U.S. to halt Guantanamo detainee transfers to Yemen

In a potential glitch in the administration’s effort to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, President Obama on Tuesday ordered a halt to the transfer of detainees to Yemen, where the Christmas Day attack on a U.S. airliner is believed to have been planned.

Obama’s decision shows that the failed attack on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit is having a direct effect on a key objective of his presidency.

“We will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “But make no mistake. We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.”

As one of his first official acts as president last January, Obama pledged to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. Administration officials have acknowledged that the deadline will be missed, however.

The decision to halt transfers to Yemen comes as White House officials scramble to figure out how Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, managed to board the flight despite numerous signs that he might pose a terrorism threat. His father had contacted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, warning that his son had become radicalized.

In the U.S. investigation of the failed attack -- thwarted in large part by passengers -- one of the early findings was that the plot was nurtured in Yemen, homeland of the single largest group of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo.

Ninety-one Yemenis remain at the prison -- about half its detainees.

The Obama administration had planned to repatriate many of them, and had returned six Yemenis just days before the Christmas incident. Those six are in Yemeni government custody.

U.S. officials say they are comfortable with the security arrangements.

One civil liberties group called the halt to Yemeni transfers “unconscionable.” The decision will “effectively prevent any meaningful progress toward closing Guantanamo, which President Obama has repeatedly argued will make our nation safer,” the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement.

But others, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), hailed the decision and urged that Guantanamo not be closed.

“Given the determined nature of the threat from Al Qaeda, it made little sense to transfer detainees from the secure facility at Guantanamo back to Yemen, where previously transferred detainees have escaped from prison and returned to Al Qaeda,” he said.

“Guantanamo remains the proper place for holding terrorists, especially those who may not be able to be detained as securely in a third country,” McConnell said.

The U.S. has long been concerned about the Yemeni government’s ability to hold or monitor detainees.

The nation of 23 million people is mired in chaos, facing an insurgency in the north and a separatist movement in the south.

The group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula reputedly has already absorbed several former Guantanamo detainees, including Saeed Ali Shahri, a Saudi national who is now second in command to militant leader Naser Abdel-Karim Wahishi, a Yemeni with ties to Osama bin Laden.

In addition to the six Yemeni inmates repatriated Dec. 20, one was transferred earlier as a result of a court order. In all, including during the George W. Bush administration, 21 Yemenis have been released from Guantanamo.

Further complicating matters is the possibility that the halt to Yemeni transfers could increase the number of Guantanamo inmates ultimately moved to rural Thomson, Ill., the site of a state prison that the administration wants to purchase and operate as a federal prison and military detention center.

Some supporters have sold the idea to Thomson residents based on the proposal that the federal prison would receive no more than 100 former Guantanamo detainees, although the White House has never committed to that limit.

A long-term halt to Yemeni transfers could mean that some of those detainees would go to Illinois instead.

Nevertheless, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the flow of Yemeni nationals to their home country must stop for now.

“Any additional transfers to Yemen is not a good idea,” he said.