RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
The Obama administration will be releasing some prisoners when it closes down the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. It's pledged to close that camp within a year, which has left it with one very tough problem. Nearly half the Guantanamo prisoners are from Yemen, and that country is likely the last place where American officials want to release potential terrorists. NPR's counter terrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston reports.
DINA TEMPLE: Jaber Elbaneh is one of the FBI's most wanted and has a $5 million bounty on his head.
PETER AHEARN: Since 2002 he's been a fugitive, he's been caught, he escaped, he's been caught.
TEMPLE: Peter Ahearn was the FBI's special agent in charge of Jaber Elbaneh's case.
AHEARN: It's a complicated situation, so we've been told.
TEMPLE: Jaber Elbaneh is a Yemeni-American. He grew up in Lackawanna, N.Y. In 2001, he and a handful of his friends went to Afghanistan and trained in an al-Qaida camp. His friends came back to the United States. Elbaneh went to Yemen. For the past seven years, the FBI has been trying to get him extradited and the Yemenis have refused. And that has led counterterrorism experts to agree on one thing when it comes to releasing suspects...
AHEARN: Anywhere but Yemen.
TEMPLE: Anywhere but Yemen because the government there essentially has an honor program for would-be terrorists. Those suspected of such ties are asked to sign a pledge promising not to 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's what happened with Elbaneh.
GREG JOHNSEN: I think there is a lot of doubt on the part of the U.S. government as to whether or not he is actually serving a sentence in prison, as opposed to just someone who kind of periodically checks in with the security forces there in Yemen.
TEMPLE: Jaber Elbaneh's murky status sheds light on a larger problem. Yemen's central government is weak and even at the best of times it's 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 has just written a book about Guantanamo. She says the Obama administration can't solve the problem of detainees without first addressing the problem of Yemen.
KAREN GREENBERG: The risk factor is not just the detainees. 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.
TEMPLE: In the past two years, intelligence officials say Yemen has become home to the second-strongest al-Qaida operation in the world, and it's 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, they would be returning prisoners to a country that provides a growing jihadi network to plug into. Again, Greg Johnson.
JOHNSEN: We very well could be put in a situation where we're going to have to go after and re-arrest individuals or be in a situation in where 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.
TEMPLE: 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.
JOHNSEN: So what happens to these, then young men come to join their brothers or their cousins and the Yemeni government quite frankly lacks the infrastructure to keep a very firm grip or control of these guys once it lets them out of custody.
TEMPLE: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.