Over the past several months, in a series of confidential and closely guarded discussions, the United States has been exploring the possibility of sending the roughly one hundred Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation. The first public indication of such a move came when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Saudi Arabia in early May to personally raise the issue with Prince Nayif, the Kingdom’s Interior Minister. The Obama Administration’s eagerness to unload the detainees and close Guantánamo is understandable, but sending the Yemenis to Saudi Arabia does not so much solve the problem as it does pass the buck.
Looking back in time a few months, we begin to get a glimmer of why attempting to unload our unwanted Yemeni detainees on Saudi Arabia is problematic. In late March, Saudi television aired the confessions of Muhammad al-Awfi, a former Guantánamo detainee turned al-Qaeda commander, whom the Saudis claimed had subsequently surrendered to authorities on the Yemeni border. Al-Awfi’s calm demeanor and traditional look on the program—a white robe and red-checkered keffiyeh—was in sharp contrast to his previous video appearance only two months before, in January. In that video, which was released by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Awfi, dressed in a camouflage T-shirt and a bandolier of bullets, brandishing a machine gun, bitterly denounced the Saudi regime. But that, he confessed in the most recent video, was all a mistake. He had been confused and did not really understand what was happening.
Yet in addition to al-Awfi, the January video had featured another former Guantánamo detainee, Said al-Shihri, identified as the deputy commander of a new group formed from the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al-Qaeda. The appearance of not one but two former Guantánamo detainees in the upper-echelons of an al-Qaeda franchise came as a rude shock to the Saudis, confirming what until then had been only a theoretical possibility: the return of ex-detainees to the battlefield.
The video confirming al-Awfi’s and al-Shihri’s return to jihad also strengthened the arguments of those who claimed that the United States often had little or misleading intelligence about the men it has been holding in Guantánamo Bay. For instance, al-Awfi was released because it was believed he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was captured in Pakistan in late 2001. Yet the day after the release of the January video, a biography of him appeared on jihadi Internet forums detailing his experience fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Chechnya.
Saudi spokesmen responded to the pair’s appearance by taking the defensive, claiming that the failure was far from representative of their rehabilitation program, which includes religious re-education, counseling sessions, even art therapy classes and, above all, extended-family re-integration. One official in the Interior Ministry boasted to the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat that Saudi Arabia had actually achieved a success rate of 80 to 90 percent of those it had released. But even this number was down from previous, more optimistic claims. Only two months before al-Awfi and al-Shihri re-emerged, the Saudi government proudly told Katherine Zoepf of the New York Times Magazine that none of its graduates had returned to violence.
Even as Saudi Arabia was publicly defending the program’s credentials, however, it was quietly re-arresting several released jihadists whom it knew or suspected were having second thoughts about their re-integration into society. Muhammad al-Awfi was one of them; he fell into Saudi custody after his January re-appearance, although accounts about how this happened differ.
More worrisome for both Saudi and U.S. officials was the fact that the Kingdom’s security services seemed to have lost track of a number of former detainees. Saudi Arabia eventually published a list of 85 wanted individuals—83 Saudis and two Yemenis—who it claimed had fled the country and rejoined al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations throughout the Middle East.
Even this list, however, demonstrated that the reach of the Saudi intelligence service is not as great as is often assumed. In the bimonthly journal of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Sada al-Malahim (“The Echo of Battles”), one of the men on the list, Nayif Muhammad al-Qahtani, took great joy in pointing out that another of the individuals on the list had been killed years earlier in Iraq. The increasingly sophisticated electronic journal has been posted to jihadi Internet forums every other month since its launch in January 2008. It is typically available as a PDF or Microsoft Word document that can be downloaded, printed and passed from hand-to-hand. Still others on the list were reported to have met similar fates in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The episode reveals that part of the problem is the structural flaws within the program. Saudi Arabia does not carefully monitor released individuals. In the wake of al-Awfi’s March confessions Saudi journalist Faris bin Hazam told al-Arabiya TV that each individual family bears responsibility for making sure their rehabilitated relative does not not relapse. But as the cases of al-Awfi and al-Shihri show, family members are often reluctant to report on kith and kin to authorities to whom they are not related.
