SANAA, Yemen — Al Qaeda is flexing its muscles in Yemen.
The al Qaeda offshoot here, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has in the last few weeks staged a series of high-profile attacks, freed suspected militants from security offices and targeted oil employees and police forces.
Accompanying the violence has been a well-organized propaganda campaign, complete with slick online sermons glorifying their deeds.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Cuba, the prison at Guantanamo Bay is still open and home to about 180 prisoners, many of them Yemeni, long after the January 2010 date set by U.S. President Barack Obama for its closure.
While the prison is a long way from the broiling shores of Yemen, the answer to its continuing existence lies here. With Yemen so volatile, U.S. officials are reluctant to repatriate Yemenis at Guantanamo Bay, even the ones that have been deemed a non-threat.
In Yemen, Al Qaeda is a growing force, swelled by fighters pushed out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Taking advantage of the tribal structures in areas of the country that remain weak with government oversight, the militants are, in addition to their recent bloodshed, attempting larger operations, one of which the world witnessed on Christmas Day last year.
After Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner in December, the world’s attention swiveled to Yemen, where the Nigerian student had spent time, and, according to American authorities, had fallen under the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Yemeni cleric.
The group’s increasingly daring attacks — a suicide bomber in January tried to kill the British ambassador — have become a cause of global concern, and the flailing Yemeni government’s inability to monitor former Guantanamo detainees here — two are now leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen — has prompted a swift moratorium on repatriating any more Yemeni prisoners.
This was despite a recommendation of a U.S. military task force that more than 30 Yemeni detainees pose no threat and should be released. More than half of Guantanamo’s prisoners are Yemenis and the moratorium is the single biggest obstacle to the closure of the prison.
“They are concerned that if these people come back, they will rejoin Al Qaeda,” said Muhammad Naji Allawo, a human rights lawyer in Sanaa who works on behalf of the detainees. “They want the Yemeni government to keep them in jail as long as possible to make sure they don’t join … but it has been proved that many are not al Qaeda members.”
One Yemeni detainee, Muhammad Odaini, was released this month from Guantanamo Bay after intense judicial and media pressure on the Obama administration. But even as it announced Odaini’s transfer, the Department of Defense issued a statement saying, “The suspension of Yemeni repatriations from Guantanamo remains in effect due to the security situation that exists there.”
Analysts concur that the situation is indeed a cause for concern. Saeed Obaid al Jemhi, founder of Al-Jemhi Centre for Research and Study, a Yemen-based think tank addressing regional terrorism, said, “they have become really strong. With all the attacks they have made, you can compare them with the groups in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
The actual number of fighters in the group is the subject of some speculation. Western diplomatic sources put the figure in the hundreds.
“There are not less that 2,000 and not more than 3,000. Just 500 are fighters and the rest are for logistical support,” Jemhi said.
However, he also said support and sympathy for the group is growing, especially in rural areas, where the group preys on some of the most disenfranchised people in the Arab world. Yemeni militants often cite government corruption as a reason to join the fight, an issue most people here can relate to.
The young men, Jemhi said, are often influenced by the hardline Islamic doctrine of Salafism, and are susceptible to the religious message of Al Qaeda.
Even some Yemeni media have become sympathetic to the Islamist movement, he said.
“From my observation, some television presenters say that Al Qaeda operations are good things, especially when they make an operation against the foreign people,” he said.
Although Yemenis are generally welcoming toward individual foreigners, growing antipathy to foreign interference, particularly from the United States, is fueling concerns about the radicalization of young people.
All of this was aggravated in May by the accidental death of the deputy governor of Maarib Province in what was meant to be a targeted assassination of a militant. Although U.S. forces have never officially confirmed their involvement, the death was universally blamed on America.
The continuing detention of about 90 Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo Bay has become part of a vicious circle of radicalism. The Al Qaeda group here cites the imprisonment without charge of Yemenis as one of the driving forces behind their attacks.
It’s a view that is shared by even those in Yemen’s mainstream.
“Their dignity should be preserved,” Allawo said. “They should not be subjected to emergency trial, should not be tortured or subjected to inhuman treatment, their punishment should be decided by a judge.”
Muhammad Odaini’s brother, Bashir, a recently released detainee, said the prison is having the opposite effect it should and is making the security situation worse in Yemen.
“If you keep the bad people, it is better for everything, even us,” he said. “[But] if you keep arresting innocent people, you keep making bad feeling — and it is increasing.”