WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is in talks with Yemeni officials to set up a detention facility outside their capital to hold dozens of terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan, U.S. and Yemeni officials say.
The plan affects only Yemeni prisoners but is considered key to a renewed push by President Obama to close the prison camp built at the U.S. naval base in Cuba after the 2001 terrorist attacks, a vow he repeated this week. More than half of the 164 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are from Yemen.
“There’s a definite recognition that this needs to happen but if it’s not done right, the risks are very high,” said a U.S. official familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans are classified.
Yemeni officials have drawn up preliminary plans for the facility outside the capital, Sana, but final agreement may be months away. Deep disagreements remain on funding, and about whether it would function as another prison or as a halfway house for detainees to reenter society after years of confinement and isolation.
Details of the discussions are closely held because of political sensitivities in Washington and the U.S.-backed government in Yemen. The southern Arabian Peninsula nation is battling an insurgency by warring tribes backed by Islamist groups that has caused a sharp decline in security in recent months.
U.S. officials worry that Yemeni prisoners who are sent home may resume terrorist activities after being released, possibly by joining Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based terrorist offshoot that has repeatedly sought to bomb U.S. airliners and other Western targets.
Yemeni officials, in turn, don’t want to be seen helping Washington create an alternative to the unpopular prison at Guantanamo Bay. They warn that any U.S.-backed facility would create a target for attacks by Islamist militants, and thus would need heavy defenses.
In previously undisclosed talks held in Rome recently because of security risks in Yemen, they pressed U.S. and European officials for funding for construction and training guards and other staff members. The administration has brought Saudi Arabia into the talks as well in the hope it will pay for the project.
Detainees at the facility would undergo counseling, instruction in a peaceful form of Islam, and job training in Yemen before any decision on freeing them, U.S. officials said. The program would be modeled on a largely successful Saudi effort to reintegrate Islamic militants into society.
White House officials said they are working with the United Nations and other governments to assist Yemen with the project.
“We believe that the establishment of a credible, sustainable program would be an important step for the Yemeni government in bolstering their counter-terrorism capabilities,” Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said Wednesday.
Human rights activists warn that they will oppose the new facility if it means Yemenis who were imprisoned for years without being charged at Guantanamo Bay are merely shifted to serve indefinite detention at a new jail.
“I don’t think [it] should exist unless it’s an actual rehabilitation program,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counter-terrorism counsel with Human Rights Watch. “There’s no way I would find it acceptable for [returned Yemeni detainees] to be held against their will.”
Many of the Yemenis at Guantanamo have been held for more than a decade since their capture in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. At least two other Yemenis are in U.S. custody in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has designated 55 for transfer to Yemen, and 25 of those are considered low risk and approved for “immediate” hand over. The other 30 may be transferred if Yemen agrees to conditions aimed at ensuring they will not return to violence.
Yemen’s foreign minister, Abubakr Qirbi, acknowledged last month that his government plans to construct a facility for “rehabilitation” of Guantanamo Bay detainees, but he did not mention the U.S. involvement and portrayed the returning prisoners as nonviolent.
“We are currently planning to construct this facility and taking legal steps for the return of the 55 people who the U.S. has agreed to send home, those who do not pose a threat,” he said, according to Yemen’s official news agency. “A meeting of specialists from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the European Union was held to mull over the construction of the rehabilitation facility.”
U.S. officials have discussed building a Yemeni facility for several years. The idea took on new life after Obama vowed in May to renew efforts to close Guantanamo Bay and appointed special envoys at the State Department and Pentagon to make it happen.
Blocked by Congress from moving the terrorism suspects to prisons on U.S. soil, the administration has focused on reaching agreements with other governments to take their citizens home.
But most foreign governments say they will release the detainees because they have not been convicted of any crime. That creates a political problem for the White House since some Republicans have blocked efforts to send detainees back to their own countries.
Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, privately offered to pay for the project when he met with Obama at the White House in August, according to a Yemeni official who discussed the talks on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. But Yemen has since rescinded that offer, citing a severe budget shortfall at home, officials of both countries said.
U.S. officials insist that they cannot pay for the project either. They say Republicans in Congress, many of whom oppose closing Guantanamo, will not appropriate money to build a separate facility in Yemen. Nor is it possible to guarantee that the prison meets U.S. standards without American personnel there, which officials rule out.
“You put something like this up and you are responsible for it,” said a U.S. official.