WASHINGTON – The recent security threat emanating from Yemen has complicated U.S. President Barack Obama’s latest push to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, reviving doubts among conservative lawmakers about whether it is safe to return Yemeni detainees to their turbulent country.
More than half of the 166 prisoners held in Guantanamo are from Yemen, and the transfer of many of them is essential to Obama’s long-promised goal of closing the detention center.
But the recent threat involving al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s Yemen-based branch, underlines the U.S. security and political obstacles ahead. The United States and other countries this week shut down their embassies in Yemen, citing concerns about a potentially major terrorist attack.
Yemen said Wednesday it had foiled an al-Qaida plot to storm a Western-run oil terminal and seize a port city. The jihadist network’s Yemeni affiliate planned to assault the Canadian-run Mina al-Dhaba oil terminal on the Arabian Sea coast and take employees hostage, including Western expatriates, Yemeni government spokesman Rajeh Badi said.
A nearby export facility for oil derivatives was also targeted, Badi said.
Al-Qaida further plotted to seize the nearby Hadramawt provincial capital, a port city of 100,000 people, and the Ghayl Bawazeer area to its north, where they briefly declared an Islamic emirate earlier this year.
“If they were to fail in seizing control of the facilities, the plan was to take foreign experts away as hostages,” Badi said.
The attack was planned for Monday, to coincide with the 27th day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The plot was foiled around two days before its scheduled launch, according to Badi.
Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement on Guantanamo: “Since it’s now well-known that Yemen-based al-Qaida is actively plotting against us, I don’t see how the president can honestly say any detainee should be transferred to Yemen. Sending them to countries where al-Qaida and its affiliates operate and continue to attack our interests is not a solution.”
It is not the first time that Yemen has emerged as the prime obstacle to Obama’s attempt to close the prison, which he has called an important terrorist recruiting tool and a $350 million annual burden on the strained federal budget.
After the attempted bombing in 2009 of a Detroit-bound airliner by a young Nigerian trained in Yemen, Obama suspended the transfer of Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo. The effort to close the prison had slowed ever since.
But a hunger strike by a majority of Guantanamo detainees this year pushed questions about the prison’s legality and Obama’s languishing promise to close it back into the public debate. In a May speech at the National Defense University, the president announced that he was lifting his moratorium.
That has set in motion, albeit slowly, an assessment process led by the Defense Department and known as the Periodic Review Board. The board will hold hearings for about 70 detainees who have not been cleared for return, about 30 of whom hail from Yemen.
An additional 86 detainees — the majority of them Yemeni — were cleared more than four years ago for repatriation or resettlement, although the White House must notify Congress before any transfer can occur. Late last month, the administration informed Congress that it would soon repatriate two Algerian detainees.
The Yemeni government is a nominal U.S. ally in counterterrorism operations, tacitly allowing drone strikes against suspected militant targets. But the government’s weak hold on much of the rugged country has allowed al-Qaida’s most potent franchise to flourish in the hinterlands and some cities.
Last week, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi visited the White House to discuss repatriation efforts, drawing praise from Obama for his help on security issues.
At the same time, the State Department’s new special envoy for Guantanamo closure efforts, Clifford Sloan, is negotiating the terms of prisoner repatriation to Yemen to determine how its government intends to prevent their return to the battlefield.
Those measures could include a short-term detention upon return, regular monitoring or participation in a reintegration program, which has proven successful in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
During his meeting with Obama, Hadi said he intended to start “an extremist rehabilitation program,” although his cash-strapped government’s efforts to do so have been hampered by the cost.
“They obviously have a number of good candidates for repatriation, including those cleared by the national security process more than four years ago,” said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Nobody sent back to Yemen is just going to be dropped off at the airport.”
The new al-Qaida threat in Yemen comes as a divided Congress prepares for a fall debate over rival elements within defense authorization legislation that could help or hinder Obama’s ability to shutter the prison.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has approved proposals from the chairman, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, that would give Obama more flexibility in transferring prisoners and allow some to be detained, to be prosecuted or to receive specialized medical care inside the United States. Chambliss and other Republicans on the committee objected in a minority report.
At the same time, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives approved a measure that would block any Yemeni prisoner transfers. The administration and many Democrats on Capitol Hill objected, and those elements will be the subject of debate when Congress takes up the matter again as early as next month.
“I don’t think that the release of any Yemeni detainees is imminent,” said David Remes, a civil liberties lawyer who represents 14 Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo. “I do believe that the heightened security concerns would complicate matters if the president were planning to transfer Yemeni detainees very soon.”
Two of Remes’ Yemeni clients are scheduled to be among the first to go before the Defense Department’s Periodic Review Board, which will determine what security risk each would present if repatriated. Remes visited Guantanamo last month to meet with his clients about the board hearing, which is likely before the end of the year.
Senior administration officials say Obama has no plans to reconsider his decision to lift the transfer moratorium, noting that doing so was based not on security assessments but on the improved cooperation and capabilities of Hadi’s 20-month-old government.