For the first time since January 2002, the number of detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility has dipped below 100.
Late Wednesday, 10 Yemeni detainees, including one man who was a teenager when he was captured and another who penned a widely read New York Times op-ed that raised global awareness about the brutality of force-feeding hunger strikers, were transferred to Oman, which borders Yemen. They had all been held captive for 14 years. None were never charged with a crime.
It was the largest single release of Guantanamo detainees by the Obama administration. (Congress was notified about the transfer 30 days in advance, as required by law.) There are now 93 detainees at Guantanamo, 34 of whom have been cleared for transfer, most of them Yemenis. At its peak, Guantanamo held 779 detainees, the majority of whom were released by George W. Bush's administration.
"It's the largest detainee transfer since 2009," said Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA's Security and Human Rights Program. "In one day President Obama has decreased Guantánamo's population by nearly 10 percent; he has momentum to finally shutter this prison."
The released detainees are: Fahed Abdullah Ahmad Ghazi, Samir Naji al-Hasan Muqbil, Adham Mohamed Ali Awad, Mukhtar Yahya Naji al-Warafi, Abu Bakr Ibn Muhammad al-Ahdal, Muhammad Salih Husayn al-Shaykh, Muhammad Said Salim Bin Salman, Said Muhammad Salih Hatim, Umar Said Salim al-Dini, and Fahmi Abdallah Ahmad Ubadi al-Tulaqi.
According to their detainee assessment reports leaked years ago by Wikileaks, the men were considered to be of medium and high-risk when they were imprisoned. Human rights groups and lawyers for the men have long said the assessment files are unreliable because they are based on claims interrogators gleaned from a handful of detainees who were tortured — including the 10 detainees themselves.
Ghazi was captured when he was 17 years old. He was accused of being an Islamic extremist who traveled to Afghanistan to take part in violent jihad, trained for less than two weeks at an al Qaeda training camp, and was involved in combat action against the US and Coalition forces at Tora Bora. He was originally cleared for release a decade ago, and was then cleared again after Obama took office. His attorney, Omar Farah at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, said Ghazy's detention was "unnecessary."
"Almost 14 years ago to the day, Fahd arrived at Guantánamo as a boy, shackled and hooded," Farha said. "Today, finally, he is free. While Fahd and his family look to the future, I cannot help but reflect on how cruel his detention was and marvel at how Fahd preserved his humanity throughout."
Muqbil, 38, was suspected of serving on Osama bin Laden's security detail, allegedly admitted to fighting on the front lines, partook in hostilities against US and Coalition forces at Tora Bora, and received militant training at an al Qaeda training camp. He was cleared for release in 2009, and in 2013 attracted international attention during the height of a mass hunger strike at Guantanamo with the publication of a graphic op-ed in the New York Times titled "Gitmo is Killing Me." It recounted how he was force-fed and how the procedure robbed him of his dignity.
"Samir is a mild-mannered soul who was driven to hunger strike by sheer desperation, and he was gratified to know that his suffering forced the world to remember the immorality of Guantanamo," said Cori Crider, a lawyer for the men and strategic director at the international legal firm Reprieve. "We are delighted that the Omani government has given him the chance to rebuild his life and, we hope, to reconnect with his family."
Ali Awad, who is 33 or 34 years old, was accused of being a member of al Qaeda who partook in hostilities against US and Coalition forces at Tora Bora. He was allegedly captured during a firefight with Afghan forces and admitted traveling to Afghanistan for combat training.
Al-Warafi, who is 41 or 42, was suspected of being a member of al Qaeda who traveled to Afghanistan to join in extremist activities and fight for the Taliban. His assessment file claims he fought on the front lines against the Northern Alliance with bin Laden's "55th Arab Brigade." Last year, al-Warafi sued the US government and asked a federal court to grant his writ of habeas corpus and set him free because Obama had said the war in Afghanistan is over, meaning the legal authorization the US has relied upon to hold him for the past 13 years was no longer valid.
But government attorneys said in court papers that Obama didn't really mean that the war was over.
"Simply put, the President's statements signify a transition in United States military operations, not a cessation," wrote Andrew Warden, a Justice Department attorney. "Although the United States has ended its combat mission in Afghanistan, the fighting there certainly has not stopped."
Al-Ahdal, 36 or 37, was also suspected of being a member of al Qaeda who fought with the 55th Arab Brigade. His military file claims he identified himself as a willing terrorist against the US, acknowledged he was a member of a terrorist support entity in Yemen, identified as a sub-commander on the front lines, participated in hostilities against US and Coalition forces at Bagram and Tora Bora, and received basic training and advanced al Qaeda artillery training in Afghanistan.
