The U.S. approved the release of 15 detainees from the Guantanamo Bay military prison to the United Arab Emirates on Monday evening, marking the single largest transfer under the Obama administration.
The Pentagon said the transfer of 12 Yemenis and three Afghans from the U.S. facility in Cuba drops the total number of remaining detainees to 61–nearly four times lower than when President Obama first took office. In 2009, there were 242 men imprisoned at Guantanamo.
Obama reiterated his aim earlier this year to close down Guantanamo Bay by the end of his presidency, calling the prison “contrary” to U.S. values and a recruitment tool for terrorists.
U.S. law bars the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to American soil, which a bipartisan majority in Congress supports keeping in place, although the Obama administration is hoping lawmakers change their minds. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry have to negotiate with foreign leaders to resettle or repatriate the detainees.
Republican Rep. Ed Royce, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Wall Street Journal that the “cajoling and arm-twisting to get countries to accept these terrorists” is at times “pushing detainees on countries that can’t handle them.”
“Once again, hardened terrorists are being released to foreign countries where they will be a threat,” Royce said in a statement.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.) released an unclassified Pentagon report last week detailing the extremist backgrounds of more than 100 detainees held or recently transferred from Guantanamo Bay. She said the 15 prisoners released Monday “are among the worst terrorists who could jeopardize our national security and the lives of our troops.”
“The terrorists this administration just released include individuals who fought on the frontlines against U.S. and other coalition forces, targeted U.S. personnel with explosives, served as bin Laden bodyguards, and acted as al Qaeda IED experts,” Ayotte said in a statement Monday.
Obaidullah, one of the newly released detainees, received explosives training from the Taliban before joining an al Qaeda IED cell that targeted U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, according to the report.
The Defense Department said in a statement upon announcing the transfers that the U.S. was “grateful” to the U.A.E. “for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.”
Obama has transferred, resettled, or repatriated nearly 200 detainees since taking office.
USA Today reported in June that twelve released Guantanamo detainees launched attacks against U.S. and allied forces serving in Afghanistan. The assaults have killed roughly a half-dozen Americans overseas, including at least one civilian.
Ayotte cited their deaths as “the single most important reason” to keep the military prison open.