The Danger of Yemen's Secret Prisons
Black sites in the war-ravaged country help ensure that it will remain fertile ground for terrorists for years to come.
In 2010, I met an American held in what was then Yemen’s most notorious secret prison: Political Security. This man had never been formally arrested. A gang of Yemenis in balaclavas shot him in broad daylight on the street near his home, threw him in a van, and sped away.
At the time, I was working as a lawyer and director at Reprieve, a human-rights NGO. My team specialized in abuses of the “war on terror”—from Guantánamo to “black sites,” secret U.S. prisons where suspects were held and tortured outside the rule of law. Though this was early in the Obama era, it was already clear that many dubious counter-terror policies of the Bush years never stopped. We started to investigate Yemen when we heard U.S. intelligence officials were running so-called “proxy detention” operations—pulling the strings while an abusive local paramilitary force would pick someone up, rough him up, and make him available to American interrogators.
This American’s family had asked me to find out what had happened to him, and offer him legal help. He had been trying to leave Yemen with his wife and children, seeking help from the U.S. embassy to go home safely. The request backfired. This was just weeks after al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen’s local branch, launched a failed terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. In the ensuing panic U.S. officials dramatically widened their dragnet in Yemen. Though Yemenis physically seized him, American intelligence allegedly directed his detention from the shadows.
Fighting back tears, he told me how he spent weeks chained to a hospital bed, blindfolded, expecting someone to finish him off at any moment. When two American interrogators showed up, he asked about his Constitutional right to a lawyer; they smirked, and said “there is no Constitution here, son.” Instead they interrogated him, tag-teaming with local intelligence: A Yemeni would dangle his house keys in his face while his U.S. counterparts promised he would be beaten and raped in a Yemeni jail, and that his wife and daughter would face the same fate. Later, he was shunted to another secret site, where guards kicked him repeatedly in his gunshot leg until he blacked out.
The American was lucky, in a way. Prior to this visit from me and my Yemeni co-counsel, no lawyer had been allowed in the Political Security prison; I doubt one has been since. But the U.S. fingerprints on this man’s detention, and his American citizenship, gave him a lifeline to outside help. In the same site were untold numbers of Yemenis with no recourse to lawyers. As I entered, mothers and children milled about outside the prison, hoping for news of a loved one.
Over time, I interviewed others who had passed through secret detention in Yemen, and worked with local rights groups who represented dozens more. Once freed, most alumni of these facilities hesitated to describe their experiences. But they spoke of prisoners held without charge or trial, in abject squalor, some for over a decade. They wanted to know whether I could do anything for them. Most of the prisoners were not American, and lacked an American’s comparative legal (and diplomatic) advantages. To my shame, I had to explain I could not help.
U.S. involvement in black sites like these persisted through the Bush and Obama years alike, fueling the sense among locals that America was happy to support Yemen’s most lawless and abusive paramilitaries. For all the lofty rhetoric from the blast-wall encased U.S. embassy, Washington, in truth, did not seem terribly interested in upholding the rule of law.
Last Thursday, the Associated Press reported that one of the U.S.-backed belligerents in Yemen’s ongoing war, the United Arab Emirates, has set up a chain of black sites across Yemen’s south. Once again, it appears the United States is heavily involved in the detention: Defense officials admit that they “participate in interrogations of detainees at locations in Yemen, provide questions for others to ask, and receive transcripts of interrogations from Emirati allies.” For those of us who have worked on secret detention in Yemen before, all this strikes a familiar, ominous note.
If anything, conditions in these new prisons are worse than what I saw. The reports from the Associated Press and Human Rights Watch depict scenes out of the Middle Ages. Eyewitnesses report 15 or more prisoners shackled and blindfolded in a single shipping container, sweltering and smeared with human feces. The Emiratis have grabbed innocents—family members have been seized specifically to encourage others to “cooperate”—along with numerous children. Multiple eyewitnesses describe American questioners operating in the facility, but doing nothing to stop the horror.
Abusive prisons like these radicalize local populations, and often create a hardened cadre of opponents. Britain learned this the hard way in Northern Ireland with the Maze Prison, where suspected IRA members were interned in grim conditions. Maze became a combustible training ground for some of the IRA’s most famous soldiers and—after Bobby Sands and nine others were permitted to die while waging a hunger strike within its walls—a lightning rod and ready shorthand for British brutality.
