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How Has Obama Altered America's Approach To Gitmo Transfers?

The senators on the Armed Services Committee would be well-served to ask the Obama administration all of these questions – and more.

4:43 PM, Mar 2, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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But it shouldn’t have taken the Christmas Day attempt to change the Obama administration’s transfer policies. The country’s instability and the Yemeni government’s duplicity in the “war on terror” have long made it an unsuitable location for transferring detainees. That’s one of the chief reasons why the Bush administration didn’t transfer the Yemeni detainees there.

During his BBC interview, Olsen said that they were well aware of the problems with Yemen before Christmas Day but he would not comment on whether the December 19 transfers were a mistake. “I'm not going to say whether it was a mistake or not… I think that we are making the best possible judgments we can make based on a great deal of information,” Olsen said.   

That suggests the administration is not confident in either Yemen’s ability to mitigate the risk posed by the detainees, or the soundness of transferring the detainees in question in the first place, or both.

The December 19 transfers look more questionable when one researches the detainees’ backgrounds. One of them, Ayman Batarfi, is known to be a longtime, committed jihadist. He is an al Qaeda doctor who fled to the Tora Bora Mountains in late 2001, where he met with Osama bin Laden. Batarfi also worked with “charities” that were really al Qaeda fronts. What’s worse: Batarfi’s own testimony and a series of memos produced at Guantanamo link him to al Qaeda’s anthrax program. (For more background on Batarfi, see here and here.)

Yet, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, claims there is no evidence tying Batarfi to al Qaeda’s anthrax program.

As I’ve argued previously, Brennan is clearly wrong.

Did the detainee task force reach the same conclusion as Brennan? If so, how did it make this determination when it clearly contradicts the assessments that had been made by intelligence officials at Guantanamo for years? And if the detainee task force reached the same conclusion as Gitmo intelligence officials (that Batarfi was involved in al Qaeda’s efforts to develop anthrax), then why was he transferred to the al Qaeda hotbed that is Yemen?

Perhaps most importantly, do American officials know what Batarfi and the other Yemenis transferred in December are up to currently?

There are many other detainee transfers worth exploring. Here’s one of them. Also in December, the Obama administration transferred Abdullahi Sudi Arale (also known as Ismail Mahmoud Muhammad) to Somaliland.

Somaliland is not even recognized as a real country, so it is not obvious how the Obama administration could trust officials there to mitigate the risks posed by Arale. And, according to the Bush administration officials who announced Arale’s transfer to Guantanamo in June 2007, Arale poses a real danger.

A DoD press release on June 6, 2007 explained:

“Abdullahi Sudi Arale is suspected of being a member of the Al Qaeda terrorist network in East Africa, serving as a courier between East Africa Al Qaeda (EAAQ) and Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Since his return from Pakistan to Somalia in September 2006, he has held a leadership role in the EAAQ-affiliated Somali Council of Islamic Courts (CIC).

There is significant information available indicating that Arale has been assisting various EAAQ-affiliated extremists in acquiring weapons and explosives, and has facilitated terrorist travel by providing false documents for AQ and EAAQ-affiliates and foreign fighters traveling into Somalia. Arale played a significant role in the re-emergence of the CIC in Mogadishu.”

The same day as the press release, a Pentagon spokesman called Arale a “high-value detainee.”

So, what changed between June 2007 and December 2009? How did Arale go from being a high-value detainee to being worthy of transfer to what is not even a real country?

The senators on the Armed Services Committee would be well-served to ask all of these questions – and more.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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