February 9, 2009

Yemen's unique counterterrorism tool

The government of Yemen released 170 men suspected of having ties to al-Qa'idah after the men signed pledges not to engage in terrorism.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sign a piece of paper that you will behave and you are set free. What an interesting method to root out terrorism in one of the most corrupt countries on the planet, and the new primary venue for al-Qa'idah's operations on the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Qa'idah is on the rise in Yemen. This is not a secret - it has been announced by senior al-Qa'idah leaders. Al-Qa'idah members in Saudi Arabia were directed to relocate to Yemen because the security situation in Saudi Arabia has become too difficult for the group. Since 2003, after a series of al-Qa'idah attacks on residential compounds in Riyadh, the Saudis have aggressively hunted down al-Qa'idah members, killing many of them.

Memo to Yemeni President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih: That is how you fight terrorists - hunt them down and kill them. You don't make them sign a piece of paper and let them go. You surely know the Arabic saying, "...hibr 'ala waraq" (just ink on paper). Is this how you plan to deal with the almost 100 Yemenis currently detained in Guantanamo that will likely be repatriated to your custody?

I also note in the news that the same Yemeni government that released 170 suspected terrorists has announced an upcoming offensive in the northern city of Marib, the epicenter of al-Qa'idah presence in the country. These announcements generally provide enough warning to the al-Qa'idah militants to allow them to seek refuge elsewhere until the Yemeni army rounds up a few of "the usual suspects," declares a major blow against terrorism and returns to its garrisons.

Yemen has a terrible record when it comes to keeping terrorists in custody. Perpetrators and suspects in the bombing of the USS Cole in which 17 American sailors were killed have been in and out - mostly out - of custody. Successful jailbreaks and escapes, while not commonplace, seem to occur with alarming frequency when suspected al-Qa'idah members are involved.

This recent release of suspects underscores my past concerns about, and objections to, returning Yemeni Guantanamo detainees to Yemen. (See my earlier article, Yemen and the Guantanamo 245) The Salih government is notoriously weak and corrupt. Once we repatriate the detainees, there is no guarantee they will remain in custody.

Perhaps they will sign a pledge not to be terrorists anymore.