Just days after President Obama renewed efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, he will meet with Yemeni President Rabby Mansour Hadi Thursday to discuss the possible release of Yemeni nationals detained there for nearly a decade.
Obama released two Algerian detainees last week to demonstrate his seriousness about closing the prison. But talks with Yemen will be more complicated, whose citizen account for about half of the detainees. Just as Obama was renewing his call to close Gitmo, Hadi was pardoning and releasing a Yemeni journalist with alleged al Qaeda ties who Obama personally lobbied to keep in prison.
"We are concerned and disappointed by the early release of Abd-Ilah al-Shai, who was sentenced by a Yemeni court to five years in prison for his involvement with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," NSC spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told the Washington Examiner.
Meehan declined to discuss the potential impact the release could have on talks between Obama and Hadi and the White House didn't mention the incident in announcing their meeting. The administration said only that the two leaders would discuss ways the U.S. can "enhance democratic governance and support economic development" in Yemen, and U.S. efforts to return Yemeni detainees at Gitmo to their own country.
There are 166 prisoners left at Guantanamo Bay, most of them Yemeni. Eighty-six prisoners have been cleared for transfer after languishing for years in the prison, but more than half of those initiated an on-going a hunger strike to draw attention to their uncertain fate.
Obama initiated his second attempt to close Guantanamo , senior administration officials said, because he gained new trust of the Yemeni government since President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had long appeased al Qaeda, stepped down and formally ceded power to Hadi following last year's civil uprising.
Obama stopped transferring detainees to Yemen after learning that a botched Christmas Day plot to blow up an airliner in 2009 was the work of a Nigerian militant ties to Yemen.
Christopher Swift, a professor of national security studies at Georgetown University and a fellow at University of Virginia Law School's Center for National Security Law, said Obama is treading lightly in his talks with Yemen because he understands that Hadi released the prisoner a week before his White House visit just to prove to his own people that "he is not a puppet of the U.S."
"I think it's important to see this from the Yemeni side," he said. "With their domestic politics right now, Hadi is engaged in a balancing act and has to deal with the opposition in the country that wants to do everything it can to stir things up."
The Obama administration is renewing relations with Yemen after determining that Hadi, unlike Saleh, is willing to take on al Qaeda. Hadi launched a counter-offensive in his home territory in southern Yemen, forcing al Qaeda operatives to retreat into the mountains, Swift noted. Hadi also willingly shares security and intelligence information with the U.S., radically improving relations between the two countries.
Despite that progress, Congress and U.S. intelligence agencies are wary that the new government is still too weak to restrain 56 repatriated detainees who may have become radicalized during their decade-long confinement and who might renew their terrorist activities once they return home.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is among those worried that Yemen is not stable enough yet to handle the detainees.
"Between December 2009 and today, has Yemen shown any indication that they're more capable of looking after those individuals? Absolutely not," he said. "If we were to transfer those individuals to Yemen, we'd be just like turning them loose."
Chambliss declined to comment on Obama's meeting with Hadi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., did not return calls seeking comment on the meeting.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, supports giving Obama flexibility to decide which detainees to release. He also supports continuing U.S. efforts to work with Middle Eastern leaders on counter-terrorism issues.
"To counter the global threat of terrorism, we must work with our partners across the globe, especially in the Middle East," Ruppersberger told the Examiner. "We also must support those nations looking to enhance democratic governance and regional stability."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who supported halting transfers to Yemen in 2010, contacted Obama's top national security adviser earlier this year asking if the U.S. could work with the new Yemeni president to develop "an appropriate framework" for the return of the detainees.
"Although [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] still has a strong presence in Yemen, I believe it would be prudent to re-visit the decision to halt transfers to Yemen and assess whether President Hadi's government, with appropriate assistance, would be able to securely hold detainees in Sana'a," she wrote at the time.