- Six agencies reviewed national security issues, Pentagon says
- Bin Laden aquaintance, hunger striker among those released
Saudi Arabia has accepted the transfer of nine Yemenis from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including a onetime associate of al Qaeda and the Taliban who personally knew Osama bin Laden, and a prisoner who’s been on a hunger strike since 2007.
The decision to make the transfer came after six agencies reviewed the plan, U.S. Navy Commander Gary Ross said in an e-mailed statement on Saturday. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter informed Congress of the intent to move the detainees, and said the transfers meet U.S. legal standards, according to the statement provided by the Defense Department.
The Guantanamo prisoner population is now 80, the Pentagon said.
“The United States is grateful to the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” the Pentagon said. The two nations coordinated “to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”
The prison, at a U.S. military base, has long been a flashpoint between President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress. Obama made a campaign promise to close the facility in 2008, arguing that the detention center had become a recruiting tool for extremist groups. In February, Obama called the site “a stain” on the reputation of the U.S. for upholding human rights.
Members of Congress have vowed to block any attempt to transfer prisoners to the U.S. from Guantanamo, as Obama’s plan suggested, and House Republicans have retained a law firm to challenge the president if he attempts to close the facility by executive order before his term expires in January.
The nine prisoners have already arrived in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi-owned television network Al Arabiya reported on Saturday. The men will be enrolled in a program where they will be “deradicalized” through discussions on religion, the network said.
One detainee, Mashur Abdullah Muqbil Ahmed Al-Sabri, had ties with numerous extremist members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, according to a Dec. 15, 2014, report on the website of the board set up to do the agency detainee reviews, known as the Periodic Review Secretariat.
The agencies that make up the review board -- the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence -- reached a consensus that Al-Sabri’s continued detention “does not remain necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States,” the Pentagon said.
Al-Sabri, 38, knew an al-Qaeda operative who killed himself during the bombing of the USS Cole, according to the review board. Later, in Afghanistan, Al-Sabri trained with and fought alongside the Taliban and knew al Qaeda founder bin Laden. Still, there’s no indication Al-Sabri had prior knowledge of the Cole attack, and he “probably did not play a significant role in terrorist operations” after that, the report said.
Held since May 2002, Al-Sabri had “been compliant with the detention staff and co-operative during interviews,” according to the report. “He probably resents the U.S. because of the length of his detention at Guantanamo,” the report said.
Also transferred was Tariq Ali Abdullah Ahmed Ba Odah, who had been approved for release by the administration in 2009, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ba Odah had been on a hunger strike for nine years, with his health failing and weight dropping to 74 pounds (33.5 kg), according to the center.
Like Ba Odah, newly released Muhammed Abdullah Muhammed Al-Hamiri had been picked up in Pakistan by local authorities and transferred to the U.S. military, according to the center, a New York-based human-rights group. Both men arrived at Guantanamo in their early 20s and “endured treatment at the hands of the U.S. military that they described as physical and psychological torture,” the center said in a news release.
Obama Plan Rebuffed
Obama in February released a plan for closing the prison. The proposal called for spending as much as $475 million to transfer 30 to 60 of the detainees to facilities in the U.S., a suggestion quickly rebuffed by Republican lawmakers.
Closing Guantanamo would eventually save the U.S. as much as $85 million per year, according to the White House. The facility now costs about $445 million a year to operate.
In a February assessment, the Obama administration said 35 Guantanamo detainees were eligible for transfer to other countries. The rest are either being prosecuted through the military commission process or have been deemed too dangerous for release.
A number of countries have agreed to take in Yemeni nationals from Guantanamo, including Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Ghana. The U.S. won’t sent Guantanamo prisoners back to Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, which is currently in a battle between Islamic militant rebels and a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states.