By Peter Finn, Sudarsan Raghavan and Julie Tate
Friday, December 18, 2009; 5:04 AM
The Obama administration is planning to repatriate six Yemenis held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a transfer that could be a prelude to the release of dozens more detainees to Yemen, according to sources with independent knowledge of the matter.
The release is a significant first step toward dealing with the largest group of detainees at the prison -- there are currently 97 Yemenis there -- and toward meeting President Obama's goal of closing the facility.
But Yemen's security problems and lack of resources have spawned fears about its ability to monitor and rehabilitate returnees. Critics of the administration charge that returning detainees to Yemen, a country where al-Qaeda is believed to be thriving, is tantamount to returning terrorists to the battlefield.
The six Yemenis, along with four Afghans, will be transferred out of Guantanamo Bay in coming days. The release follows months of high-level meetings between the government in Yemen and senior American officials, as well as a visit to the country last week by Stephen R. Kappes, the deputy director of the CIA, sources said. The CIA declined to comment.
The transfer will be closely monitored and, if successful, could lead to the release of other Yemenis who have been cleared to go home by a Justice Department-led interagency review team, which examined the case of each detainee held at Guantanamo Bay. Obama set up the review process to accelerate the closure of the detention center.
"It's a breakthrough because the U.S. and Yemen governments have been at an impasse," said David Remes, an attorney for 17 Yemeni detainees, when asked about the impending transfer. "Something has broken the logjam, and that's good, because you can't solve the Guantanamo problem without solving the Yemeni problem."
Since the detention center in Guantanamo Bay opened in early 2002, 15 Yemenis who were deemed not to be a threat have been repatriated: 14 by the Bush administration and one by the Obama administration.
The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, declined to identify the latest detainees being released in advance of the transfer. A Justice Department spokesman would not comment.
Yemenis account for 46 percent of the 210 inmates remaining at Guantanamo Bay. Three of those Yemenis have been ordered released by federal judges following proceedings in which they challenged their detention under the doctrine of habeas corpus. Two of those decisions have been appealed by the government.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a critic of the administration policy on Guantanamo, said Yemeni detainees pose a particular risk because of the instability of their home country.
"Stop. These men are dangerous," Wolf said when asked about the transfer. "I believe they will be involved in terrorism that will cost American lives."
Although at least 34 Yemenis have been cleared for release, the fate of more than 60 others remains uncertain. Some will be tried in either federal court or military commissions, and others will likely be held in some system of prolonged detention at a prison in Thomson, Ill., once the detention center at Guantanamo Bay is closed.
Yemen's government has been struggling with a civil war in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and humanitarian crises as the economy crumbles. In this void, al-Qaeda has steadily grown, using the nation's vast lawless, rugged terrain as a haven. U.S. officials are concerned that al-Qaeda could use Yemen, strategically located in the heart of one of the world's lucrative oil and shipping zones, as a launching pad for attacks against neighboring Saudi Arabia and in the Horn of Africa.
On Thursday, the weak central government launched one of its biggest counterterrorism efforts in recent memory, as Yemeni forces, backed by airstrikes, killed at least 28 al-Qaeda militants and captured 17 others in a pre-dawn assault on an alleged training camp. Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, said that the dead included Mohammed Saleh al-Kazemi, a leading al-Qaeda figure in Yemen.
The operation targeted militants planning suicide bomb attacks against Yemeni and foreign sites, including schools, according to a statement on 26Sep.net, a Yemeni Web site linked to the government's military. Several civilians were also apparently killed and homes destroyed, witnesses told local news agencies.
Obama called Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to praise the country's efforts to fight terrorism, saying Thursday's raids "show Yemen's determination to face the threat of Osama bin Laden's global terrorist network of Al Qaeda," according to Yemen's Saba state news agency.
Bin Laden has close ties to Yemen, where his father was born, and al-Qaeda has struck there repeatedly. In 2000, al-Qaeda bombers attacked the USS Cole in the southern city of Aden, killing 17 American sailors. Since then, militants have carried out a string of attacks on U.S. missionaries, foreign tourists and Yemeni security forces. Last year, heavily armed gunmen targeted the U.S. Embassy with a car bomb and rockets. The attack killed 16, including six assailants.
Against this backdrop, some U.S. military and intelligence officials have blanched at the prospect of sending large numbers of Yemenis home from Guantanamo Bay.
Yemeni officials said none of the 15 former Guantanamo Bay detainees have returned to terrorism, and officials are demanding the release of more of their nationals.
The Obama administration attempted to forge a deal with Saudi Arabia that would allow Yemeni detainees to attend its highly regarded rehabilitation program. But Saudi officials said the program, which relies on strong family and tribal involvement, was ill-suited for Yemenis.
Officials in Yemen, the poorest Arab nation, insist that they need financial assistance from the United States to successfully reintegrate returning detainees.