Two Saudis formerly jailed at the US prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have joined Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch, and authorities here worry that two other ex-Guantánamo inmates may have strayed back to militancy because they have recently disappeared from their homes.
The revelations illustrate the difficulties faced both by President Obama, who has pledged to shutter the facility for terror suspects, and the Saudi government, which is trying to reform its own radical jihadis, many of whom were imprisoned at Guantánamo before being released back to the kingdom.
The two Saudis working with Al Qaeda in Yemen, in addition to the two missing ex-Guantánamo detainees, participated in a Saudi rehabilitation program to counter violent ideology and reintegrate militants into society, says Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman.
Further complicating Saudi efforts is a resurgence of Al Qaeda in Yemen that is drawing Saudis to fill its ranks, say terrorism experts. The group's upswing was underscored by its September attack on the US Embassy in Yemen that killed 16 people. The embassy was threatened Monday when a phone caller said it was the target of an imminent Al Qaeda attack, reported the Associated Press.
Last week, Al Qaeda in Yemen started to publish its magazine again and posted a video online declaring the Saudi and Yemeni Al Qaeda groups had united, according to Jihadica.com, a website that analyzes extremist activity on the Internet.
"The merger is probably not going to have any immediate consequences for Al Qaeda's capability," wrote Thomas Hegghammer, a scholar of Islamists and an international security fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "However, it does say something about intentions: It basically removes all doubt that Al Qaeda now intends to use Yemen as a launching pad for operations in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf." [Editor’s note: The original story didn’t indicate the origin of Thomas Hegghammer’s comments.]
Can jihadis reform?
Yemen also has a rehab program for jihadis, but it has been much less aggressive and successful than its Saudi counterpart, which has been widely praised. This is another problem in closing Guantánamo because the largest group of remaining 245 inmates are Yemenis.
Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh said Saturday that his government had rejected a suggestion by the Bush administration to release the 94 Yemeni detainees into the Saudi rehabilitation program, wire services reported. He added that they all would be home within three months, and placed in Yemen's rehab effort.
A Pentagon spokesman said on Jan. 13 that of the 520 detainees released from the controversial military camp in Cuba, 18 had "returned to the fight" and another 43 are under suspicion of being involved in extremist activities. He declined to name them.
Mr. Turki, of the Saudi Interior Ministry, says the government's rehabilitation program remains a viable one despite the men's reversion to extremist activities.
"I cannot consider the program a failure if one or two who went through it did not comply" with its requirements, he says, noting that 117 Saudis released from Guantánamo had gone through the so-called Care Program.
An unknown number of Saudi extremists caught in – or attempting to go to – Iraq have also completed the program. About 3,200 other militants, nearly half of them still in Saudi prisons, have received religious and psychological counseling as part of the larger Saudi rehabilitation campaign.
Al Qaeda in Yemen
The two ex-Guantánamo inmates who surfaced in Yemen appeared in the video posted Friday. One, Said Ali al-Shihri, was described as a deputy leader of the new merged group. Turki says that Mr. Shihri, who spent six years in Guantánamo, was handed to Saudi authorities in late 2007 and stayed in the Care Program for five months. He was provisionally released in mid-May 2008 pending a court appearance.
As with most other Guantánamo returnees, the Saudis did not have evidence of criminal wrongdoing against Shihri. In such cases, Turki says, the men were charged with the minor violation of traveling to Afghanistan, a country Saudi passport holders are barred from visiting.
Muhammad al-Awfi, who also appeared in the video, returned from Guantánamo at the same time as Shihri, Turki said. He adds that the families of both men informed the authorities of their disappearances and "joined the search for them."
The Interior Ministry is "still investigating" the disappearance from their homes of two other Saudis released from Guantánamo whose whereabouts remain unknown, Turki says. He did not know their names or when the US military transferred them to Saudi authorities.
Last year, Turki disclosed that at least two graduates of the rehab program were rearrested for returning to extremist activities. He said on Sunday that they had not been at Guantánamo and were detained for "minor violations."
On Monday, Agence France-Presse reported that the Interior Ministry said in a statement that nine militants have been rearrested since the beginning of the program.
The defection of former Guantánamo inmate Shihri was first reported by The New York Times. The Friday video showed Shihri and Mr. Awfi, along with two Yemenis, touting the two groups' unification under the old name of "Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula."
One aim of the video, wrote Mr. Hegghammer, "was to humiliate Saudi authorities, who have let al-Shihri and al-Awfi, both former Guantánamo detainees (ISN# 372 and 333 respectively) and graduates of the famous rehabilitation program, slip away. Unless al-Shihri and al-Awfi are agents (which I doubt), their appearance is indeed extremely embarrassing for Saudi authorities."
The group's magazine, Sada al-Malahim, or "Echo of Glorious Battles," invited readers to submit questions to its e-mail address, a sign that the group "is not about to collapse anytime soon," Hegghammer noted.