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12.09.08

The Yemen Problem

The decision to send Osama bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamdan, back to Yemen to serve out his remaining sentence raises a key question: What will become of the remaining detainees if Guantanamo Bay is closed?

President-elect Barack Obama has said closing Guantanamo Bay and ending the American use of torture are “part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.” But it is easier to promise to close Gitmo than to carry it out.

Of the 250 detainees left at Guantanamo Bay, more than 100 are Yemenis, from minor players such as Osama bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamdan, to killers who were wanted prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks on America.

That Yemenis now make up the largest group of detainees in Guantanamo reflects the lack of state infrastructure in Yemen to hold them until they are ready to be released. “They are [in Gitmo] because their government can’t afford to take them back,” said Charles Swift, the military lawyer who defended Hamdan.

“The success of rehabilitation will determine if these guys go on to be productive members of society or go back to someone like Mr. bin Laden.”

In 2006, 23 Yemeni detainees escaped from Yemeni jails, including the man believed to be the mastermind behind the bombing of the USS Cole.

“Does the government think Mr. Hamdan is dangerous? Obviously they do,” said Jonathan Mahler, author of The Challenge, an account of the Hamdan case. “Yemen is hardly a place with a good reputation for keeping an eye on people. You can be sure they had arguments about whether or not to release him.”

Keeping Hamdan in America, however, would have invited legal and political challenges. “His case received so much attention in the past, it could have become a real lightning rod for media attention, or even an increase in anti-American sentiment,” said Brian Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts and an expert witness at the Hamdan trial. “I think this was a preemptive move by the Pentagon to unload a political hot potato.”

It also suggests a way forward for the remaining Yemenis in American custody. “Returning Mr. Hamdan for this rehabilitation program sets a precedent,” said Swift, the military lawyer who represented Hamdan. “It gives our government an opportunity to sit down and begin to really figure this thing out with Yemen.”

Swift, who has visited Yemen a number of times, said a well-funded rehabilitation program must be set up to prevent terrorists returning to their trade. “Not spending the money here is about as penny wise and pound foolish as I can think of,” he said.

The Yemenis are designing a rehabilitation program that will include job training and counseling, said Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, D.C. “Yemen is a very conservative country,” he said. “So we will also try and help them to get married or find a family.”

“All of us who have been to Yemen know how crucial this is,” said Swift, who is asking for American federal funds to improve the Yemeni rehabilitation program. “The success of rehabilitation will determine if these guys go on to be productive members of society or go back to someone like Mr. bin Laden.”

Ben Popper is a reporter born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He is a recent graduate of New York University's journalism program and has written for the New York Observer, Fast Company and Men's Vogue.