The Pentagon announced Thursday the transfer of 10 Guantanamo Bay prisoners to the country of Oman, marking the first time since shortly after the facility opened that the number of detainees has fallen below 100.
There are now 93 prisoners held at Guantanamo, down from a peak of 684 in 2003. The Pentagon is working to make good on President Obama's pledge to close the prison by the end of his term in office.
The 10 that were transferred, all alleged low-level Yemeni militants with ties to the Taliban or Al Qaeda, were released to the Omani government after their cases were individually reviewed by six federal departments and agencies that comprise the Guantanamo Review Task Force.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stepped up efforts this month to transfer detainees that have previously been cleared for release but remain imprisoned. Thirteen people have been released in January so far and U.S. officials say at least four more prisoners are expected to be transferred in the next two weeks.
"Like every transfer that came before it, the decision to transfer these detainees happened only after a thorough review by me and other senior security officials of the government," Carter said Thursday at U.S. Southern Command in Miami.
The latest detainees released were Fahed Abdullah Ahmad Ghazi, Samir Naji Hasan Muqbil, Adham Mohamed Ali Awad, Mukhtar Yahya Naji Warafi, Abu Bakr Ibn Muhammad Ahdal, Muhammad Salih Husayn Shaykh, Muhammad Said Salim Bin Salman, Said Muhammad Salih Hatim, Umar Said Salim Dini, and Fahmi Abdallah Ahmad Ubadi al-Tulaqi.
"As we work diligently to close this chapter in our history, we will continue — and I believe in this strongly — to value and support the professionalism and strength of the men and women of Southcom who carry out what is an exceedingly difficult mission," Carter said to Southern Command troops, who are responsible for overseeing Guantanamo.
The latest push to close the detention camp, which was built after the Al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, follows Obama's renewed calls during this week's State of the Union address to shutter the prison.
Obama wants Congress to lift restrictions that block detainee transfers to the U.S. and designate a U.S. site where inmates can be prosecuted by military commissions.
"I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo," Obama said on Tuesday. "It's expensive, it's unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies."
There are now 34 prisoners who were never charged with a crime and have been approved by U.S. military and intelligence officials for repatriation or transfer abroad.
A small number of high-value prisoners, such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other alleged Sept. 11 terrorist attack plotters, would presumably remain at Guantanamo Bay until they are tried in military tribunals there. Mohammed's case is currently going through the tribunal process.
Just eight men were tried and convicted of war crimes, and only three of those are still serving time at Guantanamo, which was set up during the George W. Bush administration to house terrorism suspects swept up by U.S. forces during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama, in one of his first official acts as president, signed an executive order to close the prison within a year, hoping to make good on a campaign pledge. The administration has tried to get Republicans on board by arguing that the prison is too expensive, claiming it costs more than $3 million per prisoner per year to keep Guantanamo open.
Obama has reduced the population from 241 during his first seven years in office and directed the Pentagon to complete cost assessments of what it would take to bring the remaining detainees to the United States to be imprisoned.
At the end of last year, Defense Department officials visited seven federal military facilities and prisons in Kansas, Colorado and South Carolina as potential sites to hold terrorism detainees. The assessment teams met with facility staff and weighed security, housing for guards and other needs if the detainees were transferred.
But when word got out about the teams visiting the sites, the plan was immediately criticized by Republicans in Congress.
Ultimately, the White House rejected the Pentagon's initial $500-million plan as being too costly, ordering military officials to find a cheaper way to imprison the detainees stateside, according to U.S. officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Guantanamo has held 780 terrorism suspects since it opened in 2002, and 678 have now been released or transferred to the custody of other nations.
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