The collapse of the Yemeni government, whose president tendered his resignation Thursday after a days-long siege on his residence, poses a challenge to a number of President Obama's priorities in the Middle East, among them a drone program that relied on the Yemenis' cooperation to carry out hundreds of strikes in the country.
But the turmoil in Yemen also throws a wrench in a longtime campaign promise Obama is still trying to fulfill: closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Because of the political situation in Yemen, the 79 Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo Bay would either have to stay there or be resettled elsewhere. But getting countries other than the detainee's country of origin to accept detainees can be difficult, says Alka Pradhan, an attorney with Reprieve U.S., who represents Guantanamo Bay detainees.
"Picture how this looks to them," she said. "The U.S. government approaches a random country and says, 'Hey, would you like to take a couple of Yemeni detainees who've been at Guantanamo for 13 years?'"
In the context of recent terrorism events, accepting detainees may not be a particularly welcome proposition for a third country. "The immediate association is that the U.S. government is trying to push terrorists on the rest of the world," Pradhan says.
The U.S. government is still looking for places they can send detainees approved for transfer, a State Department official said. "While our policy preference is to repatriate detainees where we can do so consistent with our national security and humane treatment policies, under certain circumstances the most viable transfer option is resettlement in a third country," the official said Sunday night.
One of the most harmful pieces of misinformation about detainees is the prevalence of misleading recidivism statistics, says Scott Roehm, senior counsel and national security expert at the Constitution Project, a think tank focused on constitutional law and criminal justice.
At least twice a year, the Director of National Intelligence releases a report detailing the number of former detainees who have reengaged in terrorist activities after their release. The most recent report shows that 6.8 percent of detainees released since Obama took office in 2009 are confirmed of reengaging.
Many, however, cite the same report to show that detainees have a 30 percent recidivism rate. That's the rate for detainees suspected of or confirmed of reengaging in terrorist activities in the history of all transfers from the detention facility. Roehm says it's not fair to include the detainees suspected of reengaging in the total, and that the focus should be on transfers since 2009, when more stringent standards were put into place.
Despite the patchy information about detainees and the backdrop of events in Europe and Yemen, securing transfers to third countries is still possible. Earlier this month, Oman took in four Yemeni detainees and Estonia accepted a fifth.
Roehm says the security situation in Yemen is a definite speed bump but that it won't ultimately get in the way of closing the prison. "I think the administration is committed to closing Guantanamo in the next two years and it's going to absolutely close Guantanamo in the next two years," Roehm says.
But Pradhan is much less optimistic. "Following the Paris attacks and following now the fall of Yemen," she says, "I think it's just getting that much harder to convince countries to take what they see as our problem and make it theirs."
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