US releases Guantanamo Bay detainee in effort to close prison

Abdul Latif Nasir — Department of Defense

President Joe Biden’s administration said Monday that it had released its first detainee from the US Military Prison at Guantanamo Bay. The release lowers the detainee population of the controversial prison to 39 in an effort to close the facility for good.

“The United States commends the Kingdom of Morocco for its collaboration in repatriating Abdul Latif Nasir, a Moroccan citizen who had been held at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. Abdul Nasir is the first detainee to be repatriated to his country of origin during the Biden-Harris Administration,” the US State Department said in a statement. “The Administration is dedicated to following a deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population of the Guantanamo facility while also safeguarding the security of the United States and its allies.”

The detention camp has come under fire from several human rights groups for its alleged practices of torture, sexual abuse, and detention without trial. Countless suicide attempts have been reported at the facility and, in 2006, three men died — leading their families to accuse officials of homicide.

President Biden has promised to permanently shut down the facility before he leaves office, a reversal of former President Trump’s order to keep the facility open indefinitely.

Abdul Latif Nasir, 56, had been held at the facility since May of 2002. Several of his attorneys confirmed Monday morning that he had been reunited with his family in Morocco. The former detainee was ultimately never charged with any crime.

“It is hardly cause to celebrate the release of a man held for nineteen years without ever being charged with a crime, the last four of which were the collateral damage of the Trump Administration’s and zealous Republican War on Terror hawks’ raw politics,” lead counsel Thomas Durkin told the New York Times. “Nevertheless, we applaud the Biden Administration for causing no further harm.”

According to an internal defense department memo on Nasir, he was accused of being an “active member” of Islamic fundamentalist group Jamaat al-Adl wa al-Ihssan throughout his time attending high school and college. Officials said Nasir considered himself an “extremist fighter” and attempted to travel to Chechnya to conduct recruiting operations for another organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, after being indoctrinated by one of its high-ranking members. Officials say Nasir worked for a charcoal production company owned by Osama bin Laden, who he’s alleged to have followed to Afghanistan after the duo met in 1995.

“In April 1996, detainee made a failed attempt to travel to Chechnya via Yemen for extremist activity. Detainee stayed at the Maaber Mosque for seven months,” the memo said. “Either after he was unable to gain entry into Chechnya or after deciding he would not be able to gain entry into Chechnya, detainee learned UBL had left Sudan for Afghanistan and detainee decided to travel to Afghanistan via Pakistan (PK) and Syria (SY).”

Nasir allegedly received basic skills training involving assault weapons, map reading, and camouflage at an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. He allegedly fought alongside the Taliban for the next three years, serving as a member of the Al-Qaeda explosives committee, and eventually leading a group of 50–60 fighters in a retreat to Sarowbi.

On December 15, 2001, Nasir was detained amongst several others at the village of Sulayman Khel in Afghanistan’s Paktia Province, according to internal records. Authorities say he was in possession of an AK-47 and a piece of paper written in Farsi with instructions for taking Amoxicillin, Percocet, Dexameth, liver medicine, and several multi-vitamins.

The next year, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay to “provide information” on Osama bin Laden, several radical training camps, and techniques and procedures used by the Taliban. Officials said he provided “partially truthful” accounts of his alleged role in Al-Qaeda before becoming “uncooperative.” He’s alleged to have alluded to the September 11th attacks in several threats to US personnel, making “statements of support” for terrorist activity.

“Detainee has admitted, retracted, and reasserted his claim to have personally met with UBL on multiple occasions. Detainee has changed his affiliation from al-Qaida to the Taliban,” an official wrote in the memo. “Detainee has admitted training at Khaldan and al-Faruq Jihad Wahl Training Camps and acknowledged significant personal involvement in al-Qaida combat activities, including his service as a commander at the Kabul and Tora Bora fronts.”

A threat assessment conducted on Nasir in 2008 said he was considered high risk and is “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies” if released. Officials said if he wasn’t rehabilitated and closely supervised, he could possibly seek out alleged prior associates in an attempt to further engage in terrorist activity.

In 2016, Nasir was by Guantanamo’s periodic review board, who found his detention was “no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”

The board said that, while Nasir presented “some level of threat”, the US could diminish that threat due to specific circumstances regarding his transfer request. The board said Nasir had renounced violence, committed a low number of infractions, and cut ties with all individuals related to alleged terrorism. He also made an effort to educate himself in prison through self-study, attending several classes in his 19-year detainment.

Despite the board’s decision to clear him for release, Nasir would stay behind bars for the entirety of the Trump administration after the former President got rid of the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, the state department office responsible for handling inmate transfers.

“For the four years of the Trump presidency, [Nasir] was in the peculiar position of having exhausted the Periodic Review Board process, the only process open to Guantanamo Bay detainees, and yet still being prohibited from release,” his attorneys said in a statement.

In 2018, Nasir joined 10 others detained at Guantanamo Bay in the filing of a “Mass Petition” in response to Trump’s order to keep the prison open, arguing that the holding of individuals at the prison violated the US Constitution’s Due Process Clause. Two years later, he filed a supplemental brief to a federal court, arguing that the detention of a prisoner who was already cleared by the review board violated the Suspension Clause — eventually securing his release.

“Columbia Law students Colin Henderson and Sherwin Nam were indispensable to the most recent round of briefing on the Suspension and Due Process Clause arguments,” attorney Tom Durkin said. “They did extraordinary work that helped turn this case.”

Lawyers for Nasir now say they’re in the process of carrying out assurances of safety provided by the US and Moroccan governments, taking special caution to guarantee Nasir’s safety and proper reunification with his family.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday told reporters that the Biden administration was considering “all available avenues” to transfer prisoners like Nasir out of Guantanamo Bay — seeking to make the detention center a relic of the past.

“Our goal is to close Guantanamo Bay,” Psaki said. “I don’t have a timeline for you. As you know, there’s a process, there are different layers of the process, but that remains our goal and we are considering all available avenues to responsibly transfer detainees and of course close Guantanamo Bay.”