WASHINGTON — Canadian Omar Khadr and more than 200 other terror suspects currently detained at Guantanamo Bay may soon find themselves behind bars in rural America as the clock winds down on President Barack Obama’s self-imposed deadline to close the U.S. prison camp.
Federal officials were in northwest Illinois on Monday, inspecting a largely vacant maximum-security prison that’s on a list of several jails that could be purchased by the government to house the Guantanamo Bay detainees.
They’re also eyeing jails in rural Colorado, Montana and Michigan amid the increasing likelihood that the Obama administration is not going to meet its Jan. 22 deadline to shutter Guantanamo.
Pat Quinn, the Democratic governor of Illinois, and Dick Durbin, a powerful Democratic senator from the state, are keen to see the feds send about 100 of the detainees to Thomson, Ill., saying it would help create about 3,000 jobs in the economically depressed area.
“At a time when Illinois is facing recession . . . this is a lifeline,” Durbin said Monday, predicting it would result in high-paying jobs with benefits packages for some Illinois citizens. “This is an opportunity. These people deserve a fighting chance to save their communities … and this project will give them that chance.”
But Republican lawmakers held a news conference in Chicago on Monday to decry the proposal, saying that detaining the terror suspects in the tiny community on the Mississippi River would pose a dangerous security risk for Chicago, 240 kilometres to the east.
“With the busiest airport in the world and the tallest building in North America, I do not think that we should make Chicagoland the centre of jihadi attention in the world,” said Mark Steven Kirk, a congressman from Illinois.
“But if you concentrate four times the number of terrorists of anywhere else in the country in Illinois, you will make us ground zero for that attention.”
Added his colleague in the House of Representatives, Peter Roskam: “It ought to be dropped like a hot rock, because al-Qaida terrorists have no place in northern Illinois.”
The opposition from Republicans underscores yet another partisan challenge Obama is facing as he decides what to do with the Guantanamo detainees.
If the administration opts to transfer prisoners who aren’t scheduled for legal proceedings to the United States, it will have to persuade Congress to overturn legal restrictions barring such transfers for anything other than trial. Measures prohibiting the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. have won support from large numbers of Democrats and Republicans in the past — and could do so again.
On Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the five accused engineers of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, including self-described mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will face trial in a U.S. civilian court while five more, among them Canada’s Khadr, will face military tribunals.
The 23-year-old Khadr is accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002. He is the only foreign national still being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Officials say the U.S. is leaning toward holding the military tribunals on American soil, but have yet to determine a locale. Until now, all the tribunals have been held at Guantanamo in a specially constructed courtroom.
Dozens of Guantanamo prisoners are cleared for release but lack countries willing to accept them. Up to two dozen detainees have been deemed too dangerous for release, but the government believes there isn’t enough evidence to try them in either a civilian or military court. They are among the prisoners who will have to be detained on U.S. soil.
Nonetheless, officials in Illinois, Montana, Michigan and Colorado are clamouring for the detainees due to the jobs they’ll bring to their recession-stricken communities.
In Big Horn County in Montana, the town of Hardin has a state-of-the-art 460-bed detention centre that’s been empty for two years.
The town, with an unemployment rate of 10.2 per cent, argues the facility would be easy to upgrade in order to accommodate the Guantanamo detainees, although Montana’s congressional delegation is opposed to the idea.
Hardin also has something the Illinois prison does not, its advocates point out — it’s remote, making escape considerably difficult.
“They have to go somewhere … why not us?” said Greg Smith, Hardin’s economic development director. “We’re the poorest county in the state and one of the poorest counties in the nation … like anything in America, we’re looking for opportunities.”
The southern Illinois town of Marion is also eager to house the detainees. “Bring ’em on,” Mayor Robert Butler said over the summer.
Colorado’s so-called Supermax prison, south of Denver in Florence, is also under consideration by the feds.
The prison is already home to an illustrious list of infamous terrorists, both domestic and international: Terry Nichols, the co-conspirator of the Oklahoma City bombing; Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph; 9-11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui; Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and failed shoe bomber Richard Reid.
Aside from state correctional facilities, the Obama administration is also looking at a list of U.S. military bases that could house some of the detainees. Among the options are Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C.