By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; A16
The single biggest opportunity -- and potential difficulty -- for the incoming administration's plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, comes from the same group of Yemeni prisoners, who make up fully 40 percent of the detainees still held there.
Despite intensive diplomatic discussions in recent months, and the Yemeni government's promise to put released prisoners through a rehabilitation program, the Bush administration remains unconvinced that the impoverished Arab nation is capable of absorbing a group of men that officials believe includes hardened extremists.
Administration officials said President-elect Barack Obama will face the same daunting array of concerns about Yemen, a country where the terrorist threat from al-Qaeda is escalating and where extremists already have escaped prison and returned to the fight. Some have strong ties to Guantanamo detainees.
"There are still, I think, significant concerns throughout the U.S. government, amongst all the agencies, about the Yemenis' capacity to absorb and process any significant number of returned detainees," said a senior administration official who, because of the sensitivity of the issue, spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And then there are simply logistical and financial issues involved in setting up a rehabilitation center, which could take quite a long period of time."
The Yemeni government rejects U.S. criticism of its record of combating terrorism and insists that it can successfully handle the Yemeni detainees, who make up the largest national contingent at Guantanamo Bay.
"We are ready to receive all of them, and we hope President-elect Obama and the next administration will send them to Yemen," said Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington. "It is not to our benefit to simply let these people go free. Anybody who we see as a threat to Yemen or its people, and our allies, will be dealt with in an appropriate way."
In an interview with "60 Minutes" on Sunday, Obama said: "I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that." But he has provided few details on how prisoners will be either prosecuted or released.
Of the 250 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 101 are Yemenis, including two who have been convicted in military commissions and two who are charged with war crimes for participation in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"The remaining 97 are an eclectic group of intentional unrepentant combatants and accidental warriors," according to a forthcoming report in the CTC Sentinel, a publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. "Yet separating the detainees into two groups and determining where different individuals fall on a spectrum of past and potential violence is a nearly impossible task."
Lawyers for the detainees, who note that only four of the 101 Yemenis at Guantanamo have been charged with any crime, said the United States should either prosecute or release the others. Much of the information about the detainees remains classified.
"The U.S. treats the Yemenis as a homogenous group of dangerous people; in fact they are not," said David H. Remes, a lawyer who represents 18 Yemeni detainees. "Having met the men and their families, we have not found any of them to be a threat to the U.S. or to be aiming to harm the United States."
Albasha said the Yemen government has formulated a rehabilitation program, including psychological counseling, religious dialogue and technical education, in which every returning detainee from Guantanamo Bay would be required to participate. The Yemeni government said detainees also would be subject to post-release monitoring, backed by guarantees from the leaders of their tribes that they would not pose a danger to either Yemen or its allies.
But the program, modeled on a successful rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia, is still only a concept and lacks financing and personnel, including religious scholars capable of engaging and mitigating extremist ideologies.
Moreover, according to the Combating Terrorism Center study, a previous rehabilitation program in Yemen "now appears to be a failure." A total of 354 individuals participated in that program, largely a religious dialogue run by a Yemeni Supreme Court justice, and were then released. But there was almost no post-release support such as helping the detainees find jobs and wives, key elements of the Saudi initiative.
A number of graduates returned to the fight, including three of the seven men identified as participants in the September bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. Also adding to U.S. concerns, 23 terrorism suspects, reportedly with inside help, broke out of a Yemeni prison in 2006 and went on to spearhead a surge in violence. The Yemeni port of Aden was the site of the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, which killed 17 service members.
"Yemen is another country of concern, a place where al-Qaeda is strengthening," CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said in a speech last week. "We've seen an unprecedented number of attacks this year, 2008, including two on our embassy. Plots are increasing not only in number but in sophistication, and the range of targets is broadening.
"Al-Qaeda cells are operating from remote tribal areas where the government has traditionally had very little authority, and they're being led or reinforced by veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Among those held at Guantanamo who have not been charged are the brother of the deputy commander of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Four other detainees are brothers of al-Qaeda suspects who were part of the 2006 jailbreak, according to the Combating Terrorism Center.
Albasha said the country's first rehabilitation program was "an initial experiment, and, like most experiments, things go wrong." But he said he hopes the Obama administration will at least partially fund a new, more systematic program, which the current administration estimates could cost $10 million to $20 million.
"The costs of finding a solution to this problem are far cheaper than the costs of maintaining the status quo," the Combating Terrorism Center concluded.
Or, as Albasha put it: "If you solve the Yemeni issue, you solve the Guantanamo issue."