Airliner Plot Raises Gitmo Worries
WASHINGTON - The alleged Christmas Day plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner further complicates President Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and send some of the 198 terrorism suspects held there back to their own countries.
National security experts and members of Congress are calling on the White House to halt plans to repatriate more detainees after a branch of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the alleged attack attempt. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said in an Internet post Monday that the effort to bring down Northwest Flight 253 was in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against the group in Yemen.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, son of a prominent Nigerian banker, was arrested in the alleged attack attempt. According to the Associated Press, Abdulmutallab told authorities that in Yemen, he received the training and explosives to try to blow up Northwest Flight 253.
Roughly 90 of the detainees at Guantanamo are from Yemen, where al-Qaeda cells have launched attacks and destabilized the government.
"I have serious concerns about sending any of these detainees back to what has become a breeding ground for terrorists," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security committee. "Given the Yemeni government's instability and the known terrorist operations on the Arabian Peninsula, the risks are too high at this time to repatriate additional Yemeni detainees."
Speaking out about the alleged attack attempt for the second time Tuesday, President Obama cited failures by the nation's intelligence agencies to prevent Abdulmutallab from boarding a flight to Detroit, despite a warning from his father that he might pose a threat. He did not address whether the incident will affect Guantanamo.
The Obama administration has transferred seven Yemeni detainees from the prison back to Yemen. Six of those went home this month. The Bush administration released 14 Yemenis, as well as two Saudi nationals, Muhamad Attik al-Harbi and Said al-Shihri. Guantanamo spokesman Brook DeWalt said the Saudis were transferred to Saudi Arabia in 2007. The two are now leaders with al-Qaeda in Yemen, Bloomberg reported, citing a 2009 Pentagon report.
The incident Friday means "we have the clearest indication yet that the president's continual release of Guantanamo Bay detainees presents an unacceptable risk to American lives," said Kirk Lippold, commander of the USS Cole when it was attacked by al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2000. Yemen "is incapable of containing a growing terrorist insurgency."
The nearly 200 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay are "the most dangerous of the terrorists we brought there," Lippold said. "They are high-level al-Qaeda or Taliban."
A Justice Department statement said, "The U.S. government would not have proceeded with these transfers if there were security-related concerns that were not adequately addressed."
About 600 prisoners have been released from Guantanamo since the detention center opened after the 9/11 attacks. The Obama administration has said interrogation abuses and the indefinite detention of some have turned the prison into a recruiting tool for terrorists.
When Obama took office in January, he ordered that the prison be closed and that each detainee's case be reviewed. On Dec. 15, the White House announced plans for the federal government to buy a prison in Thomson, Ill., to house detainees to be tried before military tribunals and those who officials determine cannot be prosecuted or released. Members of Congress, including Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., have balked at the plan and withheld funding.
The White House has not said whether more detainees are slated to be returned to Yemen. David Remes, a Washington lawyer who represents 15 Yemeni detainees, said at least a couple of dozen have been approved for repatriation. He said the bomb plot should have no impact on decisions about sending detainees home. "The politics of the situation (will) stand in the way" for a while, he said, but he hopes it will be a temporary "hiccup."
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., is calling for a review of any decision to send more detainees to Yemen. "Is sending them back in the best interests of the U.S., or is there another country that perhaps would take them?" he asked.
Christopher Anders of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has pushed to release any detainees who cannot be charged, said he's concerned about "fear-mongering."
Others say closing Guantanamo could be in jeopardy. "Congress could well turn into a complete obstacle to any serious solution for Guantanamo," said Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.