Lobbying 2015: Kuwait secures Guantanamo releases

Kuwait is spending $2 million a year to convince the US to release its citizens from Guantanamo Bay. Its success ratio so far has been 11 : 1.

al-monitor Khaled al Odah (C), head of a detainees support committee, sits in his house between four Kuwaiti detainees released from Guantanamo, in Kuwait City, May 21, 2006.  Photo by REUTERS/Stephanie McGehee.
Julian Pecquet

Julian Pecquet


Topics covered

terrorism, suicide bombing, prisoners, kuwait, guantanamo, congress, barack obama, afghanistan

Aug 3, 2015

Eleven down, one to go.

After a decade of lobbying and legal wrangling, Kuwait has recovered all but one of its 12 citizens who were captured in Afghanistan and sent to the US military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Now the government-funded International Counsel Bureau, which represents the prisoners’ families, is focused on gaining the release of one last Kuwaiti, who has been imprisoned the past 13 years.

The bureau paid four US firms $2 million in 2014 to advocate before all three branches of government, lobbying records show. The bureau also has a contract with a public relations firm, but it doesn’t show any recent activity.

Their efforts helped secure the release of Fawzi al Odah under a new parole-like system last year; he was the first Kuwaiti released since 2009. That leaves only Fayez al Kandari, who was charged with “material support for terrorism” before the charges were dropped in 2012 amid repatriation talks with Kuwait but is still considered too dangerous to be released.

The Kuwaiti’s fate could be looking up amid signs that President Barack Obama is doubling down on efforts to close the prison and fulfill a 2008 campaign promise.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said July 22 that the administration was in “the final stages of drafting a plan to safely and responsibly close the prison at Guantanamo and to present that plan to Congress.” And the Senate’s annual defense authorization bill, drafted by Gitmo critic John McCain, R-Ariz., also offers a compromise plan to close the controversial prison.

Any such plan would have to pass muster with the Department of Defense, which has been wary of releasing detainees who could end up attacking US troops. Pentagon foot-dragging was one factor in the unexpected resignation in December of Clifford Sloan, the State Department’s envoy for closing the prison; he has since been replaced by Charles Trumbull.

The House of Representatives meanwhile is taking a hard line.

The lower chamber’s defense bill would further tie the president’s hands by prohibiting the use of funds from being used to transfer Guantanamo prisoners to a “combat zone,” which includes Kuwait. The lawmakers’ tough stance on Guantanamo was only reinforced after reports that a Kuwaiti citizen released in 2005, Abdallah Saleh Ali al Ajmi, blew himself up in Mosul three years later, killing seven police officers.

Kuwait has also come under scrutiny as the birthplace of the Islamic State executioner known as “Jihadi John,” who was reportedly one of the country’s 100,000 stateless “bidoons” before he moved to England. The country has also drawn fire for not doing enough to stop the terror group’s funding streams: in an October 2014 speech, David Cohen, who was then the Treasury Department’s sanctions guru, called Kuwait and Qatar “permissive jurisdictions for terrorist financing.”

Since al Ajmi’s attack, Kuwait has promised to create a “state-of-the-art rehabilitation center and program to reintegrate detainees with their families and society,” David Cynamon, an attorney for the prisoners, wrote in a 2010 open letter to Obama and then-Attorney General Eric Holder. The other 10 are not believed to have conducted any violence.

Despite its support for the rehab center, which has now opened, and the International Counsel Bureau, the Kuwaiti government’s role in advocating for the prisoners is somewhat ambiguous.

Families of the prisoners and other private citizens donate to the bureau, which is headed by Abdul Rahman al Haroun, a former manager with the Kuwaiti National Petroleum Co. Lobbying filings, however, indicate that the government of Kuwait also makes “financial contributions” for the bureau’s “legal fees and expenses.”

“Kuwait has long sought the return of two prisoners held at the US facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, under accusation of belonging to al-Qaeda,” the Congressional Research Service noted in a May 2015 report. “Amir Sabah reportedly raised the issue with President Obama during their September 13, 2013, White House meeting.”

A secret 2009 cable published by WikiLeaks suggests divisions within the Kuwaiti government, however. The cable indicates that the then-interior minister, Sheikh Jaber al-Khaled al-Sabah, told then-US Ambassador Deborah Jones that the United States should just “get rid of them.”

 “You know better than I that we cannot deal with these people,” Sabah allegedly told Jones. “I can talk to you into next week about building a rehabilitation center, but it won’t happen.”

“If they are rotten, they are rotten and the best thing to do is get rid of them,” Sabah added. “You picked them up in Afghanistan; you should drop them off in Afghanistan, in the middle of the war zone.”

Two years later, heated debate over the fate of Odah and Kandari escalated into a brawl between Shiite and Muslim Brotherhood lawmakers in the Kuwaiti parliament, according to CNN. Most of the members of parliament, however, signed on to a petition asking the United States to give them a fair trial or release them.

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