January 27, 2010
Terrorist Rehabilitation in Yemen?
News has surfaced that the Yemeni government intends to build a terrorist rehabilitation center with an $11 million grant from the United States within the next three months. Reuters reported on January 27, 2010 that the terrorist rehabilitation center will house Yemeni detainees returning from Guantanamo Bay. Currently, Guantanamo Bay is home to 91 Yemeni detainees. Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – the al Qaeda franchise that deployed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to conduct the Christmas Day attack in the skies over Michigan. Recent experience with the better-funded Saudi rehabilitation program and the Yemeni security forces raises serious questions about the reliability of any such Yemeni effort.
Yemen’s government, in cooperation with the country’s religious establishment, has operated an extremist rehabilitation program since at least 2006. The program has sought to de-radicalize Islamist militants who had returned home from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and struggled to reintegrate into Yemeni society. The Yemeni government claimed that the program had a 99% success rate, but it failed to meet the standards of the U.S. government, which continuously opted not to send any Yemeni Guantanamo Bay detainees to the program. Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, had developed a terrorist rehabilitation program that satisfied American officials. Yet many Saudi terrorists from Guantanamo have been released into the Saudi rehabilitation program, which reportedly applies a de-radicalization curriculum revolving around sports, art therapy and other leisure activities, only to return to the battlefield – sometimes in key leadership positions. The proposed Yemeni terrorist rehabilitation program will apparently be modeled on the Saudi program.
The Saudi program has suffered important setbacks, however. At least eleven former Guantanamo detainees who enlisted in Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program escaped the surveillance of the government and were later listed on the kingdom’s infamous list of 85 most wanted terrorists. In fact, two of the co-founders of the Yemeni-based AQAP spent time in both Guantanamo Bay prison and the Saudi terrorist rehabilitation program. One of those AQAP leaders, Mohammed al Awfi, has since turned himself back in to Saudi authorities. The other AQAP leader, Said Ali al Shihri, is now the group’s top deputy. U.S. officials suspect that al Shihri played a role in the attack on the U.S. embassy in Sana’a in September 2009 that killed eleven people, including one American.
The initial Reuters report about the planned Yemeni terrorist rehabilitation center quoted Yemeni officials as saying that the center would be located in either Hadramout province or Sana’a, the country’s capital. The report characterized Hadramout province only as the “home to a number of moderate religious education establishments.” Hadramout may, in fact, be one of the more dangerous places in the country to put 91 former Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Osama bin Laden’s father hails from Hadramout, and today the province has a robust and active al Qaeda cell. In November 2009, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took credit for the assassinations of three senior security officials in Hadramout province. The group claimed that the attack was revenge against the government for holding fellow militants in Hadramout and Sana’a prisons: "This operation comes in support of our brother prisoners in the prisons of Hadramout, Sana’a, and elsewhere, and in revenge against all those who indulge themselves in doing harm to the mujahideen.” The group also claimed to be behind a March 2009 suicide bombing targeting Korean tourists in Hadramout that killed six. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula carried out at least eighteen attacks on security installations and patrols in Hadramout in 2008. An al Qaeda training camp in the lawless province trained at least one of the suicide bombers who attacked the U.S. embassy in September 2008. Yemeni security forces have struggled over the past two years to combat the al Qaeda cell in Hadramout with mixed success at best.
The second possible site identified for the planned Yemeni terrorist rehabilitation center is Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. Sana’a also has an active al Qaeda cell, as demonstrated by Yemeni strikes targeting the cell on December 17, 2009. More disturbing, though, is the track-record of the Yemeni security apparatus in Sana’a tasked with managing the detainment of al Qaeda operatives. Twenty-three al Qaeda terrorists escaped from a Sana’a prison in February 2006, including the current leader of AQAP, Nassir al Wahayshi. The Yemeni security apparatus, which is widely believed to be infiltrated by Salafists, may have had a role in the February 2006 prison break.
Terrorist rehabilitation programs have failed in the past, and, in some cases, have resulted in a real and imminent threat to the United States. Saudi Arabia effectively defeated al Qaeda in its country in 2005 and its terrorist rehabilitation program is backed by millions of petrodollars, but some participants in the program have still returned to terrorism. Yemen, on the other hand, has largely failed at combating al Qaeda since its rebirth in the country in 2006, and its planned rehabilitation program will likely receive much less funding than the Saudi program. The two proposed sites for the Yemeni program already host al Qaeda cells, and the country’s security apparatus has proven unreliable at managing the detention of al Qaeda prisoners. Experience suggests that great caution is in order in relying on terrorist rehabilitation programs and the Yemeni security forces to contain, let alone de-radicalize, Guantanamo detainees.