NEW YORK // The Obama administration is in talks with Yemen to build a prison near Sanaa to house Yemeni detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, but deteriorating security in Yemen and disagreements over funding threaten the plan.
The facility would hold the 88 Yemeni terrorism suspects, many of whom have not been charged with any crime, still detained at the US military prison in Cuba. Yemenis make up more than half of the 164 men held at Guantanamo, and their stalled repatriation is a key obstacle to closing the prison.
The White House has refused to confirm direct talks with Yemen over the plan. But Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said that the US is part of a UN-led group formed in August to help Yemen establish a rehabilitation programme “which could also facilitate the transfer of Yemeni detainees held at Guantanamo”.
Yemeni and US officials disagree over whether the planned facility, first reported by the Los Angeles Times this month, would include a de-radicalisation programme to reintegrate the men to society, or would simply be a prison.
The Yemeni foreign minister, Abu Bakr Al Qirbi, said last month the government planned to build a rehabilitation facility that would “focus on a religious and cultural dialogue and job creation”, but did not cite any US involvement.
Yemeni officials do not want to be seen as building another Guantanamo for the US, while their American counterparts are concerned that without US personnel overseeing the programme, which was ruled out by US officials quoted by the LA Times, detainees who are freed may join Al Qaeda’s network in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap).
“You put something like this up and you are responsible for it,” a US official told the LA Times, with another adding: “There’s a definite recognition that this needs to happen but if it’s not done right, the risks are very high.”
Barack Obama, the US president, promised during his first campaign for the White House in 2008 that he would close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, but the logistics and politics of transferring the detainees to US courts or third countries has proven exceedingly difficult.
This month, however, Mr Obama renewed his pledge to close the controversial facility.
The White House spokesman said Guantanamo “continues to drain our resources and harm our standing in the world”. The prison costs almost $350 million (Dh1.28 billion) annually to run, at a time of deep budget cuts in Washington.
While Mr Obama lifted a self-imposed ban on detainee transfers to Yemen, he has yet to send any. A defence spending bill that could be voted on this month would give him an even freer hand to transfer Yemeni detainees to Yemen.
But Republicans have blocked such efforts in the past, citing recidivism among detainees who have been released, and senior Republican senators are leading a push to include restrictions on detainee transfers to Yemen in the spending bill.
“Since it’s now well-known that Yemen-based Al Qaeda is actively plotting against us, I don’t see how the president can honestly say any detainee should be transferred to Yemen,” said Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Sending them to countries where Al Qaeda and its affiliates operate and continue to attack our interests is not a solution.”
The Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda was formed in 2006 after 23 militants escaped from a maximum-security jail in Sanaa. The group went on to launch a number of nearly successful attacks on US targets. The Aqap plot to bring down a US airliner flying into Detroit on Christmas day 2009 prompted Mr Obama to halt transfers of Yemeni detainees to Yemen.
There were 56 Yemenis among the 86 Guantamo detainees approved for repatriation more than four years ago, but only one has been returned, in June 2010.
“The US should consider recent prison breaks occurring directly under the nose of intelligence organisations and local government officials alike,” the former editor of the Yemen Observer, Shuaib Al Mosawa, told the GlobalPost website. “What needs rehabilitation right now is the Yemeni government.”
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown over the past two years even as US drone strikes hammer the group, and has ramped up its attacks against the Yemeni security forces in recent months. Yemeni officials told the LA Times that they worry the rehabilitation facility could become a target for militants and have asked the US to fund the facility and its security, which they said Yemen cannot afford.
US officials said that Republicans in Congress, opposed to shuttering Guantanamo, would not appropriate any funds for a new facility in Yemen. They hope that Saudi Arabia will pay for it.
Obama administration officials have said that the deteriorating security conditions would be factored into any plans to transfer detainees back to Yemen.