Detroit Terror Attempt Impacts Gitmo Plans


Politico‘s Josh Gernstein notes that revelations of Yemen’s connection to the failed Detroit terror plot will further complicate President Obama’s plans to move prisoners from the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

“I’d expect Yemen’s handling of returned Guantanamo detainees to come under intense U.S. scrutiny,” said Matthew Waxman, a Columbia law professor who was an assistant Defense secretary for detainee affairs under President George W. Bush. “In the past, the Yemeni government has not shown great capacity or reliability, but the U.S. hopes to build a stronger partnership and improve that record, in part because it has few other options in this important region.”

The White House had no comment on how Abdulmutallab’s history might impact future prisoner releases or official dealings with Yemen. However, U.S. officials have worked intensely in recent months to support the government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and to obtain assurances that Yemenis returned home would not take part in violence.

On the same day Abdulmutallab allegedly boarded a flight in Nigeria bound for Amsterdam and then Detroit, Yemeni fighter planes attacked an alleged Al Qaeda compound in southern Yemen. According to the Yemeni government, one apparent target of the strike was Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American cleric who reportedly had links to the U.S. Army officer who allegedly killed 13 people in a shooting spree at a Texas base last month, Maj. Malik Hasan. It is unclear whether Al-Awlaki was killed in the strike.

In September, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, visited Yemen to press for greater action against Al Qaeda and discuss logistical issues surrounding prisoner releases. And earlier this month, Obama telephoned Saleh to praise him for recent raids against Al Qaeda and for the nation’s overall cooperation with the U.S. in counterterrorism efforts, U.S. and Yemeni officials said.

While the White House maintains that it is pressing Yemen on both the Al Qaeda and prisoner issues, Hoekstra said the issue of emptying out Guantanamo seems to have priority. “The president appears single-mindely focused on closing Guantanamo. He spends more time and energy on closing Guantanamo than on any of the other issues,” said the Michigan Republican.

One expert on Yemen said the danger it poses to the U.S. has the potential to grow, regardless of whether Guantanamo prisoners are sent there. “While people say it’s a haven for Al Qaeda, they do not have the kind of cover they had in Afghanistan. The Yemeni military doesn’t like them,” said Charles Schmitz, a geography professor at Towson University in Maryland. “You have a government that’s kind of teetering — That doesn’t have a whole lot of legitimacy….There’s civil disobedience in the south and the Army is basically losing a war in the north. You do have places where they could set up and basically hatch their little plans.”

If not Yemen, it’d be somewhere else.  Most of the 192 member-states of the United Nations are underdeveloped and run by fragile governments.   And the weak states are disproportionately sympathetic to Islamists.

My guess is that we’ll just ship more of these people to Gitmo East in Illinois rather than deporting them to their home countries, where some number will inevitably head straight for the nearest al Qaeda training facility.  Why indefinite detention there solves any of the objections to doing so at Gitmo is unclear, aside from not having the stigma that’s come to be associated with the name.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    “Why indefinite detention there solves any of the objections to doing so at Gitmo is unclear, aside from not having the stigma that’s come to be associated with the name.”

    Good point, but just goes to show what an untenable position the Bush administration put us in when it comes to these guys.

    It’s also why I think the “new” method of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration (which is the old pre-Bush method, really) is the best way of dealing with these terrorists.

    Invading countries and scooping up “enemy combatants” with no clear plan (or intent) to do anything else with them is just folly.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Herb, indefinite detention has been a feature of wars long before the Bush II administration. And using Gitmo to detain people was certainly done during the Clinton and Bush I administrations to house Cuban and Haitian refugees that we didn’t want to gain citizenship rights if they touched U.S. soil.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    I thought I had read that the catch-and-release program to Yemen was going to involve American money to build a supermax style facility in Yemen with moderate Islamacists helping re-educate the jihadists. I see no mention of it in the article, but that would appear to be even less tenable the more attention is brought on the situation in Yemen.

  4. Herb says:

    “certainly done during the Clinton and Bush I administrations to house Cuban and Haitian refugees.”

    Where are these refugees now? Doh!

    “In the 1990s, [Gitmo] held refugees who fled Haiti in Camp Bulkeley until United States District Court Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. declared the camp unconstitutional on June 8, 1993, and the last Haitian migrants departed in late 1995.”

  5. PD Shaw says:

    That wikipedia entry is disingenuous.

    Judge Johnson’s decision was vacated in 1994. Additional detainees (approx. ten thousand) were brought to Gitmo in 1994. In 1995, the Court of Appeals ruled that the detainees at Gitmo were without cognizable legal or constitutional rights since they hadn’t reached U.S. soil.

    U.S. policy in the 1990s, as it is today, is to stop refugees from reaching U.S. soil, either by returning them to where they came from or detaining them in other countries, such as Gitmo. The purpose of this policy is to retain control over who enters the United States and to limit the procedural rights of detainees. The SCOTUS approved of the legality of this policy by a vote of 8-1. LINK

  6. Herb says:

    “U.S. policy in the 1990s, as it is today, is to stop refugees from reaching U.S. soil”

    Hmmmmm…so you’re arguing that we should treat terrorists the same as we do refugees? I see…

    My point, without getting distracted by who can find the best factoids on the internet, is this: Prior to George W. Bush, we treated terrorists as criminals. We tried them for murder, convicted them, incarcerated them, and in at least one case (Tim McVeigh) executed them.

    Bush changed that whole approach in favor of pre-emptive war, indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, etc. He wasn’t even shy in proclaiming that this something new and different, citing the “pre-9-11 mentality.” He ridiculed people who favored the criminal approach as wanting to “serve terrorists with legal papers.”

    And yet, here you are saying, “indefinite detention has been a feature of wars long before the Bush II administration.”

    Perhaps…but Bush II’s approach was, by his own admission, a significant departure from the past. The precedent you are seeking does not exist.