Life After Guantánamo: “It Doesn’t Leave You”

A former Guantánamo detainee was disappeared in Yemen, as calls come from Congress to close the military prison.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept

On Tuesday, with 39 men remaining at Guantánamo Bay, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on closing the infamous military prison. This week on Intercepted: Intercept photo editor Elise Swain breaks down the horrifying story of one Yemeni man after being released from Guantánamo. After 20 years in arbitrary detention, former Guantánamo detainee Abdulqadir al Madhfari was released from a United Arab Emirates prison to his family’s care in Yemen. His freedom lasted less than a week. Suffering the mental impact of long-term detention and torture, al Madhfari fled from his own family and was captured and detained by Houthi rebels in Yemen. Swain discusses the consequences of life after Guantanamo with Mansoor Adayfi, a former detainee and author of the memoir “Don’t Forget Us Here.” Mansoor calls for accountability and reparations to the men detained and tortured, describing how his life and those of others now resemble “Guantánamo 2.0.”

[Introductory music.]

Elise Swain: Imagine you’re taken by U.S. forces, tortured, held in Guantánamo for 14 years, released to start a new life, tortured again in the country that promised to help you, then sent home to war-torn Yemen — and then, finally free, you’re disappeared by Houthi rebels who want you dead. That’s what happened to Abdulqadir. 

[Credits theme music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

ES: I’m Elise Swain, photo editor of The Intercept. For years now, I’ve been working in multimedia for The Intercept, covering a variety of topics but keeping a close eye on developments with Guantánamo Bay. 

Next month will be the 20th anniversary of the day men in orange jumpsuits arrived, hooded and shackled, at the detention center. 

Since 2002, nearly 800 men have been held at the military prison — including the 39 men who remain there today.

And just this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the closing of the military prison:

Major General Michael R. Lehnert: There are some who need to pay the price for their crimes. But what we have now is not justice. There is no justice for the detainees, but more importantly, the relatives of the victims of 9/11, and of other terror attacks deserve justice, and they deserve closure, and they are not getting it.

ES: We’re going to talk today about what happened to one man when he left Guantánamo. 

I’ve been reporting on a story that I still can’t believe is real — it’s been impossible to wrap my head around what this man went through and what his family went through. 

His name is Abdulqadir al Madhfari, and he is Guantánamo detainee number 40. 

Right after 9/11, during the CIA’s dragnet sweep across the Middle East, Abdulqadir was taken from Pakistan. He was likely sold to the CIA before being flown in 2002 to Guantánamo Bay. 

But Abdulqadir wasn’t an Al Qaeda member. He was a young physician’s assistant. But the CIA, believing he was a terrorist, tortured him in interrogations and then held him for the next 14 years — without any charges.

Hope for Abdulqadir arrived in 2016, when Obama’s term concluded, and a deal was arranged for 18 Yemenis to leave the prison. Instead of going home to war-torn Yemen — which would have violated international humanitarian law at the time – they were sent to the United Arab Emirates. There, they were promised rehabilitation and resettlement.

Newscaster (EuroNews): Fifteen inmates from Guantánamo prison have been sent to the United Arab Emirates in the single largest transfer of detainees during President Obama’s administration. The removal of 12 Yemeni nationals and three Afghans brings the number of prisoners down to 61, but it still doesn’t meet Obama’s promise to close the facility.

ES: Instead, Abdulqadir and many others were imprisoned in UAE jails, notoriously rife with torture. Yemenis, like Abdulqadir, who are suspected of being Al Qaeda are especially targeted — even today.

Newscaster (AP News): For as much as five years, 18 Yemeni detainees have remained imprisoned in the UAE, following more than a decade at the U.S. detention facility without being charged. 

ES: While Trump was in office, these men languished in UAE jails. So after more than a decade needlessly imprisoned at Guantánamo, these men were sent to the UAE, where once again they were jailed, tortured, and held in solitary confinement with almost no contact with the outside world. 

Their families kept waiting — wondering if their sons and brothers were still alive.

By late 2020, amid the pandemic, the UAE agreed to transfer the men and send them to Yemen, despite humanitarian warnings. A country still embroiled in civil war, experiencing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

Newscaster (Vice News): For nearly six years, the poorest country in the region has been locked in an intractable war that’s killed 100,000 people, pushed millions to the brink of starvation, and caused the biggest cholera outbreak in history. 

