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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"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.
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.