U.S. defense officials appear willing to send more captured terrorists to the country’s detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but see the prison as a last resort, best suited for hard-core fighters who cannot be safely contained at other locations.
The Pentagon Wednesday sent updated guidance to the White House on the rules governing what type of individuals could be sent to Guantanamo Bay, though officials cautioned that no new transfers are in the works.
“Ultimately, the White House will decide how we move forward,” Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters.
“Our policy is that we are trying to encourage countries to take back their citizens,” she added. “We will continue to push that.”
Neither the White House nor the Defense Department have been willing so far to comment on the new guidelines in any detail.
A statement from a Defense Department spokesperson broadly defined those eligible for transfer to Guantanamo Bay as any person posing “a continuing, significant threat to the security of the United States.”
The fate of the detention facility, once slated for closure, has taken on additional importance as U.S. and coalition operations against the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria begin to wind down.
Currently, U.S.-backed forces in Syria are holding more than 400 IS foreign fighters, while even more are being held in various prisons and other facilities in Iraq. Washington would like to see them returned to their home nations, but many countries are reluctant to accept these fighters.
According to U.S. and Western military and intelligence officials, many of these foreign fighters remain ideologically motivated, and their training and battlefield experience makes them especially dangerous.
“In some cases, those countries have stripped them of their citizenship, so they have a different view as far as to what their status is today,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said earlier this week. “So this is not simple.”
In the end, U.S. defense officials caution Guantanamo Bay may be the only choice left.
“The administration has said very clearly Gitmo is an option here,” Christopher Maier, director of the Defense Department’s Defeat ISIS Core Task Force told VOA. “If they’re not held in some sort of custody, then you’re just asking for more turmoil.”
Even then, not all foreign fighters would be candidates.
“I think the intent would be to use Gitmo for certain types of ISIS fighters that were maybe of a more extreme set that couldn’t be dealt with in local facilities or local systems,” Maier said.
The last time Guantanamo Bay received a new detainee was more than 10 years ago, in March 2008. In 2009, then-U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order directing that the detention facility be shut down.
Since then, the number of detainees has fallen from 242 to 40, with the military announcing the most recent transfer, of Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi to Saudi Arabia, late Wednesday.
Darbi’s transfer, the first under President Donald Trump, came as part of a 2014 plea deal that will allow al-Darbi to serve out the rest of his 13-year sentence under Saudi guard.
But unlike his predecessor, Trump pledged to keep the Guantanamo Bay detention facility open, making a key promise of his presidential campaign to “to load it up with some bad dudes.”
He signed an executive order to that effect this past January.
Then-President George W. Bush opened Guantanamo after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to hold and interrogate suspected enemy combatants.
At the height of its operations, the prison held 780 people, mostly inmates with alleged ties to al-Qaida and the Taliban. Since then, hundreds have been transferred to their home countries or to other nations that agreed to accept them.