War on Terror: The Key to Closing Gitmo

All teachers have their problem pupils. Hamoud al-Hitar's was a young man who liked to call himself "Abu Jandal," an Arabic nickname that means roughly "The Killer." The moon-faced, slightly paunchy Yemeni, whose real name was Nasser al-Bahri, had fought in Bosnia, Somalia, Chechnya and Afghanistan—all before his 30th birthday. For six years he worked as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, who once personally dressed one of al-Bahri's gunshot wounds near Kabul. In Afghanistan he got to know Mohamed Atta and several of the other 9/11 hijackers. When al-Bahri finally returned home to Yemen about a year before the attacks, "it was the first time in my life that I had a passport with my real name on it," the former jihadist told me one morning this spring when we met in the lobby of a Sana hotel.

Yemen's secret police, under pressure from American officials to crack down on local militants even before the World Trade Center attacks, didn't wait long to scoop him up. In December 2000, al-Bahri was arrested and locked in a small cell in the solitary-confinement wing of Sana's political prison. "I expected the worst torture," he recalled. Instead, one day the door opened and a figure wearing a white pillbox cap and flowing ceremonial robes stepped inside. The man dropped a stack of books—the Qur'an, volumes of the Prophet Muhammad's teachings—on the table. The only weapon he carried was his jambiya, the traditional Yemeni dagger that dangled from his waistband.

The visitor was Hamoud al-Hitar, a local judge who had been enlisted by the Yemeni government to try to reform the country's burgeoning ranks of Islamic militants. Al-Hitar's idea was to engage the prisoners in what he called "theological duels," challenging them to justify their beliefs by citing religious texts. Al-Hitar would then counter with his own usually more moderate interpretation of the same texts. If a militant seemed to be making progress, after a few sessions the judge would offer him a written pledge to sign in which he renounced violence. In exchange, the young jihadist would be given several hundred dollars and granted his freedom. Most, like al-Bahri, were put under a loose "house arrest," which meant that they could travel freely throughout Sana, as long as they checked in regularly with their parole officers. Nearly 400 prisoners attended al-Hitar's classes, repented and were released.

Now that President Barack Obama has pledged to close the prison at Guantána-mo Bay within the year, some Yemeni and American officials want al-Hitar's help again. Nearly half of the Gitmo detainees—about 100 of the 240 still incarcerated—are originally from Yemen. A new Yemeni rehab program would allow Obama to send them home with a measure of political cover—and a scapegoat if things go badly. Last year Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, announced that he had struck a deal with the United States to build a campus for the returnees, using U.S. funds. When I met with him one recent afternoon, Saleh told me that the Americans had promised him $11 million for the facility. The presi-dent insisted that al-Hitar would help direct the new program.

There is only one problem with all this: al-Hitar's program doesn't work. By 2004 at least some of the judge's graduates had begun showing up in Iraq, American officials warned their Yemeni counterparts. Among al-Hitar's students, the program was a joke. "To be frank, everyone was making fun of him," says one former prisoner, who gave his name only as "Abu Hurieh" to avoid drawing renewed attention from the secret police. "We all understood that it was just extortion to take money from the Americans. They were just playing with us." Even Saleh acknowledges that al-Hitar's program was only effective about 60 percent of the time. The flaw, in retrospect, seems obvious: a prisoner will say anything to get out of jail. "If Satan himself told me to sign, I would have," al-Bahri told me. Al-Hitar's program, he explained, "was completely useless."

The story of the judge and the jihadist is one more illustration of just how tricky the Guantánamo issue is becoming for the Obama administration. Last month both Republicans and Democrats in Congress voted overwhelmingly to reject $80?mil--lion in funding to close the prison, demanding that the White House provide a more detailed plan for where to relocate the remaining inmates. Right-wing commentators have effectively used the controversy to create a not-in-my-backyard backlash against the idea of resettling detainees in the United States, even in high-security prisons. Overseas rehabilitation programs like al-Hitar's seem—on the surface, at least—like an attractive alternative. But few foreign countries are eager to open their doors either. The ones that do want their countrymen back pose their own challenges, not least whether they can ensure that the detainees do not return to terrorism. Some American officials are now so concerned about Yemen's ability to absorb and reform its Gitmo prisoners that they are urging wealthier, more stable nations like Saudi Arabia to take the Yemenis instead.

Hamoud al-Hitar still insists that his own program is the best way to deal with the detainees. When I visited al-Hitar at his home in Sana one evening, I mentioned what his former pupil al-Bahri had had to say about the ineffectiveness of his program. The judge, who was propped on a pillow on the floor of his salon, sat silent for a long moment and looked a little hurt. He rolled a ball of khat leaves—a mild stimulant that is ubiquitous in Yemen—around in his cheek. Then he raised his eyebrows, which are generally fixed at the angle of a disapproving schoolmaster's, and peered out over a pair of frameless glasses that were perched halfway down his nose. He looked confused. "Nasser was good in the program," the judge said quietly.

