Yemenis in Guantánamo are Victims of Hysteria


Map of YemenThe following article, published on Nieman Watchdog, began as an email Q&A with Dan Froomkin, but after seeing my responses, Dan very kindly reworked it as a stand-alone article. As a contribution to the unprecedented fearmongering right now (focused on Yemen), it provides details about the Yemenis still held at Guantánamo, and it also gave me the opportunity to highlight how the alleged terrorists in Yemen (purportedly connected to the failed plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) are Saudis released, ill-advisedly, by George W. Bush, and have nothing to do with the Yemenis in Guantánamo who have been cleared for release.

The Christmas Day attempted bombing of an American airliner had nothing directly to do with the Yemeni detainees cleared for release from Guantánamo, writes journalist Andy Worthington, who has exhaustively chronicled the stories of those held in the island prison. And by capitulation to the unprincipled fearmongering following the Christmas bomb plot, the Obama administration is playing into the hands of those whose only wish is to keep Guantánamo open forever.

Throughout 2009, the interagency task force President Obama established by executive order on January 22, 2009, has been reviewing the cases of all the detainees being held at Guantánamo in order to determine who should be prosecuted and who should be released.

There are currently 198 prisoners still being held, 86 of whom — or 43 percent — are from Yemen.

In October, the Task Force reported that 78 prisoners had been cleared for release, including 27 Yemenis, and last month the total number of prisoners cleared had been revised upwards to 116, indicating that 40 to 45 Yemenis had been cleared (the administration did not provide exact figures this time around).

One of these men, Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, a student seized in a Pakistani guest house whose release had been ordered by a District Court judge in May, after she granted his habeas corpus petition, was released in October, and six more men were released the week before Christmas.

Then, on Christmas Day, a Nigerian man named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried but failed to blow up a plane bound for Detroit by setting off a bomb concealed in his underwear.

Initial reports suggested that Abdulmutallab had connections with an al-Qaeda-inspired group in Yemen, which included prisoners released from Guantánamo. And that was enough for critics of Obama’s decision to close the prison to demand that no more Yemenis should be released.

Although Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan mounted a solid defense of the administration’s plans last weekend, on Tuesday the White House succumbed to continuing criticism and announced that no more transfers to Yemen would take place until some unspecified point in the future.

The problem with the argument that new information precludes their release is that none of it has anything to do with men who have been held in Guantánamo for the past eight years, entirely out of circulation, and obviously with no links to any terrorist group that has emerged in recent years. Moreover, the Obama administration has been reviewing the cases of the Yemenis in Guantánamo with some diligence, and had no intention of releasing men who might pose a danger. It has also been coordinating its efforts with the Yemeni government.

Furthermore, conclusions are being reached based, at least initially, on a poorly researched ABC News report, which indicated that two former prisoners had assumed leadership positions in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group that claimed responsibility for the failed attack. However, these connections have not been verified, and, moreover, one of the two former prisoners identified by ABC News had actually handed himself in to the Yemeni authorities in February last year, long before Abdulmutallab arrived in Yemen.

Indeed, what’s actually significant about these new developments is how the nationality of these men and who was responsible for releasing them in the first place have been overlooked in all the hysteria. The fact that these men were Saudis, and not Yemenis, has, rather shamefully, been ignored by the lawmakers and pundits calling for an end to the Yemeni transfers. Even more damning is the fact that they — and a handful of other released Saudis who are reportedly associated with terrorism — were released not by President Obama but by George W. Bush, after military review boards in which representatives of the intelligence services concluded that they should not be released, because they still posed a threat to the US.

The inescapable conclusion from all this is that the refusal to release any more Yemeni prisoners, whose cases have been studied in depth by numerous government representatives, represents nothing less than a capitulation to the most dismal kind of hysteria.

One of the most astonishing arguments in this entire debate has been that Guantánamo inmates such as these Yemenis, even if they were innocent to begin with, have been radicalized by their false imprisonment and brutal treatment and are now dangers to the US. But this kind of thinking must be vigorously countered.

Back in October, when the administration was attempting not to release Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed — despite a judge ordering his release — officials told the New York Times, “Even if Mr. Ahmed was not dangerous in 2002 … Guantánamo itself might have radicalized him, exposing him to militants and embittering him against the United States.”

But as I argued at the time, only at Guantánamo can fear trump justice to such an alarming degree. If the rationale for not releasing any of the Yemenis from Guantánamo was extended to the US prison system, for instance, it would mean that no prisoner would ever be released at the end of their sentence. It would also, of course, lead to no prisoner ever being released from Guantánamo.

If prisoners are not going to be released, despite being cleared by Obama’s own Task Force (and, in some cases, by the US courts), the entire system is revealed as a mockery of justice. And in its capitulation to the unprincipled fearmongering following the failed Christmas bomb plot, it seems to me that the Obama administration has played into the hands of those whose only wish is to keep Guantánamo open forever.


