Yemen's handling of ex- Guantanamo detainees has U.S. officials concerned

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009

ADEN, YEMEN -- Two years ago, Mohsin al-Askari was released from his prison cell at Guantanamo Bay, but he has found neither freedom nor a new life in his homeland. Potential employers are afraid to hire him. At 28, he depends on his father for financial support, charities for medical care.

With each rejection, his frustration grows, as does the temptation to return to his old life of jihad.

"The government hasn't done anything to help me," said Askari, his voice filled with bitterness.

Yemen's handling of former Guantanamo detainees and accused extremists in its own jails has raised fears that sending detainees back to this nation, the poorest in the Arab world, might only create more militants determined to attack America.

Disputes over the fates of 97 Yemeni detainees, roughly 40 percent of the current prison population at Guantanamo, are a key reason President Obama has given up on his promise to shut down the facility by January.

U.S. officials are also concerned about Yemen's lax supervision of accused terrorists. Many of those imprisoned for orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors in this coastal city, have escaped or been freed by Yemeni officials. The government has also refused to extradite two of the attack's alleged organizers to the United States to face murder charges.

But not returning eligible detainees to Yemen or delaying the closing of the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could spawn more anti-American anger and more radicalization in a failing nation with a growing al-Qaeda presence, said diplomats, Yemeni officials and analysts.

A country in crisis

Yemen's government has demanded the repatriation of detainees, vowing to rehabilitate them. But U.S. officials have little faith in Yemen's ability to prevent former fighters from rejoining al-Qaeda.

"When they lose hope to live a good life, when they feel like they are dead, maybe this will encourage some to become suicide bombers, to seek revenge," said Khaled al-Ansi, executive director of HOOD, a Yemeni human rights group.

Yemen's weak central government is beset by multiple crises, including a secessionist movement in the south and a civil war against Shiite rebels in the north. Al-Qaeda is creating havens in the south and east. High rates of illiteracy and unemployment and diminishing oil and water reserves compound the woes.

Since the Cole bombing, al-Qaeda militants have staged dozens of attacks, including a 2006 jailbreak from a central prison in the capital, Sanaa. The fugitives included Nasser al-Wahishi, who became leader of the Arabian Peninsula branch of al-Qaeda. Last year, his group orchestrated car bombings outside the U.S. Embassy, killing 16 people, including six attackers.

So far, 15 Yemenis have returned. All were released from Guantanamo because they were no longer considered a threat or there was insufficient evidence to try them on terrorism charges.

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