The US is reluctant to release them back to Yemen out of fear that the combination of a poor security record and a resurgent al-Qaeda will almost insure that many return to the battlefield. Instead, it is seeking to send the Yemeni detainees cleared for release to Saudi Arabia, where they would go through a rehabilitation program designed to ease their transition back into society. But as John Brennan recently discovered, both countries are balking at the plan.
They are right to do so. This proposal is not only a bad idea, but dangerous and shortsighted thinking that will bring with it exceedingly high long-term costs.
Transferring the Yemenis to Saudi Arabia will accomplish little save absolving the US of any responsibility by passing the buck to another country.
To begin with, the plan would not even work. Saudi Arabia’s program is essentially one of bureaucratizing bribery – promising jobs, cars and wives in exchange for recantations – which does not work on committed jihadis. Already it has failed to rehabilitate numerous former Guantanamo Bay detainees, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s deputy commander. But more than that, it would make a bad situation worse.
Such a scenario would play directly into al-Qaeda’s strengths, by allowing it to portray the transfer as the US outsourcing the detention of Muslims to Saudi Arabia, who would be cast as Uncle Sam’s local jailer in the narrative. Arresting and detaining Saudi citizens is one thing, doing it to third country nationals is something else entirely.
Since reconstituting itself following a 2006 prison break, al-Qaeda has worked hard to transform itself from a local chapter into a regional franchise. And, as recent attacks illustrate, it is eager to demonstrate that its reach extends throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
The group has constructed a narrative that is broadly popular in Yemen, putting itself on the right side of nearly every issue from Palestine to corruption. Whether the US realizes it or not, it is in a propaganda war with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and it is losing badly.
Al-Qaeda is gaining not only new recruits but also, and more importantly, the tacit support of many who will never join the organization. This means that increasingly al-Qaeda is seen less like the band of thugs and terrorists the US would like to portray it as and more like personally pious individuals looking to defend their faith.
Guantanamo is a central plank in the organization’s platform. It consistently pushes former detainees to the front of the ranks, highlighting their detention in the group’s bi-monthly magazine as well as in video and audio tapes. Additionally, it has co-opted the detainees still in Guantanamo as de facto members, forcing local Yemenis who are seeking the release of their sons and brothers to side with al-Qaeda. Earlier this year it published a statement of congratulations to the family of a Yemeni detainee, whom it called a martyr, for his suicide in Guantanamo.
For too long in Yemen, US public diplomacy has been all defense and no offense. With Guantanamo – as strange as this may sound – the US has an opportunity to reclaim the initiative. Instead of transferring the Yemenis to Saudi Arabia, the US has an opportunity to both admit its past mistakes and deprive al-Qaeda of a powerful piece of propaganda.
The US should announce its decision to not only send every Yemeni detainee it elects not to prosecute back to Yemen but also that it will help resettle them, while at the same time explaining that the US has learned from the errors of Guantanamo and will never repeat them.
President Obama's Cairo speech was good, but matching actions to rhetoric is what is needed to signify a break with the past.
The nightmare scenario, of course, is that an individual that the US once had in custody could go on to carry out an attack that kills Americans. But fear of the worst should not be used as an excuse for paralysis or to justify the repetition of mistakes.
None of the detainees that have returned to the battlefield have been Yemenis. In fact, most of have been Saudis, who went through the kingdom’s rehabilitation program. This is partly a result of numbers and partly a reminder that the perception in Washington does not always match the reality in San‘a. Many of the Yemenis still being held are prisoners of their citizenship and Washington’s lack of trust in the Yemeni government.