The Obama administration hopes to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the next year. But officials keep running into an intractable problem: Nearly half the prisoners are from the Gulf state of Yemen, which is the last place the U.S. wants to release potential terrorists.
Jaber Elbaneh is one of the FBI's most wanted men in the world. He has a $5 million bounty on his head, and he has been in Yemen for the past seven years.
"Since 2002, he's been a fugitive, he's been caught, he escaped, he's been caught," says Peter Ahearn, the FBI's special agent in charge of Elbaneh's case. "It's a complicated situation, so we've been told."
Elbaneh is a Yemeni-American. He grew up in Lackawanna, N.Y., a steel town just outside of Buffalo. In 2001, he and a handful of his friends went to Afghanistan and trained at an al-Qaida camp. His friends came back to the U.S., and Elbaneh went to Yemen. For the past seven years, the FBI has been trying to get him extradited back to the U.S. So far, the Yemenis have refused. And that has led counterterrorism experts to agree on one thing: When it comes to releasing suspects, anywhere but Yemen.
The government there essentially has an honor system for would-be terrorists. Those suspected of such ties are asked to sign a pledge promising to not engage in terrorism against Yemen. In return for signing on the dotted line, jihadists and suspected al-Qaida members get their freedom. Greg Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, says that is what happened with Elbaneh.
"I think there is a lot of doubt on the part of the U.S. government as to whether he really is serving a sentence in prison, as opposed to someone who just periodically checks in with the security forces there in Yemen," Johnsen says.
Elbaneh's murky status sheds light on a larger problem. Yemen's central government is weak and, even at the best of times, has never been a full-throated participant in the fight against terrorism.
Case in point: Over the weekend, Yemen announced the release of 170 men arrested on suspicion of having ties to al-Qaida. The men promised the government they wouldn't engage in terrorism, and that was enough to set them free.
Karen Greenberg, who has just written a book about Guantanamo, says the Obama administration can't solve the problem of detainees without first addressing the problem of Yemen.
"The risk factor is not just the detainees," she says. "The risk factor is how we're going to deal in the future, going forward, with the country of Yemen and the issue of jihadi terrorism."
In the past two years, intelligence officials say, Yemen has become home to the second-strongest al-Qaida operation in the world — and it is getting stronger. Two weeks ago, al-Qaida announced that it was merging its Yemeni and Saudi operations, transforming a local terrorist organization into a regional one. If the U.S. repatriated detainees back to Yemen now, it would be returning prisoners to a country that provides a growing jihadi network to plug into.
"We very well could be put in a situation where we're going to have to go after and re-arrest individuals," says Princeton's Johnsen. "Or be in a situation in which individuals that the U.S. once had in custody are carrying out attacks that are claiming the lives of individuals in Yemen or in Saudi Arabia."
There's another concern: Many of the people who are members of al-Qaida in Yemen have relatives who are imprisoned in Guantanamo. Officials are worried that those family ties will only encourage detainees to take up arms again.
"What happens is these young men come and join their cousins or brothers, and the Yemeni government lacks the infrastructure to control these guys once they let them out of custody," Johnsen says.
That's why the Obama administration is looking at another option: a third country that might take in the Yemeni detainees. Right now, Yemen's neighbor, Saudi Arabia, tops that list, if for no other reason than the U.S. is fairly certain the detainees released there will be kept on a short leash — unlike, for example, Elbaneh. When the FBI last heard about him, he was driving a taxi in the Yemeni capital of San'a.