WASHINGTON – The White House announced Tuesday that it is halting the transfer of detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay prison to Yemen, a move that could complicate President Barack Obama’s plans to close the controversial military center on a naval base in Cuba.
The development stands to increase the number of Guantanamo inmates who ultimately could be moved to rural Thomson, Ill., site of a state prison the Obama administration wants to purchase and operate dually as a federal prison and military detention center.
Some supporters have sold the idea of “Gitmo North” to local residents as the destination for no more than 100 former Guantanamo detainees, though the White House has never committed to that limit.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged Tuesday that a long-term hold on transfers to Yemen could mean that some of those detainees have to go to Illinois instead.
The White House took the step in the wake of new evidence that the country is a center for al-Qaida, which is suspected of backing the attempt by a Nigerian militant to down an airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day.
“While we remain committed to closing the facility, the determination has been made that, right now, any additional transfers to Yemen is not a good idea,” Gibbs said.
In comments after meeting with national security officials, Obama reiterated the decision to halt transfers.
“We will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time,” Obama said. “But make no mistake: We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaida.”
The Obama administration last transferred six detainees to Yemen on Dec. 20, and one other Yemeni was transferred earlier as a result of a court order. In all, 21 Yemeni detainees have been released from Guantanamo.
Yemeni nationals make up the largest single group of remaining detainees at Guantanamo.