The collapse of Yemen’s Western-backed government has raised new concerns in Congress about President’s Obama plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
The majority of the remaining detainees at the prison are from Yemen, alarming lawmakers who fear they will return to the battlefield to wage attacks against the United States if they are transferred out.
Congress has in previous years restricted the return of detainees back to Yemen out of concern that the country’s government would not be able to monitor their activities.
Although lawmakers dropped those restrictions in 2015, lawmakers are talking about bringing them back in 2016 — the final year that Obama will have to try and close the prison altogether.
“Remember, it is only the restrictions that Congress has placed into law that has prevented all these folks from already having been shipped back to Yemen,” said Thornberry, who could push to include detainee restrictions in the 2016 defense policy bill.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who will oversee crafting of the 2016 defense policy bill in the Senate, cosponsored a bill last week that would restore those restrictions on releasing detainees to Yemen.
Of the remaining 122 detainees at Guantanamo, 76 are from Yemen. Of those, 47 of have been cleared for release.
Opponents of closing the prisons say there is a nearly 30 percent recidivism rate among the prisoners who have already been released.
Advocates for closing Guantanamo say that number is misleading, since it includes confirmed as well as suspected cases of recidivism. They say the confirmed cases of engaging in terrorism consist of only half of that percentage.
A report released in March by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said 16.9 percent of all release detainees were confirmed to have engaged in terrorism — or a total of 104 of 614 released. The suspected cases of recidivism amounted to 12.1 percent of cases, or 74 of 614.
Still, “suspected cases” are those where there are “plausible but unverified or single-source reporting indicating a specific former [Gitmo] detainee is directly involved in terrorist or insurgent activities.”
Of the confirmed and suspected cases of recidivism, 22 of the former detainees are dead, 51 have been recaptured, and 105 are still at large, according to the report. One of the former detainees at large is reportedly in Afghanistan doing recruitment for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The preponderance of Yemenis remaining at Guantanamo stems partly from the country’s tumultuous political situation, experts say.
“For a long time, Yemen hasn’t been a stable country that would have been able to receive detainees so it was often more difficult to process them,” said Daniel R. Green, defense fellow at the Washington Institute.
But also, he said, “also, a lot of Yemenis were involved in Al Qaeda, for quite awhile and many of them fought in Iraq and Afghanistan with mujahedeen. As you know, Osama bin Laden was half-Yemeni.”
The unrest in Yemen late Friday forced Obama administration officials to halt counterterrorism activities against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. officials consider the most dangerous Al Qaeda affiliate. While armed drones over Yemen are still flying, Shiite rebels have seized control of the intelligence services that had been aiding the American mission.
The lack of a cooperative government partner in Yemen may hinder U.S. efforts — which include having a small presence of U.S. special operations forces to conduct missions and train local forces, and flying drones over Yemeni airspace to conduct surveillance and strike terrorist targets.
Pentagon officials say they are in “wait and see” mode when it comes to Yemen.
“We need to get a better understanding of where Yemen’s going before we can make any major muscle movement, changes or decisions about [counterterrorism] cooperation in Yemen,” Pentagon press secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said Friday.
“Given what happened yesterday, we’ve got to wait, take a look, watch this thing, monitor it before we make any major decisions going forward,” he added.
Thornberry also said the U.S. military had shifted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets (ISR) — such as surveillance drones — away from Yemen due to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria
“Yemen is the place from which the most serious threats against our homeland have emanated, and we still just have a limited amount of ISR available,” Thornberry said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said although the unrest in Yemen “has to be factored in” to future releases, Gitmo detainees being released are not being sent to Yemen. The administration recently sent four Yemeni detainees to Estonia and one to Oman.
Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Myles Caggins said the administration “thoroughly reviews all potential transfers, including information about possible detainee reengagement in terrorist activities” before clearing the detainees they release.
“We take any incidence of reengagement very seriously. And we work in close coordination through military, intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic channels to mitigate reengagement and to take follow-on action when necessary,” Caggins said.