Germany's Guests from Guantanamo Are the Former Prisoners a Security Threat?

The German states of Hamburg and Rhineland-Palatinate are preparing for the arrival of two former Guantanamo inmates. Are the men simply two people who need assistance and a new start, or do they pose a security risk?



Working in a fruit and vegetable market in Kuwait was Mahmoud Salim al-Ali's last regular job. He also has experience working in the service sector and in industry, as a salesperson in the Sultan Shopping Center and with the Al-Fahad Aluminum & Glass Works.

That was his old life, before he went to Afghanistan in October 2001 to join the Taliban, was captured and later taken to the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Al-Ali, also known as prisoner number 537, will soon travel to Germany, where some are wondering what kind of a new life he faces. Will he be able to work in a vegetable market again? Or is the former inmate Germany has agreed to accept a traumatized prisoner of war urgently in need of care and therapy?

Representatives of the German and American governments spent months in negotiations over Berlin's acceptance of Guantanamo inmates. Last Wednesday, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), announced that Berlin has now agreed to take two inmates: al-Ali, a 36-year-old Syrian and Ahmed Mohammed al-Shurfa, a 34-year-old Palestinian who grew up in Saudi Arabia. A third candidate was rejected. Two German states, Hamburg and Rhineland-Palatinate, will serve as hosts.

No Convincing Approach to Guantanamo

The interior minister's decision, though it marks the end of an undignified tug-of-war and sends a humanitarian signal, leaves much to be desired. For some it is not enough, while for others it is too much. The only people for whom the decision is likely to be truly satisfactory are the two inmates.

For his fellow party members, even this small gesture on the part of de Maizière goes too far. Key conservative state interior ministers, for example, were against the idea. And it hardly helps the United States in its plan to close Guantanamo, because al-Ali and al-Shurfa are only two of the roughly 180 inmates still being held at the camp.

Are the two men a security risk or are they desperately in need of assistance? Will they be welfare cases or seek vengeance? Almost nine years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and eight years since the first inmates arrived in Guantanamo, German and American politicians alike have not developed a convincing approach to addressing the problem of the Guantanamo inmates. The US military, for its part, has already had to admit that its accusations against many of the detainees were based on nothing but hearsay.

The State Department has diplomatically praised Berlin's decision as a "strong signal of Germany's commitment." But the truth is that it is still a burden for the Americans to search for new homes for their prisoners in other countries. The untiring efforts of Daniel Fried, the globetrotting US special envoy to Guantanamo, often fall on deaf ears. He has only managed to find homes for 33 inmates to date, in countries that include France, Spain, the Maldives, and now Germany.

"It is fair to say, as just an objective statement, that the US could resettle more detainees, had we been willing to take in some", Fried told the BBC. But an overwhelming majority in the US Senate was opposed to the idea.

Unnerved, the administration of President Barack Obama finally agreed to provide written guarantees, which Berlin had demanded in lengthy negotiations (and it is probably the only ally to have done so). "The United States will not release any inmates if this could jeopardize the security of the United States or our friends and allies," a joint declaration reads.

A Joint Declaration

Now the Germans also have it in writing that the US government would not permit any individuals deemed a threat to the national security of the United States to "enter the country." What this means is that the inmates being released and sent to Germany are not dangerous and could even enter the United States as tourists.

This represents a delayed victory for Wolfgang Schäuble who, as interior minister in Berlin's former grand coalition government, refused to accept Guantanamo inmates because, as he noted, they would not even be given a tourist visa for the United States.

But now the US government has even expressly promised "to work on ways to find humanitarian solutions for all detainees approved for release, including those that the United States has not yet taken abroad." The phrase "humanitarian solutions" refers to inmates being accepted in the United States.

Berlin did not give the go-ahead for the acceptance of inmates until the two countries had agreed on the wording of the German-American declaration.

Everything went very quickly after that. Last Tuesday, Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust (CDU) received a call from de Maizière. Some time ago, Beust had indicated that the city-state was in principle willing to help out with Guantanamo inmates. Now the interior minister wanted to know whether Beust was still prepared to abide by his promise. Beust said he was.

At 7:30 a.m. the next morning, a Wednesday, de Maizière called Karl Peter Bruch, the interior minister of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate and a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Bruch was still at home eating breakfast when his counterpart in Berlin asked him to accept an inmate. De Maizière said that it was an urgent matter, because he planned to seek cabinet approval and issue a press release that same day. It was just before the summer recess, and the interior minister was determined to avoid a renewed public debate on the issue, which could last weeks.


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