What's Changed Since U.S. Last Moved Detainees To Yemen

Host Rachel Martin talks with Greg Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia. They discuss President Obama's plan to restart prisoner transfers of Yemeni detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President also pledged to resume detainee transfers out of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. At least 88 of the 166 detainees still being held at Guantanamo are from Yemen. Fifty-six of them have already been cleared for release, but they are still in custody. Why they are still there is complicated.

After a Yemen-based branch of al-Qaida tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner back in 2009, President Obama imposed a ban on all detainee transfers to Yemen. The government there at the time was considered weak. It couldn't fight insurgents on its own soil and couldn't securely manage any detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

We reached out to Gregory Johnsen, the author of the book "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's war in Arabia." And I asked him how things have changed since then.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: The security situation today is very similar to the security situation that it was in 2009 when President Obama had this self-imposed moratorium. There is an al-Qaida group that, as the president said in his speech yesterday, AQAP is the most active group in plotting against the United States. What's changed is the political situation.

First and foremost, Yemen has a new president, an individual by the name of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. And Hadi doesn't have a big base of support within Yemen. And so, in order to offset that he needs a lot of international and particularly United States support, which means that he is very pliable, that he tends to do what it is that the U.S. wants.

The second thing that's changed on the political front is the perception of Yemen in the U.S. government. Even though the situation on the ground is roughly the same, there's not the same amount of fear that there was then.

MARTIN: You mentioned there is a new leader in Yemen. But is the country as a whole, is the government as a whole stable enough to deal with these detainees? We remember a few years ago there were all these headlines about hundreds of detainees escaping from Yemeni prisons.

JOHNSEN: Right, that's a good question. And it really gets that, I think, the key point for a lot of people and a lot of politicians, which is the last thing anyone wants to see is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee that the U.S. once had in custody who is now free and is now plotting to kill Americans.

But look, there are no guarantees with any of it. These are people who have been cleared for release. And I think that we as a country have to ask ourselves if we want to be the type of country that continues to hold these people, who've been cleared for release, out of fear. And it's that question I think more than any other that will determine whether these men are sent home; what kind of a nation do we want to be?

MARTIN: What would happen to these detainees if they were to be sent home? And cleared for release doesn't necessarily mean acquitted of all allegations.

JOHNSEN: Right. What the Yemeni government has often said - and has said publicly and has said very recently - is that if the U.S. has evidence against these individuals, that the U.S. should turn over the evidence to the Yemeni court system, and that the Yemeni government will prosecute these individuals or will hold them.

What's happened with the few individuals have been sent back to Yemen is that typically the government holds them for a little while, and that it often releases them assuming that no evidence has been forthcoming. And when they go back, many people avoid them because of government surveillance, because they assume that they're terrorists, because they assume - as then-Secretary Rumsfeld said - that they're the worst of the worst because of the association, because of the stigma of being a Guantanamo Bay detainee.

MARTIN: On the whole, what do you think this means, this decision to repatriate detainees back to Yemen? What does it mean for the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Yemen?

JOHNSEN: Well, I think it certainly is a good step for bilateral relations. It's also good step for President Obama and his goal to close Guantanamo Bay. But I think there is a deeper issue, and that is the policy of indefinite detention and people being held outside any sort of a legal framework, is something that his administration still has not quite grappled with in a way that would allow it to come down on one side or the other. So in a sense, President Obama seems to want to close Guantanamo Bay as a symbol, but keep the policy that underlies it in place.

MARTIN: Gregory Johnsen is the author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda and America's War in Arabia." He joined us from our bureau in New York.

Gregory Johnsen, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHNSEN: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Tomorrow, to the country where the war on terror first began, Afghanistan. MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne introduces us to a young businesswoman trying to make a go of it. She's part of a new generation of Afghans shaping their country as allied troops withdraw. That story and the day's top news tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

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