86 of the remaining 198 prisoners are Yemeni (that’s 43 percent). In common with the rest of the prisoners — and in contrast to the Bush administration’s claims that they were “the worst of the worst” and were all “captured on the battlefield” — they were seized in a variety of locations.

Around 22 were seized in Afghanistan, another 35 were seized crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan in December 2001, 25 were seized between February and September 2002 in house raids in Pakistan (including Ramzi bin al-Shibh, one of the alleged 9/11 plotters), and four were seized in other countries — Egypt, Georgia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Like two of the prisoners seized in Pakistan, including bin al-Shibh, these four were held in a number of secret prisons before their transfer to Guantánamo.

Ascertaining what these men were doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains a challenge. Some, encouraged by fatwas issued in their homeland, had traveled to Afghanistan to help the Taliban establish what was described as a “pure Islamic state.” This involved helping the Taliban defeat their enemies (the Northern Alliance) in an inter-Muslim civil war that began many years before the 9/11 attacks and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. Others, however, had traveled for other reasons: to teach the Koran, or to provide humanitarian aid, and, in the cases of those who had traveled to Pakistan, some were students or were visiting in search of cheap medical treatment. Few are accused of any direct involvement in terrorism.

Part of the problem is that the Bush administration deliberately confused a war (against the Taliban) with the attempt to destroy al-Qaeda (a terrorist organization), holding everyone seized as “enemy combatants.” Instead, those accused of aiding the Taliban should have been held as prisoners of war, and protected by the Geneva Conventions, and those accused of aiding al-Qaeda should have been held as criminal suspects and put forward for federal court trials, as happened with Ramzi Yousef, the original World Trade Center bomber, the 1998 African embassy bombers, the shoe bomber Richard Reid, and the would-be 9/11 hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui.

It did not help that the majority of the prisoners (86 percent at least) were seized not by US forces, but by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, at a time when bounty payments, averaging $5,000 a head, were widespread, as researchers at the Seton Hall Law School demonstrated in 2006 (PDF), through an analysis of the Pentagon’s own allegations.

Nor did it help that, despite the US military’s intentions, none of the prisoners received competent tribunals under Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions. Held close to the time and place of capture, and used in every war from Vietnam onwards, the tribunals were designed to allow prisoners whose status was in doubt (because they were not wearing uniforms, for example, or did not have a regular command structure) to call witnesses, to establish whether they were combatants or civilians caught by mistake. In the first Gulf War, 1,196 hearings were held, and 886 men were released. In Afghanistan, however, the need for tribunals was dismissed by the administration, with the result that, in the words of Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, the commander of Guantánamo in 2002, the prison began filling up with “Mickey Mouse prisoners,” who had no involvement whatsoever with terrorism.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Cross-posted on Common Dreams.

17 Responses

  1. Guantánamo and Yemen: Obama Capitulates to Critics and Suspends Prisoner Transfers by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Yemenis in Guantánamo are Victims of Hysteria | Andy Worthington […]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are a few comments from Common Dreams:

    jlocke123 wrote:

    -“on Tuesday the White House succumbed to continuing criticism and announced that no more transfers to Yemen would take place until some unspecified point in the future.”

    Yes whenever Obama defies the courts and the constitution, it is not his own will, he merely “succumbed”. Funny how he never succumbs to pressure to do the right thing, like give you universal healthcare and an end to the Iraq occupation.

    And once again he “succumbs” in violation of a court order to release the innocent victims. Why do courts bother ordering the freedom of prisoners, if the government can ignore the orders with impunity?

    Additionally, it must be added that Guantanamo, as disgusting a blight on humanity as it is, is merely now just one of a chain of secret and not so secret torture camps that Americans maintain around the world. People are kidnapped by Blackwater and CIA employees and shipped in chains to Afghanistan, eastern Europe and the Middle-East.

    And the point Democrats and Republicans make about how you cannot release innocent prisoners because their years of solitary confinement and torture at the hands of Bush and Obama may have made them angry enough to seek revenge, that argument is beneath contempt.

    Soon Guantanamo may be re-located to Illinois but it will continue to be emblematic of America’s disdain for simple justice and human-rights.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    kcg_nc wrote:

    Did I get this right?

    Bush released from Gitmo despite intel objection Saudis now plotting in Yemen to destroy US airplanes using Nigerian dupes, so Yemenis cleared for release get to stay in Gitmo until the lamb lies down with the lion.

    Umm, huh…..?

    I blame it on Willie Horton!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Oval12345678 wrote:

    Onward, Imperial America, raining terror down on citizens of third world countries for one hundred and twelve years now. Since 1898, millions murdered by US military in search for higher US corporate profits. Obama promised us “change.” He just didn’t bother to tell us that he was going to make things worse… Obama: corporatist at home; imperialist abroad. Heck of job, Barack…

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    NC-Tom wrote:

    All this terrorism hysteria kind of flies in the face of that whole “Land of the Brave” stuff, huh? And what the hell happened to “We have nothing to fear but fear itself!”

