Airline attack could delay release of Yemenis at Guantánamo

Yemenis are the largest group of Guantánamo detainees. But key senators want to halt further transfers to Yemen in light of the Chistmas airline attack, which has been linked to Al Qaeda operatives there.

By , Staff writer

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    A guard wearing a protective face mask speaks with a detainee through a fence as another paces inside the exercise yard at Camp five detention facility on Guantánamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.
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The emergence of Yemen as a base for international terror attacks by Al Qaeda is complicating efforts to close the US terror detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Of the 198 detainees remaining at Guantánamo, 89 are Yemeni nationals. They are, by far, the largest contingent from any country.

After months of US-Yemen negotiations, six Yemeni detainees were sent home two weeks ago. The move boosted expectations by remaining detainees and their lawyers that others would soon follow.

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But that was before news broke that alleged Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab obtained his explosive material and terror training from a Yemen-based group called Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Now key senators are calling for a freeze on further Guantánamo transfers to Yemen.

“The current conditions and threat of [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] activities are clear evidence of the danger in repatriating these Yemeni detainees at this time,” wrote Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, and Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut in a recent letter to President Obama.

Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has issued her own call for a halt to transfers. “Guantánamo detainees should not be released at this time,” she said in a statement. “It is too unstable.”

Moving forward?

President Obama has already abandoned his pledge to close Guantánamo by January 22. No new deadline has been set, but efforts are well underway to repatriate as many detainees as possible in advance of moving an estimated 100 remaining prisoners to US-based facilities to stand trial or face indefinite detention at a prison in rural Illinois.

“I am heartened by statements coming out of the administration that they are going to keep on track,” said David Remes, legal director of the Washington-based group Appeal for Justice which represents 15 Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo. Two of his clients returned home to Yemen on Dec. 19.

“What’s gotten lost in the uproar is that the Yemenis that the administration is sending back to Yemen have all been approved for transfer on the ground that they don’t pose any danger to the United States,” Mr. Remes says. “The US isn’t transferring these men indiscriminately.”

Can Yemen keep terror suspects jailed?

In the letter to Obama, Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman said the Yemeni government has proven ineffective in the past at keeping terror suspects behind bars. They cite a February 2006 mass escape from a prison in Sanaa aided by what they said were “Yemeni officials sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”

They added that, according to the Department of Defense, roughly 14 percent of released Guantánamo detainees have “reengaged in terrorism.”

Gregory Johnsen is a Yemen expert at Princeton University in New Jersey. He says locking up suspects in a Yemeni prison may not be an effective strategy against Al Qaeda in Yemen.

“These prisons serve as radicalization factories,” he says. “Individuals often come out much more radical than when they went in.”

Mr. Johnsen says that the US government is adopting a myopic view of the US-Yemen relationship with the focus exclusively on counterterrorism.

The US-Yemen relationship

The estimated $70 million in current US aid is aimed at assisting Yemeni forces through training and intelligence cooperation to strike back hard at Al Qaeda. But Johnsen says this approach isn’t enough.

“I don’t believe one can bomb their way out of the Al Qaeda situation,” he says. Military strikes have to be an option, he says, but they do not address the root causes pushing young Yemenis toward Al Qaeda.

“The US has been down this road before with Al Qaeda [in Yemen], where they essentially bombed it into submission, arrested all the individuals, and by the end of November 2003 thought they’d destroyed the organization,” Johnsen says. “Of course, the organization didn’t go away, it just went into remission and then a couple years later came back. If the United States continues to rely solely on military strikes on Al Qaeda in Yemen then every few years it will be fighting a different incarnation of Al Qaeda.”

Instead, the US should invest in a broad range of development projects designed to boost living standards and employment. “That would go a long way in isolating and eradicating Al Qaeda,” Johnsen says.

He adds that closing Guantánamo would help undercut Al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts in Arabia. But he warns of possible dangers. “We should be frank, it does appear that there are a number of Yemenis in Guantánamo who are innocent, but there are also a number of Yemenis who have ties that should be of great concern to the US,” he says.

But he adds: “It appears the US just doesn’t have the intelligence, the institutional knowledge, and the human experts to sort out the guilty from the innocent.”

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