U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is considering transferring some of the hundreds of suspected Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) terrorists held in Syria to the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as an option of “last resort,” the Department of State (DOS) confirmed Thursday.
Unnamed U.S. officials told the Associated Press (AP) the Trump administration prefers sending the ISIS prisoners back to their home countries to be prosecuted.
“Repatriating foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin and ensuring they are prosecuted and detained is the best solution to prevent them from returning to the battlefield,” DOS declared in a statement, according to AP.
If the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holding an estimated 1,000 suspected ISIS fighters cannot repatriate the prisoners, however, the State Department suggested sending them to Gitmo “where lawful and appropriate.”
“The Administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism makes very clear that Law of Armed Conflict detention, including at Guantanamo, remains an important and effective counterterrorism tool,” DOS explained.
An unnamed U.S. official reportedly stressed sending captured jihadis to Gitmo is the “option of last resort.”
AP learned from the U.S. official that the Trump administration has “identified about 50 people” held by the Syrian forces as “high value” suspects that could be transferred to Guantánamo if the SDF cannot repatriate them.
The Gitmo prison population currently stands at 40. U.S. Commander Adam Bashaw, a spokesman for the military task force that runs the prison, told AP the facility could accommodate more terrorists.
Bashaw specifically indicated the U.S. troops overseeing Guantánamo could take 40 more people “with no additional staffing.”
Overall, the detention center can hold an additional 200 inmates total, “with minimal adjustments to current infrastructure and manpower,” the commander proclaimed.
Last month, four U.S. Republican senators sent a letter to President Trump urging him to send the “battled-hardened” ISIS jihadis captured by the SDF Kurdish-Arab alliance to Gitmo.
Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR), John Cornyn (R-TX), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) called on the president to make good on his promise to fill Gitmo with inmates.
As a candidate, Trump vowed to “load up” Gitmo “with some bad dudes.”
News reports revealed in 2017 that the Pentagon was planning to spend up to $500 million on upgrading the Guantánamo facility.
Adm. Craig Faller, the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) chief charged with overseeing Gitmo, told lawmakers this week that he expected the Trump administration to approve funds for necessary “long-term facility upgrades,” stressing that the prison is ready for “continued operations.”
In an annual assessment of SOUTHCOM’s activities presented to U.S. lawmakers on Thursday, Adm. Faller noted:
Detention operations also play an important role in the global fight against violent extremism by keeping enemy combatants off the battlefield. … In line with Executive Order 13823, we are examining ways to address medical support, capacity, and infrastructure issues associated with continued detention operations.”
Under Trump, U.S. officials have only transferred one detainee out of Gitmo approved for release under former President Barack Obama.
Authorities have deemed about half of the detainees (26) held at the facility as “forever prisoners,” or too dangerous to release.
It reportedly takes millions of dollars per inmate to operate the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo.
In his failed quest to close the facility, the Obama Administration released more than 200 terrorists, less than half of the 532 liberated under former President George W. Bush.
Gitmo has not received any new prisoners in more than a decade.
“The Syrian fighters have warned they may not be able to continue to hold the [Islamic State] fighters after the withdrawal of American forces from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump in December,” AP noted.
Some legal analysts have questioned whether or not President Trump has the authority to send ISIS-linked prisoners to Gitmo.
Citing Robert Chesney, a national security law professor at the University of Texas, AP reported:
The U.S. is allowed to detain al-Qaida and “associated forces” at Guantanamo under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. But whether Islamic State group fighters meets that criteria is an untested question.
In 2014, ISIS emerged as an offshoot of al Qaeda. ISIS now considers al Qaeda its rival in most places where the two groups operate.