The U.S. military on Wednesday sent home to detention in Saudi Arabia an al-Qaida terrorist who has admitted to war crimes and testified against other al-Qaida fighters, the first transfer in or out of the Guantánamo detention center in the Trump administration.
Pentagon officials confirmed the airlift of Ahmed al Darbi, 43. His release drops the population at the prison to 40 inmates.
The last release was in the final hours of the Obama administration, when the Pentagon sent four detainees, none of whom had been convicted, to resettlement in Persian Gulf nations. President Barack Obama had wanted to close the detention center, but failed to achieve that aim. In contrast, President Donald Trump campaigned on a pledge to keep it open and “load it up with some bad dudes.”
Also Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis notified Trump that the Pentagon had drafted advice for U.S. forces on proposing new prisoners for the war-on-terror detention center at this Navy base in southeast Cuba.
Darbi, a Saudi citizen, was captured in Baku, Azerbaijan, and handed over to the U.S. military in Afghanistan in 2002. He pleaded guilty in 2014 and was sentenced to 13 years with no credit for time served. He could be freed from Saudi detention in 2027.
Darbi “will serve out the balance of his 13-year sentence in Saudi Arabia,” Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Sarah Higgins said, disclosing the transfer. “He has waived his right to appeal.”
A Saudi aircraft fetched Darbi late Tuesday night, McClatchy has learned. The kingdom has consistently sent its own planes to repatriate its citizens rather than have them transported in shackles and goggles aboard U.S. military cargo aircraft.
In sworn testimony, Darbi described himself as a years-long, committed jihadist who became enough of an al-Qaida insider to turn prosecution witness and identify Osama bin Laden’s inner circle in photos beamed inside the court. He was convicted for his role as, essentially, a procurer for navigational equipment, including a boat, to be used in al-Qaida missions attacking commercial ships in and around the Arabian Peninsula waters.
As part of his guilty plea, the Pentagon prosecutor agreed that, in exchange for truthful testimony, he would return to his homeland on Feb. 20, 2018 to serve out his prison sentence in a Saudi rehabilitation center for captured jihadists. But the deal was done during the Obama administration when the State Department had an office to negotiate transfers, and the Pentagon said it was hung up on details in U.S.-Saudi diplomacy. The Trump administration closed the Office for Guantanamo Closure at the department.
Darbi was a brother-in-law to Khalid al Mihdhar, one of the Saudi hijackers aboard American Airlines 77, the passenger plane that hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. In 1998, when they were already devoted al-Qaida members, Mihdhar and Darbi married Yemeni sisters in a ceremony in Sanaa, Yemen, not unusual in the terror movement run by Osama bin Laden who orchestrated arranged marriages of followers with women from his ancestral homeland.
As the JTF GTMO dossier on al-Darbi via the NYT notes, he was considered high-risk and recommended he be retained.