Why Flight 253 Could Delay Guantánamo's Closure

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John Moore / Getty

A U.S. military guard watches over detainees on Guantánamo Bay

It is a nefarious kind of 21st century recycling — freeing terrorists from the prison at Guantánamo Bay so they can return home and plot new strikes on America. That's just what happened to Saeed Ali Shehri. A Saudi national freed for unspecified reasons from the America's Cuba-based lockup in 2007, he returned home, underwent a Saudi rehabilitation program — apparently with his fingers crossed — and has ended up as the second-ranking leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). From there, it appears his organization helped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab plot his failed Christmas bombing of Northwest Flight 253.

Shortly after taking office, President Obama said he would close Guantánamo Bay within a year. He's not going to make that deadline, and the fact that nearly half of Guantánamo's remaining 200 detainees are from Yemen could delay the shutdown even longer. His plan relies on shipping most of those detainees back to their home countries, with a smaller number headed to a prison in Thomson, Ill.

Yemen is plainly becoming an al-Qaeda hotbed. In addition to Shehri, radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki — the Yemeni-based, American-raised cyber pen pal of Army Major Nidal Hasan who is accused of killing 13 Army personnel at Fort Hood in November — is now living in Yemen and may have been in contact with Abdulmutallab. The chief religious adviser of the Yemeni-based AQAP — Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish — also did time at Guantánamo. "The President's continual release of Guantánamo Bay detainees presents an unacceptable risk to American lives," said retired U.S. Navy commander Kirk Lippold, who was captain of the U.S.S. Cole when a pair of al-Qaeda operatives blew up their skiff alongside it, killing 17 of Lippold's crew in 2000. "We cannot rely on so-called reform camps in places like Saudi Arabia to prevent terrorists from striking again."

The senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee has joined many of her GOP colleagues in saying such transfers need to be suspended. "Guantánamo detainees should not be released to Yemen at this time," Senator Dianne Feinstein said. "It is too unstable." But the White House shows no sign of changing course. "We're confident that any transfers that we're making are being made not only consistent with our national-security interests," a senior Administration official told reporters on Dec. 29, "but also consistent with what we consider to be a fundamental national-security interest in closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay."

During his presidential campaign, Obama criticized Guantánamo as little more than terrorist advertising. The senior Administration official echoed that refrain, saying al-Qaeda has recently used Guantánamo as one of its "recruiting and motivational tools." Because of its notorious reputation, he said, it should be closed as quickly as possible. Critics counter that sending detainees back home — especially to poorer nations like Yemen (where unemployment hovers around 40%) — could allow them to attack again, especially if they were radicalized during their Guantánamo stay. And they maintain that sending such detainees to the Illinois prison — no matter how secure — will make it a tempting target for terrorists. Meanwhile, more than 560 detainees have cycled through Guantánamo and been sent to the custody of other governments.

On Dec. 20, the Justice Department said it had transferred six detainees to their native Yemen after a "comprehensive review" of the threats they posed. The State Department, responding to a law passed this year, sent a classified notice about each of the detainees to Congress 15 days before they were slated to be transferred. Among them were several whose cases had received some attention in the controversy over detainees at Guantánamo: Jamal Muhammad Alawi Mari, who was captured in Karachi, Pakistan where was the head of a local charity with alleged al-Qaeda links; Farouq Ali Ahmed, who had traveled to Afghanistan to teach children the Koran and was arrested without a passport in Pakistan; and Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi, a doctor who treated al-Qaeda fighters at the battle of Tora Bora and met Osama bin Laden briefly.