In Yemen, Anger Toward U.S. Grows Over Detainees
Of the nearly 200 inmates still being held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, nearly half are from Yemen, on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula.
A task force set up by the Obama administration had approved many of these Yemeni detainees for release. But after a Yemen-based branch of al-Qaida took responsibility for the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt, those releases were put on hold.
Abdul Salam al-Hila is one of the detainees affected. He was captured in Egypt in 2002. His family says he was working for the Yemeni government to help resettle jihadis who had fought in Afghanistan and ended up in Yemen.
In 2004, the Bush administration claimed that Hila was a member of al-Qaida, and he was transferred to Guantanamo. Since 2001, the U.S. has used the facility to detain suspected terrorists from other countries.
Hila's family lives in a tall and narrow house in the Yemeni capital, San'a. They say that since President Obama took office and pledged to close Guantanamo, they had some hope they might at least see Hila again, even if he had to face charges in a Yemeni court.
That hope disappeared when they heard that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to ignite a bomb on a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight late last year, after spending time in Yemen.
"So a Nigerian man tries to set off a bomb on an American plane, and they punish my brother for this?" says Hila's sister, who did want to be identified. She says the family has endured enough trouble already. Last year, Hila's two young sons died when a grenade they were playing with exploded.
So a Nigerian man tries to set off a bomb on an American plane, and they punish my brother for this?
"His mother died, his father died, his two sons died, and now his uncle has died," Hila's sister says. "Do they want us to all be dead before they bring him back home again?"
Exasperation Turning Into Anger
Khaled al-Anisi heads the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, a legal organization in Yemen that is pressing for the Yemeni detainees' release. He says their families' exasperation is turning into anger.
"Obama [gave] the people hope. And they [lived] one year with this hope," Anisi says. "Now, the people start to think this is not [a] Bush problem or [a] Bush administration mistake, it is the mistake [of] all American people," Anisi says.
As a result, he says, Yemenis have become increasingly angry at all Americans.
"They said ... all of them [are] the same. Democrat people or Republican people — all of them are [the] enemy," he says.
Anisi and many others say that the danger with this anti-American sentiment is it makes it easier for al-Qaida to recruit new members.
U.S. officials say they are keenly aware of the dangers of continuing to hold so many Yemenis at Guantanamo. But they say they're concerned that if released, these Yemenis will find their way to the local militant group, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. That's what happened to two Saudis who were released from Guantanamo in 2007.
Of the two dozen Yemenis who have been released so far, most lead normal lives. Two or three are missing. Another one was killed in a U.S.-assisted airstrike against alleged al-Qaida hideouts in December.
Lack Of Will To Pursue Solution
If President Saleh sees the repatriation of Yemenis as a political asset at any given moment, he will advocate for that. If he does not see it as politically expedient at any given moment, he won't. And a lot of the time, he does not see it as politically expedient, he sees it as a headache.
Letta Tayler, who researches Yemen for New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the U.S. and the Yemeni governments should work together to find a solution for the remaining detainees.
"And that solution should be either Yemen repatriating the detainees to Yemen or finding a third country that can host them, and if necessary, either solution would involve placing restrictions on detainees' movements to protect national security," she says.
Tayler says the problem is that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh lacks the will to pursue such a solution.
"If President Saleh sees the repatriation of Yemenis as a political asset at any given moment, he will advocate for that. If he does not see it as politically expedient at any given moment, he won't. And a lot of the time, he does not see it as politically expedient, he sees it as a headache," Tayler says.
Life Hard For Released Detainees
Last year, Yemen asked the U.S. for tens of millions of dollars to fund a rehabilitation program for Yemenis returning from Guantanamo. That plan never materialized.
But the U.S. has increased military aid to Yemen to help fight al-Qaida. U.S. military and intelligence agencies already provide equipment and information for Yemeni airstrikes against alleged al-Qaida targets.
Saleh al-Zuba spent six years at Guantanamo and was released back to Yemen in late 2006. He spent a few more months in Yemeni custody, then was freed when a relative vouched for him.
Now, Zuba spends most days at home, watching TV. He says he tried to open a honey store, but the owner wouldn't rent to him because he heard Zuba had been in Guantanamo. Once a month, Zuba has to check in with local security officers.
"I don't need a rehabilitation program," Zuba says. "Right now, I just need a job."