Reporting from Washington — Yemen's emergence as a center for Al Qaeda activity has added another complication to the Obama administration's plan to close the U.S. military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Yemenis make up the largest bloc of the remaining detainees. This month, six men from that country were sent home, and their lawyers expected that up to 40 more could soon be released from Guantanamo.
Now that an Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen has claimed to be behind the attempted bombing of an airline flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day, however, the lawyers fear the administration will block further releases.
"I feel like my two clients who left in mid-December have gotten the last train out," said Washington lawyer David Remes, who has represented a large group of Yemenis. "When I was there [at Guantanamo] a few weeks ago, we were encouraged that another group would be going home soon."
On Tuesday, Republican lawmakers and former George W. Bush administration officials warned the White House against releasing more Yemenis.
"I implore you again to immediately halt these releases . . . of additional detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Yemen and other dangerously unstable countries," Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said in a letter to President Obama.
"Yemen is emerging as a well-organized terror hub in a struggling state, reminiscent of Afghanistan before 9/11," said Stewart Baker, a former top official of the Homeland Security Department under Bush. "We don't want to send nearly 100 people back there only to discover them getting on transatlantic flights with fake documents."
About 200 prisoners remain at Guantanamo, including 88 Yemenis. In previous years, the largest number of detainees were from Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, but most of them were released during the Bush administration. By contrast, few Yemenis were released.
The Yemen government "had no capacity to keep these guys. You would be returning them to a lawless country," said Charles Stimson, a former Defense Department lawyer.
In 2007, Saeed Ali Shahri, a Saudi national, was sent home from Guantanamo. He now is second in command to militant leader Naser Abdel-Karim Wahishi, a Yemeni with ties to Osama bin Laden. According to a U.S. counter-terrorism official, Shahri and another former detainee, Mohammed al Harbi, are members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
This year, the Obama administration conducted a case-by-case review of the Guantanamo detainees and decided that a handful of Yemenis could be safely released.
A White House official on Tuesday stressed the need to close Guantanamo, but denied that more of the Yemenis were due to be released.
"Guantanamo has been used by Al Qaeda as a rallying cry and a recruiting tool. As our military leaders have recognized, closing the detention facility at Guantanamo is a national security imperative," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing administration plans. "We have worked cooperatively with the government of Yemen to ensure that all appropriate security measures are taken when detainees are transferred."
The administration would like to transfer some of the Yemeni detainees to Saudi Arabia, but the Yemen government has balked.
"We want them back," a senior Yemen official said. "We always thought Yemen is the best place for them. We don't want them anywhere else."
Josh Meyer in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.