For Barack Obama, Guantanamo has become both a security challenge and a political headache

To understand how hard it is proving for President Barack Obama to close the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, consider the case of Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, Internee Security No. 692. His long-delayed departure last week leaves 97 Yemenis at the complex in Cuba, by far the largest remaining group.

It was seven years ago that Ahmed, then 18, was swept up by Pakistani security forces in a raid on a Faisalabad guesthouse and taken to the prison. It was five months ago that a federal judge, after reviewing all the government’s classified evidence, ruled that his incarceration had never been justified and ordered the government to get to work “forthwith” on his release.

But Obama administration officials were worried. Even if Ahmed was not dangerous in 2002, they said, Guantanamo itself might have radicalised him, exposing him to militant fellow prisoners and embittering him against the United States. If he returned to his troubled homeland of Yemen, the officials feared, he might fall in with the growing contingent of al-Qaeda there, one more Guantanamo survivor to star in their propaganda videotapes.

So American officials first sought to route him to a rehabilitation programme for militants in Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis would take him only if he wanted to go — and he did not.

So last weekend, as Judge Gladys Kessler of U.S. District Court in Washington appeared to be losing patience with the delay in complying with her May 11 release order, an American military jet finally delivered Ahmed to the Yemeni capital, San’a. He was so greatly changed that his older brother barely recognised him.

“Seven years are gone from his life and can never be gotten back,” said the brother, Wagdi Ahmed, a surgeon’s assistant in the port city of Aden, speaking through a translator on a cell phone after a brief first reunion. “The feeling of the family is his detention at Guantanamo was not rightful. But nonetheless, we just say, praise God.”

Alla Ahmed, now 26, was expected to spend a week or more in the custody of Yemeni security officials, who were questioning him about other Yemenis at Guantanamo and about his views and plans. Then, his brother said, he will join his family in Aden and decide whether to look for work or try to resume his education. Ahmed is the first Yemeni to depart Guantanamo since Obama’s promise, the day after his inauguration, to close the prison complex in Cuba within a year — a deadline that aides now say may not be met.

Since Yemenis now make up nearly half of the 220 remaining prisoners, an exit route for them is critical.For Mr. Obama, Guantanamo has become both a security challenge and a political headache. A group of retired generals and admirals who stood behind him when he signed the closing order were back in Washington last week to make sure the administration did not renege on its pledge. Meanwhile, the House voted 258-163 on Thursday for a nonbinding recommendation that no Guantanamo detainee be brought to American soil, even for trial.

The public file on Ahmed suggests a highly ambiguous case that typifies many at Guantanamo. He told a review board that he had travelled to Pakistan to study ``religion and science” — but he said one reason he wanted to attend an Islamic university was that religious schools accepted students with lower grade point averages.

The guesthouse where he was captured was used by both students and terrorist operatives. Four fellow prisoners later reported having seen him fighting or undergoing training in Afghanistan, but Kessler found their accounts unpersuasive, flawed by inconsistencies, contradictions and even mental illness.

She rejected the government’s so-called ``mosaic” theory, which asserted that the pattern of indications of terrorist ties added up to a strong case. “If the individual pieces of a mosaic are inherently flawed,” she wrote, “then the mosaic will split apart.” Ultimately, the government may not have had much faith in its own case, since it chose not to appeal Kessler’s order.

Brent N. Rushforth, a lawyer with Day Pitney in Washington who represents Ahmed, said his client never supported terrorism and was known as “the sweet kid” to other prisoners at Guantanamo. “Alla has never exhibited any bitterness,” he said.

Yemen, with a population of 24 million, is a fragile state plagued by a separatist insurgency and a growing presence from the group called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. American officials say the government is weak and does not control parts of the country; the escape of 23 terrorism suspects in 2006 shook confidence in Yemen’s counterterrorism capabilities. That is why, even as 117 Saudis and 197 Afghans have left Guantanamo, only 16 Yemenis have been transferred. Yemeni authorities say none of the 16 have joined any terrorist group, and note that Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former driver, who spent nearly seven years at Guantanamo and whose legal challenge led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling, is leading a quiet life as a cab driver in San’a.

But given the instability, some experts say, the administration is right not to simply send most of the Yemenis home. “Right now, there’s no comprehensive program to integrate these guys back into Yemeni society,” said Christopher Boucek, who studies Yemen as an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

John O. Brennan, a presidential adviser on counterterrorism and a former CIA station chief in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has made repeated trips to both Saudi Arabia and Yemen, trying to persuade the Saudis to accept a large number of Yemenis in their rehabilitation programme. But Saudi officials have balked so far, in part because of the negative publicity when 11 of the programme’s graduates turned up on a Saudi list of most-wanted terrorists in February.

American officials still have a high opinion of the Saudi programme, noting that its recidivism rate compares favourably to that of ordinary American prisons. But Boucek said the Saudi programme depended on the involvement of relatives, who participated with the former militants and helped police their behaviour after the program concluded.

That means the Saudi programme might work for the roughly 20 Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo who grew up in Saudi Arabia or had relatives there. For the rest, he said, the Saudi programme is “a catastrophically bad idea.”

American and Yemeni officials are now discussing how Yemen might build its own version of the Saudi programme.

“It won’t be quick, and it will cost some money,” Boucek said. “But I think it may be the best choice among a bunch of not very good alternatives.” — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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