What’s keeping Gitmo detainees from going home?

Samir Naji al-Hasan Moqbel has been held at Guantánamo Bay for more than 11 years. For the past two months, he has been on a hunger strike, which he described in the editorial pages of the New York Times today: I could have been home years ago — no one seriously thinks I am a ...


Samir Naji al-Hasan Moqbel has been held at Guantánamo Bay for more than 11 years. For the past two months, he has been on a hunger strike, which he described in the editorial pages of the New York Times today:

I could have been home years ago — no one seriously thinks I am a threat — but still I am here….

The only reason I am still here is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees back to Yemen. This makes no sense. I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one.

I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen’s president do something, that is what I risk every day.

Where is my government? I will submit to any "security measures" they want in order to go home, even though they are totally unnecessary.

I will agree to whatever it takes in order to be free.

It’s true that, as of his last publicly available assessment, dated March 4, 2008, Joint Task Force Guantánamo considered Moqbel a low security threat and a medium intelligence asset. In recent months, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi has pressed for the release of Guantánamo’s 90 Yemeni detainees (more than half of the prison’s 166 inmates), calling the imprisonment "clear-cut tyranny." He has demanded that the United States return the detainees to Yemen and blocked efforts to repatriate them to third-party countries. "The United States is fond of talking democracy and human rights," he told Russia Today’s Arabic station, "but when we were discussing ther prisoner issue with the American attorney general, he had nothing to say." Still, it’s unlikely that Moqbel will be allowed to return to Yemen anytime soon, for reasons that have less to do with Moqbel and more to do with events half a world away.

The United States has tried remanding Guantánamo detainees to Gulf states before, with disastrous results. Beginning in 2006, the United States began passing detainees to the Prince Muhammad bin Nayef Center for Care and Counseling, a government-sponsored rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia. Despite months of reeducation and offers of wives and homes in Saudi Arabia, 11 former Guantánamo prisoners who participated in the program went on to join al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Among them was Said al-Shihri, the organization’s resilient second-in-command, who recruited graduates of the program to follow him to Yemen.

Yemen’s domestic attempt at a rehabilitation program, which was undertaken in late 2002 with jihadists arrested in Yemen and held in Yemeni prisons, lacked the resources of the Saudi program. Over the next several years, hundreds of prisoners were released, many of whom then traveled to Iraq to join Sunni extremist groups fighting the U.S. occupation. Over time, "the program evolved into a sort of tacit nonaggression pact between the government and the militants," Princeton scholar Gregory Johnsen explains in his book, The Last Refuge. "Prisoners no longer had to disavow violent jihad; they only had to agree not to carry out attacks in Yemen. The state struck a dangerous compromise: don’t attack us and we won’t attack you." The program finally fell apart in late 2005.

Since then, the country has been plagued by jailbreaks. The February 2006 escape of 23 individuals — including Nasir al-Wuhayshi, now emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Qassim al-Raymi, who would become his military commander — heralded the return of al Qaeda in Yemen. These prison breaks have continued with alarming frequency since.

There have been occasional proposals to restart a rehabilitation program in Yemen, but the most persistent advocate for such a program hasn’t much helped matters. That would be Abd’ al-Majid al-Zindani, whose strange clerical stylings have become a bizarre and uniquely Yemeni institution. An investigation into his ties to the bombers of the USS Cole and role in facilitating jihadists’ travel to Afghanistan earned him a "specially designated global terrorist" label from the U.S. Treasury, and the Salafist clerical school he started, Iman University, has produced such famous alumni as Anwar al-Awlaki and John Walker Lindh — making him a less-than-ideal candidate to reform militants.

In the meantime, the country has other pressing matters: the National Dialogue, which aims to resolve the many political grievances of the country’s tribal, religious, and geographic factions while producing a constitutional referendum and elections; a continuing threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its local affiliates, which occupied wide swaths of several Yemeni provinces in 2012; a demographic crisis; a water crisis; an oil crisis. Building the capacity to accept U.S.-held detainees, in other words, has not been a priority. And without a program to accept and reintegrate detainees into daily life in Yemen, the remaining low-risk individuals at Guantánamo will remain in legal limbo.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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