Obama's Yemeni Gitmo dilemma

Fearing their re-recruitment into al Qaeda, the United States doesn't know what to do with its Yemeni detainees. Image by Ginny Hill. Yemen, 2009.

Ginny Hill, for the Pulitzer Center and posted at Foreign Policy

Visiting Saudi Arabia for talks with Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressed his host to accept some of the estimated 100 Yemeni detainees remaining in Guantánamo Bay. Gates wants the Yemenis to be transferred to Muhammad bin Naif's jihadi rehabilitation center, which mixes psychology with religious education.

Gates's request is an admission that the risk of sending Yemeni detainees home to a country where al Qaeda and its affiliates are resurgent is simply too high. In January, al Qaeda's branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged to create a single transnational organization: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Among those Yemenis still held in Guantánamo are several men with close family connections to active figures within Yemen's al Qaeda network. Although such ties alone are not proof of guilt, U.S. officials are worried that the brothers will "return to the fight" if they are sent home.

Yemen, moreover, can't be bought or pressured into a repatriation arrangement that reassures Washington. Neither constructing a new prison to hold the detainees on their return home nor financing a copycat facility on the Saudi model will secure the outcome that Washington wants. The Yemeni state is simply not strong enough -- its bureaucratic capacity is too weak, its political problems are too complex, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh is too concerned with maintaining his power base -- to be trusted.

However, sending the remaining Yemeni detainees in Guantánamo to the Saudi "rehab" center -- a makeshift compound of rented holiday villas on the outskirts of Riyadh -- would overwhelm the system. The center has processed fewer than 300 men since it opened two years ago, and the Saudis have plenty of their own candidates waiting to be rehabilitated. What's more, the Saudis are working within their own distinct social parameters and rely heavily on engagement with participants' relatives. It's unlikely that they would have the same sort of leverage over foreign nationals, even from a neighboring country.

Only the dozen or so Yemenis with Saudi family connections might feasibly be sent to Riyadh. So what can Gates do with the approximately 80 other Yemenis stuck in Guantánamo? The words "impasse" and no "viable plan B," which feature in a recent New York Times article quoting a U.S. official involved in the negotiations, seem apt.

All this adds up to growing U.S. frustration with Yemen. President Barack Obama promised earlier this year to close Guantánamo by January 2010. But the failure to relocate detainees -- particularly this group from Yemen -- is slowing the process.

Obama's Yemen dilemma exposes a far deeper problem: the weakness in U.S. policy toward fragile states in general and the limited leverage that the United States has to promote stability and good governance in Yemen in particular. With extremism and an internal rebellion simmering, Yemen is fast becoming a regional problem. Its neighbors, and particularly the Saudis, are worried about the threat that Yemen poses to their own internal security. The country's economic crisis -- amplified by declining oil production -- means that security conditions are likely to become increasingly precarious in the years ahead. Unfortunately, viewing Yemen as merely a battleground for counterterrorism objectives could further polarize the situation inside this fragile, incomplete state. To put it mildly, the Yemeni detainees are just the tip of the iceberg.

Ginny Hill is the author of "Yemen: Fear of Failure," a Chatham House briefing paper. Her work is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.