Ahmed Abdul Qader was an overweight Yemeni teenager suspected of being a terrorist when the U.S. military brought him to Guantánamo. When he left, he was past 30 and about to start a new life in the little Baltic country of Estonia.
TALLINN, Estonia —
When guards brought Ahmed Abdul Qader to the plane that would take him away from the Guantánamo Bay prison a year and a half ago, he asked permission to pause before boarding. Closing his eyes, he tried to leave behind the burden of his 13 years of captivity.
Qader was about 17 — an overweight Yemeni teenager suspected of being a terrorist — when the U.S. military brought him to Guantánamo. When he left, he was past 30, his hair thinning, and about to start a new life in Estonia, a tiny Baltic country he had never heard of before it had decided to resettle a detainee a few months earlier.
A day later, he was in his new home, a modestly furnished studio apartment in Tallinn provided by the Estonian government. But the past, he soon realized, was not so easy to escape. Snow was falling, and he was eager to touch it. He started for the door, but panicked, fearful that something — he was not sure what — could go wrong if he went outside.
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“Any trouble I get myself in now — even an honest mistake — will be a hundred times worse than if any normal person did it,” Qader said recently, trying to explain how that sense of paralysis has stayed with him. “I thought that after two months’ release, I’d be back to normal,” he said. “But I cannot live my life regularly. I try, but it is like part of me is still at Guantánamo.”
Qader is one of about 780 men who have been held at the prison since the Bush administration opened it after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Guantánamo was an experiment: using indefinite detention without trial, a tool of traditional wars, for an open-ended conflict in which distinguishing dangerous enemies from people caught on the periphery can be very difficult.
President Obama inherited 242 detainees when he came into office vowing to close the prison. Today 76 remain, 32 of them approved for transfer to a stable country willing to accept them. Congressional Republicans oppose closing the prison and further transfers, pointing to a minority of former detainees accused of recidivism.
Cloud of suspicion
In the long and contentious debate over Guantánamo’s future, former detainees who have been transferred and caused no problems have been largely forgotten. But while their files may have been closed, the ambiguity surrounding their release — deemed safe enough to transfer, but never proved guilty or innocent — continues to brand them.
Qader recently spoke about his post-Guantánamo life. He expressed gratitude to Estonia for taking him in. Its refugee program provides him with the apartment, health care, language classes, a small monthly stipend and a mentor to help him navigate daily life.
He smiled often and spoke with optimism about the future. But he also lapsed into despondency about his separation from his family, his lost youth and his “hurt” when people call him a terrorist. He portrayed himself as paralyzed by anxiety about what others — the police, potential friends or employers — will assume about him.
“Thirteen years of my life I wasted, and it’s not because of something I did,” he said. “It’s because something went wrong around me, and I got the blame for it.”
Qader was arrested with about a dozen other Arabs at a guesthouse in Pakistan in March 2002. That night, Pakistani police also raided another guesthouse in the same city, capturing a prominent terrorism suspect, Abu Zubaydah.
Police conflated the two houses, saying both harbored what were thought to be cells of al-Qaida. But the evidence linking the group to Qader’s house, where many residents claimed to be religious students, was thinner.
Qader was transferred to U.S. custody, and that June he was flown to Guantánamo. He vividly recalls the “long, long, long” flight to Cuba — limbs immobilized, eyes and ears blocked, destination unknown.
In 2009, a six-agency detainee-review task force re-evaluated Qader and, according to someone who read its report, concluded he had not conducted or facilitated any terrorist activity against the United States or its allies.
That finding, officials said, is echoed in many reports about low-level detainees, and it is ambiguous: It could either mean he was innocent or, though part of the enemy, did nothing specific. Either way, the task force deemed him a low enough risk to be transferred.
In 2014, the Obama administration stopped waiting for Yemen to stabilize and began pressing other countries to resettle stranded Yemenis. After Russia intervened in Ukraine, Estonia — another former Soviet republic, and a NATO member — agreed to take one.
A new start
At first, Qader recalled, he processed everything in his new country “like a newborn,” unaware that his transfer was controversial.
He recalled thinking: “I think I will never be free until I get my name cleared. I will always be ‘that guy who was in Guantánamo.’”
He decided to keep a low profile, and told few people about his past.
That summer, a shop in Tallinn gave him an apprenticeship. The owner came to suspect that the refugee he hired was the Guantánamo detainee he had read about in the news media.
One morning, he told his apprentice he was “famous.” Qader acknowledged who he was, expecting to be told to leave. Instead, the owner invited him to visit his mother on an Estonian island. Qader — apprehensive about leaving Tallinn — hesitated for days but went.
Not all Estonians were as welcoming. Last fall, a drunken neighbor began hassling him about being a foreigner, Qader said. When the neighbor threatened him with a gun and put garbage at his door, he called police. The harassment ceased.
But days later, two police officers showed up and grilled Qader — asking where he came from and got money. When he explained, they conferred in Estonian; he understood the word “Cuba.” They said not to worry.
He would like to return home, but he said he feared that Yemeni or U.S. security forces might mistakenly decide he was working with terrorists and jail him again — or kill him with a drone.
Estonia will permit family visits, but obtaining travel documents has proved difficult. His father, who had a heart attack after finding out he was at Guantánamo, calls him daily, and his mother has taught him to cook over Skype.
Last year, his family helped arrange for him to become engaged to one of his sisters’ friends. Estonia permits spouses to join refugees, so they were married in December by a Yemeni judge over Skype. They talk daily, he said, but his wife has not managed to join him.
In theory, he could visit nearby European countries — he is supposed to consult Estonian officials first — but he has not dared leave. He fears that if he travels abroad and a bomb goes off nearby, he might be imprisoned again.
Asked what he thinks about the United States, Qader said he understood why, after Sept. 11, it would detain him. Still, he said, it should have freed him after a year or two; imprisoning him for so long “hurt me very bad.”
Emphasizing that he is “not out for revenge,” he “begged” U.S. officials to consider helping him move on by clearing his name.
Lee Wolosky, the State Department’s special envoy for the closing of Guantánamo, demurred, saying “no apology is warranted” for having detained Qader, given the circumstances.