President Obama’s Gitmo problem (that is, his inability to shut the facility down, even though he wanted to do so in just one year) is in many ways a Yemen problem. The Yemeni detainees accounted for roughly 40 percent of the Gitmo population when Obama took office. But his administration has repatriated only a handful of Yemenis since then.
In its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2009, released yesterday, the State Department explains why:
Legal, political, and logistical hurdles remained a hindrance to an effective detention and rehabilitation program for Guantanamo returnees. The government lacked a secure facility to house Guantanamo returnees, a plan for rehabilitating the returnees, or the legal framework to hold returnees for more than a short amount of time. The government’s monitoring program of released Guantanamo returnees remained largely ineffective.
Let’s see: Yemen can’t effectively detain Gitmo returnees. Nor can President Saleh’s government effectively rehabilitate them. And when they are inevitably released, the Yemeni government’s monitoring efforts remain “largely ineffective.”
In addition, Yemen is home to the one of the strongest al Qaeda affiliates outside of South Asia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that affiliate is trying desperately to launch attacks against America (witness the Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt on Flight 253).
On top of all of that, former Gitmo detainees have fled to Yemen in droves to take up arms once again. AQAP’s chief deputy is Said al Shirhi, a former Gitmo detainee who graduated from Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program. Painting pictures of horses did not assuage al Shihri’s desire for jihad. Nor did it stop Ibrahim Rubaish, a former Gitmo detainee who also fled Saudi soil, from returning to terrorism. Rubaish is currently one of AQAP’s chief theologians, and responsible for providing religious justifications for the group’s terrorism. Other former Gitmo detainees have been killed fighting for AQAP, or while attempting to launch terrorist attacks.
Back in early 2009, President Obama’s State Department wanted to repatriate most of the Yemenis. The U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Stephen Seche, spoke openly of sending a “majority” of the Yemeni detainees home to “make a future for themselves here.” As 2009 progressed, the Obama administration realized that wasn’t such a good idea. President Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force even determined that 30 Yemeni detainees should be held in “conditional” detention until the security environment in Yemen has improved.
Now, with the release of yesterday’s report, the State Department is warning of the dangers of repatriating the Yemeni detainees.
You could say that the State Department’s report warns, “Anywhere But Yemen.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.