The U.S. was set to move 11 detainees out of Guantanamo. Then Hamas attacked Israel.

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration was close to transferring 11 detainees out of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to a country in the Middle East in October 2023, but abruptly halted the move amid concerns about political optics after Hamas’ attack on Israel, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the planning.

More than seven months later, the administration has not set a new date for the transfer, the officials said, and the detainees remain at Guantanamo with no clarity on when, or if, it will happen.

The holdup has frustrated administration officials who said they believe election-year politics are supplanting President Joe Biden’s policy of reducing the population at Guantanamo, and ultimately closing the facility. These officials said they are concerned the likelihood that the transfer takes place before November’s presidential election diminishes the closer the election gets. And they worry the stalled process that has left 11 men sitting in detention for months without clarity about when they could be transferred could become a human rights concern.

The 11 detainees are either citizens of Yemen or have ties to the country, the officials said. They were scheduled to be resettled in Oman, according to the officials.

Several U.S. officials said the deal for their transfer is still under discussion with Oman, including on specific timing and conditions, and that it could happen this year. They said politics are behind the delay and that the transfer wasn’t imminent because some logistics hadn’t been finalized.

A senior administration official suggested Oman also has at times since October not wanted the transfer to take place.

“This is not like collecting dust somewhere. We’re actively looking at all those administrative steps to make it happen,” the official said, acknowledging “there are frustrations.”

The White House National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats and Republicans have objected to moving detainees out of Guantanamo, and the issue has been a political flashpoint through multiple presidential administrations. In January, for instance, the top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees joined their GOP counterparts in calling on the Biden administration not to allow intelligence community funds to help facilitate any transfers of Guantanamo detainees.

Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, has worked to close the facility. But detainee transfers nearly ground to a halt while Donald Trump, Biden’s predecessor and 2024 opponent, was in the White House.

Biden administration officials working to close Guantanamo expressed concern that if these 11 detainees who were set to be transferred in October are not resettled this year, and Trump is re-elected, they will remain at the detention facility for at least another four years.

Their transfer in October was imminent when it was called off at the last minute, according to administration officials involved in the process. The administration had already notified Congress that the transfer would take place, officials said, a step the executive branch is required by law to take at least 30 days in advance of transferring any Guantanamo detainees.

The transfer would have brought the population at Guantanamo to below 20 for the first time since it began holding suspected terrorists in January 2002.

A detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba
A detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba on Sept. 20, 2021.Erin Schaff / New York Times / Redux

Biden administration officials spent months negotiating the terms for the detainees to be transferred to Oman, including measures intended to guarantee the men wouldn’t become a security threat and any possible compensation they would receive.

Multiple U.S. officials said the decision to stop the transfer was not related to any concerns raised by Oman or last-minute disagreements between the U.S. and Oman. They said they believe it was the result of members of Congress, primarily Democrats close to the president, privately raising concerns about the timing.

Most of the 11 detainees were cleared by the U.S. for release or transfer years ago, after going through the lengthy process to achieve that status.

With Yemen locked in a civil war for nearly a decade, transferring them there was not a feasible option. While the fighting between the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognized government, backed by Saudi Arabia, had largely quieted in 2023, the country remains unstable, suffering from a widespread humanitarian crisis and terrorist attacks from an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began in October, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have attacked ships off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea dozens of times. The U.S. and coalition partners continue to conduct airstrikes to defend against the Houthi attacks and to take out their weapons in Yemen.

The deepening turmoil in the Middle East has made transferring detainees out of Guantanamo even more politically precarious, officials said.

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