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
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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.