WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is lifting his self-imposed ban on transferring Guantanamo Bay detainees to Yemen, where a leadership upheaval has improved the country's security but not eliminated a terrorist organization trying to recruit jihadists.
Lifting the ban is a step toward Obama's goal of closing the Navy-run prison in Cuba since nearly 100 of the 166 terrorist suspects held there are from Yemen and have had nowhere to go even if they had been cleared for transfer. Obama wouldn't send them home and no other country was welcoming them, and their hopelessness after a decade or more of imprisonment had contributed to a hunger strike at the detention facility that helped reignite the long-stalled effort to close it.
But Obama's decision is not without risk – detainees who have been released to Yemen in the past have joined terrorist fighters in the Arab nation. The security concerns prompted Obama to suspend transfers to Yemen in January 2010 after a Nigerian man attempted to blow up a U.S.-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009 with explosives hidden in his underwear on instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., was among those on Capitol Hill criticizing Obama's change in policy.
"Between December 2009 and today, has Yemen shown any indication that they are more capable of looking after those individuals? Absolutely not," Chambliss said. "And If we were to transfer those individuals to Yemen, it would be just like turning them loose."
Yemeni watchers in the U.S. say there is reason to hope security has improved since longtime authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted after mass uprisings last year. Al-Qaida had been on the upswing under Saleh, but his successor Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has made fighting terrorism a top goal and restored cooperation with the United States in the effort.
Obama announced that he was lifting the moratorium on Yemeni transfers in a speech Thursday at the National Defense University in which the president also defended targeted killings by U.S. aerial drones and pushed Congress anew to authorize Guantanamo's closure. The president did not explain his rationale behind the change in Yemen policy, but senior administration officials cited Hadi's leadership as an increasingly able partner to the U.S.
A Yemeni official told The Associated Press that a delegation, including the country's human rights minister, returned this week after a trip to Washington, where they agreed to set up of a rehabilitation center to help reintegrate detainees, with the support of the United States and other Arab nations.
Rageh Badi, an adviser to Yemen's prime minister, said in an interview that the transfer ban had cast a shadow on the relations with the United States. Badi said lifting the ban is a "welcome step, a progressive one that removes much of the ambiguity and confusion between the U.S. administration and the Yemeni government."
Yemeni authorities previously had a system to monitor returned detainees, but it ceased to function after massive anti-government protests swept most of the country, starting in early 2011. Of the estimated 30 Yemenis who returned from Guantanamo, only a handful had stayed in Sanaa, the capital, while the rest moved to remote areas where government authority is minimal, or nonexistent.
David Remes, an attorney who represents many Guantanamo detainees, described a system roughly like parole for his clients who have been released to Yemen. He said they have been flown in shackles aboard a military aircraft back to Sanaa and turned over to state forces who spend a couple days debriefing them about their years of captivity before they return to their families. If they want to leave town, they are required to register with state security forces who keep track of their movements, Remes said.
"Although there is no such thing as zero risk, the men who have returned from Guantanamo are overwhelmingly living peaceful lives," Remes said. "And you can't hold 99 of 100 men captive because one might engage in bad acts when he is released, even two."
Yet some have returned to jihad. Among them is Saeed Ali al-Shihri, who emerged as the second-most senior commander of Yemen's branch of al-Qaida after being released from six years of detention at Guantanamo Bay. Yemeni officials said in January that al-Shihri was killed in a U.S. drone attack, but al-Qaida denied he was killed and last month released an audio recording of him criticizing Yemen's neighbor Saudi Arabia for its policy of allowing the U.S. to launch drone strikes from bases in the kingdom.
In confusion that underscores how difficult it can be to keep tabs on former detainees, it was the second time the group denied al-Shihri's death. U.S. officials had previously announced al-Shihri's death in an airstrike in September last year. A DNA test, however, proved that the body recovered was not that of al-Shihri.
According to security officials in Yemen, there has not been any evidence to link any of the returnees with suicide bombings in the country. However, some of them are thought to have fought against government forces in the southern Abyan province in 2011 and 2012 , when al-Qaida fighters took advantage of the security vacuum to seize large swathes of the area before they were pushed back by security forces last year. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Christopher Swift of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service said research has shown the recidivism rate for former detainees sent to Yemen has been about 15 to 20 percent.
"That would great progress if you were talking about drug dealers, but you are talking about terrorism," Swift said. "The political class in America has a zero tolerance approach to these issues."
Swift said there have been improvements to security under Hadi's leadership, who with support from the United States and other Arab nations has dispersed the terrorists out of their strongholds and left fighters struggling to reorganize. But he said al-Qaida has not been eliminated and the government has more improvements to make.
"Suffice it to say the government is highly dysfunctional, but it is much more functional than it was a year ago or even two years ago," Swift said.
AP writers Kimberly Dozier and Richard Lardner in Washington and Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.