'20th Hijacker' in 9/11 Attack Released from Guantanamo Bay, Sent Back to Saudi Arabia After 20 Years of Torture

A Saudi man accused of being the would-be 20th hijacker in the 9/11 attacks was released from Guantanamo Bay and sent back home for psychiatric treatment, the Department of Defense said Monday.

Mohammad Ahmad al-Qahtani, 46, was flown to Saudi Arabia after a review board determined in June 2021 that he 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.

Who is Mohammad Ahmad al-Qahtani?

Mohammad Ahmad al-Qahtani
Mohammad Ahmad al-Qahtani Twitter

Defense officials say al-Qahtani was trained by al-Qaeda and tried to join the hijackers and participate in the terror attacks. However, in August 2001, he was turned away from the US at the Orlando airport by immigration officers who were suspicious of his travel.

Mohammed Atta, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, planned to pick al-Qahtani up to take part in the plot, according to previously released documents. US forces subsequently captured Al-Qahtani in Afghanistan and sent him to Guantanamo in 2002.

Al-Qahtani Subjected to Torture, Suffered from Schizophrenia

Al-Qahtani spent 20 years in custody at the military prison in Cuba. 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.

Al-Qahtani was subjected to brutal interrogations that the Pentagon legal official in charge of war crimes commissions said amounted to torture.The treatment included beatings, exposure to extreme temperatures and noise, sleep deprivation and extended solitary confinement.

With al-Qahtani's release, Guantanamo now houses 38 prisoners. Half of them have been approved for repatriation or resettlement by the review board.

This article was first published on March 8, 2022