Detainees from Yemen to enter rehabilitation program

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LISA MULLINS: There was a shooting outside the US Embassy in Yemen today. No injuries were reported, but Yemeni police are now investigating. Earlier, the embassy had reported receiving a warning about a possible attack. The incident highlights the level of instability in Yemen. The Yemeni government says there are plans to allow 94 Guantanamo detainees back into the Arab nation in the next few months, and that has raised security concerns. Gregory Johnsen is an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, and he says America has vital interests in the country, aside from the fate of the detainees.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Yemen is located just south of Saudi Arabia and also right across the Red Sea from Africa and it really occupies a very strategic point. Oil routes go right through there, and of course sitting right on the border of Saudi Arabia, any potential clashes or anarchy could quite easily spill over the border and into Saudi. And so I think its geographical location plays a large role in US concerns, as does the fact that the Yemeni government really doesn't have a firm grasp in many parts of the country. There's such a almost bone-crushing poverty to the place that the government is in fact getting increasingly weaker.

MULLINS: So is Al-Qaeda growing increasingly stronger in Yemen?

JOHNSEN: Yeah. Over the past few years and particularly within the past several months, Al-Qaeda has grown increasingly stronger, and it's also growing more ambitious and it's looking to carry out attacks. Not just in Yemen, but in Saudi Arabia as well as into the horn of Africa.

MULLINS: Has Al-Qaeda then threatened the government of Yemen?

JOHNSEN: Certainly, Al-Qaeda has labeled as its targets both foreign invaders of the country and the Yemeni government, who it believes both supports and is supported by what it calls the Zionist Crusader Alliance.

MULLINS: So why then would the Yemeni government say, �Sure,� when Yemeni citizens are let go from Guantanamo Bay, some of whom may be innocent, some of whom are not believed to be innocent � why would the Yemeni government say, �Sure. Bring them back home�?

JOHNSEN: Well, the Yemeni government believes it can rehabilitate them. And also, it's quite eager to rehabilitate its own image domestically and to really be seen to be acting progressively and proactively on the part of Yemeni detainees who have been captured by the US, in many cases according to most Yemeni government sources, without good cause.

MULLINS: And you know Yemen. You were there as a Fulbright scholar. You speak Arabic. Knowing the lay of the land there, should the US government take that chance? Should it believe the Yemeni government when it says that, you know, �Look. Our rehabilitation programs which they had in the past, they will work this time around. We will make sure these guys do not become members of Al-Qaeda.�

JOHNSEN: Well, for the US government, the first and most important thing is a really thorough and a very accurate vetting of these detainees in Guantanamo, which is my understanding didn't happen initially. And so I think that once that's done, if you can get only the innocent individuals back, then you're in good shape. However, if you're trying to rehabilitate individuals that you're not sure of, then I don't think Yemen is the place to go because Yemen's rehabilitation program just does not have a very good track record of success.

MULLINS: What did it entail?

JOHNSEN: What it has entailed in the past is a council of 5 judges sitting down with these individuals and essentially debating with them and attempting to show them how the detainees' understanding of Islam and the tenants of Islam is mistaken and is in fact not the correct one. But I've spoken with many of these former detainees who were released through this program, and they almost joke and laugh about this debating session, and say, �It's not really a debate. They just give us a few lines and then they leave. It's not really much of a program. It's just a way for them to kind of cover themselves and protect themselves.�

MULLINS: So is there any reason to believe a rehabilitation program would work this time around?

JOHNSEN: I don't think in the Yemeni environment a rehabilitation program can work. The state has such a weak infrastructure. It's unable to control or even monitor successfully the detainees that it has released already. It has 14 that have went back, and two weeks ago, one of these individuals went missing which put Yemeni security forces on high alert. So even with those few people back in the country, the government is unable to keep tabs on all of them successfully.

MULLINS: I'm sure that the administration -- now that the Obama administration is getting a lot of information about Yemen. If you were to perhaps tip them off on one particular thing that they should know based on your own work there � I know you're writing a book about the region now � what would it be?

JOHNSEN: I think the most pressing concern and the one that has to be dealt with first for Yemen is the economy. It's such a problem that more than 45 percent of the people in Yemen live below the poverty line. And when you start to have an environment such as this, it really just becomes a very active breeding ground for Al-Qaeda.

MULLINS: All right. Thank you very much. Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University. He was a Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, and he has a forthcoming book called �Islam and Insurgency in Yemen.� Nice to speak with you. Thank you, Gregory.

JOHNSEN: Thank you.