Bowing to pressure from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the Obama administration announced Tuesday that it would suspend the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen following a failed attempt to blow up a plane on Christmas by a Nigerian who was reportedly trained by al-Qaeda in Yemen.
“One of the very first things that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula used as a recruiting tool was the existence of Guantanamo Bay,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday. “We are not going to make decisions about transfers that, to a country like Yemen that would, that they’re not capable of handling. And I think that, while we remain committed to closing the facility, the determination has been made that right now any additional transfers to Yemen is not a good idea.”
The administration has been inconsistent in recent days with regard to transferring Guantanamo detainees who have already been cleared for relase back to Yemen.
Last weekend, counterterrorism and homeland security adviser John Brennan said during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “some of these individuals are going to be transferred back to Yemen at the right time and the right pace and in the right way.”
Gibbs said, however, it’s now likely that the Yemeni prisoners would instead be transferred to a near-vacant maximum security prison in Thomson, Illinois that the federal government is trying to purchase.
However, Congress has so far refused to provide the administration with the necessary funding it needs to move forward with acquiring the prison and Democratic lawmakers have already indicated they are unlikely to revist the politically charged issue during an election year.
About half of the 198 prisoners currently detained at Guantanamo are Yemenis and about 35 have been cleared for release to Yemen by a Justice Department task force that spent months reviewing their cases.
But lawmakers now fear that repatriating the prisoners to their home country could lead to their radicalization by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, despite the fact that many of the detainees currently imprisoned were never involved in terrorist activity to begin with when they were captured.
As a result, the prisoners who were scheduled to be released will continue to languish at Guantanamo indefinitely.
Obama has announced that Guantanamo, which he had hoped to close by the end of the month, won’t likely be shuttered for at least another year.
In a televised briefing Tuesday afternoon where he discussed details of the Christmas day bomb plot, Obama said he is still committed to seeing Guantanamo closed.
“We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda,” Obama said. “In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
Obama added that he consulted with Attorney General Eric Holder, and, “given the unsettled situation…we’ve agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time.”
In a radio address last weekend, President Obama said since the Christmas day bombing plot, the US has stepped up its “partnership” with Yemen, “training and equipping their security forces, sharing intelligence and working with them to strike al Qaeda terrorists.”
Indeed, on Tuesday, the Yemeni government announced that it launched a major offensive against al-Qaeda, sending thousands of troops into the terrorist group’s strongholds in the eastern and southern parts of the country.
According to a report in the Telegraph:
Tuesday’s decision to deploy troops into al-Qaeda heartland seemed partly designed to deflect growing international concerns that the Yemeni government was too frail, corrupt and inept to counter the growing terrorist presence in the country.
The US and Britain closed its embassies in Britain last weekend due to threats against the facilities by al-Qaeda, US officials said.
The embassy was reopened Tuesday, hours before Obama met with his top national security team to discuss intelligence failures that lead to the terrorist plot on Christmas.
Because the declining security situation in Yemen has made the country fertile ground for terrorist organization to train new recruits, according to lawmakers, detainees should not be transferred there.
Last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-California), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “Guantanamo detainees should not be released to Yemen at this time. It is too unstable.”
But as Truthout contributor Andy Worthington noted in a report last week:
“…Only at Guantánamo can fear trump justice to such an alarming degree” that, “if [the officials’] rationale for not releasing any of the Yemenis from Guantánamo was extended to the US prison system, it would mean that no prisoner would ever be released at the end of their sentence, because prison ‘might have radicalized’ them, and also, of course, that it would lead to no prisoner ever being released from Guantánamo.”
President Obama transferred six detainees to Yemen last month, five days before the Christmas day bombing plot on a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit.
But after 23 year-old Nigerian Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab’s failed attempt to detonate the chemical explosives in his underwear while onboard the Northwest jet, Senators Lindsey Graham, (R-South Carolina), John McCain, (R-Arizona), and Joe Lieberman, (I-Connecticut), sent Obama a letter urging him to stop the transfer of the six detainees to Yemen.
The Justice Department said, however, it conducted a “comprehensive review” of their cases and took into account “a number of factors, including potential threat, mitigation measures and the likelihood of success in habeas litigation, the detainees were approved for transfer.”
In a statement, the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights organization that represents some Guantnanmo prisoners, denounced the administration’s decision to indefinitely halt the transfer of Yemeni prisoners.
“Dozens of men from Yemen who have been cleared for release after extensive scrutiny by the government’s Guantànamo Review Task Force are about to be left in limbo once more due to politics, not facts,” CCR said. “Many are about to begin their ninth year in indefinite detention.
“Halting the repatriation of Yemeni men cleared by the Task Force after months of careful review is unconscionable. It will also effectively prevent any meaningful progress towards closing Guantánamo, which President Obama has repeatedly argued will make our nation safer.”