End 22 Years Of Injustice

Held for 550 Days Since Being Approved for Release from Guantánamo: Ismail Ali Bakush, an Insignificant Libyan

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By Andy Worthington, April 2, 2024

This article is the last in my ten-article series about the 16 men still held at Guantánamo (out of 30 men in total), even though all of them were unanimously approved for release by high-level U.S. government review processes between October 2020 and September 2022 — and, in three outlying cases, in January 2010, over 14 years ago. The articles have been published alternately here and on my website.

Ismail Ali Bakush (ISN 708), a Libyan who is 55 years old, was the last of these 16 to be approved for release, on September 23, 2022, and last Tuesday, March 26, marked 550 days since that decision was taken.

The reason he and the other men have not been released is, primarily, because the decisions taken to release them were purely administrative, meaning that they are not legally binding, and no mechanism exists whereby they can ask a judge to order them to be freed if, as is apparent, the Biden administration has no interest in prioritizing their release.

A second reason is because most if not all of these men cannot be sent back to their home countries because of provisions inserted by Republicans into the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), every year since the early days of the Obama presidency, which ban repatriations from Guantánamo to a list of proscribed countries including Yemen (where most of the 16 are from), Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan.

As a result, third countries must be found that are prepared to resettle these men, but while this is evidently an uphill struggle in today’s world — alarmingly rocked by anti-immigrant and anti-asylum sentiment since Barack Obama resettled dozens of men in numerous countries during his presidency — it is, as I have stated throughout this series, inconceivable that the U.S. government, with its power and diplomatic weight, could not have resolved this problem by now if the will to do so existed.

This is especially the case because, since August 2022, a State Department official, Tina Kaidanow, a former Ambassador, has been the Special Representative for Guantánamo Affairs, "responsible for all matters pertaining to the transfer of detainees from the Guantánamo Bay facility to third countries." Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that a third country — or countries — have indeed been found, but both President Biden and Antony Blinken are unwilling to proceed with any resettlements, because doing so would enrage the handful of resolutely pro-Guantánamo Republicans in Congress, and possibly derail their support for arms deals for Ukraine and Israel.

The story of Ismail Ali Bakush

Ismail Ali Bakush was seized in May 2002, at a guesthouse in Lahore, Pakistan with two other Libyans, Omar Deghayes (ISN 727) and Abdul Rauf al-Qassim (ISN 709), and an Egyptian, Ala Salim (ISN 716). The men were held in Pakistani custody for several weeks before being transferred to U.S. custody in Afghanistan, where they were held in the notorious U.S. prison at Bagram airbase until they were flown to Guantánamo in August 2002.

Like very Arab who ended up in U.S. custody at this time, the men were all accused of involvement with Al-Qaeda after their arrival at Guantánamo, although no evidence was ever provided to establish that this was the case. The Libyans were primarily concerned with the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi, while Ala Salim, who had poor eyesight and hearing problems, stated that he was involved in religious study and charitable work.

Crucially, all of them, with the exception of Ismail Ali Bakush, were released many, many years ago — Ala Salim in Albania, in November 2006, Omar Deghayes in the U.K. (where he had spent most of his life) in December 2007, and Abdul Rauf al-Qassim in Albania in February 2010.

Nothing in Ismail Ali Bakush’s case indicates why he should have been held for so much longer than those seized with him, but then nothing about Guantánamo necessarily makes any sense.

When I first wrote about him in February 2009, in a supplementary online chapter to my book "The Guantánamo Files," published in September 2007, I noted that, in 2004-05, when the men’s cases were cursorily reviewed by Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), which were designed primarily to confirm that they had been correctly designated, on capture, as "enemy combatants" who could be held indefinitely without charge or trial, it was noted that Bakush had admitted to being in Afghanistan, long before 9/11, "to help the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance," which, as he explained, "was because he lived in Afghanistan both prior to Taliban control and after Taliban control." As he added, "Prior to Taliban control there were robberies, thefts, and fights between groups. After the Taliban took over the area became safe."

No indication was given that he had ever taken up arms against the United States, or that he had any desire to do so. His main concern, as he explained, was with Libya and the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi. This was something that, ironically, his captors, having briefly befriended Gaddafi in the early days of the "war on terror," eventually accomplished through their own actions in 2011, when Libya was invaded by a U.S.-led coalition, and Gaddafi murdered, although no one joined the dots and suggested that Bakush should then have been freed.

That same year, more of the U.S.’s supposed case against Bakush emerged when WikiLeaks — and major newspapers from around the world, included Britain’s establishment newspaper, the Daily Telegraph — published classified military files from Guantánamo. Bakush’s file, as I explained in an article in 2022, contained a jarring entry (and a footnote) that made so sense whatsoever.

The entry suggested that he had, in 1991, trained for two months in a camp run by Abd al-Rasul Sayyaf, who was accurately described as the "second in command to Ahmad Shah Masoud," although the supposed intelligence analysts failed to note that Masoud later led the opposition to the Taliban via the Northern Alliance, and was assassinated just two days before the 9/11 attacks. As I also explained, "Astonishingly, a footnote in Bakush’s file claimed that Sayyaf 'was a mentor for Khalid Shaykh Muhammad' and other alleged Al-Qaeda terrorists," even though Sayyaf "was implacably opposed to the Taliban, and, by extension, Al-Qaeda." He was, as I explained, a member of the Afghan Parliament from 2005 onwards, who "fled to India when the Taliban re-established control of Afghanistan in August 2021."

