Commentary: Abdulmutallab’s arrest sealed fate of Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo


One of the forgotten chapters in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is what happened to the Yemeni detainees approved for release from Guantanamo. 

Abdulmutallab, known as the “underwear bomber,” was recruited and trained by Al Qaeda in Yemen to carry out the Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253 in 2009. The arrest of the then 22-year-old Nigerian man ignited a political firestorm that forestalled the release of 59 Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo.

Read more: “Underwear bomber” sentenced to life in prison

Bowing to political pressure, President Barack Obama issued a moratorium blocking the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen until the “security situation improves.” Yemen, a U.S. ally in the Middle East, has been long besieged by poverty, human rights abuses, and political instability. Consequently, Al Qaeda has been able to establish a strong foothold in the country since the 1990s.

Following the President’s moratorium, the 59 Yemeni detainees have remained imprisoned in Guantanamo even though they have been unanimously cleared for release by six U.S. agencies – the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The detainees approved for transfer were mostly unskilled, low-level Al Qaeda or Taliban recruits captured by Northern Alliance and Pakistani forces at a time when the U.S. offered bounties for suspected terrorists.

“So the Yemenis are stuck and we need to be able to say, ‘This is not acceptable not to release anyone to Yemen that the U.S. government doesn’t want to hold because there’s some other unrelated incident involving a man who’s Nigerian but was recruited in Yemen. That doesn’t make sense.’ That is guilt by nationality…I think people would find that extremely unfair and should find that extremely unfair,” said Andy Worthington, an independent journalist and author of the “Guantanamo Files.”

To illustrate the unjust treatment of the Yemeni detainees, Worthington offered this analogy: “Let’s say that within the U.S. prison system somebody is released from prison to Colorado and commits a crime. And the lawmakers of this country get together and say, ‘In the future, no one must ever be released to the state of Colorado because of this one criminal’… I think if that were to happen in the United States, people would understand that that was deeply unfair. But it’s one of these things that has happened with the way that hysteria has built up about Guantanamo.”

Even if the security situation improves in Yemen, it is highly unlikely that the 59 Yemeni detainees will be transferred out of Guantanamo due to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. The law, signed by President Obama in late December, requires the U.S. government to guarantee zero recidivism for detainees released from Guantanamo. That is an impossible standard to meet even in the U.S. where the recidivism rate of American parolees is between 60% to 70%. As Worthington pointed out, the only practical way to ensure zero recidivism is to lock up the detainees in Guantanamo forever.

“What it’s about is preventive detention… to indefinitely detain people who haven’t committed crimes but who might,” said Worthington. “That is alarming.”

Sadly, in this case, Abdulmutallab – the real Al Qaeda terrorist – received a fairer and more just treatment than the Yemeni detainees. At the very least, Abdulmutallab had the opportunity to stand trial and respond to the charges against him in federal court. He was sentenced to life in prison after he pled guilty to all charges. Meanwhile, the 59 Yemeni detainees cleared for release are serving a de-facto life sentence in Guantanamo without charge or trial.


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4 Comments on “Commentary: Abdulmutallab’s arrest sealed fate of Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo

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