Barack Obama is in a tight spot. Just when the U.S. president was in the process of transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees to Yemen, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Flight 253, and suddenly Yemen, with its resurgent al Qaeda presence, started looking like a less acceptable destination. Detainee transfers have now been delayed, as they should be -- but what is going to happen to the 91 Yemeni detainees still in custody, more than 30 of whom have been cleared for release?
Obama has three options: restarting transfers to Yemen with new pressure on the Yemeni government to step up deradicalization efforts, sending the detainees to a Saudi-led rehabilitation program, or detaining them indefinitely in U.S. custody. None of these choices is ideal, but Obama still has the opportunity to find an acceptable long-term solution.
In fact, sending the detainees to Yemen was never an ideal option. To date, U.S. officials have transferred to Yemen more than 20 detainees whom it deemed a lower security risk, relying on assurances from the Yemenis that they would mitigate whatever threat the detainees did pose. Indeed, between 2000 and 2005, the Sanaa government supported a rehabilitation program for its own prisoners, the Yemeni Committee for Dialogue. Its chair, Qadi Hamoud al-Hitar, publicly claimed that his efforts to engage prisoners in religious dialogue and reintegrate them into society were successful.
But the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. One participant, a former al Qaeda commander, said in private conversations that the "dialogue" consisted of short meetings during which prisoners were encouraged to sign forms pledging obedience to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The dialogue did not address engaging in terrorist activity outside Yemen, nor did it effectively provide post-release support. Reports suggest that several graduates returned to their violent ways, many of them in Iraq. Moreover, plans for renewing and improving deradicalization efforts -- as the Yemenis promised before transferring detainees -- are still in the very early stages. One Yemeni official remarked last fall, "Lots of people [are] thinking about it, but nothing [is] being done."
If Obama decides to continue sending detainees back to Yemen, the United States could continue pushing Sanaa to revamp its rehabilitation program. But this approach comes with serious risks and would require significant outside guidance, financial support, and political pressure. Rehabilitation plans remain in the early stages, and no money has been allocated to the endeavor. If this approach is pursued, Washington would need to guarantee the involvement of key Yemeni domestic agencies such as the National Security Bureau and the Political Security Organization; religious and civil society leaders; and both international and domestic NGOs. NGOs should assist with social-service and family-oriented programming and provide external auditing to protect against the misuse of funds. U.S. officials must also make it explicitly clear that the Yemeni government is accountable for the program's success.
Even with significant external support, one Yemeni official estimates the program would rehabilitate just 30 to 40 percent of participants. Yemen struggles with pervasive poverty, growing political unrest, and a resurgent al Qaeda. These factors make deradicalization even more difficult than it is already. Saleh is focused primarily on defeating the Houthi rebellion in the north, quashing a southern secessionist movement, and managing a festering socioeconomic crisis. Given the energy spent on these and other domestic priorities, the Yemeni government lacks the will and capacity to develop and implement an effective rehabilitation program. As one Yemeni noted, Saleh "can't deal with this right now."