Abdul Latif Nasser
, who had been imprisoned without charge at Guantanamo Bay
, for 19 years, was transferred to his home
country of Morocco on Monday, becoming the first detainee released
from the infamous detention facility under President Joe Biden
Nasser, 56, was cleared for release by an interagency government review board in 2016 and was expected to be sent home soon after; however, due to a series of bureaucratic delays, Nasser was not released from Guantánamo ahead of President Donald Trump
's inauguration, who reversed his predecessor's efforts to depopulate the prison.
Nasser and four other cleared men who were left behind by the Obama administration have languished in detention under Trump, with little hope of release. During this time
, Nasser's siblings met with journalists
from Stardia and Radiolab to talk about their brother and how desperate they were to see him again.
According to the Department of Defense, US forces handed over Nasser to Moroccan authorities early Monday after determining that he was no longer a “continuing significant threat to the national security
of the United States
“The United States commends Morocco for its long-standing partnership in securing both countries’ national security interests,” the statement
Nasser grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, and as a child
, he hoped to become a math teacher and move somewhere different, his siblings told Stardia during a 2018 visit to their home. He studied math and science
but followed his older brother to Libya
before finishing his degree, and his siblings stopped hearing from him.
After years of silence, his sister received a letter from Nasser, written from Guantanamo and delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Nasser told his family
not to worry and asked them to send him pictures, but he did not reveal where he had been or how he ended up at Guantanamo.
In a leaked assessment of Nasser, the Pentagon
claimed that after leaving Morocco, he traveled “in search of the perfect Islamic society” and eventually ended up in Afghanistan
, where he “became a member of the al-Qaida explosives committee.”
The military's assessments of Guantanamo detainees
are notoriously untrustworthy. A Radiolab investigation
discovered that many of the government's claims about Nasser's ties to terrorism lacked convincing evidence. After years of reporting on Nasser's case, Radiolab concluded that Nasser was most likely a low-level or mid-level fighter who did not target civilians or kill Americans.
Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, fighters with the Northern Alliance, a US-aligned group in Afghanistan that fought against the Taliban
, apprehended Nasser and turned him over to the US. Nasser's lawyers claim he was sold to the Americans for a bounty, and he was held by the US military
in Afghanistan for several months before being transferred to Guantánamo in May 2002.
Nasser, who has never been charged with a crime
, has spent nearly two decades fighting for his freedom, attempting to challenge
the legality of his detention in federal court, only to discover that the courts were generally unwilling to provide basic due process rights to those detained at Guantanamo.
The Obama administration established the Periodic Review Board in 2011, which conducts parole-style hearings to determine which Guantánamo detainees can be safely released. Unlike a court hearing
, the board does not have to prove that the detainee did anything wrong — only that they would be a threat if released. Each member of the interagency board has veto
power and is not required to justify their decision.
Nasser didn't get his hearing until 2016, 14 years after he was first brought to Guantanamo. His lawyers compiled video interviews with 10 of Nasser's family members in an attempt to give the board a sense of the support system he had waiting back home. They promised to provide him with a job, a place to live, and financial support. It worked: in July 2016, the board unanimously recommended Nasser be released.
Finalizing those security assurances should have been relatively simple, given that Morocco is a US ally and had already taken in more than a dozen men from Guantanamo. However, by the time Trump won the 2016 election
, Nasser was still at Guantanamo and was beginning to lose hope. He told his lawyer Shelby Sullivan-Bennis that he was trying not to imagine his life back home.
Following Trump's surprise victory, Obama officials rushed to release as many cleared men as possible from Guantanamo, knowing that whoever they left behind would likely remain for at least four more years. Congress
requires the Pentagon to notify lawmakers 30 days before any transfer, which means that if Nasser's transfer arrangements were not finalized one month before Trump's inauguration, it would be moratorium.
Nasser's lawyers worked through Christmas
an emergency motion in federal court, which they filed jointly with Sufyian Barhoumi, another cleared Guantanamo detainee in a similar situation, urging the judge
to order their release.
Those who followed the Obama administration's efforts to close Guantanamo hoped the Justice Department
would back down and not fight for the right to continue imprisoning two men the administration had worked to free; however, the DOJ
under Obama fought the release request and won.
Nasser's brother told Stardia in 2018 that the bad news
was "worse than when he was arrested."
Despite this, he and his family tried to lift each other's spirits. Until the pandemic
struck, his family members would make the hour-long drive to the nearest International Committee of the Red Cross office, where they could have a video call with Nasser. One of Nasser's sisters died earlier this year.
“He was saying that he was lucky enough that he hadn’t lost anyone that close to him while being detained — and that that in and of itself was a miracle,” Sullivan-Bennis told Stardia earlier this month. “And then, right before he expects to go home, his sister passes away, and I think that really emotionally bankrupted him.”
With Nasser's release, there are now 39 men imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, with 10 of them cleared for release. Although the Biden administration
has stated that it intends to close Guantanamo before leaving office, it has yet to provide a plan to do so.
“Mr. Nasser’s transfer is a much-needed step toward closing the Guantánamo prison, and hopefully will allow him to begin to heal and reclaim his life after 19 years of injustice,” said Scott Roehm, Washington
director of The Center for Victims of Torture.
“The Biden administration must follow his transfer with swift and decisive action; Guantánamo is the iconic example of the United States’ post-9/11 disregard for human rights
and the rule of law; closing it is essential to ending the perpetual war, as the president has promised,” Roehm added.