expressed intent to re-engage in terrorism and does not appear to be in contact with any extremists outside of Guantanamo."

Related: Former Guantanamo detainee arrested for murder of Ugandan prosecutor

Shalabi's nephew, Sultan Ahmed Dirdeer Musa Al Uwaydha, was captured with him in December 2001 and was also identified as a former bodyguard for bin Laden, according to his case file. However, he was repatriated to Saudi Arabia in November 2007 and went through the Saudi rehabilitation program. Today, he is married with a family and, apparently, is not involved in extremist activities. Shalabi's attorney has cited the nephew's case as an example of why her client should also be afforded the same opportunity.

"Like his nephew, Mr. Shalabi is eager to participate in the Saudi Arabia rehabilitation program and will cooperate fully with any stipulations his country places upon him," Taver Mason wrote in the statement. "I would like to direct your attention to the… statement from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Interior, pledging that Mr. Shalabi will be welcomed home with the same security and human treatment assurances that have facilitated the transfer of over 100 detainees from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia, including former hunger strikers."

The review board process began in 2013, during the height of a mass hunger strike, to review "the continued detention of certain detainees to assess whether continued law of war detention is necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States." It has since reviewed the cases of 16 detainees and determined that nine of the captives can be released. 

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold

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