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Libyans at Guantanamo Bay Can’t Go Home, So the U.S. Sends Them to Senegal

The Pentagon’s latest transfer from its military detention center in Cuba underscores how the disaster in Libya is complicating President Obama’s push to close the prison.

TOPSHOT - Members of a brigade loyal to the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), an alliance of Islamist-backed fighters, drive pick up trucks mounted with machine guns during a military parade following battles against the Islamic State (IS) group, in the city of Sabratha, west of the capital Tripoli, on February  28, 2016.
On February 19, a US air strike near Sabratha targeted a suspected IS training camp, killing 50 people. / AFP / MAHMUD TURKIA        (Photo credit should read MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Members of a brigade loyal to the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), an alliance of Islamist-backed fighters, drive pick up trucks mounted with machine guns during a military parade following battles against the Islamic State (IS) group, in the city of Sabratha, west of the capital Tripoli, on February 28, 2016. On February 19, a US air strike near Sabratha targeted a suspected IS training camp, killing 50 people. / AFP / MAHMUD TURKIA (Photo credit should read MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration is working to remove Guantanamo from the president’s to-do list, but an unstable Libya is making that already difficult task even harder.

On Monday the Pentagon announced the transfer of two Libyan detainees to Senegal. Both current U.S. law and standing administration policy bar returning Libyan detainees to their home country because of the political instability caused by an ongoing dispute between the country’s two dueling governments and the violence sparked by the Islamic State’s growing foothold there.

The two detainees, Salem Abdu Salam Ghereby and Omar Khalif Mohammed Abu Baker Mahjour Umar, had both been held without charge at Guantanamo Bay since 2002. The Pentagon alleges both served as explosives trainers for the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, according to Defense Department documents on their cases. The LIFG is an organization of fighters who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and pledged to overthrow Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, and was believed to have some ties to al Qaeda, according to the State Department. The State Department removed the militia from its list of foreign terrorist organizations late last year.

Per Obama administration policy, detainees cannot be cleared for transfer without the unanimous consent of six national security agencies. That task force cleared Ghereby to be moved in January 2009 but didn’t sign off on releasing Umar until August of 2015, according to the Pentagon.

Even once cleared for transfer, Libyan detainees pose a particular challenge because of the difficulty in finding an alternative place for them to go. With the latest annual defense policy bill, Congress barred transfers to Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Syria, deeming that the current instability in those countries disqualified them from hosting detainees. 

“While our policy preference is to repatriate detainees where we can do so consistent with our national security and humane treatment policies, under certain circumstances the most viable transfer option is resettlement in a third country,” Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, told Foreign Policy.

Enter Senegal, which Secretary of State John Kerry Monday praised for agreeing to take the detainees.

“This significant humanitarian gesture is consistent with Senegal’s leadership on the global stage,” Kerry said.  

Libya is heading in the opposite direction, riven by both security problems and serious political ones. A new prime minister, Fayez Serraj, recently arrived in the Libyan capital of Tripoli as part of a U.N.-brokered deal between the dueling governments in Tripoli and the eastern city of Misrata. If the unity government can be cobbled together, it could pave the way for the U.S. to strike more Islamic State targets and for U.S. special operations troops seeking African partners to try and reverse the terrorist group’s rise in the country. ISIS is believed to have about 5,000 fighters in Libya and control roughly 150 miles of territory.

The release of the two Libyans comes as Obama administration works to accelerate its push to transfer as many detainees out from Guantanamo Bay as possible to bolster its case that the prison should be shuttered and the remaining detainees moved to a secure facility in the U.S., as outlined in a closure plan the White House recently submitted to Congress. Even before the plan was released, members of Congress vowed to block it it. Throughout Obama’s tenure, Congress has consistently thrown up legislative obstacles to prevent him from closing Guantanamo Bay or make such transfers more difficult.

Recent testimony from the Pentagon official dedicated to closing Guantanamo Bay that transferred detainees had killed Americans has only inflamed the political tensions over the president’s push, even though the administration confirmed those detainees weren’t released under Obama.

“Despite the fact that more than 30 percent of former Guantanamo detainees are known or suspected to have reengaged in terrorism, and despite recent confirmation that some have even killed Americans, the administration announced the release of two more Gitmo detainees today,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), one of the most outspoken critics of closing Guantanamo, said Monday.

With the latest transfer, 89 detainees remain at Guantanamo, with two of them from Libya. Thirty-five are cleared for removal to third-party countries. Nine are expected to be transferred in the next two weeks.

Photo credit: MAHMUD TURKIA / Stringer

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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