The Magazine

Anywhere But Yemen

One group of Guantánamo detainees will prove especially difficult for the Obama administration.

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On January 22, 2009, two days after Barack Obama took the oath of office, the new president issued an executive order requiring that the detainee facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, be closed in one year. With cameras capturing the president affixing his signature to the document, Obama said the change would return the United States to the "moral high ground" and "restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism." In a separate executive order, the new president established a task force to lead a broad review of U.S. detention policy and to provide him "with information in terms of how we are able to deal [with] the disposition of some of the detainees that may be currently in Guantánamo that we cannot transfer to other countries, who could pose a serious danger to the United States."

While Obama was deliberately vague about what would happen to the approximately 248 detainees currently held at Guantánamo Bay, his administration's policy quickly began to take shape halfway around the world. Some one hundred of the remaining Guantánamo detainees are from Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden. And in comments published the day Obama issued his executive orders, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen said that he hoped a "majority" of the Yemeni detainees would be allowed to return home to "make a future for themselves here."

"Certainly we would like to be able to bring them back to Yemen and have them integrate themselves back into their own society with their families," Ambassador -Stephen Seche told, a State Department website. Although he acknowledged some "inherent risks" in returning the alleged terrorists to the general population, Seche suggested that only a few of the detainees present real problems. "Except in the case perhaps of some very hardcore elements, we believe that the majority of these detainees can be put productively into a .  .  . reintegration program with the goal over time of enabling them to find a way back into Yemeni society without posing a security risk."

Two days later, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh went further. In an appearance at a security conference in Sana'a, Saleh announced that Yemen had established a reintegration program and that virtually all of the Yemeni detainees would be sent home within three months. "Now, within 60-90 days, 94 Yemeni detainees will be here among us," he announced.

Is Saleh correct? Was Ambassador Seche speaking for the State Department and, more broadly, for the Obama administration? We put those questions to a spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The spokesman, who declined to be identified in print, cautioned that the Obama administration's review of Guantánamo detainees was ongoing and that it was too early to know precisely what steps that process would recommend. Saleh's announcement, he said, was premature. But the spokesman nonetheless indicated that Ambassador Seche's comments reflect administration policy.

Ambassador Seche's comments that you referred to lay out very well the U.S. government position on the situation of the Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo. .  .  . As he noted, the U.S. government has made clear its decision to close the Guantánamo Bay facility as soon as practicable but no later than one year from January 22, 2009.

The Bush administration spent years debating the best way to handle the Yemeni detainees. Reports vary as to precisely how many Yemenis are still at Guantánamo. The online database of detainees created by the New York Times indicates that there are 95 Yemenis currently being held, in addition to 9/11 conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh and senior al Qaeda operations planner Walid bin Attash. A handful of them--like Binalshibh and Attash--are high-value detainees and will not be released. At the other end of the spectrum are a small number of Yemeni detainees who were determined to be good candidates for transfer or release--detainees who are not believed to pose a future risk to the United States. The problem is in the middle. The vast majority of Yemenis in Guantánamo have strong ties to al Qaeda or a history of active involvement in terrorism. Some members of this group were candidates for a reintegration program in Saudi Arabia that U.S. officials point to as a success despite the fact that several graduates have returned to a life of terror. But Saleh said at the security conference that his government "refuse[d] the offer to release the Yemenis to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation." In any case, according to a senior Bush administration involved in detainee discussions, transferring a "majority" of the Yemeni detainees directly back to Yemen was "inconceivable."

One Bush administration official cautioned against reading too much into Seche's comments, suggesting he was simply articulating the long-term solution to an exceedingly difficult problem and laying out an objective that was, to some extent, shared by the Bush administration. Others, though, were alarmed at what they regard as a significant policy shift and a dangerous retreat from counterterrorism policies that were indisputably effective.

The Bush administration worked hard to reduce the number of detainees held at Guantánamo Bay--from 750 to 248--and those that remain are dedicated jihadists. "The easiest cases have been dealt with a long time ago," notes Charles "Cully" Stimson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs and now a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "They were harder in 2005, and then harder in 2006 when I was in office. These are even harder--some of the hardest. There is no risk-free transfer from Gitmo, in my opinion."

