They Were Guantánamo’s First Detainees. Here’s Where They Are Now.

The Pentagon called the first 20 prisoners sent to Guantánamo in 2002 “the worst of the worst.” Just two remain there. Others are spread around the world — including four senior Taliban figures.

By Carol Rosenberg

WASHINGTON — On Jan. 11, 2002, at the desolate air strip at Guantánamo Bay, United States Marines escorted 20 prisoners clad in orange uniforms from an Air Force cargo plane — “the worst of the worst,” the Pentagon called them — making them the first inmates of the wartime detention center that remains open to this day.

In the years that followed, 760 more would come and all but the 40 detainees still there today would go. But the fates and misfortunes of those first 20 — who were introduced to the world in a Navy photograph, penned and on their knees — illustrates both the complex two-decade history of Guantánamo Bay starting in the harrowing period after the Sept. 11 attacks and the challenge that confronts the Biden administration as it develops a plan to try to close the prison.

Just two of those first 20 men are still at Guantánamo. One is Ali Hamza al Bahlul, the only prisoner there currently convicted of a war crime, and he is serving a life sentence. The other is a Tunisian man, Ridah bin Saleh al Yazidi, 56, who was cleared to go years ago but who has refused to cooperate with efforts to repatriate or resettle him.

The rest — a mix of hardened fighters, low-level combatants and men who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time — are long gone, repatriated or dispersed across the globe to 11 nations, including Australia and some in the Persian Gulf. Aside from Mr. Bahlul, who is in his 50s, only one other of the original 20 ever faced charges.

Some of the first 20 have managed to make good on Guantánamo dreams of marrying and having children. Some have sought obscurity. Many have not put the past behind them.

They include four men who have emerged as Taliban political and military leaders. Two others are languishing in a prison in the United Arab Emirates under an American diplomatic transfer arrangement that soured.

A Yemeni man who has been reunited with his family in the unlikely host country of Montenegro now struggles to make a living by selling works of art he made as a prisoner. Another original prisoner died this year in his native Sudan of physical and mental illness he suffered across a decade at Guantánamo Bay.

The Bush administration portrayed the decision to airlift prisoners 8,000 miles from Afghanistan to the U.S. naval base in Cuba for interrogation and incarceration as a harsh but necessary response to the attacks of Sept. 11 and fears of more strikes.

But the torture of some detainees, the decision to deny them access to the civilian justice system, the choice to hold them offshore in crude conditions — and the fact that so few detainees were ever charged with war crimes — eventually made the facility a symbol to critics of all that was wrong in the Bush administration’s response.

Now, two decades on, the detention operation at Guantánamo endures as a chapter in American national security that successive administrations have struggled to bring to closure. The 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks will come and go this year without the start of the trial of Guantánamo’s most infamous prisoners — the five men accused of helping plot the attacks. Keeping the dilapidated prison and no-frills court compound running has come to cost the taxpayer about $13 million per prisoner per year.

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