If al-Hitar is sensitive about the program's worth, it may be because so much of his own identity is tied up with its success. Yemen's population can be roughly divided into three major tribes; al-Hitar's—the Mathhaj tribe—is the least influential of the three. He was born in a small Yemeni province called Ibb, where his parents cultivated corn, sorghum and khat. When he was growing up, in the late 1950s, Ibb was still very much a rural backwater. There were no real schools, only a group of students who gathered in a local mosque. By the time he was a teenager, al-Hitar wanted a broader education. The law especially appealed to him. "I had the sense that the judiciary was somehow distinguished," he told me. "Nobody could impose their opinion on you." A judge "could do whatever he liked with his will." Al-Hitar made the three-day journey, partly by donkey, to Sana to start his classes.

Today al-Hitar is rarely out of character. He almost always wears his traditional judge's robes and the special gold-tipped dagger that denotes his position. Yet it's easy to forget that the dignified persona is largely self-invented. Al-Hitar, as one Yemeni friend told me, essentially "made himself up."

That independent streak extends to his personal politics. The al-Hitar family, like most rural Yemenis, was Muslim and devout. Still, as a young man, al-Hitar found himself enchanted by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the dashing Egyptian Arab nationalist leader. "I had that Islamic tendency," the judge recalls. "But Nasser was so charming. I liked him, I admired him. He was capable of mobilizing the masses." Al-Hitar was only 12 years old when the Israeli army crushed Nasser and his allies in 1967's Six Day War, shattering the nationalist's mystique. Al-Hitar, like other young Arabs and Muslims of the time, began looking for new heroes. Five years later, in 1972, he joined the local Muslim Brotherhood.

The group provided a sense of belonging and offered an outlet for al-Hitar's civic impulses. "At the time we felt that it was the only movement that was anti-communist," he recalled. "We felt like communism was against human nature." Still, he ultimately found the Brotherhood intolerant. Shortly after beginning work as a judge, in the early 1980s, al-Hitar quit the organization and joined the ruling party, led by President Saleh.

As a judge, al-Hitar challenged Yemeni social mores. He tried his most notable case in 1984, when two local Muslims were charged with killing two Yemeni Jews. According to an unwritten but longstanding tradition, Muslims who were convicted of killing Jews were not subject to the death penalty. To al-Hitar, that seemed unjust. "I had a conflict between my culture and my conscience," he told me. "My conscience was telling me all humans are equal. My culture was telling me they weren't. I searched in the Qur'an, the Sunna [Muslim social customs and legal traditions], the history of the caliphs. None of them differentiate between Muslims and non-Muslims. A soul is a soul." At the final hearing, al-Hitar sentenced the two Muslims to death. Whispers in the courtroom rose to a crescendo of murmurs. The judge ultimately received death threats for his verdict.

It is not hard to see why al-Hitar would be an appealing character to American policymakers looking for a way out of the Gitmo quandary. The judge is plucky, self-made, independent-minded and fair. "He's just a nice guy," one Western diplomat told me. Al-Hitar's original program inspired a number of copycats, including in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has run its own relatively successful rehab facility for the past five years. In addition to the ideological debates, the Saudi program uses an elaborate system of carrots and sticks to keep former jihadists in line. When militants arrive at the rehab facility they're offered candy bars and videogames as diversions. Yet the punishments for relapsing can be harsh. When a militant is released, Saudi officials elicit promises from the inmate's family to keep him in line. If he returns to violence, the whole family can be punished.

To accommodate the former Guantánamo detainees, American counterterrorism officials began talking with Yemeni officials early last year about reinvigorating their own rehab program. "They wanted to do the Saudi model," says one senior Yemeni official, who didn't want to be identified discussing talks with the Americans. "We said, 'If you like the program, we'll do exactly the same'."

Even before Obama was elected, it was becoming increasingly clear that Guantánamo would need to be closed. A series of U.S. court cases found in favor of detainees' rights, including the case of Osama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Hamdan, who is a Yemeni. Fifteen Gitmo detainees were returned to Yemen, including Hamdan; many more would have to follow. Islamist opposition parties in Yemen began using the detainee issue as a cudgel to beat the ruling party, demanding the return of the prisoners. After Saleh's announcement last spring the government set aside a piece of land in the port city of Aden, according to a senior Yemeni official, and designed an elaborate campus that would include "mosques, schools, rooms where their wives could come and have sex with them."

But the money never arrived. "The Ameri-can friends promised that they'd help in financing, the cost of which is $11 million," Saleh told me, as we sat outside on the grounds of his palace in Sana. "So we are waiting for the funds." I asked what he thought the holdup was. The president slouched in his chair, knocked his knees together and offered a wan smile. "Maybe the Americans don't have the money now," he said. Another Yemeni official I had spoken with a few weeks earlier was less diplomatic. "I mean, what the f--k?" he complained. "This was your idea!" (U.S. officials insist that there was never a firm deal on the financing.)