Saudi officials were not the only ones embarrassed by the backsliding. In May 2008, State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Dell Dailey praised the Saudi program as effective because it was “consistent” with Saudi culture. But the law of diminishing returns appears to be taking hold. The Kingdom’s initial success was largely a result of dealing with the easiest cases first and delaying those of individuals deemed to be more strident in their views. The longer the program continued and the more individuals released through it, the greater the chances that some graduates would relapse.
The Saudi program is based on the premise that the state can convince these individuals that their understanding of Islam is incorrect and has been perverted by charlatans. But when many of the detainees view the state itself as the enemy, convincing them of the error of their ways is often a Sisyphean task. The clerics brought in to re-educate the detainees on the principles of Islam lack legitimate authority in the eyes of many prisoners, who view them as paid agents of the state, willing to say and legitimize whatever the state wants. This, the militants maintain, is not Islam, but rather a corrupted and distorted version whose sole purpose is to ensure that the Al-Saud remains in power.
The problems in the Saudi program should come as no surprise. It is modeled on an earlier, Yemeni program that ran into many of the same problems, leading to its eventual disbanding in December 2005 following reports that graduates of the program had made their way to Iraq and carried out suicide attacks against U.S. forces there. The news of the Yemeni program’s demise was disturbing but not necessarily unexpected, as Yemen had not sought to change the views of the prisoners but only to get them to agree to what amounted to a non-aggression pact not to carry out any attacks within the country. This delicate arrangement appeared to be working, at least in Yemen, but recent attacks inside the country have shown the program to be a failure on a more fundamental level.
Three of the suicide attackers who carried out the September 2008 attack on the U.S. Embassy in San‘a were graduates of the Yemeni program. Another supposedly rehabilitated prisoner currently on the run from Yemeni security forces gave an interview to a local news outlet in late 2008 explaining his reasons for not abiding by his agreement with the state. His return to jihad, he stated, was based on the fact that the government did not deliver on any of the promises it made him when he was released. Instead of easing his transition back into society, he was harassed by security services and robbed by soldiers at checkpoints. When he complained to the head of the rehabilitation program, Hamud al-Hitar, he received little help, as al-Hitar lacks access to the levers of power that would allow him to dole out state favors to his graduates. Saudi Arabia’s economic standing should allow it to more easily deter those who can be bought off with jobs and promises, but payouts will do little to persuade those convinced that the state is not a legitimate Islamic entity.
The Saudi and Yemeni experiences raise acute questions about what the United States should do with the 94 Yemeni detainees currently in Guantánamo. Yemen has sought to convince the United States that it can successfully rehabilitate and reintegrate these men into society, but U.S. officials are rightly concerned that Yemen’s second attempt at jihadi reform will fare no better than its first. Some have suggested repatriating the Yemenis to Saudi Arabia, as Gates’s trip to Saudi Arabia confirmed, and pushing them through the rehabilitation program there, but it is doubtful the results would be much different. The Saudi method focuses on family re-integration of Saudi subjects into Saudi extended families. But no one imagines importing whole Yemeni clans to Saudi Arabia for this purpose.
Wherever the Yemeni detainees end up, their release could boost al-Qaeda’s morale and recruitment in the Arabian Peninsula, just as the organization has finally reconstituted itself after a period of dispersal and disarray. Over the past three years, Nasir al-Wahayshi, a former secretary to Osama bin Laden, has managed to rebuild and reorganize a regional al-Qaeda franchise based in Yemen. Under his leadership al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been attracting recruits from around the region. The organization is also growing more ambitious, looking to use the under-governed regions of Yemen as a staging ground for attacks throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
Al-Wahayshi, a 33-year-old Yemeni, fought alongside bin Laden at Tora Bora before escaping over the border into Iran. He was later arrested and extradited to Yemen in 2003. He spent the next two-and-a-half years in preventative detention in a Yemeni prison on suspicion of belonging to al-Qaeda, although the government never officially charged him. In February 2006, al-Wahayshi and 22 other al-Qaeda militants tunneled out of a prison in San‘a and into a neighboring mosque, where they performed the dawn prayers with other worshippers before walking out the front door to freedom.
