U.S. Sees Saudi Program as an Option for Yemeni Detainees

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Four years after Khalid al-Jehani's release from the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the 34-year-old Saudi lives a peaceful life in this sprawling coastal city. He has a car, a job and a well-furnished apartment -- courtesy of the Saudi government.

The rehabilitation of militants such as Jehani has convinced the Obama administration that Saudi Arabia is the ideal place to send dozens of Yemenis being held at Guantanamo. For months, U.S. officials have applied pressure on Riyadh. But Saudi officials say their success with former detainees such as Jehani lies in members of his family and tribe, who keep constant watch over him, and cannot be duplicated with those whose social networks and roots lie outside Saudi Arabia.

"If I try to do something bad, my family will tell the government about me," said Jehani, who joined a radical Islamist movement in the Philippines and trained al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. "How can you trust that will happen with a family living in Yemen?"

As President Obama's promised January deadline to close Guantanamo approaches, the fate of 97 Yemenis remains the administration's biggest obstacle to closing the facility and forging a new detention policy. They are the largest community left at Guantanamo, roughly half of the prisoners who remain there, and are viewed as among the most radicalized, with deep jihadist roots inside Yemen, Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland.

Yemen is ruled by a weak central government battling an insurgency in the north, secessionists in the south and a growing al-Qaeda presence. The Obama administration is unwilling to send the detainees there because it has no faith in Yemeni security guarantees. Only 15 Yemenis have been sent back to Yemen in the past seven years, even as hundreds of Saudi and Afghan detainees have gone home.

Most countries that have agreed to resettle detainees from other countries are willing to take only those who have been cleared for release by the courts or by a Justice Department-led review team and who cannot be returned to their home countries because of fears of torture or other abuse.

The Yemenis do not meet those criteria. The majority of them have not been cleared for release. Moreover, the United States is reluctant to repatriate the 26 Yemenis who have been cleared, citing security concerns. That heightens suspicions among Saudi officials, as well as among European nations, that the Yemeni detainees constitute a risk they do not want to take.

Despite the impasse, U.S. officials hope to send the majority of the Yemenis to Saudi Arabia. They would be the only detainees, other than Saudis, sent there. "The talks with the Saudi and Yemeni governments over the disposition of the Yemeni detainees have been productive and are ongoing," an administration official said.

Publicly, Saudi officials have said they will accept the Yemenis only if they come willingly. Privately, Saudi officials interviewed here say they would like to find a different solution. If Saudi Arabia were to accept the Yemenis -- a decision that most observers say will require the blessing of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz -- it risks becoming a greater al-Qaeda target. The kingdom also has close ties to Yemen's government, which would probably consider the detainees' transfer to Saudi Arabia a public embarrassment. Yemen has publicly declared that it wants its detainees to return home.

If the Yemenis participated and then rejoined al-Qaeda, it would be a severe blow to the program as well as to the kingdom's pride.

"It's a no-win situation for the Saudis. They can't rehabilitate these guys, and they don't want to become America's jailor," said Christopher Boucek, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has studied the rehabilitation program.

Ties That Bind

When detainees from Guantanamo land in Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a high-ranking member of the Saudi ruling family and head of the kingdom's counterterrorism operations, personally informs their families that their sons have returned home.

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