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Story Publication logo March 21, 2009

Yemen: the Weakest Link


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The poorest nation in the Arab world struggles with high population growth, 40% unemployment and a...


The executive order signed by President Barack Obama on 22 January 2009 commits the United States to shutting the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay within a year. It is a clear victory for civil-rights advocates - but one that throws into sharp relief the persistent dangers posed by weak and failing states, and the inadequacy of United States policy towards them.

In order to close the prison within (now) the next nine months, Obama must repatriate an estimated ninety-nine Yemenis - part of a total of 241 - who remain in the jail. At least eleven of these men were cleared for return to Yemen as long ago as 2005; one of the Yemenis, Ayman Saeed Batarfi (a doctor), was declared eligible for transfer to "an appropriate destination country" on 30 March 2009.

Yemen is a fragile state, with weak central institutions, a growing terrorist network and porous jails. While other countries have successfully negotiated to bring their citizens home from Guantánamo, Yemen has been unable to provide the US authorities with meaningful security guarantees. Yemenis are now the largest national group among the detainees still in the camp.

Those who remain at Guantánamo include several men with close family connections to active (or formerly active) figures within Yemen's al-Qaida structures. Ali al-Raymi's brother, Qasim, is the group's current local commander. Salman al-Rabiyi's brother was killed in a shootout with Yemen's security forces. The brother of Tawfiq and Ghalib al-Bayhani was killed by a US strike in Somalia. While family ties alone are no proof of guilt, US officials are worried that the brothers will "return to the fight".

The capacity and sophistication of Yemen's al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist groups are increasing. Dennis C Blair, the US's director of national intelligence noted in February 2009: "Yemen is re-emerging as a jihadist battleground and potential regional base of operations for al Qaeda to plan internal and external attacks, train terrorists, and facilitate the movement of operatives." Britain's new counter-terrorism strategy, announced on 24 March 2009, lists Yemen among the top four threats to the country.

Far from home

Since summer 2007, terrorist violence has claimed the lives of fourteen tourists and more than twenty Yemenis. The United States embassy in Sana'a was the target of a suicide-bombing in September 2008 that killed eighteen people. The focus and coordination of the campaign is evident too in an assault on 18 March 2009 by a pedestrian suicide-bomber on a South Korean diplomatic convoy driving from the airport to the capital, Sana'a; this was carrying the bereaved relatives of four people killed in a similar attack three days earlier. Al-Qaida in Yemen has now merged with militant groups from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and is operating under the name of "Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula".

Yemen's armed forces receive counter-terrorism training and direct military financing from the Americans. However, Yemen is a shaky, neophyte democracy where power structures are highly personalised and President Ali Abdullah Saleh often prefers to neutralise his enemies by locking them into loyalty bargains. Flexible notions of custody include loose house-arrest or promises of good behaviour with verbal security guarantees from tribal intermediaries.

A Human Rights Watch report - No Direction Home: Returns from Guantánamo to Yemen, published on 28 March 2009 - makes clear that US officials want to return the men that they have no grounds to prosecute, but lack confidence in Yemen's ability to manage the transfer. Saudi Arabia put its own returnees through a well-resourced and closely supervised re-education scheme, but cash-strapped Yemen's failure to reassure the US that it could offer similar facilities has created today's bottleneck at Guantánamo.

In public, both sides agree that the Guantánamo detainees should be held for a rehabilitation period on their return to Sana'a, and will participate in religious dialogue aimed at dissuading them from violence. But where will they be held, for how long, what are the oversight mechanisms and what are the conditions for release? Human Rights Watch points out the danger of using rehabilitation as a justification for indefinite detention without charge - in which case, the closure of Guantánamo and the transfer to Yemen would be merely symbolic.

Soon after President Obama's inauguration, President Saleh said his government would establish a new rehabilitation centre within three months. The proposed centre has yet to be built and questions still have to be answered about funding and technical assistance. Even if US money is earmarked to build a new facility, bricks and mortar cannot create instant respect for the rule of law or an improved security environment throughout the country.

President Saleh has denounced plans to send the Yemeni returnees to Saudi Arabia, but as every month goes by without an agreement the odds increase that at least some future returnees will end up in Riyadh. In January 2009, the Saudi Interior Ministry published a list of eighty-five wanted terrorism suspects, including 11 graduates of their hitherto "model" rehabilitation programme who had gone back on their pledge to renounce violence. Two of the eleven had travelled to Yemen and joined al-Qaida - one has been re-arrested but Said al-Shihri, the new deputy commander of al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula, remains in hiding.

Saudi Arabia has an obvious interest in helping to secure effective repatriation conditions for Yemen's Guantánamo returnees, along with tackling the growing threat to its own internal security from Yemen. But, for historical reasons, Yemenis are highly sensitive to Saudi involvement in their internal affairs. Yemen's economic prospects are bleak and the risk to all the member-states of the Gulf Co-operation Council will only escalate if the country is allowed to slide towards state failure (see Fred Halliday, "Yemen: murder in Arabia Felix", 13 July 2007).

On the cliff

The oil revenues that underpin President Saleh's extensive patronage networks are dwindling. Yemen is the smallest oil producer in the middle east and the extraction trend has turned downwards. State revenues from oil and gas sales are forecast to plummet sharply. Yemen's window of opportunity to create a working post-oil economy narrows as oil production falls closer to consumption levels.

The falling price of oil over the previous year has put immediate pressure on the national budget and parallel patronage payouts - leading some observers to speculate that Yemen's "credit crunch" rather than disputes with the opposition parties over constitutional niceties led the government to postpone the elections planned for April 2009 until 2011. World Bank officials and western diplomats are trying to promote good governance and strengthen central institutions but corruption and poor capacity in the civil service have put the brakes on genuine progress.

The poorest country in the Arab world faces a humanitarian crisis, if the economy isn't rapidly stabilised. Yemen's development indicators consistently trail the average for the Arab world by a wide margin; they are closer to the average for sub-Saharan Africa, and often lower. More than a third of the population - 7 million people -­ are undernourished, the global hunger index rating is "alarming", and Yemen has one of the lowest water per-capita availability rates in the world. The worldview from the impoverished bottom tip of the Arabian peninsula is hostile to United States support for Israel and deeply cynical about US involvement in the region.

The obstacles to the return of the Yemenis in Guantánamo - part of the wider question of the future of the "facility" itself - illustrate the security dilemmas and spillover consequences presented by weak and failing states. The key figures within President Obama's foreign-policy team recognise the need to place a higher priority on "whole of government" engagement with fragile states, such as Yemen, that are incubators for organised crime and terrorism. The new mindset is welcome. But the clock is ticking.







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