One of the most vexing problems in closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay is what to do with the roughly 250 detainees who are still there.
At its peak capacity, some 775 detainees were held at Guantanamo Bay. Several years ago, the Pentagon began releasing them back to their home nations, or to third countries willing to accept them. So far, more than 500 Afghans, Pakistanis, Europeans, Saudis and others have been released. But 101 Yemeni detainees are still held at Guantanamo. They represent the single largest contingent at the camp.
"Yemenis now account for 40 percent of the Guantanamo prison population," says David Remes of the human rights group Appeal for Justice.
Remes represents 16 of the Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo. Two of his clients were cleared for release by the Pentagon in February 2006.
"The concept of cleared for release is something of a mystery to us, because after 2 1/2 years, the men are still in Guantanamo," Remes says.
Many others also are mystified as to why the Yemeni detainees are not being released.
"We saw the Europeans released relatively early in 2004 and 2005 when their countries said it is unacceptable, our citizens are detained in arbitrary indefinite detention without fair process. We saw the Saudi government do the same thing," says Emmy McLean with the Center for Constitutional Rights. The CCR is co-counsel for several of the Yemeni detainees. McLean says it's clear Yemen lacks leverage with the U.S.
"The Yemeni government does not have the same power political clout to make that same assertion and have it stand," she says.
A new report published Thursday by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center says that security in Yemen is the problem. Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University's Near Eastern Studies Program co-authored the report. He points to the case of Qasim al-Raymi, who he says is second in command of al-Qaida in Yemen. Raymi's younger brother is being held at Guantanamo.
"So what happens when this younger brother, his name is Ali al-Raymi, is released in Yemen," says Johnsen. "Does he go and join his brothers, does this act as sort of a shot in the arm for al-Qaida? I think that's the main concern for the U.S. government, that there's potential that individuals they once had in prison would then carry out attacks."
In remarks last week, CIA Director Michael Hayden also voiced concerns about the growing threat of al-Qaida in Yemen.
"We've seen an unprecedented number of attacks this year, 2008, including two on our embassy," Hayden said. "Plots are increasing not only in number but in sophistication, and the range of targets is broadening."
But defense lawyers say not all the Yemenis at Guantanamo pose a threat. Only four have been charged, including Sept. 11 terrorism suspect Ramzi Binalshibh. Two Yemenis have been convicted. Defense lawyers say many of the Yemenis were handed over to the U.S. military by bounty hunters in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The U.S. and Yemen have had diplomatic discussions about what to do with those Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo who don't pose a risk. One option is to send some of the prisoners through a rehabilitation program — one that is modeled after a four-year program in Saudi Arabia.
Christopher Boucek, who is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is the other co-author of the CTC report, says that program has a unique way of dealing with the approximately 120 Saudi prisoners released from Guantanamo.
"The Saudi government sends a plane to Guantanamo to pick up the detainees. The men's handcuffs are removed immediately," Boucek says. "When they land back in Saudi Arabia, a member of the royal family comes out to meet them and welcome them back to the kingdom. ... The government brings the family to Riyadh to reunite you with your family. ... Then there's a series of counseling and support sessions for former detainees and family."
Boucek says some of the detainees are taken before a judge, sometimes charged and can spend time in prison. But they are all given the opportunity to go through an intensive rehabilitation program that includes religious dialogue with imams and working with psychologists and social workers.
"The things they do are very much traditional methods of Saudi conflict management and conflict resolution," Boucek says. "It's all about co-optation and coercion and persuasion and avoiding conflict. These are great ways of getting people to do things without there being a confrontation at the same time."
Success Of Saudi Program
Nearly 3,000 Saudis, including Guantanamo detainees, have gone through the rehab program. About 20 percent either don't get involved or fail the program. Boucek says very few of those who finish the program relapse and are re-arrested. He says those numbers are a bit misleading because the program focuses on low- to midlevel militants, not the most senior ones.
"These figures look really, really good right now," Boucek says. "They can say there's a 2 percent re-arrest rate; that looks really phenomenal; that's because these are the easiest possible guys to deal with."
The Saudi model was actually based on an earlier Yemeni rehabilitation program, which was established after the Sept. 11 attacks. That program was run by Judge Hamoud al-Hitar. Princeton University's Johnsen says Hitar and four other judges would sit down in a room and have what they would call a religious debate with the jihadis or other people swept up in massive arrests after the attacks.
"They would say look, here is our view on what the Koran and what the sharia say, and if we can convince you then you have to change your views, but if you can convince us then we'll change our views," Johnsen says.
Johnsen says he considers the Yemeni program a failure because so few resources were devoted to making it work. Three hundred sixty-four Yemenis who went through that program were released. The Saudi program, on the other hand, is flush with money to help provide former detainees with financial help, jobs, even drivers to take their children to school.
Johnsen says the Yemeni program ran from Sept. 2002 until Dec. 10, 2005.
"That was the day that a reporter from the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi ... published a report that charged that a couple different individuals who went through the Yemeni program had since made their way to Iraq and carried out a suicide attack on U.S. forces there," Johnsen says.
Johnsen says according to an al-Qaida Web site, three other men who went through the Yemeni program were involved in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in the capital, San'a, two months ago.
Neither Yemen nor the U.S. has confirmed the three were involved, but Johnsen says that news will do nothing to ease the Pentagon's concerns about releasing the Yemeni detainees.
Plans For A New Yemen Program?
Still, Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman with the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, says there are plans for a new rehabilitation program.
"Both sides have been working closely on an arrangement to ensure a swift transfer of detainees," Albasha says. "And Yemen has assured the U.S. government that these detainees wouldn't pose any threats once they're transferred to Yemen."
Albasha says the two sides are still in talks regarding finalizing the funding for this center.
"But it's going to be a joint project between the U.S. government and the Yemeni government," he says.
Albasha says it's a place "where we're going to have psychological, religious rehabilitation; we're going to be training or teaching these people how to survive once they leave the rehab center to be a carpenter, to be a mechanic, just sort of for them to have a life afterwards."
Albasha says it is hoped the program will be up and running by the end of this year. The Pentagon declined to comment.
Joanne Mariner, the terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch, says there is concern the Yemeni rehabilitation program could end up being just another detention center like Guantanamo, where the prisoners are held indefinitely.
"It's really not clear if this is going to be some kind of disguised proxy detention or whether this will be a genuine effort to help these people reintegrate back into Yemeni society," Mariner says.
Spokesman Albasha says Yemen will not hold any prisoners without sufficient evidence. He points to the 13 Yemeni prisoners who have been released so far.
"Most of them were set free because there was nothing on them," he says. "Up to this point, the U.S. did not furnish us with any solid evidence for us to lock them up, so they're free; they remain under the surveillance of our security apparatus."
There had been talk of the U.S. funding a Supermax-type prison in Yemen for the returned detainees. But those talks faded after February 2006, when 23 al-Qaida members escaped from a prison in Yemen.