October 14, 2016 | The Weekly Standard

Pentagon Releases 15 ‘High-Risk’ Gitmo Detainees to UAE

The Defense Department has transferred 15 detainees—12 Yemenis and 3 Afghan citizens—from Guantanamo to the United Arab Emirates. The Pentagon's web page says nothing about the risks the detainees pose beyond the fact that the transfers supposedly “took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.” The DOD thanks the UAE “for its humanitarian gesture,” implying that the transfers were necessary to promote human welfare.

Here are some facts about the detainees, based on leaked and declassified documents.

All 15 were deemed “high” risks to the United States, its interests or allies by Joint Task Force – Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the detention facility.

President Obama's own Guantanamo Review Task Force determined that 8 of the 15 should be held in detention according to the law of war because they were “too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution.”

Another one of the detainees was recommended for prosecution, meaning Obama's task force concluded that 9 of the 15 should remain in U.S. custody.

The task force's final report, which was completed in January 2010, explained the criteria used to place a detainee in law of war detention under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. The three criteria that had to be satisfied were: “(1) the detainee poses a national security threat that cannot be sufficiently mitigated through feasible and appropriate security measures; (2) prosecution of the detainee by the federal government is not feasible in any forum; and (3) continued detention without criminal charges is lawful.” Eight of the 15 detainees transferred to the UAE met these criteria.

A periodic review board ultimately approved for transfer these nine detainees (the eight placed in law of war and another referred for prosecution). The PRB concluded in a few of these cases that the detainee was less of a threat, or less important, than originally assessed. But this doesn't mean that the PRB suddenly deemed them to be innocents or non-threats. Instead, in most of the nine decisions, the PRB concluded that the threat posed by the detainee could be mitigated for various reasons. In other words, the PRB believed that these detainees should be transferred, years after Obama's own task force concluded they should not be.

The remaining six detainees, all Yemenis, were placed in “conditional detention” by Obama's task force.

In its announcement, the Defense Department says these six detainees were “unanimously approved for transfer by the six departments and agencies comprising the task force.” But that is an incomplete description of the task force's determination and also somewhat misleading. The task force's own report explained that “conditional detention” meant these detainees were “not approved for repatriation to Yemen at this time, but may be transferred to third countries, or repatriated to Yemen in the future if the current moratorium on transfers to Yemen is lifted and other security conditions are met.” The task force considered the Yemenis placed in conditional detention to be riskier than the Yemenis approved for outright transfer.

Who are the 15 detainees transferred to the UAE?

According to JTF-GTMO's leaked threat assessments, they include: four former bodyguards for Osama bin Laden (see hereherehere and here); a Yemeni who had a “supervisory role” in bin Laden's “security force”; two members of bin Laden's 55th Arab Brigade, which was al Qaeda's primary paramilitary force in pre-9/11 Afghanistan (see here and here); a “sub-commander” at Osama bin Laden's Tora Bora complex; an al Qaeda “instructor” who swore allegiance to bin Laden; a member of an al Qaeda IED cell that planned to conduct attacks on U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan; an al Qaeda “explosives expert” who “directly assisted the planning and implementing of attacks against U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan”; two al Qaeda operatives “who planned to participate in terrorist operations targeting US forces in Karachi, Pakistan (PK), and possibly inside the United States” (seehere and here); and two other now former detainees who allegedly took part in attacks against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan.

While the Defense Department portrays the transfer as a “humanitarian” move, the intelligence professionals at JTF-GTMO were more concerned about what these jihadis could do if they returned to the battlefield.

For example, the leaked threat assessment for Abdul al Saleh, an alleged al Qaeda “member” who fought under one of bin Laden's top lieutenants and has now been transferred to the UAE, reads:

Predicting which detainees will become recidivists can be difficult. But JTF-GTMO assessed that all 15 of the detainees transferred to the UAE were “high” risks. And President Obama's own task force considered most of them “too dangerous” to let walk.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn.