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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.

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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.

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"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."