Another top Bush administration official puts it more starkly. "Releasing hardcore terrorists back to the Yemenis will almost certainly guarantee that we will have to kill them or capture them all over again."

This is because there are two obvious problems with releasing the Yemeni detainees from Guantánamo: the detainees and Yemen.

Like Saudi Arabia, its neighbor to the north, Yemen is a hotbed of Islamic extremism and home to an entrenched terrorist network. Osama bin Laden has deep familial and tribal roots in Yemen, and Yemenis form the core of his personal bodyguard. Bin Laden's guards swear an oath of personal loyalty similar to the one that the Prophet Mohammed required from his followers. More than a dozen of the Yemenis currently detained at Guantánamo are alleged to have been bodyguards for the world's most infamous terrorist.

The factions bin Laden draws support from are not at the margin of Yemeni society. They are among President Saleh's most powerful backers. One of Yemen's leading clerics is Abdul Majid al-Zindani. The head of the Islah party, Zindani has backed President Saleh at crucial times during his career, and Saleh has consistently returned the favor by supporting some of the most radical elements of Yemeni society. Saleh has even defied U.S. pressure to contain or deport Zindani, who has been designated a terrorist supporter under Executive Order 13224.

Zindani received this designation because he is a longtime personal friend of Osama bin Laden. One current Yemeni detainee at Guantánamo, Abdul Rahman Mohammed Saleh Naser, was allegedly recruited by Zindani to fight on behalf of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Several other Yemeni detainees are alleged to have ties to, or been members of, Zindani's Islah party.

After the September 11 attacks, George W. Bush asked nations around the world to respond to a simple question: Are you with us or with the terrorists? Yemen's answer seems to have been Yes. When the Bush administration requested help from President Saleh's government, Yemen did provide some limited tactical assistance. But Saleh's ties to jihadists are deep and longstanding.

Saleh's government began working with veterans of the jihad against the Soviet Union after their return from Afghanistan in the early 1990s. His government even cooperates, at times, with al Qaeda against their common foes, including Shiite tribes and other forces who oppose Saleh's government. This cooperation generally runs counter to U.S. interests. For example, press reports have consistently pointed to the role that Saleh and his extended family have played in supporting the Iraqi insurgency. "Saleh's administration supports the Iraqi insurgency in public statements and other ways," Jane Novak, an expert on Yemen who runs the website, told us. Numerous Yemeni terrorists have turned up in Iraq.

When abroad, Saleh presents himself as doing what he can to fight terrorism. But the U.S. government--or important parts of it, at least--does not believe him. Unclassified documents released from Guantánamo note that his regime is not a true ally: "Yemen is not a nation supporting the Global War on Terrorism," states one report. While Saleh cooperates with or co-opts the jihadist forces he claims to be fighting, he is ever mindful that the extremists could turn against his regime. Saleh's unstated policy towards the Islamists has been: Wage jihad, just not against my government. To this end, the Yemeni government has, tacitly or otherwise, facilitated the movement of jihadists around the globe. Consider the story of Abdul al Salam al Hilal, a Yemeni currently detained at Guantánamo.

Al Hilal worked for the Political Security Organization (PSO), which is an intelligence agency that reports directly to President Saleh. The PSO operated an official government "deportation" operation, in which veteran mujahedeen were relocated. The U.S. government says al Hilal has admitted that he was tasked with keeping tabs on al Qaeda operatives for Saleh's government. The U.S. government also charges, however, that al Hilal was really an al Qaeda member who used his position of authority to assist his fellow terrorists.

