Watch CBS News

Pentagon says Guantanamo detainee accused of being linked to 9/11 transferred to Saudi Arabia

The Defense Department announced Monday that Mohammad Mani Ahmad al-Qahtani, who has been accused of being the "20th hijacker" in the September 11, 2001 terrorism plot, has been sent home to Saudi Arabia from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

A review board determined in June 2021 that al-Qahtani did not present a current threat to national security, and recommended repatriation to Saudi Arabia. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin notified Saudi Arabia in February of the decision. 

"The United States appreciates the willingness of Saudi Arabia and other partners to support ongoing U.S. efforts toward a deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing of the Guantanamo Bay facility," the Defense Department said in a statement.

Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney of the Guantanamo project at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said al-Qahtani has suffered schizophrenia since a young age, and that in 2002, an FBI official saw al-Qahtani speaking to non-existent people, hearing voices and crouching in a corner of his cell while covering himself with a sheet for hours. Kadidal said al-Qahtani has repeatedly tried to kill himself. 

In a statement from February, the Center for Constitutional Rights said that an independent psychiatric expert examined al-Qahtani at Guantanamo and confirmed the diagnosis of schizophrenia in 2016, and the military's own doctors unanimously agreed with that conclusion. 

US prison camp Guantánamo
16 October 2018, Cuba, Guantanamo Bay: A watchtower stands behind a barbed wire fence. The infamous camp has now existed for almost 17 years. 40 inmates are still being held there.  picture alliance

In 2009, Susan Crawford, the senior Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial, declined to recommend al-Qahtani's case for prosecution because he had been tortured at the prison.

"His treatment met the legal definition of torture," Crawford said at the time, according to The Washington Post. "And that's why I did not refer the case"  

In previously declassified court documents from 2016, the government accused of al-Qahtani of being "almost certainly selected by senior al Qaeda members to be the 20th hijacker of the 9/11 attacks." The documents alleged al-Qahtani likely understood he was part of a suicide mission, but "he was probably unaware of the specifics of the attack." He was denied entry into the U.S. by immigration officers, who "found the circumstances of his travel and his conduct to be suspicious," the documents said. 

The declassified documents said the lead hijacker, Mohammed Atta, was "almost certainly" waiting to pick up al-Qahtani at the Orlando airport in 2001 when he was denied entry and deported to the United Arab Emirates.

The government said al-Qahtani returned to Pakistan and Afghanistan in August 2001 to tell Atta and Osama bin Laden separately that he was denied entry to the U.S. He then traveled to Kabul to fight against the U.S. and its allies, the documents said. The government said al-Qahtani was briefly in Tora Bora and rejoined bin Laden and his bodyguards before being captured. 

The documents alleged he "repeatedly" tried to "disassociate himself" from al Qaeda, although the government said that they believed his "repeated denials of terrorism involvement" limited their "insight into his motivation." His family has no known links to terrorism, the government said. 

The Center for Constitutional Rights said al-Qahtani "was brutally tortured, at the direction of officials in Washington who sought to 'break' a man whose connection to reality had already been threadbare for years."

With al-Qahtani's release, 38 detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay, the Defense Department said Monday. Of those 38, the Defense Department said 19 are eligible for transfer; 7 are eligible for a review; 10 are involved in the military commissions process; and two detainees have been convicted in military commissions.

President Joe Biden has vowed to close the prison at Guantanamo before he leaves office, and in February 2021, the administration announced it would be launching an interagency review of the prison. 

David Martin and Margaret Brennan contributed to this report. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.