The rest of the information in his classified military file was more coherent, suggesting that he had fought against "the communist-supported Najibullah government" in the civil war that followed the Russian departure from Afghanistan, and had then lived near the Pakistani border for two years, prior to traveling to Sudan, from where he was expelled, Syria, where "he claimed he was arrested and tortured for three months on suspicion of being an Israeli spy," and Jordan, before returning to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, as he explained in his CSRT.

Habeas corpus and the false hope of Barack Obama

When the prisoners secured constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights in June 2008, via the Supreme Court case Boumediene v. Bush, Bakush was represented by a number of attorneys, although by 2013, as I also explained in my 2022 article, "the last of these representatives, Matthew Melewski, told The Talking Dog blog that Bakush had become 'hopeless,' and had asked him to drop his pending habeas petition, which he did, stating that he 'voluntarily dismissed' his case before the courts, 'citing futility.'"

As Melewski also explained, "Like most of the detainees, he understands the reality of the situation far better than most Americans. He realized long ago that if he ever got out of GTMO alive, it would be the result of some political calculation, not a legal determination. And certainly not the consequence of any sense of fairness or justice." Asked when he had last seen al-Bakush, Melewski explained, "I haven’t seen Ismael in over a year. And he won’t return my letters any more. He has given up."

In the meantime, when President Obama took office and set up a high-level interagency review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, to assess the cases of the 240 men he had inherited from George W. Bush, and to recommend what to do with them, Bakush was one of 48 men recommended not for release or for prosecution, but for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial on the basis that they were "too dangerous to release," even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

The Periodic Review Boards

Eventually, a second review process was established for these 48 men, and other men initially recommended for prosecution — the Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process that began in November 2013. Bakush’s case was reviewed in July 2016, when his Personal Representative, a military official assigned to represent him, told the board members that he was "eager and excited to begin a new chapter in his life," and "wishe[d] only to move forward and to put the past behind him," and also expressed confidence that his "desire to pursue a peaceful and productive life is sincere."

Bakush’s exchange with the board members was not made public, but, as I explained, it was clear that they had fixated on claims, in the summary of allegations against him, that he was involved with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an anti-Gaddafi organization which the U.S. authorities regarded as being closely affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and with other unverified and unverifiable allegations of involvement with explosives, and with individuals allegedly involved with terrorism.

The following month, as I also explained, "the board members upheld Bakush’s ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial … endorsing all the government’s claimed Al-Qaeda links, and also criticizing him for what they perceived to be his 'lack of candor and evasive, implausible, and frequently absurd responses to questions regarding his past, activities, and beliefs,' as well as his 'lack of effort to prepare for life after detention while at Guantánamo, and [his] failure to present a plan for life after transfer,' even though the latter was particularly difficult for Bakush, who, having cut off all communication with his attorneys, did not even appear to be in contact with his family."

It took until October 2020 for Bakush to be given another opportunity to address the board, but by this point almost all the prisoners eligible for PRBs had aptly concluded that they had become a sham under Donald Trump, and boycotted them, as was the case with Bakush. Predictably, his ongoing imprisonment was again upheld, and his next hearing didn’t take place until March 2022.

On that occasion, as I explained, although Bakush’s own exchanges with the board members were not made available, his Personal Representative delivered a powerful statement in support of his release, stating that, "Although introverted by nature, Ismael attends every meeting I request with him and is open with me in discussing his past and future plans. If cleared for transfer, Ismael dreams of a simple life with modest goals. He wants to be resettled in an Arabic speaking country where he will be able to assimilate easily. Ismael is open to attending a rehabilitation program. He wants to work in a small shop or store and hopes one day to have his own shop to run. He dreams of finding a wife and having children one day. I believe that Ismael has the capacity to achieve all these goals, if released from Guantánamo."

As I also explained, "It took six months for the board members to reach a decision in Bakush’s case, suggesting that some of those involved still had concerns about whether or not to approve him for release, but eventually a consensus was reached," and he was approved for release on September 23, 2022, with the board members finally recognizing, after 20 years, his "low-level role in LIFG and lack of leadership in the Taliban or Al Qaeda," and "the lack of information indicating that [he] harbors extremist plans or anti-American sentiments."

For him not to have been freed 550 days later only confirms his recognition, many, many years ago, that, as Matthew Melewski explained, he understood that, "if he ever got out of GTMO alive, it would be the result of some political calculation, not a legal determination. And certainly not the consequence of any sense of fairness or justice."

No critic of Guantánamo could have addressed its seemingly unending injustice any better, and both President Biden and Antony Blinken should be ashamed that they have not prioritized his release, and that of the 15 other men who have also long been approved for release, and who, like Ismail Ali Bakush, no doubt all understand just as deeply how they are, fundamentally, political prisoners of a regime that doesn’t even care.