Salih, 42 or 43, was accused of being a member of al Qaeda who participated in hostilities against the US and coalition forces at Tora Bora and identified bin Laden as his "brother in arms."
Bin Salman, 40, allegedly admitted to attending the al Qaeda–affiliated Al-Farouq training camp and according to his military file, claimed jihad was his motivation for traveling to Afghanistan. After his training was complete, he allegedly worked as a cook on the front lines.
Hatim, 39 or 40, was accused of being a member of al Qaeda who participated in hostilities against the US and coalition forces at Tora Bora and also fought with the 55th Arab Brigade. The US military claimed Hatim attended Al-Farouq and stayed at al Qaeda guest houses.
Al-Dini, also 39 or 40, was accused of being an Islamic extremist and al Qaeda fighter. The US military file says al-Dini's name was listed on al Qaeda–affiliated documents, including one recovered off of the computer of self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Al-Tulaqi, 38 or 39, was alleged to be a member of al Qaeda and a member of the Taliban, have fought against the US, and have had close ties to al Qaeda facilitator Abu Zubaydah, a high-value detainee currently held captive in Guantanamo.
Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, a fierce critic of the administration's plan to close the detention facility and who last year introduced the Detaining Terrorists to Protect America Act of 2015 that called for a moratorium on the transfer of medium- and high-risk detainees, criticized Thursday's transfer, saying it "will make Americans less safe."
The Pentagon said the men no longer pose a security risk to the United States. They were cleared for release by a Guantanamo review task force made up of six departments and government agencies set up by Obama in 2009 to review the cases of detainees.
In a statement Thursday, the Pentagon said the US "is grateful to the Government of Oman for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing US efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The United States coordinated with the Government of Oman to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures."
The government of Oman also issued a statement that said the former Guantanamo prisoners' stay in Oman would be "temporary."
Thursday's transfer brings the total number of detainees who have been released from Guantanamo in 2016 to 14, with several more captives slated to leave Guantanamo this month. Last year, Oman also accepted 10 detainees. The US won't send any of the Yemeni Guantanamo detainees home due to instability and turmoil in Yemen.
The White House believes that if it can continue to reduce the Guantanamo detainee population, it can make a strong case to Congress to support a long-awaited plan to relocate the remaining detainees to prisons in the United States operated by the Department of Defense.
Commander Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, told VICE News the relocation plan, which Obama sent back to the Pentagon late last year because it was too costly, is still being worked on. Ross said there is no timetable for when the plan will be delivered to Congress, but he noted that the annual defense spending bill — the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — calls for that plan to be finalized and presented to Congress by late February.
The NDAA, passed by Congress last November and signed into law by Obama, specifically prohibited the administration from using any funds to transfer the remaining Guantanamo detainees to the US for detention or prosecution or to "construct or modify any facility in the United States, its territories, or possessions to house any Guantanamo detainee."
But in a signing statement attached to the bill, Obama said certain restrictions pertaining to Guantanamo might be unconstitutional and infringe on his executive authority. (A signing statement is an official pronouncement issued by a president explaining how he interprets legislation. Obama has issued several signing statements related to Guantanamo restrictions in other annual defense spending bills he signed into law.)
At his final State of the Union address Tuesday, Obama vowed to make good on his 2008 campaign pledge of permanently shutting down Guantanamo, which celebrated its 14th anniversary this week. Guantanamo, Obama said during the speech, is "expensive, it's unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies."
At a ceremony Thursday to hand over command of United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) from Marine General John Kelly to Navy Admiral Kurt Tidd, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said closing Guantanamo "would benefit our national security." (SOUTHCOM has oversight of the joint task force that operates Guantanamo.)
He said the detainees who were released Thursday, which Carter personally approved, took place after a deliberate and careful review." He added that Congress "has indicated a willingness" to consider the administration's plan to relocate the remaining detainees to a still undisclosed location in the United States. (The closing of Guantanamo would in some ways be symbolic; in 2011, Obama signed an executive order that made indefinite detention the law of the land.)
"While we work with Congress on a way forward, we will continue to transfer Guantanamo detainees to other countries when and as we have mitigated any security risk to the United States," Carter said.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to fight the administration's efforts.
"I'm a supporter of Gitmo," McConnell said. "I think it ought to stay open. I think we ought to add more terrorists to it and we ought to interrogate them there and if it is concluded that they should be tried, they should be tried by military commission … I'm a big fan of using Gitmo the way it has been used and I think hopefully he will fail in his effort to completely remove all of these bad guys from Guantanamo."
Brooke Workneh contributed additional reporting to this story.
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold