When Mohammed Tahamuttan was asked in Guantanamo how he felt about the United States, the prisoner responded: "So what does American (sic) want with me now after four years when I have not posed any problems to them? ...And if I have said anything incriminating, it is because of the stressful psychological conditions I have endured in this prison. I don't have any affiliation or loyalty to any group that fights the US or Israel or their allies."
That was in late 2005. Since then, not much has happened in Tahamuttan's life -- except that he has languished behind bars for four more years.
Last week, the Palestinian had an opportunity to tell his story once again, but the audience this time was a group of German government officials. With outside temperatures hovering around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade, a delegation from Berlin consisting of representatives from the Interior Ministry, the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation and the Federal Office for Migration sat in one of the interrogation containers and listened to Tahamuttan and several other detainees tell their stories. The officials were there to gauge the level of risk associated with some of the prisoners it is considering bringing to Germany, in a way that was almost like a Caribbean casting session for the most desirable prisoners.
These interviews are the latest -- but presumably not the final -- act in months of ongoing secret negotiations between Berlin and Washington aimed at brokering a diplomatic deal. This spring, Germany is expected to take in some of the approximately 190 inmates still being held in the world's most notorious prison. For US President Barack Obama, who confidently declared upon assuming office in January 2009 that he would close the camp within a year, this would be a small victory. For the German government, it would be a foreign policy gesture of goodwill. And for prisoners like Mohammed Tahamuttan, it would be the end of a very protracted ordeal.
A Change in Stance
The upcoming decision has been closely coordinated between Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), the CDU's current coalition partner, and the Chancellery -- and it signals a change of course in Germany's domestic policies. Under the grand coalition government in power between 2005 and 2009, Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) and the CDU were committed to prioritizing security. Indeed, protecting Germany was seen as being more important than nurturing trans-Atlantic relations and securing the freedom of individual prisoners.
For example, when US Attorney General Eric Holder visited Berlin in April 2009 and said that "we must all make sacrifices" to close Guantanamo and appealed to Europe "to work with one of its oldest allies" to do so, de Maizière's predecessor in office, current Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), rebuffed him. Schäuble curtly questioned whether the prisoners in question would also be allowed to go on future vacations in the US, if they really had such a clean record.
August Hanning, who was state secretary in the Interior Ministry at the time, expressed Germany's skepticism on four official points. He wrote that the US needed to provide some clarification as to whether the prisoners still posed a threat, why they could not be allowed into the US, why there were no other countries that could take them in, and why Germany should be singled out as a possible recipient of the prisoners even though they had absolutely no ties to the country. The questions were phrased in such a way as to make it impossible for the Americans to answer them. And that was meant to settle the matter.
Still, during a conversation with Holder in Rome, Schäuble added an important element to Germany's official position -- along with a request for discretion. Germany's position would remain unchanged until after parliamentary elections in September 2009, Schäuble reportedly told Holder, but the issue would be revisited at some point thereafter.
Doing Things the Merkel Way
For the Americans, the new political constellation in Berlin comes at just the right moment. Since the September elections, the German government has followed a more pragmatic approach. For example, if it furthers the country's foreign policy goals, the government is willing to bring Guantanamo prisoners into the country. De Maizière -- who went from being Merkel's chief of staff in the Chancellery to the head of the Interior Ministry -- is trying to soften his predecessor's confrontational approach. He doesn't want to be seen as the country's security minister, and he has opted to only address the topics of Islamist terror and more stringent laws when absolutely necessary. In fact, he is putting reforms championed by Schäuble on ice -- and his first official act was to put Hanning out to pasture. These days, the Interior Ministry is devoting more of its time to topics such as online privacy rather than terrorism.
While still at the Chancellery, although de Maizière disapproved of the callous way in which Schäuble rebuffed the Americans, he refrained from publicly voicing his reservations. Still, it was possible to divine his stance on Guantanamo from what he told the investigative committee of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, in 2007 concerning the return of a prisoner named Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen and resident of the northern German city of Bremen. At the time, de Maizière said that "we made a decision according to which humanitarian concerns took precedence over security interests."
This new course puts the Interior Minister on the same track with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had repeatedly complained about Schäuble's actions as interior minister. Indeed, de Maizière brings something of Merkel's political style to the Interior Ministry. For her part, Merkel has assured Obama of her support if the US closes the military prison. And if it can, she said, Germany "will help." But even if that was the message Merkel wanted to send to Washington, this was officially still the area of responsibility for Schäuble and Hanning.
The Candidates: Tahamuttan
Last December, before launching their second attempt to make Germany part of its prisoner relocation plan, the Americans waited until both men had cleaned out their desks. Then, Daniel Fried, the US administration's special envoy for matters related to Guantanamo's closing, flew to Berlin and delivered a new, updated list of detainees who Germany could consider accepting. Washington's wish list included nine names, one of which was detainee #684, Mohammed Tahamuttan.
Tahamuttan is one of a group of individuals who more or less accidentally found themselves between the fronts of America's "war on terror." Tahamuttan comes from the Palestinian territories. He grew up on the West Bank and quickly had his fill of intifada, war and deplorable living conditions. According to US documents, in October 2001, he left his home and flew from Jordan to Pakistan. Tahamuttan yearned to be a pious man. Since the age of 14, he has been a fervent supporter of the Islamic missionary movement Tabligh-i-Jamaat. The group acquired a visa for him and arranged for him to stay in a religious school in Raiwind. There, Tahamuttan studied the Koran for four months before moving on to Lahore, then Quetta and, finally, Faisalabad.
