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Biden administration releases Guantánamo inmate, its fourth transfer in a month

A Saudi Arabian man held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for more than two decades without being put on trial has been released by the U.S. military, making him the fourth inmate transferred out of Guantánamo in roughly the past month.

This week's release of 48-year-old Ghassan Abdullah al-Sharbi to Saudi Arabia — and last month's release of two detainees to Pakistan and one to Belize — indicates that the Biden administration is accelerating its efforts to close Guantánamo, or at least reduce its inmate population to only those facing criminal charges.

Approximately 780 prisoners have passed through Guantánamo's military prison since 2002, and it currently holds 31 men. Of those, 17 have never been charged and are approved for release, but remain behind bars while the U.S. searches for countries to take them. In some cases, they may be repatriated to their native countries. In others, they may be resettled in new ones.

Al-Sharbi had been cleared for release for more than a year, but the U.S. continued to hold him for another 13 months without explanation.

A fluent English speaker with a degree in electrical engineering, al-Sharbi was a "skilled bomb maker" who attended a U.S. flight school, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, where he "associated with two 9/11 hijackers," according to the Defense Department.

In March 2002 he was captured during a raid of an al-Qaeda guest house in Pakistan and in June 2002 he was sent to Guantánamo, where the military court tried unsuccessfully to prosecute him.

Al-Sharbi remained there in indefinite detention — one of Guantánamo's so-called forever prisoners — for the next 21 years.

In 2016, a parole-like board described al-Sharbi as "mostly non-compliant and hostile with the guards." It also said he "espouses a strong dislike for the U.S." and "has told interrogators that he will re-engage in terrorist activity" if released. Based on that assessment, the U.S. continued to hold him.

But in February 2022, the board determined that al-Sharbi was no longer a significant security threat and could be released with security monitoring and travel restrictions. The board based its decision in part on "the detainee's lack of a leadership or facilitator position in al-Qaeda or the Taliban" and "improved record of compliance in detention."

Al-Sharbi may ultimately be admitted to a Saudi Arabian rehabilitation and deradicalization center for jihadists and Muslim extremists.

Al-Sharbi's transfer to Saudi Arabia suggests that the Biden administration is quietly ramping up its work to find countries willing to accept Guantánamo inmates who have been cleared for release. The State Department office that negotiates those prisoner transfers — a complicated process — was eliminated by the Trump administration, but restored by President Biden.

Guantánamo held 40 prisoners when Biden entered office.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.