Thu, Dec 31, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Yemen link complicates Gitmo plan

DANGEROUS DETAINEES Two of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leaders in Yemen are former Guantanamo prisoners from Saudi Arabia, who were freed in November 2007


The alleged Yemeni roots of the attack on a Detroit-bound airliner threaten to complicate US efforts to empty Guantanamo, where nearly half the remaining detainees are from Yemen.

Finding a home for them is key to US President Barack Obama’s pledge to close the prison, but emerging details of the plot are renewing concerns about Yemen’s capacity to contain militants and growing al-Qaeda safe havens.

While inmates of other nationalities have left Guantanamo in droves, roughly 90 Yemenis have been held at the US military prison in Cuba for as long as seven years.

A breakthrough seems less likely since al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the plot to bomb a US-bound airliner on Christmas Day. The group counts two former Guantanamo detainees among its leaders, and some in the US Congress are warning against sending any more detainees to Yemen.

David Remes, an attorney who represents Guantanamo detainees, said he fears concerns about the terror threat will block the repatriation of inmates to Yemen.

“In theory, what’s going on in Yemen should have nothing to do with whether these men are transferred,” he said. “The politics of the situation may turn out to be prohibitive, at least in the short run, and that would be a tragedy.”

On Tuesday, officials in Yemen were investigating whether the Nigerian suspected in the attempted attack on a US airliner spent time with al-Qaeda militants in the country, where he briefly attended a school to study Arabic.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is led by a Yemeni who escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006 with 22 other al-Qaeda figures. Two of the organization’s leaders in Yemen are Saudis who were released from Guantanamo in November 2007.

Steven Emerson, the executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism research group, said he would not be surprised if those former Guantanamo detainees were behind the airliner attack.

“Serving time in Gitmo has become a status thing for al-Qaeda terrorists,” Emerson said. “Those that have served time have become appointed to top positions within the terrorist group once they make their way back to Yemen.”

Six detainees were sent home to Yemen from Guantanamo earlier this month in a rare transfer that was viewed as a trial run for others to come. But Remes said he expects optimism to fade among Yemeni detainees.

A task force created by Obama has been reviewing each Guantanamo detainee’s file to determine whether they should be prosecuted, detained or transferred. US officials have declined to reveal details of any discussions with Yemen.

A senior administration official said authorities still see closing the facility as a national security priority. While Obama has directed the US to acquire a maximum-security prison in rural Illinois to hold as many as 100 Guantanamo detainees, he is counting on sending others back to their homelands or, in cases where that is impossible, to willing third-party countries.

While detainee transfers to Yemen are likely to face closer scrutiny, the US has also begun working for closely with Yemen to fight terrorism, providing US$70 million in military aid this year.

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