In Pakistan, Tahamuttan came in contact with a few Arab students, but they turned out to be the wrong friends to have. One night, in March 2002, American soldiers kicked in the door and arrested the group. It was the same night that Abu Zubaydah, a high-ranking al-Qaida commander, was captured. According to the Americans at least, the house was a terrorist hideout for Zubaydah's men. Tahamuttan was flown directly to Guantanamo.
Mohammed Tahamuttan is now 30 years old and has been scheduled to be released for some time now. He could go home -- if he had a home to go to, that is, a country where he would be welcome. He doesn't want to return to the West Bank and, as a Palestinian, he doesn't have an official nationality. As of yet, no country has come forward to welcome him. But that still might now change with Germany.
The Candidates: Al Shurfa and al Ali
Although Fried won't officially comment on the current state of US-German negotiations, in Washington, the talks have been described as being particularly drawn-out. By now, 10 European countries have taken prisoners in, including France, Spain and Switzerland. The German government can also already cross a number of the nine names off the list Fried brought it Berlin last year. These former detainees have already found refuge elsewhere in Europe, with the two most recent ones settling in Albania. Among the remaining candidates, in addition to Tahamuttan, there is also Ohmed Ahmed Mahamoud al Shurfa, a 34-year-old Jordanian, whom the German delegation also met with last week.
Al Shurfa's checkered past illustrates just how difficult it is to make a risk prognosis. As a student in the Gaza Strip, he was reportedly influenced by Hamas. According to US military documents, in the summer of 2001, a Saudi sheik allegedly turned him on to jihad, urged him to get involved in the holy war, gave him 2,000 Saudi riyals (€397, $533) and sent him to Afghanistan.
According to these documents, al Shurfa traveled first to Kandahar and then to Khost before finally ending up at Camp Faruk, a training site for primarily foreign-born al-Qaida recruits. Al-Shufra makes pains to point out that he only talked about waging jihad -- but never really did so. Likewise, he told his interrogators that he didn't complete his training because he quarreled with his instructors. He does admit, however, that he "trained with a Kalashnikov." To this day, it remains unclear how much of the information in these documents is true and how much is not.
Then, there is a Mahmud Salem al Ali, 35, a Syrian who was allegedly also on his way to Camp Faruk. Either way, he never got there. Al Ali got sick, checked himself into a hospital in Kabul and was captured when the US Army marched into town.
Al Ali is another candidate for Germany. His file is thin -- and the few details the Americans have collected about him seem like rumors more than anything fact-based. He reportedly traveled to Afghanistan in Oct. 2001 after allegedly purchasing pro-jihad videos at a bazaar in Kuwait. Witnesses maintain that they once saw him dressed in Taliban clothing and holding a Kalashnikov. When Kabul fell, he allegedly tried to flee in a taxi and was reportedly robbed before being arrested, temporarily detained at the US military base in Bagram and flown to Guantanamo, where the German delegation interviewed him last week.
Worries at Home
When the government officials return to Germany, they will compile a report for de Maizière. But a positive evaluation in the report will not guarantee that a candidate will be welcomed in German. In the end, the decision is a political one that the German government will have to make.
In contrast to the stance of the grand coalition -- which saw then-Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) backing the acceptance of former prisoners as vehemently as Schäuble opposed it -- hardly any wrangling is expected within the current government. For its part, the FDP had already made its stance clear before the September elections. Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, for example, said that Germany needs to "send a political signal," adding that doing so could "show a willingness to bear the consequences of Guantanamo and its closing."
In the new government, Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger holds the position of justice minister, and her ministry is open-minded about the government's bringing former prisoners to Germany. Likewise, party leader and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has already signaled his agreement in government circles, and the Foreign Ministry will most likely back the Interior Ministry's decision. The diplomats mainly had concerns about accepting two Uighur candidates because it could sour relations with the Chinese government.
The biggest hurdles de Maizière will have to overcome can be found within his own party and the interior ministries of the German states, which he will have to call on to find homes for the former inmates. Hans-Peter Uhl, for example, the conservatives' spokesman for domestic security issues, continues to demand that the Americans furnish risk prognoses for each individual detainee as well as "an explanation in each individual case for why they themselves are not taking the prisoners in." And Uhl predicts that, in the end, Germany will "probably accept no one."
The interior ministers in the individual German states are also warning against being overly willing to accept former detainees. In arguing, they point Pentagon statistics indicating that, so far, over 10 percent of the prisoners released from Guantanamo have joined or re-joined al-Qaida. State politicians also see the prospective new inhabitants as a security problem that will tax the resources of the law-enforcement and security apparatus.
While the politicians have the photos of people in orange-colored jumpsuits in mind, it just might be that their worries are exaggerated. In fact, the inmates probably have very different, more practical problems on their minds. Mahmud Salem al Ali, for example, said he would like to find a new wife. And Ahmed al Shurfa went on record as saying that the first thing he would need is psychological help.