U.S. Dilemma: Yemeni Detainees At Guantanamo

Yemenis call on the government to step up efforts to get Yemenis held at Guantanamo Bay released i

Protesters, including two dressed as Guantanamo Bay detainees, call on the government to step up efforts to get Yemenis held at the prison released, in San'a, Yemen, last May. Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images
Yemenis call on the government to step up efforts to get Yemenis held at Guantanamo Bay released

Protesters, including two dressed as Guantanamo Bay detainees, call on the government to step up efforts to get Yemenis held at the prison released, in San'a, Yemen, last May.

Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration has always acknowledged that the Yemeni population at Guantanamo presents one of the most significant challenges to closing the prison camp. Of the 198 men currently at the detention center, 91 are from the small country on the Arabian peninsula.

Now President Obama acknowledges the man accused of trying to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day reportedly trained with al-Qaida in Yemen, which makes the problem of handling the Yemenis held at the Guantanamo Bay facility even more acute.

Yemen has always played a disproportionately large role in the global jihadist movement, according to Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Of the original nearly 800 people who went to Guantanamo, more than 1 in 8 was from Yemen," he says, "which is astonishing when you think about how small the country is."

Conservatives in Congress are urging President Obama not to release any more Guantanamo detainees to the Yemeni government. Another option is indefinite detention in the U.S. without trial, but that angers liberals in Congress. All of which helps explain why Obama will not meet his original deadline to close Guantanamo later this month.

The U.S. has been slower to release Yemenis than detainees from any other country.

"Saudi Arabia had a little over 130 detainees at Guantanamo over the years, and about 120 of those have been returned," says Shayana Kadidal, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who works with lawyers representing Yemenis at Guantanamo. In contrast, only 21 of the 112 Yemeni detainees originally at Guantanamo have been returned to their home country, "so you basically have a situation where hardly anybody [from Yemen] has gone home."

The Bush administration returned 14 Guantanamo detainees to the Yemeni government; the Obama administration has returned seven.

"Part of the calculus in terms of returning detainees to their home governments is the ability of the home government to actually deal with those individuals," says Juan Zarate, who served as a counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush. "And I think over the past few years there's been greater confidence in the Saudi government's ability to do precisely that."

The U.S. does not consider the Yemeni government totally reliable. Some Yemenis who have been released have reportedly returned to al-Qaida.

A Political Calculation

On Sunday, Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said the administration will continue to transfer Yemenis in a way that does not put Americans at risk.

"We made a decision that we would send back six because we were very pleased with the way the Yemeni government handled the one individual we sent back about eight weeks ago," Brennan told CNN. "And so we're making sure that the situation on the ground is taken into account, that we continue to work with the Yemeni government, and that we do this in a very common-sense fashion, because we want to make sure that we are able to close Guantanamo."

Closing Guantanamo requires the administration to address the Yemeni problem in some fashion.

The administration is asking how much of a threat each detainee poses. In a speech on national security last year, Obama promised he was "not going to release individuals who endanger the American people."

Wittes calls that standard impossibly high.

"Politicians say those sorts of things, but it's actually nonsense," he says. "You're dealing with a population about which you have imperfect information. You don't really know who's going to go back to the fight and who's not, so when you release somebody you assume some risk."

That risk involves a political calculation, and Zarate believes the calculation changed when a man who trained with al-Qaida in Yemen allegedly tried to blow up an airplane last month.

"This case highlights politically and publicly the fact that you've got a direct threat to the homeland coming out of the adaptations of al-Qaida in Yemen," he says. "To send known al-Qaida operatives back to Yemen at this time, I think, is politically untenable."

Kadidal, whose group represents Yemenis at Guantanamo, fears Zarate may be right.

"Obviously the timing on this couldn't have been worse," he says, "but the people who are being sent home now are people who've been cleared by an exhaustive review by the interagency task force, so you have a much more cautious process that's being undertaken now, and if people get cleared by that process they ought to be sent home."

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