Camp Nowhere

The U.S. government might stop transferring Yemeni Guantánamo detainees back home. But where will they go?


Barack Obama is in a tight spot. Just when the U.S. president was in the process of transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees to Yemen, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Flight 253, and suddenly Yemen, with its resurgent al Qaeda presence, started looking like a less acceptable destination. Detainee transfers have now been delayed, as they should be — but what is going to happen to the 91 Yemeni detainees still in custody, more than 30 of whom have been cleared for release?

Obama has three options: restarting transfers to Yemen with new pressure on the Yemeni government to step up deradicalization efforts, sending the detainees to a Saudi-led rehabilitation program, or detaining them indefinitely in U.S. custody. None of these choices is ideal, but Obama still has the opportunity to find an acceptable long-term solution.

In fact, sending the detainees to Yemen was never an ideal option. To date, U.S. officials have transferred to Yemen more than 20 detainees whom it deemed a lower security risk, relying on assurances from the Yemenis that they would mitigate whatever threat the detainees did pose. Indeed, between 2000 and 2005, the Sanaa government supported a rehabilitation program for its own prisoners, the Yemeni Committee for Dialogue. Its chair, Qadi Hamoud al-Hitar, publicly claimed that his efforts to engage prisoners in religious dialogue and reintegrate them into society were successful.

But the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. One participant, a former al Qaeda commander, said in private conversations that the "dialogue" consisted of short meetings during which prisoners were encouraged to sign forms pledging obedience to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The dialogue did not address engaging in terrorist activity outside Yemen, nor did it effectively provide post-release support. Reports suggest that several graduates returned to their violent ways, many of them in Iraq. Moreover, plans for renewing and improving deradicalization efforts — as the Yemenis promised before transferring detainees — are still in the very early stages. One Yemeni official remarked last fall, "Lots of people [are] thinking about it, but nothing [is] being done."

If Obama decides to continue sending detainees back to Yemen, the United States could continue pushing Sanaa to revamp its rehabilitation program. But this approach comes with serious risks and would require significant outside guidance, financial support, and political pressure. Rehabilitation plans remain in the early stages, and no money has been allocated to the endeavor. If this approach is pursued, Washington would need to guarantee the involvement of key Yemeni domestic agencies such as the National Security Bureau and the Political Security Organization; religious and civil society leaders; and both international and domestic NGOs. NGOs should assist with social-service and family-oriented programming and provide external auditing to protect against the misuse of funds. U.S. officials must also make it explicitly clear that the Yemeni government is accountable for the program’s success.

Even with significant external support, one Yemeni official estimates the program would rehabilitate just 30 to 40 percent of participants. Yemen struggles with pervasive poverty, growing political unrest, and a resurgent al Qaeda. These factors make deradicalization even more difficult than it is already. Saleh is focused primarily on defeating the Houthi rebellion in the north, quashing a southern secessionist movement, and managing a festering socioeconomic crisis. Given the energy spent on these and other domestic priorities, the Yemeni government lacks the will and capacity to develop and implement an effective rehabilitation program. As one Yemeni noted, Saleh "can’t deal with this right now."

The second option, sending the detainees to Saudi Arabia, is potentially a far better alternative. The Saudi deradicalization program is not perfect, and a number of its graduates have returned to violent jihad. But, unlike in Yemen, the Saudis continue to assess and revise their deradicalization strategies, evaluation metrics, and post-release programs to meet these challenges. Although the Saudis have resisted accepting Yemeni detainees in the past, Obama could use the growing instability in Yemen and the potential threat released detainees pose to Saudi security to convince them to support this approach.

If the Saudis agree, several changes would increase the likelihood of success. First, the program should include Yemeni families, scholars, and clerics in the Saudi counseling staff. Yemeni detainees should only be transferred to Saudi Arabia in small groups, and transfers should be sequenced to allow time for a rehabilitation process that will require trial-and-error adaptations and ongoing evaluations. Just as importantly, an after-care program should be established in Yemen to help reintegrate released detainees, who will face joblessness, social stigma, and, possibly, al Qaeda recruitment. Moreover, Yemeni-led security monitoring will likely be ad hoc and largely ineffective; externally supported Yemeni post-release programs are necessary to help address this challenge.

This approach might provoke concern from senior Yemeni officials, the detainees’ families, and the Yemeni public. But if Saleh publicly supports the idea and Saudi Arabia facilitates family visits, the opposition could be overcome. Although concerns remain over whether the Saudis can effectively rehabilitate non-Saudi nationals, particularly because efforts to date have stressed full and continuous family engagement, Saudi rehabilitation experts have a better chance than the Yemenis, who lack both resources and an established program. Given Yemen’s growing instability and current al Qaeda activity in the country, transferring detainees to Saudi Arabia is the best strategic solution.

As always, continued detention in U.S. custody remains an option and might be the most practical solution in the immediate term, particularly given the instability in Yemen and the untested effectiveness of Saudi rehabilitation efforts for Yemenis. Although potentially a complicated proposition from both a legal and operational perspective, this approach will address ongoing security concerns while the Obama administration continues to evaluate next steps. After Saudi officials refine their rehabilitation efforts, particularly with respect to non-Saudi nationals, and a Yemeni post-release program is established, the decision should be revisited.

Ultimately, there is no perfect solution. Not all detainees are created equal, and all available options present risks. For the Yemeni detainees presenting the most significant security threat, continued detention might be the only solution. For the rest, preparations must be made now for the day when continued detention is untenable. This means working with both the Yemenis and the Saudis to find a realistic, long-term solution that will be acceptable to the American public and the international community.

April Longley Alley is the deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.

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