Newscaster (SkyNews): Saudi Arabia, supported by a coalition of countries, including the U.K., U.S.A., and the UAE, have been bombing Yemen since 2015. 

ES: Last month, Abdulqadir resurfaced at an Emirati security base in Yemen. His family was simply told: “Come get him.” 

When his brother and uncle arrived, Abdulqadir was so mentally traumatized that he didn’t even recognize them. It took five days to convince him to leave with his own immediate family. Emirati forces actually had to blindfold Abdulqadir to even get him in the car.

One day after arriving at his family’s home, Abdulqadir convinced his family — who he didn’t recognize still — to take him outside for a walk. And then he bolted, running away from them into the streets of Sanaa. 

His family had no idea what happened to him for days, until they finally learned Houthi militants had taken him at a checkpoint.

Now this is especially dire because Abdulqadir, as a former Guantánamo detainee, is high risk for abduction, torture, imprisonment, and even assassination by the Iranian-backed Houthis.

Now, Abdulqadir’s family now fears the worst. His brother Ameen told me the news was so devastating, one brother ended up in the hospital for a week, and another sister went into shock. 

I first learned about Abdulqadir’s story from Mansoor Adayfi. He, too, is a former detainee. Mansoor spent 14 years without charge in Guantánamo. He’s now the Guantánamo project coordinator for CAGE, an independent human rights organization.

Mansoor recently published a beautiful and urgent memoir called “Don’t Forget Us Here,” and I spoke with Mansoor about Abdulqadir’s case, and his own experience with Guantánamo, and life after detention.

Mansoor Adayfi: You know, Elise, in general, if we talk about Guantánamo itself, it was, as you know, the world knows what Guantánamo is about. 

Guantánamo stands for oppression, torture, lawlessness, injustice, and abuse of power and indefinite detention. Imagine those men — we spent years and years at Guantánamo, almost like 10, 15 or 20 years. So when you get released, the United States government, they wanted to get rid of the people from Guantánamo, so they found some hosting countries. And they asked them to rehabilitate and to integrate them. They asked. 

You get lucky if you went, at least, to a country like Western Europe, Qatar, Oman. You’ll be lucky because [if you went to] those countries, you managed to integrate and managed to become productive members of the society. 

But, in my case, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, and many cases, as we have been researching those cases and studying for the last few years, are devastating cases. Abdulqadir, just one of the recent cases.

ES: Mansoor, you are also from Yemen. Abdulqadir was from Yemen. Your country at the time of 2016 was in a civil war when you were released from Guantánamo. So talk about why Abdulqadir ended up in the United Arab Emirates, and why you ended up where you are now.

MA: In 2009, the Congress put a moratorium, and no Yemeni should be released from Guantánamo back to Yemen. 

So in 2013, we got approved to be released, but not to Yemen. So the United States tried to find a third country that would host us. And it was like a program of resettlement. But when the detainees arrived in the Arab Emirates, they were taken to jail. And they were subjected to abuse, and torture, and spent five years in jail.

ES: So when you found out that these Yemenis were leaving the United Arab Emirates this last month, and were being sent back to Yemen against everyone’s wishes, what was your reaction to hearing that news?

MA: First, last year, they tried last year to forcefully release and send those men to Yemen. And, as you know, the country’s crisis, war, starvation, and I think one of the most humanitarian crises in modern history. So it was unsafe to release those men back to Yemen. 

The media covered the case and the United Arab Emirates stopped the release. 

So what happened? This year, the men, the Yemeni prisoners at the United Arab Emirates jail, got coronavirus, they were hospitalized, and some of them were admitted to ICU. So the United Arab Emirates, I think, don’t want anyone to die in their jail. So what they did, they wanted to get rid of them. 

When we heard the news that the men will be sent back to Yemen, the families contacted me because I start to work with the CAGE as Guantánamo project coordinator, I reached out to the ICRC, I reached out to the lawyers in the United States and I told them about the case, and I told them: This shouldn’t be happening. The men should be relocated to a third country where they will be safe, and should be also given proper treatment. 

But the lawyer talked to the State Department, but there was no answer. And so in July, the first group was sent back to Yemen. Then last month, the second group.

ES: Mansoor, you knew Abdulqadir when you were both in Guantánamo. So what was he like as a man before his mental health deteriorated in the last five years?

MA: You know, Elise, the story started, the man went to Pakistan to study medicine, a smart and brilliant student. Like many other cases, he was kidnapped in Pakistan, and sold to the CIA.