American officials are rightfully hesitant about handing over large sums of money to the Yemeni government without guarantees that the funds will be spent as intended. For starters, the country is growing increasingly lawless. In April, CentCom chief Gen. David Petraeus told Congress that Yemen was a popular new haven for Qaeda militants. In March a suicide bomber detonated himself at a crowded archeological site, killing four South Korean tourists. A week later another bomber attacked a convoy of Korean officials who had come to investigate the earlier assault. (Nobody was killed in the second blast.) Some Americans have floated the idea of sending the Yemeni detainees through the better--established Saudi program instead. Obama's counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan traveled to Sana this past spring to meet with Saleh, and told the Yemeni president that Washington had growing concerns about Yemen's ability to absorb the detainees. When I asked Saleh about his meeting with Brennan, the president seemed annoyed. "We are not obedient soldiers of the United States," he snapped. "We don't say just OK to everything that they ask us. We're not [your] employees."

That much is clear. The Yemeni government has long had a complicated relationship with Al Qaeda. In the past, Saleh has used Islamic militants against his political opponents internally. It is common knowledge that Saleh enlisted former veterans of the 1980s Afghan war to battle his socialist enemies in southern Yemen during the country's civil war in the 1990s. And just last summer, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a Yemeni Islamist who is classified as a terrorist by the State Department, threatened to raise thousands of men to fight alongside the Yemeni military against rebellious Houthi tribesmen in the country's north, according to a Western diplomat.

As a result, the Yemeni government sees at least some Qaeda elements more as allies than as an existential threat. The serious challenge to the regime's stability, Yemen's Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told me, is from the socialists and the Houthis. True, a new generation of more nihilistic Qaeda operatives are also a problem. But Al Qaeda "doesn't have a real agenda," says the foreign minister. Therefore, Qaeda issues and questions about the Gitmo detainees elicit apathy, at best, from Yemeni authorities. Regarding the Gitmo returnees, "do whatever you want with them," one Yemeni official told me. "Screw them, bomb them, send them to a country where they have capital punishment."

That attitude is one more reason for American officials to proceed cautiously. Rehab centers, including the Saudi program, are not voluntary. If the Yemenis are right and the United States promised to help pay for the rehab center, the Obama administration would in effect be funding an overseas prison just when Washington is trying to get out from under the shadow of the CIA's black sites and extraordinary renditions. Khaled al-Ansi, the director of the Yemeni rights group HOOD, told me that starting last fall he began complaining to American officials that an involuntary rehab center would violate detainees' rights. "The Guantánamos of Sana are worse than the real Guantánamo," says al-Ansi. One possible solution: the United States could quietly nudge the Saudis to fund the Yemeni program. Yemen's foreign minister acknowledges that idea could work, but denies it's been discussed.

Saudi Arabia's vast wealth is at least partly responsible for the relative success of the kingdom's facility. The Saudi program is hailed for its ideological persuasiveness, but in reality it probably works because the government is buying off the militants. The graduates get money, and in some cases jobs, cars and houses to help reintegrate them into society. The Yemenis, for their part, claim they don't have the funds to provide such largesse on their own. Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, with an unemployment rate of 35 percent. Some Yemeni officials claim they have better things to do with $11 million than start a rehab center for 100 men. "Yemen can't spend its precious money on such a center," says Abdulkarim al-Eryani, a former Yemeni prime minister and current adviser to the president. The best the government could offer graduates of the program would be jobs in the military—posts that pay about $100 per month. And giving former Gitmo detainees guns, training and uniforms poses problems of its own.

Finally, even if everything were to go right with al-Hitar's program—if the money arrived, the detainees weren't abused and the judge's persuasive powers were unusually effective—there is still no guarantee that al-Hitar's teachings would match American interests. His previous program was halted in 2005 partly because of complaints from American officials. Al-Eryani, the former prime minister, told me that U.S. authorities approached him at the time and insisted that graduates of al-Hitar's program were being captured fighting the Americans in Iraq. Even today, al-Hitar seems unapologetic. "Iraq wasn't part of the dialogue," the judge told me. "I'm not responsible for Iraq. Nobody said to make a dialogue about that." Al-Hitar explained that, personally, he was opposed to Yemenis traveling to Iraq to fight. "Jihad is worship," he said. "It's like prayer. It has conditions." Still, "if somebody wants to go as an individual, you can't tell him no."

For all his travels with bin Laden, al-Hitar's problem pupil, Nasser al-Bahri, says he never made it to Iraq. When I asked him whether he thought it was OK for young Yemenis to travel to fight abroad, he winced a little and rolled his eyes. "From my experience, sending naive young men is wrong," he said. "These guys don't understand the religion yet. They should know what jihad means first." But if he were a little younger, he told me, and weren't under surveillance, he probably would have gone himself. All al-Hitar's lectures "did not convince me," the former jihadist said. "I still hate the American arrogance. I still hate the American Army." He grinned, lifted his teacup and repeated: "I still hate."