Yemenis in Guantanamo complicate closure plan

While Barack Obama has pledged to wind up the prison on Cuba, US politicians say the policy may have to be reviewed.

WASHINGTON - APRIL 22: Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) hears testimony from Obama Administration cabinet members during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill April 22, 2009 in Washington, DC. According to current and former National Security Agency officials, Harman was recorded during intercepted telephone calls allegedly agreeing to seek easy treatment from the Bush administration for two pro-Israel lobbyists who were under investigation for espionage.   Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP

WASHINGTON // New concerns about security in Yemen could further complicate Barack Obama's effort to close the controversial prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Nearly half of the 200 detainees remaining in Cuba are of Yemeni origin and about 40 of them are believed to have been approved for transfer to Yemen by the Obama administration. Legislators, however, have increasingly questioned the logic of sending detainees to Yemen after a failed bomb attempt on a US-bound passenger jet was linked to an al Qa'eda cell there.

In appearance on ABC's This Week, Jane Harman, a Democratic congresswoman from California who supports closing Guantanamo, said she believed the United States "should review again where we're going to send the detainees". She said it was a "bad time" to send detainees to Yemen. "We know from past experience that some of them will be back in the fight against us," added Joe Lieberman, an independent senator from Connecticut, who appeared on the same programme. Mr Lieberman, who often votes with Democrats, opposes closing the facility in Cuba.

The legislators added their voices to a chorus of Republicans who in recent days have called for a halt to sending more detainees to Yemen. It is not immediately clear how deep such opposition runs in Congress, or whether legislators will attempt to block any future transfers. Congress controls the funding needed to transfer detainees and Mr Obama will need the support of legislators for other initiatives such as his plan to move some detainees to a newly bought "supermax" prison in Illinois.

David Remes, a Washington lawyer who has represented 15 Yemeni prisoners, including two among a group of six who were released to Yemen in mid-December, said he feared future transfers of detainees to Yemen could be in jeopardy. "The situation is in a state of flux," he said. "It is really unfortunate that they are being caught up in a political firestorm." In appearances on several Sunday talk shows, John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, said the administration would proceed with detainee transfers to Yemen "at the right time and the right pace and in the right way".

"We're making sure that the situation on the ground is taken into account, that we continue to work with the Yemeni government, and we do this in a very common-sense fashion because we want to make sure that we are able to close Guantanamo," he said on CNN's State of the Union. Mr Brennan noted that 532 Guantanamo detainees were released by the Bush administration compared with 42 released so far on Mr Obama's watch. Both administrations have been reluctant to send detainees to Yemen amid concerns about security there. In 2006, 23 suspected members of al Qa'eda escaped from a Yemeni prison, including those suspected of planning the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

In May, a leaked Pentagon report showed that one in seven detainees transferred out of Guantanamo is confirmed or suspected to have been involved in terrorist activities since their release. An analysis by New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, however, found that just one in 25 former detainees - or four per cent - engaged or is suspected to have engaged with insurgent groups that attack or attempt to attack US interests.

Among the former detainees who have been confirmed to have "returned to the fight" is Said Ali al Shihri, a deputy leader of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that claimed responsibility for the attempted plane bombing on Christmas Day. Another former detainee, Mohammed al Awfi, subsequently served as a field commander for the group. He was recaptured and extradited to Saudi Arabia last year. A third former detainee, Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish, is an al Qa'eda spiritual leader in Yemen.

All three men had been enrolled into a Saudi "reintegration" programme that includes vocational training and psychological and religious counselling.