The Obama administration transferred six detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay to Oman Friday night. The detainees arrived on a U.S. Air Force C-17 plane that dropped them off, then departed and cleared Oman’s air space around midnight EDT.
Although the pace of transfers increased last year, no detainees have been moved since January, when four went to Oman and one to Estonia. All six national security agencies that review detainee transfers approved the move, the first to under Defense Secretary Ash Carter. After Friday night, 116 detainees remain at Guantanamo, 51 of whom have been cleared for transfer.
Defense Department officials said the transfers occurred “in accordance with NDAA statutes requiring notifying Congress at least 30 days before transfer.” The officials said the Pentagon had notified the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, as well as the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittees on Defense, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
On June 3, a senior defense official told Defense One that the transfer of up to 10 detainees was likely to come within weeks, probably this month. But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who would receive the notification as the transfers are within his committee’s jurisdiction, told Defense One the following day that he had not received any notification about any transfers. When asked for clarification, McCain’s office said they could not discuss notifications because they are classified.
In 2008, a DoD assessment of each of the six prisoners’ cases deemed them all “high risk” and “likely to pose a threat to the U.S., its interests, and allies.” Nonetheless, all six were cleared to move in 2010 by the Guantanamo Review Task Force. Between them, they were imprisoned in Cuba for 78 years.
The six include Idris Ahmed Abdu Qader Idris, a Yemeni in his mid-30s. Thought to be a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden shortly before the 9/11 attacks, he also recruited for the terrorist group and was connected to a Salafist group in Yemen, according to DoD’s 2008 assessment, as posted on the New York Times’ Guantanamo docket. He is also thought to have received “advanced training” in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon’s assessment of another transferred detainee, Sharaf Ahmad Muhammad Masud, also in his mid-30s, said, “If released without rehabilitation, close supervision and means to successfully reintegrate into his society as a law abiding citizen, it is assessed detainee would seek out prior associates.”
Jalal Salam Awad Awad, in his early 40s, was also a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, as identified by another senior al Qaeda member, according to his 2008 assessment, which added that he was captured with others involved in attacks on the U.S. and provided material support to al Qaeda.
Saad Masir Mukbl al Azani, in his 30s, provided religious training and was captured at a safe house in Karachi, according to his 2008 assessment.
Mohammed Ali Salem al Zarnuki, thought to be 38, served on the “front lines” in Kabul as part of a brigade under Osama bin Laden, his assessment said.
Emad Abdalla Hassan, 35, suffered from chronic pancreatitis, according to his assessment. He was also identified as “a frequent hunger striker.” According to the DoD, he was likely to reengage, and had threatened to kill guards.
All are citizens of Yemen, the most politically problematic population remaining at Guantanamo Bay. Of the prisoners cleared for transfer, 43 are Yemeni, but they cannot return home while the country remains in chaos.
In a statement, Defense Department officials said, “The United States is grateful to the Government of Oman for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The United States coordinated with the Government of Oman to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”
White House, Congress Spar
Carter’s predecessor, Chuck Hagel, transferred 44 Gitmo prisoners, 27 in the last six weeks before he resigned in November. Hagel’s own predecessor, Leon Panetta, transferred only four.
Carter’s move flows from the White House’s determination to empty the facility before the Republican majority Congress can pass stricter measures that would prevent the president from achieving his campaign promise of shuttering Gitmo.
The new transfers come at a tense time. The White House and the Republican majority, particularly McCain, are publicly battling over Guantanamo language contained in the annual defense authorization and appropriations bills. McCain included a provision in the Senate’s version of the NDAA that would grant President Obama the authority to close the prison if he submitted a plan that earned Congressional approval. The White House has threatened to veto the bill, calling the provision “unnecessary and overly restrictive.” The Senate is set to continue its consideration of the NDAA on Monday and then will take up the defense appropriations bill.
Meanwhile, after Obama reached out to McCain to kickstart the conversation several weeks ago, the White House and Pentagon are working on a Guantanamo-closure plan to submit to Congress.
Carter said last Friday that drafting a plan to close the facility is “a very constructive step.”
“It’s important to see if we can find a way forward from this that is widely shared enough that we can actually get it done,” he said, “and so I think it’s a good opportunity, and we’ll certainly follow through on that.”
In a Friday night statement to Defense One, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Myles Caggins said, “The decision to transfer a detainee is made only after detailed, specific conversations with the receiving country about the potential threat a detainee may pose after transfer and the measures the receiving country will take in order to sufficiently mitigate that threat, and to ensure humane treatment. The measures taken must be tailored to mitigate the specific threat that the detainee may pose. If we do not receive adequate assurances, the transfer does not occur.
“More than 90 percent of the detainees transferred under this Administration are neither confirmed nor suspected by the Intelligence Community of reengagement. We take any incidence of reengagement very seriously, and we work in close coordination through military, intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic channels to mitigate reengagement and to take follow-on action when necessary.”