President Obama's push to close the Guantánamo Bay prison is being jeopardized by the emerging terror threat in Yemen.
Resuming detainee transfers to Yemen was a major part of Obama's renewed effort this year to close the detention facility.
“The dangerous nature of AQAP has been reaffirmed by recent jail breaks of hundreds of hardened terrorists and the recent global terror warning issued by the State Department that forced the closure of numerous U.S. diplomatic missions,” said Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), who has tried to block Yemen transfers with amendments to Defense bills.
“In light of these serious threats, I urge President Obama to abandon his decision to transfer Guantanamo detainees to Yemen and extend his moratorium on releasing detainees to this unstable country,” she said.
The United States responded to the threat from AQAP by unleashing a wave of drone strikes against suspected militants in Yemen, but GOP lawmakers say the country remains a breeding ground for terrorism.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last month that sending detainees to countries where “Al Qaeda and its affiliates operate and continue to attack our interests is not a solution.”
Transferring detainees to Yemen is central to the administration’s strategy for closing Guantánamo, as 56 of the 86 detainees at the facility who have been cleared for transfer came from the country.
Obama issued a moratorium on transferring detainees to Yemen in 2010 after the U.S. learned that 2009 “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had obtained instructions from terrorists in Yemen.
Republicans have long warned that detainees transferred to the country could end up rejoining the terror fight and have pointed to jailbreaks that have occurred as proof.
AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi issued a message on Monday to prisoners in Yemen’s jails. “Rejoice ... as your brothers are pounding the walls of injustice and demolishing the thrones of oppression," he said on a militant website.
Lawmakers who are fighting with Obama to close Guantánamo acknowledge that Yemen has long been chaotic but say things are improving.
They point to the actions of Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who launched a campaign against AQAP, as a sign that the government is committed to fighting the al Qaeda affiliate.
Hadi met with Obama at the White House earlier this month, and the two leaders pledged to work together to return the Yemeni detainees held at Guantánamo.
“Yemen is still a very unsettled country, to put it mildly, but we can have more confidence in the government there because of our working relationship with them,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told The Hill. “I don’t think the current situation changes the dynamic from six months ago.”
The Obama administration has indicated that it will not begin transfers to Yemen until it is sure that the country is prepared. Hadi has pledged to create an extremist rehabilitation program to facilitate the process.
“The lifting of the moratorium did not mean a mass exodus,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters the day Hadi met with Obama. “It meant that we would then move to a case-by-case evaluation of each detainee, which is the case in the, and has been the case, in the non-Yemeni detainees.”
Not every lawmaker who wants to see Guantánamo close is on board with moving detainees to Yemen, however.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been the leading Republican in the effort to close the prison. But after Obama called for resuming transfers to Yemen, the Arizona Republican joined with his GOP colleagues in expressing opposition.
The Republican-led House has also pushed back, adding amendments from Walorski to both the Defense authorization and appropriations bills that specifically prevent detainee transfers to Yemen.
Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia, said that the biggest obstacle to moving detainees to Yemen is U.S. perceptions of Yemen’s security, rather than the actual situation on the ground.
“The security situation, despite the terror alert over past week, hasn’t really changed. What’s changing is the U.S. perceptions of that security,” Johnsen said.
“Security in Yemen — it sort of depends. This perception in the United States that Yemen is this lawless place where sort of anything goes and there’s no rule of law, that’s not quite accurate.”
In order to transfer detainees from Guantánamo, Congress has required the Obama administration to certify that a detainee does not pose a potential terror threat if moved.
While the administration has not transferred any detainees to Yemen since Obama lifted the moratorium in May, the White House notified Congress last month it intended to transfer two detainees to Algeria.
One GOP aide argued that the proposed transfers to Algeria are evidence that Obama is using Congress as a “scapegoat” over its inability to transfer detainees.
“It’s not congressional prohibitions that are stopping him; it’s the real world and the actual dangers those transfers pose and the situation in Yemen that’s actually stopping him,” the aide said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee loosened the transfer restrictions in the Defense authorization bill that passed the committee in June, but Republicans are gearing up to fight those provisions when the bill goes on the floor.
If the situation in Yemen doesn’t improve to the point that transfers can resume, two senior Democrats put forward an alternative Wednesday.
Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who are among the Senate’s biggest proponents for closing Guantánamo, wrote in an op-ed that the Yemeni detainees could also be sent to Saudi Arabia, and not just Yemen.