Six Yemeni prisoners from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were transfered to Oman in the first release since Ashton Carter took over as U.S. defense secretary in February.
President Barack Obama has been at odds with Congress over his pledge to close Guantanamo by bringing some prisoners to trial and arranging to send the least dangerous ones to home or to third countries.
“The continued operation of the detention facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists,” Ned Price, spokesman for White House National Security Council, said in an e-mail Saturday.
“We are taking all possible steps to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo and to close the detention facility in a responsible manner that protects our national security,” Price said.
The Defense Department identified the individuals as Idris Ahmad ‘Abd Al Qadir Idris, Sharaf Ahmad Muhammad Mas’ud, Jalal Salam Awad Awad, Saa’d Nasser Moqbil Al Azani, Emad Abdallah Hassan, and Muhammad Ali Salem Al Zarnuki, according to a statement on Saturday.
In detention for over a decade, all six were assessed to have been members of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda affiliated fighters. Several served as bodyguards to al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama Bin Laden. At least two, Imad Abdallah and Sharaf Ahmad Muhammad, may reengage in extremist activities if released without rehabilitation and close supervision, according to Defense Department documents posted on the WikiLeaks website.
Oman also took four Yemeni prisoners from Guantanamo Bay facility in January. At that time another prisoner was sent to Estonia. The U.S. is struggling to find allies willing to take the prisoners. The official Omani News Agency confirmed the arrival of the six in the capital Muscat on Saturday.
President George W. Bush began using the detention facility in Cuba to hold suspected and accused terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. Obama campaigned for president promising to close Guantanamo, saying it attracted international criticism of U.S. detention policies and interrogation practices. Facing congressional opposition, Obama backed away from an executive order to close the prison that he issued the day he took office.
Carter’s predecessor, Chuck Hagel, stepped down in February amid tensions with Obama’s White House advisers. One area of disagreement was Hagel’s reluctance to sign off on proposed prisoner releases at Guantanamo.
Such releases have to be approved by the secretary of defense, and the latest transfer shows Carter’s willingness to do so. The facility still holds 116 detainees, according to the Defense Department.
Yemeni nationals comprise over half of the remaining Guantanamo population and the vast majority of the 51 detainees eligible for transfer, Myles B. Caggins III, Defense Department spokesman for detainee policy, said in an e-mail. “We are working to identify appropriate transfer locations for every detainee approved for transfer and it may be the case that resettlement to a third country is the best option.”
Yemen is in no position to take back its citizens. The country is unstable, facing air attacks from a Saudi-led coalition targeting areas controlled by Shiite Houthi rebels, who earlier overthrew the country’s president, Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. Over 1,000 civilians have died in Yemen since mid-March and more than a million people have been displaced, according to United Nations estimates.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, included language in the annual defense authorization bill, now before the Senate, calling for Obama to send Congress a plan to close Guantanamo and for lawmakers to vote on it. McCain was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
But the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 16-14, on June 11, to defeat an amendment to close Guantanamo. Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, had offered the amendment on the measure appropriating defense funds.