Pakistani border guards captured Fawzi al-Odah in late 2001
He says he'd gone to Afghanistan to teach the Quran to children
The U.S. government says he went to join the Taliban, ties him to al Qaeda
Al-Odah has been released to the government of Kuwait, the Pentagon says
A Kuwaiti man tied to al Qaeda, who was in Afghanistan in the days after 9/11, is out of the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he’d been held for the last 12 years, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
The Defense Department announced the transfer of Fawzi al-Odah to the Kuwaiti government. It wasn’t immediately clear how Kuwait will handle al-Odah’s case, including if he’ll be freed totally.
Regardless, the move represents a major milestone for al-Odah, who has pressed for his release for years and whose family has long professed his innocence.
According to a 2010 U.S. appeals court document on his case, al-Odah, who was born in Kuwait City in 1977, traveled to Afghanistan in August 2001. He says he went there to do charity work and teach the Quran, the Muslim holy text, to the poor and needy; the U.S. government says he went to join the Taliban in its fight against the Northern Alliance.
Upon his arrival, al-Odah met with a Taliban official who he said took him to schools around the Afghan countryside. Federal prosecutors dispute this assertion, saying that al-Odah couldn’t name any of the schools he went to, fellow teachers or students.
He was in the longtime Taliban stronghold of Kandahar on September 11, 2001, the day that members of al Qaeda – the terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden that had found a home in Afghanistan – hijacked four U.S. commercial airliners and crashed them, killing nearly 3,000 people.
Al-Odah rented a car and drove to eastern Afghanistan’s Logar province, contending that he wanted to leave the country.
But he did not, instead staying there about a month before acquiring an AK-47 rifle that he had while walking around the mountainous Tora Bora region with about 150 men. Tora Bora is where U.S. forces and their allies cornered bin Laden in December 2001, before he managed to escape into Pakistan, according to a U.S. Senate report.
His group came under attack at one point, but al-Odah survived unscathed. Yet his ordeal came to an end in late 2001, when Pakistani guards detained him at Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. Al-Odah was then passed to U.S. authorities, and he was moved to Guantanamo Bay in early 2002.
Federal authorities have tied al-Odah to al Qaeda on a number of fronts, including that his name appeared in a document on the terrorist group’s official website and that his passport was found in an al Qaeda safe house
Yet his father, who fought alongside U.S. forces in the first Gulf War, says al-Odah has been wrongly imprisoned.
“He went in 2001, trying to help people and teach them,” Khalif al-Odah told CNN in January 2003. “Then 9/11 happened, and he was caught there during the war.”
Al-Odah’s release leaves 148 prisoners still at Guantanamo Bay, which was repurposed after the September 11, 2001, attacks to hold detainees in the so-called war on terror.
Since they were not on American soil, then-President George W. Bush’s administration said Guantanamo detainees were not covered by the U.S. Constitution and instead were “enemy combatants,” a label that gave them limited legal protections.
President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center days after his 2009 inauguration. Yet, while the number of detainees has dwindled – through releases like that of al-Odah, as well as controversial swaps this year of five prisoners for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier captured in Afghanistan – the facility remains open.