According to the U.S. government, al Hilal facilitated the movement of terrorists around the globe and admits that he and the deputy chief of the PSO were paid "to release extremists held in Yemeni prisons." Some of the terrorists the U.S. government claims al Hilal worked to release are well-connected al Qaeda associates. One of them is Muhammad Shawqi al-Islambuli, a high-ranking member of the Egyptian al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya (IG) terrorist organization, which has long been affiliated with al Qaeda. (His brother Khalid assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981. The government's files note that Muhammad al-Islambuli "has been involved in terrorist training in Afghanistan and Pakistan and served as [a] liaison between the IG and Osama bin Laden.")

During the summer of 2000, al Hilal visited the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan. Following the September 11 attacks, Italy closed down the institute, primarily because it housed an al Qaeda facilitation network that provided forged passports and other assistance to al Qaeda operatives traveling to and from Afghanistan. Italian authorities had been watching the institute for some time. During one wiretap session, recorded before the 9/11 attacks, they captured a conversation between al Hilal and a senior Egyptian al Qaeda member. The contents are chilling.

Well, I am studying airplanes! If it is God's will, I hope to bring you a window or a piece of a plane next time I see you. .  .  . We are focusing on the air alone. .  .  . It is something terrifying, something that moves from south to north and from east to west: the man who devised the program is a lunatic, but he is a genius. It will leave them stunned. .  .  . We can fight any force using candles and planes. They will not be able to halt us, not even with their heaviest weapons. We just have to strike at them, and hold our heads high. Remember, the danger at the airports. If it comes off, it will be reported in all the world's papers. The Americans have come into Europe to weaken us, but our target is now the sky.

In 2002, al Hilal was lured to Egypt on the pretext of doing business and captured by the Egyptian authorities. He was eventually transferred to U.S. custody and Guantánamo.

It is not clear what the Obama administration will do with al Hilal. But his story exposes the fundamental duplicity that defines the Yemeni government's behavior. On the one hand, al Hilal was working with Saleh's government to make sure the jihadist forces that thrive in Yemen did not turn against the government. On the other hand, the U.S. government believes al Hilal was exporting terrorism around the globe and had foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks.

The Yemeni government apparently had a similar relationship with Jamal al-Badawi, one of the terrorists behind the USS Cole bombing in Aden. Saleh's government freed al-Badawi from jail in October 2007. According to the New York Times, the Yemeni government hoped to use al-Badawi to expose the terror network's designs. Al-Badawi was rearrested after the United States insisted that he still posed a threat, even if the Yemeni government thought it could track him. It is not clear whether al-Badawi remains in custody.

Sending detainees back to Yemen carries risks far greater than returning them to many other countries. And this is without even considering the character of the detainees themselves.

Last year, THE WEEKLY STANDARD performed a six-month study of the files released by the Department of Defense on 242 of the remaining Guantánamo detainees. (See "Clear and Present Danger" by Thomas Joscelyn, December 1, 2008.) We identified four red flags that the Obama administration should look for in assessing whether a detainee might be considered for release. Using the same tests, we have looked again directly at the 95 Yemenis listed in the New York Times online database of Guantánamo detainees.

The first red flag we suggested was evidence that a detainee had been recruited by a terror network. For the better part of three decades, sheikhs such as Zindani and other professional recruiters have indoctrinated impressionable Yemenis in the ways of jihad. Recruitment takes place at the radical mosques and schools that dot the Yemeni landscape. The Taliban and al Qaeda rely on the recruiting network to replenish their ranks. The recruiters frequently make travel arrangements, paying for recruits' trips and suggesting common routes to Afghanistan (mostly through Pakistan and Iran) and elsewhere. Yemeni sheikhs, like their Saudi counterparts, support al Qaeda's recruitment by giving fiery sermons and issuing fatwas calling for Muslims to support the jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq against the United States, just as they called earlier for jihad against the Soviets and then the Northern Alliance.

According to the U.S. government's unclassified files, most of the Yemenis remaining at Guantánamo were sent to the war zones of Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, and elsewhere by the Yemeni recruiting network. Of the 95 Yemenis identified by the Times as current detainees, the government alleges that 65 of them (68 percent) were connected to the jihadist recruiting network. This includes both recruiters and those recruited or inspired by the network to wage jihad. (It does not include detainees who decided on their own to wage jihad or were inspired by other means, including al Qaeda's propaganda.)

