The U.S. military on Thursday disclosed that it delivered 10 Yemeni captives to the Arabian Sea nation of Oman in the largest Guantánamo release to a single country by the Obama administration.
The military operation — which leaked earlier in the week without disclosure of the destination — left 93 captives at the remote prison, 34 of them cleared for transfer with security arrangements that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. For his part, Carter vowed to work with Congress “as we diligently work to close this chapter in our history.”
None of the 10 released this week were ever charged with a crime in more than a decade of U.S. military custody.
Rather, they were held as war-on-terror detainees at the remote U.S. Navy base in Cuba from the earliest days of the prison camps in 2002. Most arrived when they were in their early 20s, according to their leaked 2008 prison profiles, which portrayed them as recruits to the jihad who got to Afghanistan in the weeks or months before Sept. 11, 2001, too late to have had a role in the terror attacks.
Among those released was Samir al Hassan Moqbel, 38, who got there the day the prison opened 14 years ago this week, and briefly captured attention with his April 2013 New York Times op-ed column about his hunger strike and forced feedings, “Gitmo Is Killing Me.”
Oman’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement from Muscat that the country was giving the Yemenis sanctuary “in consideration of their humanitarian situations.” It described their stay in the country as “temporary.”
Lee Wolosky, the State Department special envoy for the closure of the prison, credited “sustained diplomatic engagement” for what he called “this important milestone.”
“We are very grateful to our friends and partners in the Gulf and elsewhere who have resettled Yemeni detainees,” he said in a statement that predicted the U.S. would be poised “to empty Guantánamo” of the 34 currently approved detainees “by this summer.”
At Congress’ House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican chairman Ed Royce of California issued a news release criticizing what he called Obama’s “mad rush to push detainees on allies and partners.” He said: “Releasing them — or bringing them to U.S. soil — simply to fulfill a political promise will not make America safer.”
Little is known about what became of those first 10 Yemenis, although a U.S. government official who was not authorized to discuss the earlier transfers, said they had gone through a rehabilitation program designed to help them integrate into Omani society. Some had been given jobs, the official said, declining to describe the work or say how many.
The downsizing, which occurred Wednesday, was disclosed on the last morning of the stewardship of the prison by Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, the retiring commander of U.S. Southern Command, who hinted at the transfer last week. “If they go back to the fight, we'll probably kill them,” he said last week at a Pentagon press conference. “So that's a good thing.”
Carter called the release the product of “a deliberate and careful review” during remarks at Southcom when he installed Adm. Kurt Tidd as the new Southcom commander. Carter said Tidd’s responsibilities would include “to bring the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to a responsible close.”
He reminded that, while some of the last 93 captives could be release to other countries, ending prison operations at Guantánamo would require bringing others “to an appropriate, secure location in the United States.” Congress has forbidden it.
Big transfers like Wednesday’s were more typical of the Bush years, which at least six times released double digit numbers of detainees, typically to Saudi Arabia. It was also not the largest single-day downsizing of the administration of Barack Obama. On Dec. 18, 2009, the U.S. announced that 12 captives were gone — two to Somaliland, four to Afghanistan and six to Yemen.
That would prove to be the latest repatriation to Yemen. A week later, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwestern, Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam with plastic explosives hidden in his underwear. The attack was thwarted, but he was trained by al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, also thwarting Obama’s ambitions of releasing more captives to the troubled Gulf country.
The transfer raised Oman to the top of the list of the 24 nations that for the United States have taken in cleared Guantánamo detainees who couldn’t go home. Albania had led the list by taking in 11 freed captives, including Uighurs, an Uzbek and an Algerian across the Bush and Obama administrations.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Oman Richard Schmierer, now chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council think tank, said Wednesday he was not the least bit surprised that Oman and Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, in particular, would step up to play the role.
Oman is culturally and geographically familiar though a far more stable and affluent neighbor of Yemen. In the past, he said, it had taken in Yemenis fleeing politics or violence. “They’ve had to promise to be apolitical,” said Schmierer, and have emerged as integrated successful businessmen in Omani society.
Schmierer, who was ambassador from September 2009 through August 2012, called it a hospitable, comfortable country that honored tribal affiliations but had a thoroughly central government, complete with a security service that doesn’t disappear people. “People feel safe and secure but they don’t feel there's a strong arm overseeing them,” he said, adding that unlike other Gulf oil nations where foreign labor outstrips citizens, there are two Omanis for every foreigner.
All 10 men, delivered by the U.S. Air Force to Oman, were approved for conditional release back to Yemen or resettlement elsewhere by an Obama Task Force in late 2009. In fact, if they hadn’t been Yemenis they probably would’ve been gone years ago. In the case of one just-released prisoner, Mohammad Sa'id S Bin Salman, now 40, a leaked April 2004 prison assessment concluded he could be sent to a third country’s detention, suggesting he had nothing to offer the intelligence operation there two years after he got to Guantánamo.
The others released this week included: Fahd Ghazy, 33; Adham Mohammad Ali Awad, 33, an amputee; Muktar Yahya Najee al Wrafi, 36; Abu Bakr Alahdal, 36; Muhammad Salah Hussain al Shaykh, 42; Said Muhammed Salih Hatim, 39; Umar Said Salim al-Dini, 39; and Fahmi Ahmed al Tulaqi, 38.
Even before the transfer was announced, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, issued a statement criticizing any planned transfers of Yemenis to Oman. She noted that a captive sent to Sudan in 2012 had recently emerged as an al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula spiritual leader in Yemen and suggested that neighboring Oman was too close for comfort.
“The administration's failure to tell the American people the truth about these terrorists suggests what we know to be the case: These transfers will make Americans less safe,” she said in a press release Wednesday night.
For worrying Americans, the former ambassador said there have been studies that demonstrate that Omanis “don't do jihad,” and they don’t join the Islamic State or other regional extremist groups. “The prospects for a young man in Oman are so much better than a young man in Yemen,” Schmierer said.
Oman has military systems acquired from the United States, he said. But they buy them as allies and don’t particularly seek favors. Obama and the sultan have never met but Secretary of State John Kerry visited him in Europe last year when he was being treated for a disease. Photos of Qaboos back in his nation last year suggest he has recovered.
“In general the Omanis look to be helpful,” Schmierer said. “They maintain very positive relations with all their neighbors including Iran.”