But the recent threat involving al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the terrorist group’s Yemen-based branch is known, underlines the national security and political obstacles ahead. The United States and other countries this week shut down their embassies in Yemen, citing concerns about security.
“Since it’s now well-known that Yemen-based al-Qaeda is actively plotting against us, I don’t see how the president can honestly say any detainee should be transferred to Yemen,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement. “Sending them to countries where al-Qaeda 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 are 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 notified Congress that it would soon repatriate two Algerian detainees.
The Yemeni government is a 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-Qaeda’s most potent franchise to flourish in the hinterlands and in 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 the government intends to prevent their return to the battlefield.