During the final months of the Bush administration, top U.S. counterterrorism officials engaged in an intense debate about the fate of the Yemenis detained at Guantánamo Bay. There are a lot of them there--nearly 100 out of the total population of 248--and most can be directly tied to al Qaeda's global terror network. Barack Obama's Gitmo problem is, in many respects, a Yemen problem. And it just got worse.
In an interview with a Saudi newspaper last week, Yemen's foreign minister Abu Bakr al Qirbi was asked about the jihadist rehabilitation program his government is setting up to facilitate the return of Yemeni detainees. Saudi Arabia has made a comprehensive attempt to deprogram jihadists and to secure their promise to end their terrorist ways. U.S. counterterrorism officials like to point to the Saudi program as a model of what should be done with captured jihadists, though 11 former Guantánamo detainees who passed through the Saudi program just showed up on the kingdom's list of "most wanted" terrorists.
Yemen's new program, judging from al Qirbi's description, has a different purpose altogether.
The center Yemen prepares aims at receiving returners from Guantánamo Bay and rehabilitating them to be reintegrated into their society. We have to understand that these young men underwent several types of sufferings as a result of investigations, torture, and non-humanitarian treatments. Of course, they have affected their psychological and physical conditions.
It is necessary to provide them help and physical and material support. They have to be rehabilitated in order to return to their normal life, and we have to provide them work opportunities and train them if this is needed.
The problem, according to al Qirbi, isn't that the detainees are committed jihadists who might well commit further acts of violence. It's that the United States treated them so harshly that they might have trouble adjusting to life back in Yemen.
Juan Zarate, who was the top counterterrorism official in the Bush White House, is not surprised by the comments. "The Yemeni government has to contend with their political reality in which the Gitmo detainees are seen as either victims or heroes," he says. "In addition, there is not yet a real rehabilitation program in Yemen--as we understand it with the Saudis and other governments. These dynamics, along with the existing security risks in Yemen, should give us pause as we think about repatriating Yemeni detainees."
Other Yemeni officials, including President Abdullah Ali Saleh, have said that the new program will include an effort to get these jihadists to "shun extremism and fanaticism." Yet, rehabilitating the Yemenis detained at Guantánamo will be no easy task. Yemen is home to a vast terrorist recruiting network comprising Islamic sheikhs and veteran mujahedeen. They regularly call upon eager new recruits to take up arms against Islam's supposed enemies around the world. As we reported recently (see "Anywhere but Yemen," February 9, 2009), most of the Yemenis currently held at Guantánamo were recruited by this network. They have been indoctrinated into the Taliban's and al Qaeda's cause and see America and the West as infidels worthy of slaughter.
The U.S. government's unclassified files are replete with references to the Yemeni detainees' extremist worldview. Consider three examples.
Abdul Rahman Umir al Qyati answered the call for jihad in Afghanistan. He trained at al Qaeda's infamous al Farouq camp and then became a guard at the Kandahar airport in 2001. At that time, the airport was a stronghold for Osama bin Laden, and only the most trustworthy recruits were given guard duties there. Al Qyati "holds the United States in disdain" and admits "that if another call for jihad were issued he would comply even if it meant killing Americans and destroying U.S. interests."
Majid Abdu Ahmed also answered a Yemeni cleric's call for jihad in Afghanistan. During his time in U.S. detention, Ahmed referred to his interviewing agents as "infidels" and explained "that all Americans are infidels, and they will go to hell." Ahmed told his interviewers that the September 11 attacks "were very small in scale and he wishes for greater destruction and torture to fall upon Americans."
Adil Said al Haj Obeid al Busayss is an admitted Taliban member who attended a training camp in late 2000 and then fought on the front lines in Afghanistan. Busayss sees the entire world as a battlefield for jihadist forces to conquer. When a non-Islamic country falls, its inhabitants will have three choices: pay a tax for their infidel beliefs, leave the country, or convert to radical Islam. Anyone who refuses to submit will be killed.
In their views, these three detainees are typical of the Yemeni population at Guantánamo. The jihadist ideology that drove them to fight thousands of miles from home and participate in all facets of the global terrorist network's operations is uncompromising.
Transferring al Qyati, Ahmed, and Busayss to their homeland poses serious risks. Al Qaeda is an increasingly powerful force inside Yemen. And as al Qaeda's attack on the American embassy in Sana'a just five months ago reminds us, Westerners are the organization's preferred targets there. Al Qaeda is always looking for willing hit men to carry out its operations. The Obama administration should be mindful that Busayss allegedly "stated he would support a fatwa advocating attacks against infidels within his country."
In addition to two high-value Yemeni detainees who worked directly for bin Laden, at least 27 -others are alleged to have ties to him. This includes 14 detainees who were his bodyguards, another who traveled with bin Laden on recruiting missions, and another who was part of bin Laden's entourage during the escape from Tora Bora. At least 15 more Yemenis, including three who also have direct ties to bin Laden, were captured in the 2002 raids in Pakistan that netted top al Qaeda operatives Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi Binalshibh, the Yemeni point man for the September 11 operation.
A majority of the Yemeni detainees in Guantánamo were trained for fighting and directly supported the terror network's operations. Yemen is not a country that can be reasonably expected to house and rehabilitate these detainees. And yet this appears to be the policy of the Obama administration.
The U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Stephen Seche, said recently that he hoped a "majority" of the nearly 100 Yemeni detainees held at Guantánamo Bay would be returned to their native land so that they might "integrate themselves back into their own society with their families and make a future for themselves here." A State Department spokesman told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that Seche's comments reflect the views of the Obama administration.
On February 12, the new director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, presented the U.S. intelligence community's annual threat assessment to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Throughout the Arab world, al Qaeda is under pressure. Al Qaeda in Iraq has been greatly weakened by the Awakening movement and the dogged efforts of Coalition forces. And, beginning in 2003, Saudi Arabia's "aggressive counterterrorism efforts" have made the kingdom "a harsh operating environment."
But, there is trouble brewing. Saudi Arabia faces "threats from al Qaeda elements in the region, particularly from Yemen," Blair read aloud from the assessment:
Yemen is reemerging as a jihadist battleground and potential regional base of operations for al Qaeda to plan internal and external attacks, train terrorists, and facilitate the movement of operatives. Al Qaeda leaders could use al Qaeda in Yemen and the growing presence of foreign jihadists there to supplement its external operations agenda, promote turmoil in Saudi Arabia, and weaken the Saleh regime.
To this end, Blair continued reading, al Qaeda in Yemen has "conducted 20 attacks against U.S., Western, and Yemeni targets" as of September 2008.
It is clear that the U.S. intelligence community sees the growing threat coming out of Yemen. Does the Obama administration?