    How far the eagle has fallen…

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    And abuelo added:

    Oh yes, but we have been the land of the scared, home of the crybabies for the last 8 years.

    Fear itself. funny how that sounds now. Quaint even. like the constitution, like international law.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Progressive101 wrote:

    Article brings up a good point. Too bad MSM doesn’t make the connection and report on it.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    abuelo also wrote:

    Great piece by Andy Worthington, ace chronicler of gitmo detainees stories.
    The practice of rounding up and imprisoning great masses of innocent civilians and holding them forever without charges or rights of any kind is as puzzling as it is infuriating. All the people involved in doing this talk such astounding flights of tortured logic and unreasoning. And what is it for anyway? Yeah i spose it helps alarm the public, keep them scared, but who really needs a still more frightened citizenry? Plus nobody but a very select few people have any idea this is going on — I mean the greater gulag — all the prisons, known and secret, all the renditions — what is all this really for? It’s been going on since like days after the bombs first dropped on Afghanistan. And it has always been completely insane.

    Please visit Andy on the web, and

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    And Jill replied to jlocke123:


    Exactly. Obama is succumbing to nothing. He is doing exactly what he planned to do. The sooner progressives and liberals will admit to this, the more quickly we can gather the necessary numbers to resist such injustice. We need, large scale, peaceful protests such as a general strike. These types of articles obscure the fact that Obama has agency. He isn’t a victim, he’s the president. If he wanted to do something differently, he would fight to do it.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Some great comments there. I’d only add that keeping citizens in a state of fear makes them forget to look at what the government is doing to indulge its desire for control, undoing safeguards against tyranny that took hundreds of years to fight for, and to note that I’m not entirely convinced that Obama is doing “exactly what he planned to do.” He’s no peacemonger, that’s for sure, but many of his actions are dictated by cowardice, and a refusal to stand up to rightwing critics (and some critics in his own party). It’s the typical spinelessness of Democrats, and it’s depressing that the only people prepared to stand up for principles are John Brennan (at the weekend, just before Obama caved in) and White House counsel Greg Craig, who got sidelined for “pragmatic” reasons after doing his utmost to dismantle and repudiate the Bush-era crimes:

  11. On Democracy Now! Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo, Yemen, Lies, Hysteria and the False Recidivism Report « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Christmas), Guantánamo and Yemen: Obama Capitulates to Critics and Suspends Prisoner Transfers, Yemenis in Guantánamo are Victims of Hysteria and Guantánamo Recidivism: Mainstream Media Parrot Pentagon Propaganda (Again) — but was […]

  12. The Liberty Voice » Web-Only Content » “On Democracy Now! Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo, Yemen, Lies, Hysteria and the False Recidivism Report” says...

    […] Christmas), Guantánamo and Yemen: Obama Capitulates to Critics and Suspends Prisoner Transfers, Yemenis in Guantánamo are Victims of Hysteria and Guantánamo Recidivism: Mainstream Media Parrot Pentagon Propaganda (Again) — but was […]

  13. Happy 8th Birthday Gitmo: an interview with watchdog Andy Worthington « Pluto Press – Independent Progressive Publishing says...

    […] had engaged in terrorist activities. You wrote a number of articles about these topics (see here, here and here, and also discussed them on Democracy Now! on Friday, and I was hoping in this interview […]

  14. Does Obama Really Know or Care About Who Is at Guantánamo? « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] eight years had — or would have — any connection to a recent al-Qaeda offshoot in Yemen, which apparently involved a handful of Saudi ex-prisoners (not Yemenis), whose release in 2006 and 2007 had, moreover, been […]

  15. Gonzalo Gato Villegas » Blog Archive » ¿Sabe realmente Obama, le preocupa acaso, quién sigue en Guantánamo? says...

    […] alguna con la reciente aparición de una rama de al-Qaida en el Yemen, en la que al parecer había implicados un puñado de ex prisioneros saudíes (no yemeníes), cuya liberación en 2006 y en 2007 fue […]

  16. ¿Sabe realmente Obama, le preocupa acaso, quién sigue en Guantánamo? | Amauta says...

    […] alguna con la reciente aparición de una rama de al-Qaida en el Yemen, en la que al parecer había implicados un puñado de ex prisioneros saudíes (no yemeníes), cuya liberación en 2006 y en 2007 fue […]

  17. Appeals Court Extends President’s Wartime Powers, Limits Guantánamo Prisoners’ Rights by Andy Worthington – Dandelion Salad says...

    […] of uncertainty to the prisoners’ future, in a week that was notorious for a barrage of lies and misinformation, and a promise by President Obama that he was freezing the release of all Yemeni prisoners until […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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