Never let a crisis go to waste. While all attention has been focused on the terrorist attacks in France, Sunday the Department of Defense (DOD) announced that it had transferred five lower-level Yemeni detainees from the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba to the United Arab Emirates. Each had been held by the U.S. for almost 14 years as wartime prisoners without being charged with a crime. The New York Times reports that the detainee population at the prison is now down to 107.
In the bureaucratic pipeline are approximately 17 other proposed transfers of lower-level detainees, according to an official familiar with internal deliberations. To date, the UAE has only taken in one detainee. That was in 2008 and it was one of their own citizens.
Even though the main topic of discussion at a May meeting at Camp David of the Gulf Cooperation Council was the nuclear agreement with Iran, Obama pressed the six countries comprising the Council-including the UAE-to consider resettling groups of detainees. It now appears that the deal announced on Sunday is the first fruits of those talks.
According to the NYT, each of the five detainees was captured near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in late 2001. This was after the battle of Tora Bora, when many low-level fighters fled to the mountains, according to leaked military dossiers. The transferred detainees included four men who had been recommended for transfer by a 2009 task force made up of six security-related agencies. Those detainees are Khalid Abd Jal Jabbar Muhammad Juthman al Qadasi, Sulaiman Awath Sulaiman Bin Ageel al Nahdi, Fahmi Salem Said al Sani and Adil Said al Haj Obeid al Busayss. The fifth detainee had been recommended for continued detention, but whose status was later changed to transferable by a parolelike board. He is Ali Ahmad Muhammad al Rahizi.
A plan to close the Guantánamo prison is expected to be sent to Congress soon by the Obama administration. A provision to move to a prison in the United States the 59 remaining detainees who are not recommended for transfer is at the heart of the plan. Currently, a statute that was passed by Congress bars the military from bringing any detainees onto domestic soil.
The transfer was conducted on Friday night while Paris was under attack, according to the Miami Herald. However, it was not disclosed until Sunday afternoon. Cmdr. Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, stated Sunday night that the five men left the base after the terrorists attacks in Paris.
The transfer comes as Congress has sent back to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature the National Defense Authorization Act. The defense policy bill includes tougher restrictions on Guantánamo releases. The White House argues that such limits encroaches on Obama’s commander-in-chief authority. The bill also comes as the administration is crafting a plan that would move at least some of the remaining captives to the United States in order to close the controversial detention center. This is an idea that many in Congress oppose, particularly those from Colorado, Kansas and South Carolina, which have military lockups under consideration as potential war-prison detention sites.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter signed off on the transfers more than 30 days ago and notified Congress, in keeping with statutory requirements. Although it was not immediately known at what time of day, a U.S. Air Force cargo plane airlifted the five men from the base Friday. “The United States is grateful to the government of the United Arab Emirates for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Sunday night.