Of the 166 detainees remaining at the US naval base at Guantanamo — where a prison camp holds detainees from the “war on terror” — 84 are from Yemen, and 56 of these have been cleared for release.
Despite this decision, they remain locked away because of a moratorium imposed after an Al-Qaeda affiliate with former detainees in its ranks launched a failed attack in 2009.
Last week, Yemen’s Al-Qaeda affiliate — Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — was once again in the news, when Washington issued a worldwide terror alert.
Washington closed some two-dozen embassies across the Middle East and Africa in response to what US officials said were intercepted communications indicating AQAP is planning a major attack.
In Guantanamo, the news caused a stir among the inmates, particularly the Yemenis, who fear the controversy could delay or derail their transfers back to their homeland.
A Jordanian-born translator who works with the detainees and goes by the name “Zak” said they were upset by reports that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had communicated with AQAP about plotting an attack.
“It’s not to their advantage,” he told AFP. “They say, ‘I wish he didn’t open his mouth… Why didn’t he just wait until we left?'”
“They have been very hopeful,” he added. “They have seen the announcement of two Algerians leaving.”
Rear Admiral Richard Butler, the new commander at Guantanamo, said he keeps a close eye on news from Yemen and the broader Middle East to see how it affects the detainees.
“When I hear news like that I think, what’s going to be the impact in Guantanamo Bay, in the camp, both for the detainees and especially for the men and women in the guard force,” he told AFP.
“The detainees, it affects them. We want to know how it affects them in terms of their behavior so we can keep the guard force aware as well.”
Butler confirmed preparations were under way for the transfer of the Algerians, but declined to give their names or the expected date of their transfer, citing official protocol.
Some 779 detainees have passed through the prison since it was established in early 2002 to hold terror suspects apprehended on foreign battlefields or handed over by other governments. Of those, 619 have been transferred to other countries.
The Pentagon estimates a 25 percent rate of recidivism, which has fueled resistance in the US Congress to the administration’s plans to eventually close the facility.
In May, US President Barack Obama said he would revisit the moratorium of the release of Yemeni suspects that was imposed after a failed plot to blow up a passenger plane in December 2009 by a man wearing explosives in his underwear.
The plot was traced back to AQAP, which has repeatedly tried to attack the US homeland.
Obama also renewed his four-year-old vow to close Guantanamo, which has been roiled by a hunger strike carried out by dozens of inmates to protest against their indefinite detention.
Yemen-based AQAP is seen by US officials as the most dangerous offshoot of the terror network founded by Osama bin Laden, and includes former Guantanamo detainees among its ranks.
AQAP is again in the news following the closure of the embassies, but David Remes, an attorney representing 15 Yemeni detainees, said they should not be made to suffer over the volatile situation in their homeland.
“The deteriorating security situation in Yemen is irrelevant to whether Yemeni detainees should be sent home,” he said.
“My own released clients returned to their loved ones, started families, and found jobs… It’s inhumane to keep these men locked up for fear of what others might do if released.”