The CIA deputy director coordinated with Yemen’s president Thursday on fighting al-Qaeda and also discussed the fate of some 100 Yemeni detainees locked up in Guantanamo Bay.
Stephen Kappes made an unannounced visit to the country to meet President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz, about 170 miles south of the capital San’a. Saleh’s office said they discussed security cooperation and combating terrorism.
The impoverished country on the tip of the Arabian peninsula, a U.S. partner in the fight against terrorism, has re-emerged as a potential base for al-Qaeda. Two Saudi former Guantanamo detainees are believed to be leading Yemen’s branch of al-Qaeda.
The country has also been rocked by a recent flare-up of violence in the south, where separatist sentiment is mounting against the central government. Southerners accuse the central government of marginalization. The north and south fought a civil war in 1994.
Kappes and Saleh also talked about the fate of the Yemeni prisoners in Guantanamo, said security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
President Barack Obama wants to close Guantanamo, a Navy detention center that houses suspected terrorists. But the discussions over where to send the Yemeni detainees have delayed plans to close it.
The Yemenis are the largest national group among the 241 detainees still at the prison. Obama’s administration has been negotiating with Saudi Arabia and Yemen for months to send them to Saudi terrorist rehabilitation centers.
Earlier this month, Obama spoke directly with the president of Yemen about the detainees and also discussed how their countries could work together on counterterrorism policy.
Saleh has resisted the idea of sending the detainees to Saudi Arabia, saying his country would set up its own rehabilitation centers. But his office said Thursday he is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia on Sund ay for talks on security issues and other matters.
U.S. officials have made a strong push for Yemen to endorse the Saudi plan, which would reduce the number of detainees that would be relocated to the United States. Senior security official John Brennan visited Yemen in March. Defense Secretary Robert Gates discussed the plan with Saudi officials during a recent trip.
Gates at the time said that Saleh could be “reluctant to speak out openly and say that this would be a good idea, in part because he may feel that it reflects an inability in Yemen to handle the problem.”
Few dispute that Saudi Arabia has one of the most successful jihadist rehabilitation programs in the world. Thousands of extremists, including Guantanamo detainees, have received job training, psychological therapy and religious re-education before being sent back to society. The vast majority have not rejoined the fight, according to Saudi officials and terrorism experts.
Yet some have. In an embarras sing episode for the kingdom, Saudi officials announced in February that 11 former Guantanamo detainees who went through the rehab program are now on its government’s most wanted terrorist list for their connections to al-Qaeda. Among them is Said Ali al-Shihri, who emerged as a leader of Yemen’s branch of al-Qaeda after being released from the Saudi program a year ago.
And the U.S.-Yemeni relationship has other problems as well.
Yemen infuriated the United States in 2007 by releasing Jamal al-Badawi, the convicted mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing that killed 17 American sailors. Al-Badawi was set free after turning himself in and pledging loyalty to Saleh. He has since been taken back into custody after pressure from Washington.
Kirk Lippold, who commanded the USS Cole when it was attacked, has sharply criticized the plan to turn the detainees over to either Yemen or Saudi Arabia as an unacceptable compromise to U.S. national security. He said Yemen has proved to be an untrustworthy and unreliable partner in the war on terror.