Yemen aims to halt next generation of terrorists

The country wants to offer 'retraining' for returning Guantánamo detainees. It also hopes to boost dialogue with religious leaders. Human rights groups are skeptical.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Seven years after Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared his country an ally in the US war on terror, two models of religious dialogue – one grass-roots and the other authorized at the highest echelons of Yemen's government – are combating the rise of radicalism, though with varying degrees of success.

"We make sure [convicted terrorists] know the dangers involved in terrorism, their misunderstanding of Islamic teachings in regards to terrorism and the killing of innocents," says Minister of Foreign Affairs Abubaker Al-Qirbi in an interview.

Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, has a history of being a safe haven for Islamist militants. Although a top financier for Al Qaeda was reportedly arrested in the country over the weekend, the terror network has increased its visibility in Yemen, carrying out a number of fatal attacks against foreigners and foreign institutions in the past few years, including an attack on the US Embassy in Sanaa in September 2008.

Recommended: Where do things stand at Guantánamo? Six basic questions answered.

On Sunday, nine foreigners, including a Briton, a South Korean, and a German, were kidnapped by Shiite rebels in northern Yemen, according to news reports.

As Yemen attempts to handle the crisis of the moment, the country looks to its religious dialogue efforts as a possible counter-balance to the religious extremism that fuels kidnapping and Al Qaeda. Human rights activists caution that the programs, however, don't always translate into practical transformation.

Reaching out to religious leaders

But Shawki al-Qadhi believes such a result is possible. This imam from the mountainous province of Taiz doesn't buy the whole "clash of civilizations" idea. Rather, he believes that rifts between the West and East, between America and the Muslim world, can be mended through dialogue and education.

Thus, seven years ago, Mr. Qadhi founded the Imam Democracy Training Program, an effort to teach ideas like human rights, women's rights, and political participation to Yemen's clergymen.

"These public speakers were in the past speaking against democracy and against elections, against political participation, against human rights, without reason, but due to a dangerous way of thinking," explains al-Qadhi. "So it was necessary that this understanding would be fixed."

Rehab for 'Gitmo returnees?

Yemen's government also has tried its hand at tackling extremism by means of religious discourse. Similar in theory to Qadhi's initiative but entirely different in structure, the initiative aimed to teach a peaceful version of Islam to convicted terrorists within Yemen's prisons.

Saudi Arabia also runs a similar jihadi reformation program. Founded in 2004, it is a more highly funded enterprise.

Yemen's latest effort is a controversial plan to rehabilitate Yemeni detainees from Guantánamo Bay if and when they are repatriated. US authorities are nearing a deal that could see many of the more than 100 Yemenis held at Guantánamo transferred to Saudi Arabia, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing officials in the negotiations.

In early May, Mr. Saleh spoke with President Obama for the first time over the phone about the pressing issue of where to send the Yemenis left in Guantánamo. The Obama administration is trying to negotiate to send the Yemeni detainees to Saudi Arabia rather than Yemen, due to US concerns about Yemen's ability to reintegrate them. Saleh believes that the men should be repatriated, the Associated Press reported.

US not convinced

Plans for the new and improved rehabilitation program for the Guantánamo detainees were announced in mid-2008 by the Yemeni government. If completed, the center would include a comprehensive program of religious and vocational training, says Mr. Qirbi, the minister of foreign affairs. He stresses, however, the need for American monetary support in order to complete the center's construction.

But the American government does not have full confidence in Yemen's ability to successfully reintegrate the approximately 100 Guantánamo detainees remaining back into Yemeni society if the men are indeed sent home.

"While discussion with respect to the Yemeni detainees continues, the security situation in Yemen is a concern," says a State Department official, declining to comment further on the issue.

In February 2006, 23 convicted terrorists broke out of a prison in Sanaa. In January of this year, two Saudi detainees from Guantánamo who had participated in Saudi Arabia's rehabilitation program upon their return home, surfaced as operatives with Al Qaeda in Yemen. In a video, they and two other men announced the creation of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an umbrella organization calling for attacks non-Muslims in the region.

Letta Taylor, a New York-based researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of a recent HRW report on obstacles to returning Yemenis from Guantánamo, said in an e-mail that the rehabilitation center would be a "proxy Guantánamo with counseling and job training tacked on as window dressing."

In addition, says Ms. Taylor, who visited Yemen in December, a key weakness of the program is a lack of resources to build a new facility for the returned detainees and create a vocational program for those who are released, as Saudi Arabia has done.

"While there are many questions surrounding the efficacy of Yemen's former religious dialogue programs, one clear problem was lack of funding and follow-up care," says Taylor. "Unlike oil-rich Saudi Arabia, cash-poor Yemen cannot fund a lavish, comprehensive program on its own."

Furthermore, though the Yemeni government's previous attempts at dialogue may look good on paper, human rights groups, including HRW and the Yemeni non-profit group National Organization for Rights and Freedoms (HOOD), have claimed that prisoners are forced to renounce terrorism by means of torture, and that the idea of an actual dialogue is essentially non-existent, but is a ploy the Yemeni government uses to gain good favor with the US.

Khaled Alansi, a prominent Yemeni human rights lawyer and director of HOOD, has represented several Yemenis who have been through what he calls a "joke" of a dialogue program within Yemen's prisons.

"The government says 'believe this' to the prisoners. The prisoners say 'no.' Then they torture them. Then they tell us you need to change your belief. So this is the way the dialogue works," Mr. Alansi says. "You cannot arrest people and then have dialogue with them. The prison is not a place for dialogue."

Changes are taking root

In a traditional country like Yemen, where the Islamic faith is at society's core, Qahdi and Alansi say that working through religion is the only way to change the popular perceptions and try to prevent violent, fundamentalist ideas from taking root. He adds that the approximately 500 imams who have participated in his year-long program now integrate what they have learned into their sermons, reaching a broader audience.

"Rules regulating society are shaped to a large extent by opinions and rulings of the imams. When one imam discusses women's rights at a Friday sermon, he will impact many people at the mosque," says Atiaf Alwazir a researcher at the American University in Cairo, who has studied Qadhi's program.

"The fact that these imams of different backgrounds are all in the same room with female preachers, is in itself an important positive step," she adds, although she noted that some imams refuse to attend training sessions out of principle.

Jamal Moulaky, an imam from the Yemeni province of Ibb, completed the Imam Democracy Training Program two years ago and now travels around Yemen organizing children's rights workshops at different mosques throughout the country.

"Before I didn't have a problem with democracy, but I wasn't sure how it fit with Islam," he says. "But I learned that there are no problems with Islam and democracy working together."

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