In July 2002, US military forces raided a compound in Logar Province, Afghanistan, looking for a suspected fighter who went by the alias Abdul Bari and had ties to an Al Qaeda bomb maker. They found an Abdul Bari, who had in his possession “samples of unknown substances…including a white powder, that were initially believed to be chemical or biological agents,” according to a February 2015 intelligence report. That man was then sent to the prison at Bagram airbase, and later that year transferred to Guantánamo Bay, where he remains today.
In reality, none of the information gathered in the 2002 raid was accurate. The person that the US military had captured was an Afghan named Abdul Zahir, who sometimes used the common nickname Abdul Bari, but who worked as a translator for the Taliban government to support his family. He had no ties to an Al Qaeda bomb-maker. The suspicious items in his possession, according to the 2015 report, were actually “salt, sugar, and petroleum jelly.” The report, issued more than 12 years after his capture, determined Zahir “was probably misidentified as the individual who had ties to al-Qa’ida weapons facilitation activities.”
In July 2016, a parole board-like body called the Periodic Review Board, comprised of representatives from all major agencies in the national security apparatus, found Zahir was eligible for transfer out of the prison at Guantánamo Bay. But now, as Donald Trump prepares to be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, Zahir’s window to escape is closing. In both statements and in his national security appointments, Trump has made it clear he intends to keep Guantánamo open and perhaps send more people to the legal black hole. “There should be no further releases from Gitmo. These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield,” he tweeted on January 3, in response to the Obama administration’s efforts to release as many Guantánamo prisoners who have been cleared for release as possible. Trump has previously promised to “load [Guantánamo] up with some bad dudes.”
Yesterday, the Obama administration announced the transfer of four detainees to Saudi Arabia. That leaves 55 prisoners, 19 of whom have been cleared for release. The administration has all but conceded that it will fail in its efforts to shutter the prison, and even if every detainee cleared for transfer is released, the detention facility will continue to hold nearly 40 men.
Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas represents Zahir, and in a telephone interview the day after Trump’s tweet, told The Nation about the stress his client is facing. “He is very worried,” says Thomas. “He is quite anxious, as many of the men are down there, about what their fate will be. Whether they will be released, or whether they will be held without end under the incoming administration.”