I met Abdulqadir at Guantánamo. A quiet guy, well educated, and clean, and liked to read a lot. But in recent years, I noticed that he had some mental problems, because he was really subjected to intense interrogation and torture. And at Guantánamo, the symptoms started when he tried to isolate himself all the time: less talking, interacting – spent days without coming out or eating or something. And we tried to figure out what’s going on with him, taking care of him, and so on.

At Guantánamo, he used to do phone calls with his family, talking to them, everything was fine. When he was transferred to the United Emirates, it was a shock for everyone because the lawyers and the State Department told those detainees: You will be sent to the United Arab Emirates as a resettlement. You will be given a stipend, house, you will be given a program, study, you will get married, and so on.

Transfer came from the United Arab Arab Emirates without any coordination with anyone. Not with their families, not with the lawyers, not with human rights organizations, with anyone. They just ship the men in an airplane, they throw them in their militia base in Mukalla

So the family received messages: Come pick up your son from here. 

They have to sign, like, some paper and that’s as simple as that. 

When the family arrived in Mukalla to take Abdulqadir, he refused to leave the jail. He told them: No, this is a game. He didn’t recognize his own brother, his own uncle — not anyone.

ES: In Yemen, we have a lot of different actors within the Civil War. There are the Houthi rebels, there’s the Yemeni government of President Hadi, there is the Southern Transitional Council, which are South Yemen separatists. Explain how all of these groups view former detainees from Guantánamo. What are the assumptions? And why is it so dangerous to be accused of being al Qaeda by the United States in Yemen right now?

MA: It all goes to the stigma of life after Guantánamo. 

So Guantánamo doesn’t leave you as soon as you say: Hi, goodbye. Nope, it hasn’t finished with you yet. So we still live in Guantánamo 2.0. 

So as you see in the situation in Yemen, you have many factions, and many crazy groups fighting against each other. The Yemeni government has been living in Saudi Arabian hotels for the last seven years. I haven’t seen this in my life, that the government sleeps somewhere in some country in hotels there, while the people are fighting and dying of starvation, coronavirus, civil wars, and so on. 

So being Guantánamo detainee, you will be targeted by everyone, because everyone would say: We are fighting against terrorism. So when you look at the situation there, there wasn’t any kind of justice or human rights and so on. As you know, the United Arab Emirates according to the director of SAM, Tawfik al Hamidi, they documented 18 secret prisons in the United Arab Emirates just in Aden and Hadhramaut And imagine what had been there. It’s even worse thing than even the black sites: Torture, abuses, some people are missing, some people are missing. Some have disappeared forever. 

And I have followed some of the reports and so on. It is shocking what happened there. It’s really shocking. And the United States was part of the interrogation there. It’s not just the United States — other countries, even the British government was involved in those interrogations. So we are talking about being a Guantánamo detainee and going back to Yemen, you will be targeted by everyone. So being accused being al Qaeda or being a terrorist, and going back to Yemen, welcome to the show!

So that’s what happened. When I talked to two of the released brothers, they said: We are really afraid and anything can happen at any time, and we didn’t feel safe. Our family doesn’t feel safe. And we don’t know where else to go. 

If we are talking about us, in some countries, those countries reached an agreement with the United States, and we are being monitored, we’re being targeted, we are being harassed; we are being interrogated and arrested — for what?

ES: To be clear here, Mansoor, what you’re saying is that once these men leave Guantánamo, everywhere that they are sent is with the explicit permission and written contract of the United States State Department and United States government, essentially.

MA: Yes! Yes! It has to go through an agreement between the United States government and the hosting country; also the lawyers are involved in that. The lawyers are part of it. 

So for example, when I was in Guantánamo, the Serbian delegation came to me. They said: You will be treated like any Serbian, but you will not be able to vote. So I told them I didn’t want to come. I was released against my own will to Serbia. I had no choice. They told me: You have no choice.

ES: So what happened with Abdulqadir and his horrific fate now of being re-imprisoned once he went to the United Arab Emirates, tortured again, released to Yemen, finally free after 20 years of arbitrary detention. He then has 72 hours basically free and then is kidnapped and disappeared within the Houthi prison system. 

You and I have been still in contact with Ameen, his brother. We don’t have any updates. By the time this podcast airs, it will have been three weeks since he was disappeared. What do you know about other men who have been released from Guantánamo?