Assuming that America could even trust the Yemeni government, any attempt to deprogram the former Guantánamo detainees will be exceedingly difficult. The Yemeni government has been operating a rehabilitation program, but it has proved largely ineffective. The Yemeni program "was not even a shadow" of the Saudi one, according to a counterterrorism official. In January 2008, Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre told the BBC News that some 70 percent of the Yemenis who had gone through the existing rehabilitation program had been rearrested on terrorism-related charges. Nor is it clear what happened to them after they were rearrested; many may have simply been put back into circulation elsewhere.

Once a man is corrupted by al Qaeda's recruiters, it can be difficult for him to come back. Consider the case of Abd al Rahman al Zahri, a Yemeni currently detained at Guantánamo. During their hearings at Guantánamo, many detainees proclaim their innocence. (Because they are seeking freedom, they have every incentive to do so.) But some, like al Zahri, do not hide their agenda. Al Zahri seethed with anger against America and defiantly explained:

I didn't come here to defend myself. I have no need for that because I didn't commit any crime. I have the right to come. Regarding what the United States has said, I do pose a threat to the United States and its allies. I admit to you it is my honor to be an enemy of the United States. I'm a Muslim jihadist and I'm defending my religion and my family .  .  . against the infidel, the United States and its allies until all the property of the Muslims will come back to them. God praises the Muslim people and all the people of Islam. I will never return or come back from jihad.

While not all detainees may be as blunt as al Zahri, there are many signs to look for in evaluating the depth of their ideological commitment. Some drafted martyrdom letters. Others signed up for martyrdom missions. And some, like Osama bin Laden's bodyguards, swore an oath of loyalty that binds them until death.

The second red flag is an association with Islamist guesthouses. The word "guesthouse" sounds innocuous, but not just anyone can gain admittance. On their way to join the jihad, most Yemeni recruits would have stayed in guesthouses, whose operators usually required that a known al Qaeda or Taliban member vouch for anyone wishing to stay there. New residents are typically required to turn in their passports and other identification papers, sometimes receiving a new identity, before being shuttled off to a training facility or the front lines. The guesthouses provide rudimentary religious and weapons training and act as staging facilities where jihadist fighters regroup between missions.

Our review found that at least 70 of the 95 Yemeni detainees (74 percent) are alleged to have either operated or stayed in al Qaeda or Taliban guesthouses in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iran. This figure includes 15 Yemenis who were captured in the raids that netted senior al Qaeda operatives Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi Binalshibh.

These raids generated a treasure trove of information. For example, at the time he was captured, Binalshibh was plotting an encore to the 9/11 attacks that included an attack on London's Heathrow airport and other targets. The guesthouses where Binalshibh and his fellow Yemenis were holed up contained two computers loaded with details of his plans. They contained a "flight simulator and flight navigation maps," as well as specific information on "United States military facilities and the layout of the exterior and interior views of various United States Navy ships." In addition, the computers contained "several files that discussed kidnapping, hijacking, smuggling money, weapons, ammunition, and lectures and essays on terrorist training, executions, assassinations, [guerrilla] warfare and United States Special Operations Forces."

Our third red flag is whether a detainee received training in one of the Taliban's or al Qaeda's many Afghan camps. The principal reason Yemeni jihadists traveled to Afghanistan was to receive military-style training. The Taliban's pre-9/11 Afghanistan was a hub for terrorist training, of course; its camps having turned out some 20,000 graduates in the 1990s. New recruits could learn everything from basic military skills to more advanced techniques, such as how to construct a truck bomb and evade detection by Western intelligence agencies.

Our review found that at least 70 of the 95 Yemenis (74 percent) identified by the Times as current detainees are alleged to be either trainers or trainees. (In a few instances, they took part in training outside of Afghanistan, in, for example, Bosnia, Chechnya, or Pakistan.) Al Qaeda used its training infrastructure to identify especially promising recruits, who would be tasked with the most sensitive missions, including attacks against the United States.

