The White House today announced that the U.S. government would suspend the transfer of any detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Yemen.
“One of the very first things that Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula used as a recruiting tool was the existence of Guantanamo Bay,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at his daily briefing. “We are not going to make decisions about transfers that, to a country like Yemen that would, that they’re not capable of handling. And I think that, while we remain committed to closing the facility, the determination has been made that right now any additional transfers to Yemen is not a good idea.
The Obama administration transferred six detainees to Yemen last month. But after reports that Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab was radicalized in Yemen, a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., protested the idea. Feinstein said the country is “too unstable.”
Yemen has become another front in the war on al Qaeda, though without a US troop presence. Central Command’s Gen. David Petraeus and White House homeland security czar John Brennan have traveled there this year and the Pentagon has given that government $70 million for counterterrorism. On December 24, the US government worked with the Yemeni government on an airstrike targeting top al Qaeda leaders including imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who was quoted telling Al Jazeera Web that the alleged Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan, asked him “about killing U.S. soldiers and officers. His question was is it legitimate” under Islamic law.
Almost 200 detainees remain at Gitmo, most of them Yemeni. Last May, Defense Secretary Gates discussed with Saudi Assistant Minister of the Interior Muhammed bin Nayaf the possibility of sending roughly 100 Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the Saudi government’s rehabilitation program for jihadis, a 12-step program “that includes psychological counseling, art therapy, sports and lessons in Islam.”
But not all of those rehabbed have 12-stepped their way out of terrorism. Last year the Saudi government published a list of 85 wanted terrorism suspects. Eleven of them had been prisoners at Guantanamo put through the Saudi rehabilitation program, including Said Ali al-Shihri, transferred from Guantanamo during the Bush administration in 2007, currently deputy leader of al Qaeda’s Yemen branch. Al-Shihri was also targeted in the December 24 airstrike.
-Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller