WASHINGTON — The population at Guantanamo Bay dropped by six in December alone as President Obama quietly found new homes for detainees — including sending one convicted terrorist into the hands of a leader wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Captured by Pakistani forces at an al-Qaeda safe house in March 2002, Noor Uthman Muhammed was assessed in October 2005 to “likely to pose a threat to the U.S., its interests and allies.”
“Senior Al-Qaida members identified detainee as a senior trainer at the Khaldan training camp near Khowst, Afghanistan (AF). Detainee trained hundred of jihadists including high-level Al-Qaida terrorists,” said the Defense Department report. “…As a trainer at Khaldan, he associated with individuals linked to the 9/11 hijackings, USS COLE bombing, East African Embassy bombings, and the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Detainee associated closely with, or met numerous high profile Al-Qaida members. Detainee rose from a foot soldier to a weapons trainer, to finally facilitating Khaldan camp.”
On Feb. 18, 2011, Muhammed pleaded guilty to providing material support to al-Qaeda and was sentenced to 14 years behind bars. In exchange for his guilty plea and cooperation with prosecutors, the Convening Authority for Military Commissions agreed to suspend all confinement in excess of 34 months. After completing the unsuspended portion of his sentence on Dec. 3, the U.S. repatriated Muhammed to Sudan.
Joining Muhammed on the trip to Khartoum was Ibrahim Othman Ibrahim Idris, a “trusted agent” of Osama bin Laden who served as both camp doctor and interrogator, according to a 2008 Defense Department report that found him to be a high risk to the U.S. and of high intelligence value. Yet in addition to not being forthcoming with U.S. authorities, he “coached other JTF-GTMO detainees to use resistance techniques while in US custody.”
Idris was one of the “Dirty 30” members of bin Laden’s security detail caught attempting to cross into Pakistan in December 2001. Still, in 2010 the Guantanamo Review Task Force recommended his transfer, and a motion this past summer argued that his health was so poor from schizophrenia, obesity and diabetes that he couldn’t pose a threat to the U.S. In October, the Justice Department stopped opposing the effort to get Idris turned loose, and he was repatriated to Sudan.
“Idris has been designated for transfer since 2009 by unanimous consent among all six departments and agencies on the Guantanamo Review Task Force. As directed by the president’s Jan. 22, 2009, executive order, the task force conducted a comprehensive review of Idris’s case, which examined a number of factors, including security issues, in making that designation. In accordance with congressionally mandated reporting requirements, the administration informed Congress of its intent to transfer these individuals,” the Pentagon said in announcing the transfer on Dec. 18. “The United States coordinated with the Government of Sudan regarding appropriate security measures and to ensure that these transfers are consistent with our humane treatment policy.”
Sudan became a base for al-Qaeda in its early days after its current leader, Omar al-Bashir, led a military coup and instituted Sharia law. Bashir was indicted by the ICC in 2009 for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and another arrest warrant was issued in 2010 for genocide. The leader of the gruesome September attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya was reportedly a Sudanese man trained by al-Qaeda.
The transfer of al-Qaeda operatives into the hands of a leader who should be arrested if he stepped on U.S. soil comes after more detainee releases in quick succession.
Saad Muhammad Husayn Qahtani was captured in December 2001 in Pakistan. Linked to both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, he reportedly trained in Afghanistan and fought on the front lines with the Taliban.
Hamood Abdulla Hamood, a courier for an al-Qaeda recruiter, facilitator and front-line al-Qaeda fighter arrested by the Pakistanis in February 2002 with a large amount of cash, was deemed in a 2008 Defense Department assessment to be “a HIGH risk, as he is likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies” and a “HIGH threat from a detention perspective.”
Both were transferred to Saudi Arabia this month.
And before that Algeria, birthplace of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, took two more detainees.
Djamel Saiid Ali Ameziane was captured by Pakistani forces in 2001 while trying to flee Tora Bora with other al-Qaeda operatives. A 2008 assessment determined Ameziane a “high risk” to America and her allies.
Bensayah Belkecem was arrested by Bosnian authorities in 2001 for involvement in a terrorist plot against the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo. His 2008 DoD assessment noted he was not only a high risk to the U.S. but held high intelligence value.
The population of detainees at Gitmo is now 158.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice said early this month at the Human Rights First Annual Summit that Obama “remains deeply determined to close the detention facility at Guantanamo.”
“We have new envoys at the Departments of State and Defense dedicated to this cause. In August, we completed the first successful detainee transfers under the onerous restrictions that Congress enacted in 2011, and we expect to announce more transfers in the near future,” Rice said. “We continue to urge Congress to remove these restrictions, which have severely hampered our efforts to close the Guantanamo detention facility.”
Before the Christmas break, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a Pentagon press conference that the administration “would anticipate to continue this effort of transferring these detainees, and I think we’re making good progress toward that, toward that objective.”
The defense appropriations bill passed by Congress just before the holiday gave Obama some of the license he has sought to liquidate the prison, while trying to ensure that about half of the detainees who would remain at Gitmo wouldn’t be transferred to the U.S. for detention and trial. That provision was the key focus of Senate Republicans instead of the concern for releasing al-Qaeda members back to rogue governments or restive areas.
In a signing statement released the day after Christmas, Obama said the continued operation of Guantanamo “weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists.”
While commending the National Defense Authorization Act for giving his administration more flexibility for future transfers, Obama complained that the bill didn’t “eliminate all of the unwarranted limitations on foreign transfers and, in certain circumstances, would violate constitutional separation of powers principles.”
“The executive branch must have the flexibility, among other things, to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers. Of course, even in the absence of any statutory restrictions, my Administration would transfer a detainee only if the threat the detainee may pose can be sufficiently mitigated and only when consistent with our humane treatment policy,” he said.
“The detention facility at Guantanamo continues to impose significant costs on the American people. I am encouraged that this Act provides the Executive greater flexibility to transfer Guantanamo detainees abroad, and look forward to working with the Congress to take the additional steps needed to close the facility. In the event that the restrictions on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees in sections 1034 and 1035 operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my Administration will implement them in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict.”
House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) made note of the president’s statement on closing the detention center.
“No one believes that GTMO is ideal, but the major impediment to its closure isn’t congressional intransigence, but the lack of a clear detention policy from the President,” McKeon said in a statement.
“We can’t turn dangerous terrorists loose on blind faith. Before we can consider that step, the President must first tell us how he would deal with those detainees who are too dangerous to release but cannot be tried; what standards he would use to transfer those he can; and how he would deal with new terrorist captures and those dangerous terrorists still held in Afghanistan.”