One such talented recruit is a Guantánamo detainee named Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah al Ansi. In Afghanistan he graduated from al Qaeda's beginner course into its elite training program. An unnamed "senior al Qaeda operative" cited in the U.S. government's unclassified files says that he then took al Ansi and others to Karachi two months before September 11, 2001, "to teach them English and American behaviors." The same senior al Qaeda operative identified al Ansi "as one of the martyrs who had been readied" for al Qaeda's "Southeast Asia hijacking plan." That plan was devised by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and initially intended to coincide with the 9/11 attacks. Because al Qaeda's senior leadership worried that the plot was becoming too complicated, the Southeast Asia hijacking plan was rescheduled as part of a second wave of attacks.

That second wave never happened in large part because the Bush administration and its allies captured the al Qaeda terrorists who were to be responsible for its execution, including high-value Guantánamo detainee Walid bin Attash. He made a trip to Malaysia in January 2000 to scope out airport security and to meet with some of the 9/11 plotters. Accompanying him on the trip, according to the U.S. government's unclassified files, was a fellow jihadist named Zuhail Abdo Anam Said al Sharabi. Al Sharabi is another Yemeni currently detained at Guantánamo.

The final red flag we suggested to the new administration was any direct evidence of participation in hostilities in Afghanistan or elsewhere. The Yemeni terror network has sent willing jihadists around the globe to commit acts of terror. Yemenis have fought on behalf of al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Our new review found that at least 43 of the 95 Yemenis (45 percent) are alleged to have participated in these hostilities. The bulk of these fought on the frontlines in Afghanistan or directly supported those who did. But this count also includes detainees who were involved in terrorist attacks or were senior operational commanders in charge of deployed forces.

In sum, 94 of the 95 Yemeni detainees we studied in detail had at least one of the four red flags outlined above; 81 had two or more red flags. This methodology has its limits, of course, given the U.S. government's interest in potentially prosecuting these individuals and because much of the information about them remains classified. There are a variety of other factors the Obama administration will consider as it determines the fate of these Yemenis.

But the reality is simple: The overwhelming majority of the Yemenis currently detained at Guantánamo Bay are very dangerous individuals. Sending a majority of them back to Yemen so that they might "make a future for themselves" involves significant risks.

"Maybe the new administration thinks it's worth that risk in order to shut [Guantánamo] down and to defend our system of values," says one Bush administration counterterrorism official. "That's fine. But let's be honest about it."

And if we're honest about it, we'll understand that the risks of such an attack are not merely hypothetical. The U.S. embassy in Sana'a was bombed on September 17, 2008--ten civilians were killed, including one American. Al Qaeda in Yemen, now one of the strongest al Qaeda affiliates worldwide, executed the attack. The group's chief deputy, a Saudi named Said Ali al -Shihri, passed through Guantánamo and Saudi Arabia's jihad rehabilitation program--the one even hawkish U.S. officials point to as a success. Last week, al Shihri turned up in a jihadist Internet video, joined by three other terrorists. One of them, Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi, was also released from detention at Guantánamo Bay and graduated from the Saudi reintegration program. In the video, the former detainees proudly proclaim that they are returning to the same jihad that landed them in the U.S. detention facility.

Senator Christopher Bond, ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, points to al -Shihri as an example of the difficulties of reintegration. While Bond goes out of his way to empathize with the "difficult governing position" of the Yemeni president, he is deeply skeptical of any plans to ship a majority of Yemeni detainees back "unless and until Yemen has a proven and reliable program for rehabilitation."

And since President Obama started the one-year countdown on January 22, that's unlikely. "You're not going to have a credible Yemeni reintegration program in a year," says the Bush counterterrorism official.

One of President Obama's first official acts was to order Guantánamo closed. The executive order he signed called for his staff to find a way to close the facility in a manner that is "consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States." Repatriating large numbers of Yemenis to Saleh's duplicitous regime, which seems to be the new administration's position, is not consistent with that goal.

Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President. Thomas Joscelyn is the senior editor of the website Long War Journal.