The Obama administration supports the establishment of a jihad rehabilitation program in Yemen, according to remarks Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made during a town hall in the region. Clinton said the efforts would be modeled after jihad rehabilitation programs in Saudi Arabia supported by the Bush administration, where former detainees from the facility at Guantanamo Bay were sent upon release.
“We used to have a very large number of Saudi detainees and the Saudi government stepped in and created a rehabilitation program that worked with the imams and others to work with the young men and to, in effect, challenge some of their ideas, some of the unfortunate ideas that they had been accepting and it has worked quite well,” she said. “We would certainly be open to something like that here in Yemen.”
Those words marked something of a diplomatic victory for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and suggested that Hillary Clinton does not understand the Saudi program.
Saleh has been advocating for such a “jihad rehab” facility in Yemen – funded by the United States – for years. The Bush administration considered his request in 2008 and rejected it as too dangerous. But Saleh never stopped pushing. The Bush administration rejected Saleh’s requests for two main reasons: The Yemenis remaining at Guantanamo were regarded as very dangerous, and the Yemeni government has a spotty record of keeping al Qaeda terrorists and other jihadists in custody.
Within a week of Barack Obama’s inauguration, his administration sent very public signals that things had changed. On January 22, 2009, Obama ordered the Gitmo detention facilities shuttered within a year. In an interview with a State Departmentt website, Stephen Seche, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said that the new administration hoped to repatriate “a majority” of the Guantanamo detainees from Yemen so that they could “make a future for themselves” in their native country. A State Department spokesman confirmed that Seche was speaking for the administration.
There were, predictably, complications. Two years later, President Obama has been unable to close Guantanamo and the vast majority of the Yemenis who were there at the beginning of his term remain there. And last year, Obama imposed a moratorium on transfers from Guantanamo to Yemen, citing the dangers of doing so. State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the moratorium is still in effect.
Ending that moratorium and sending dangerous terrorists back to Yemen would be unwise. But sending them to a program modeled after Saudi Arabia’s jihad rehabilitation program would be even more foolish.
The Saudi program has not “worked quite well,” as Clinton claims. According to the Saudis themselves, some 25 former Gitmo detainees that had been repatriated to the kingdom had returned to jihad – a recidivism rate of more than 20 percent.
Those numbers were from last June. Two intelligence sources familiar with the Saudi program tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the rate is actually much higher than the Saudis were willing to admit, with one source noting that analysts now believe it “exceeds 40 percent.” A recent report from the Director of National Intelligence put the overall recidivism rate at 25 percent. So those who went through the Saudi program are more likely to have returned to jihad than the former Gitmo detainees who received no such rehabilitation.
Several of those Saudi recidivists have gone on to high-ranking positions in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al Qaeda affiliate that operates from Yemen. Said al Shihri, an al Qaeda facilitator who may have been involved in al Qaeda’s attack on the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, is the group’s second in command. Abut Hareth Muhammad al Awfi is a veteran jihadist who appeared in AQAP propaganda videos with al Shihri after his release from Gitmo. Ibrahim Rubaish, who was transferred to Saudi Arabia in December 2006, is the chief theologian for AQAP. Othman Ahmed al Ghamdi is an AQAP operational commander. The list goes on.
All of this, and still the Obama administration wants to set up a new jihad rehabilitation program – in Yemen – modeled on the one that failed so badly in Saudi Arabia and allowed these graduates to form the core of al Qaeda’s strongest affiliate – in Yemen.
And finally there is the rather important matter of why these Guantanamo detainees need rehabilitation at all. Hillary Clinton believes that this intensive therapy can help these young men “challenge the unfortunate ideas that they had been accepting,” and eventually leave a life of jihad. But Abu Bakr al Qirbi, Yemen’s foreign minister, believes that such rehabilitation is important because of damage done to the detainees by their American hosts.
“The center Yemen prepares aims at receiving returners from Guantánamo Bay and rehabilitating them to be reintegrated into their society,” al Qirbi told a Saudi newspaper. “We have to understand that these young men underwent several types of sufferings as a result of investigations, torture, and non-humanitarian treatments. Of course, they have affected their psychological and physical conditions. It is necessary to provide them help and physical and material support.”
Should we really be open to something like that in Yemen?
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.