Within months the recently escaped militants managed to carry out a dual suicide attack on oil and gas facilities in Marib and Hadramawt, timed to coincide with the September 2006 presidential elections in Yemen. The attackers failed to breach the gates at either facility and succeeded only in killing one guard. Yemen responded in October, killing the mastermind of the attack, Fawaz al-Rabi‘i, in a shootout.
The loss of al-Rabi‘i as a military commander removed one of al-Wahayshi’s potential rivals for leadership in planning al-Qaeda’s revival. In June 2007, al-Wahayshi was officially named the new emir of al-Qaeda in Yemen. The announcement was followed almost immediately by a suicide attack on a convoy of Spanish tourists that killed ten people. Throughout the summer al-Wahayshi continued to solidify his command over the organization, while at the same time building a durable infrastructure that could survive the deaths of key commanders.
In January 2008, al-Wahayashi articulated the group’s strategy in the very first issue of Sada al-Malahim. A key aspect of this strategy was targeting Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula as a way of cleansing the area of infidels, in accordance with an injunction of the Prophet Muhammad. Remaining in Yemen and Arabia also allowed the group to target oil supplies that aided the West in what al-Qaeda called its war against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter, al-Qaeda launched a lengthy campaign of attacks and bombings, culminating in the September 2008 suicide attack against the U.S. Embassy in San‘a, which killed 16 Yemenis.
Throughout the 2008 campaign, al-Qaeda issued periodic calls for volunteers from Saudi Arabia to move south and join forces under al-Wahayshi’s leadership. It is difficult to say how many fighters from Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries subsequently traveled to Yemen, but by the end of 2008 the articles in Sada al-Malahim made clear that the group had received an influx of new talent. The religious scholarship in the journal was of a much higher intellectual caliber than earlier attempts and, in the November issue, al-Qaeda invited its readers to submit questions to which its “Sharia Committee” would respond with religious opinions. More recently, in the March 2009 issue, al-Qaeda revealed that yet another former Guantánamo detainee, Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, who was transferred to Saudi Arabia in December 2006, had rejoined its ranks.
The precedent of released and supposedly rehabilitated Guantánamo detainees returning to fight for al-Qaeda is a worrying one for U.S. officials. Of particular concern is the fact that many current members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have brothers in Guantánamo. Qasim al-Raymi, a military commander for the organization, has a younger brother, Ali, there. Fawaz al-Rabi‘i’s younger brother in Guantánamo may be looking to avenge his brother’s death. Another Yemeni, Mansur al-Bayhani, who was killed in Somalia by a U.S. warship in June 2007, has two brothers in Guantánamo. Lawyers for the detainees claim it is unfair and illegal to continue to hold them because of the acts of their relatives. But as al-Hazam told al-Arabiya TV, jihad is often a family business. To ignore historical patterns of radicalization and recruitment is to disregard years of difficult lessons. Indeed, al-Awfi initially went off to fight because he wanted to join an older brother (who was later killed in Afghanistan).
Al-Qaeda’s growing confidence and ambition in Yemen is clear. The Yemeni government’s ability to manage the numerous security threats it is facing is becoming increasingly limited as its power continues to recede. This slippage of governance will open up more spaces for jihadi groups to operate in Yemen. Combine these factors with an influx of new recruits and the potential for disaster is sharply increasing. While U.S. policy is now justifiably focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, it would be a grave mistake to ignore what is going on in Yemen, and to think our Saudi friends can do much about it on our behalf.