Through the war on terror, America has repeatedly failed to accept that its checkered history with secret detention in Yemen has bred new enemies. The leadership of AQAP, the branch that has placed multiple explosives on passenger airplanes, includes alumni of both Yemeni black sites and Guantánamo, facts that the group deploys generously in its propaganda. In 2014, AQAP’s media arm published a video about the Political Security prison. In it, an AQAP commander calls Yemen’s government “a proxy for American interests” and blames the United States for the squalor inside the prison.
The risk of blow back is all the worse today, given Yemen’s abject desperation. Since 2014, Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest and most-populous nation, has staggered through a series of misfortunes that harken back to the plagues of the Old Testament. Saudi bombers, armed with American and British weapons, rain fire on landmarks, schools, and hospitals. Houthi snipers murder children on the streets of Ta’iz. The Saudi-Emirati blockade has choked off food and emergency medical supplies. Cholera has spread like a brush fire, with some 124,000 cases reported in six weeks alone. Hundreds of thousands live on the brink of starvation. It is not known precisely how many the conflict has killed; estimates exceed 10,000.
Even military experts recognize that AQAP succeeds, in part, by focusing on “national struggle.” Yet the U.S. response to the group seems to ignore that it is, in effect, a political player in its own right, vying for local legitimacy. It is a hybrid entity, part terrorist group, part local insurgency, that intermarries with the population and seeks, in some places, to extend a level of Taliban-style governance. AQAP is at war with the local branch of the Islamic State, too. Osama bin Laden had no obvious visions of government; AQAP is different. Since 2014, it has seized the Yemeni chaos to take territory in the south.
This is the putative excuse for the Emirati black sites. But even apart from the conditions in the prisons, close collusion with the Emiratis is more politically risky than backing the former regime’s paramilitary prisons. What the United States sees as counter-terrorism, locals see as taking sides in a civil war.
Already, the United States is viewed, correctly, as underwriters of the Saudi-Emirati coalition. The coalition has also leaned heavily on Emirati commando forces (Defense Secretary James Mattis likes to call the UAE “Little Sparta”) to prosecute counter-terrorism policy in Yemen, with disastrous results. This January, the first counter-terrorism exercise under President Donald Trump went south when a U.S.-Emirati raid on a Yemeni village killed one Navy SEAL, along with at least six women and 10 children under the age of 13. The journalist Iona Craig went to the site; her harrowing account described a five-year-old “putting two fingers to the back of his head and drawing an invisible line to illustrate the direction of the bullet exiting [his mother’s] forehead.” Senator John McCain dubbed the raid a “failure.”
America’s coalition allies, led by the Saudis and Emiratis (with degrees of support from several other Arab nations), show no sign of letting up, and exhibit little interest in suing for peace. Just this week in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, the 31-year-old prince with a penchant for superyachts, and as Saudi defense secretary “the face of the Yemen war,” was named crown prince; he was substituted for the more conciliatory Mohammed bin Nayef. Bin Salman is now next in line for the throne. Trump’s summit in Saudi Arabia aligns the United States squarely with the man most Yemenis see as personally responsible for their torment.
This news comes at a time when U.S. legislators are (rightly) questioning their stance on Yemen. Senators Rand Paul and Chris Murphy recently forced a debate on the sale of arms to the Saudi-led coalition. The measure failed, but only after heated debate and by a close 53-47 vote.
During my investigation in Yemen in 2010, it was clear U.S. intelligence officials quickly lost interest in the American I had come to visit. Others reported similar experiences: a horrendous ordeal, a U.S. interrogation, and then, once it was clear they had no meaningful intelligence to offer, being dumped from the black site with no apology or explanation. AQAP expanded its ranks several-fold over the Bush-Obama war on terror, largely thanks to abuses like these. Yet this failed set of policies looks set to continue under Trump.
It is obvious that these practices, carried out today in Yemen’s south at scale, will spark bitter resentment. They may even prolong the civil war. The Saudi-Emirati coalition has claimed to be winning the Yemen war more than once. It is far from clear that it can.