MA: Last year I graduated from my university, I finished my bachelor degree — ha! Happy for me!

Anyway — so my thesis: I had a choice either to do a thesis about closing Guantánamo, or about rehabilitation and reintegration of former Guantánamo detainees into social life and the labor market. So I choose to do my thesis about rehabilitation and reintegration of former Guantánamo detainees into social life and the labor market. And this is the first research [that] has been done about this topic. What subgroups? I started reaching out to everyone: former detainees, families, lawyers, authors, human rights activists, NGOs, officials — everyone. It took me a long, long, long time because there is no resource, or you can’t search about it.

So I started interviewing everyone. There was no kind of rehabilitation or reintegration program, simply. And you have different categories of detainees: detainees who managed to integrate into the society and become productive members in their life, depends on their resettlement country or hosting country. For Germany, England, or London, or Qatar, or Oman, they’re doing well. They have families, jobs, and people have moved on with their life. 

But the second group where people live in countries that are border restricted, the worst part of all of that what the United Arab Emirates and Senegal and Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates imprisoned them in there, tortured them and abused them worse than Guantánamo. And they get devastated mentally and psychologically. 

Kazakhstan actually, they asked people to live there. Two of them were relocated. One of the cases in Kazakhstan, in 2015, only after six months, one of the brothers, who lived in Kazakhstan, died because they refused to take him to the hospital for his kidney problem. They said he doesn’t have authorization to go to another city. 

The second brother also died in Mauritania this year because he needed a travel document to go have surgery for his heart. His country refused to give him a travel document; ICRC refused to provide the travel document; Mauritania doesn’t have the health system that can operate in his heart because he needed really sophisticated surgery. So the doctor told him: You have only six months or you’re going to die. 

The man waited, and the organization CAGE actually tried to help. They raised money for him. He needed $3,000. They managed to get the fund and to get the surgery but his life would depend on a piece of paper and they knew he didn’t have much time. So what happened? Let him die. And he died. 

I used to contact him. I was talking to him. We tried with lawyers, with everyone. But, you know, we are helpless.

ES: So we’re talking about a complete lack of care and following up from the United States to right a historic wrong that was done in our names, right? So these men have been basically abandoned completely by the United States and any due diligence to give them rehabilitation. 

What could be done for you, right now? What do you wish that the United States would do, with your case, specifically, in Serbia, as an example?

MA: If you talk about my case, you know, I need to be relocated to a place where I can start my life. Where I can build my life and move on with my life, where I can be free and continue — this is my dream, to get married and so on. Because one of the things here: I couldn’t get married — I found a woman, I talked to the family, everything was fine — because of a travel document. 

ES: You didn’t have it? 

MA: It just left me devastated. No, I didn’t have a travel document.

For example, now, if I travel to any country, many detainees face many difficulties when they travel to countries: they get stopped at airports, they get denied visas, some of them get arrested, some of them are actually asked to leave the country immediately when they find out they were at Guantánamo.

In my thesis about rehabilitation and reintegration programs, I made some recommendations. First of all, as you asked, there should be some kind of acknowledgement. There also should be some kind of apologizing and compensation. Simple as that. This is justice. We asked for justice. You know?

They brought us to Guantánamo and tortured us by the name of justice and they found out that we are not guilty. We have done nothing. So now we are asking for justice. You have devastated our lives, you take years and years of our lives, we need just to build our lives. We need some help. We need to be free. You don’t have to live in the stigma. Because you will find yourself living in Guantánamo 2.0.

ES: Mansoor Adayfi, thank you so much for joining me on Intercepted. You are a great friend to me and also an inspiration. And I’m proud of you. Thank you so much.

MA: Thank you so much, Elise, and I hope that the U.S. government can do something about these cases.

ES: That was Mandsoor Adayfi, Guantánamo project coordinator at CAGE. Mansoor’s memoir is just out and is an incredibly important historical record that is called “Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantánamo.”

[Credits music.]

ES: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.

This is our last episode of the year. Thank you so much for listening during 2021. We’ll be taking a bit of a break, and we’ll be back on January 12.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. This episode was produced by José Olivares and Truc Nguyen. Supervising Producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Will Stanton mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was produced by DJ Spooky.

And I’m Elise Swain.

A huge thank you to everybody who gave on Giving Tuesday, and if you didn’t and would like to support our work, please go to — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

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Thanks so much. Until next time.

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