A man drives his donkeys for plowing during the harvest season on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen, on Oct. 28, 2013. (Photo: Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters) 

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How Can a Farm Help Close Guantánamo?

A group of Yemenis held without charge since 2002 want to get into agriculture...if the U.S. will release them.
Feb 16, 2014· 10 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Yemen Milk and Honey Farm Ltd. would sit on 200 acres outside the city of Bajil, Yemen, a third of the way between the Red Sea coast and the capital, Sanaa. The collective imagines turning the land, dotted with 100 houses, each 70 x 70 meters, into a sustainable utopia in the country it calls “the Jewel of Arabia.” Complete with all of the enclosures, equipment, wind power, methane biogas, and other facilities and infrastructure, the plans call for everything that might be needed by the 100 families living and farming each of the homesteads.

On the land surrounding each house, the family living there would tend to 10 cows, 50 lambs, 500 chickens, 10 honeybee hives, and an array of fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers. Community facilities for milking, cheese making, sheep and chicken slaughter, and honey and wool processing would allow the farmers to produce their own brand of Yemen Milk and Honey Farm Ltd. products to sell at markets from Bajil to the capital. The planners call it “a self-sustained and self-sufficient project.”

For these young self-described Yemeni entrepreneurs, however, a challenge bigger than irrigation is keeping them from turning Yemen Milk and Honey Farm Ltd. into a reality. In the opening pages of an extensive feasibility study for the project, the five men on the board of directors is each introduced by his first name and a string of digits—the internment serial number each is identified by as a detainee at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

Farming in this corner of the Arabian Peninsula, where the average annual rainfall is just five inches, where little more than 2 percent of the land is considered arable, comes with myriad challenges. The Yemeni government’s equivalent of the USDA is called the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, after all. But with 90 percent of the country’s food currently being imported, and a full 40 percent of irrigation water used to quench the thirst of khat shrubs, a popular narcotic, there’s certainly a niche that a sustainability-minded collective such as Yemen Milk and Honey Farm Ltd. could fill.

The 2012 study, 75 pages written in sloping schoolhouse cursive of varying degrees of neatness, was compiled by Abd Al Malik Abd Al Wahab (ISN 37), Saeed Ahmed al-Sarim (ISN 235), Khalid Ahmed Kassim (ISN 242), and Abdul Rahman Ahmed (ISN 441). (The fifth member of the board of directors, Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman Al-Hela, ISN 1463, who holds the role of chairman, is not listed as a coauthor.) The manuscript’s existence didn’t come to light until last month, however, when Al Wahab, 34, was the second of the indefinite detainees at Guantánamo to undergo the new Periodic Review Board process.

Detainees sit in a holding area during in-processing to the temporary detention facility at Camp X-Ray of Naval Station Guantánamo Bay on Jan. 11, 2002. (Photo: Stringer/Files/Reuters)

Although he arrived at the detention center on Jan. 11, 2002, the day Guantánamo opened, Al Wahab has never been charged with a crime. As then, when he was photographed kneeling by the chain-link fence at Camp X-Ray with the other initial 19 prisoners—the infamous “worst of the worst”—the government contends that Al Wahab was “almost certainly” an al-Qaida member. It is alleged that he both served as a bodyguard to Osama bin Laden and “may have been selected” to take part in a hijacking plot.

Another new twist of the Periodic Review Boards is that the detainees each have a uniformed, non-lawyer personal representative to advocate on their behalf during the hearings. So Al Wahab also has two service members, whose names are redacted, saying that if repatriated, he “probably would seek to return to his family in Ibb, Yemen, and has stated that he would take up a peaceful occupation there.” But they also note that he would have “ample opportunities to join AQAP if he decided to reengage.”

These reviews are the latest effort being touted by the government to reduce the population and close the facility. President Obama established the Periodic Review Boards with an an executive order in 2011, but the military only started the proceedings this year following mounting pressure from the ongoing hunger strike at Guantánamo. Al Wahab’s hearing marks the first time journalists have had access, albeit severely limited, to the boards and panels and commissions that have been used over the years to evaluate and, potentially, approve detainees for conditional release.

A small group of reporters sequestered in a room in suburban Washington, D.C., was able to view just 19 minutes of the Jan. 28 proceedings, broadcast via closed-circuit video transmission from Cuba. In those few short minutes, David Remes, Al Wahab’s private counsel, spoke of the Milk and Honey study, calling it “stunningly detailed, thorough, and comprehensive.”

“It shows the detainees' broad knowledge of commerce, their dedication to constructive pursuits, and their awareness of the need to set returning detainees on a path to economic independence,” he continued.

Al Wahab’s statements from the hearing weren’t made public, but in a letter he wrote to Remes on Feb. 3, he expressed similar reasons for contributing to the document. “Since our captivity we have been extensively interrogated by various U.S. agencies under different and difficult conditions,” he writes in scratchy script. “ALL information about us, our families and businesses have been compiled ages ago. We do feel and believe the U.S. government has already reached to a conclusion and [is] asking very seriously with great concern, ‘what would you do when you go back.’ ” That prompt, written without a question mark, is underlined in the handwritten letter. Al Wahab asked his lawyer to submit copies of the study to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the Yemeni embassy in D.C., the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the State Department, and Ambassador Daniel Fried—who ran the office tasked with closing Guantánamo until that office itself was closed in 2013.

Despite that and many other setbacks, Obama renewed his call to close the prison in his State of the Union address last month. “With the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantánamo Bay,” he said.

The cover of and introduction to the Yemen Milk and Honey Farms Limited Feasibility Report 2013.

The remarks came just weeks after the five-year anniversary of his signing an executive order to shutter the detention camp on his first full day in office. Still, following a year marked by hunger strikes and unrest at Guantánamo, both the symbolic mention in the president’s speech and Al Wahab’s hearing—with its new, nominal level of something resembling transparency—may finally signal progress. And if there is real determination on the side of the administration and the government to address the plight of forever detainees such as Al Wahab, could plans for post-detention life figure in the latest, parole-hearing-like assessment process?

When I spoke to Remes last month just after he returned to D.C. from Cuba, he said it could make a small difference. The study, he thinks, shows that “these are men who want to be constructive when they get out.”

“And what they’ve done here,” he continued, “is form sort of, in my mind, a conception of a utopia, if you will—because obviously this can’t all be put together in four years. 4-H comes to mind. A giant kibbutz comes to mind—after all, the name is Milk and Honey.”

Indeed, the document presents a worldview that’s liberal in the "liberal arts" sense of the word. Following a micro-history of the country that touches on pre-Islam religion, agriculture, empire, and colonialism, the coauthors describe the modern Yemeni economy their business must contend with. But rather than depending on the gross domestic product, a metric that ranks Yemen below North Korea, the coauthors look to the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan and its measure of gross national happiness to consider the nation’s outlook in more positive, aspirational terms. “Yemen’s Gross National Happiness is greater than many countries in the world,” they write. “With basic agriculture development, prosperity could be reclaimed.”

In comparing their plan to other enterprises that were similarly long on ideas and short on cash in their early days, they note an unexpected precedent for a group of men living without the Internet. “There are many example that entrepreneurs established large business without much capital, most recent example is Face Book,” the Project Funding section reads. In addition to Yemeni banks and international development funds, they also consider more contemporary means of financing, such as “Kickstarter, Rocket Hub and Crowd and other about 450 websites [that] give entrepreneurs helping hand through social media or internet.”

Like are you kidding me? Another government review? How many have there been? This is the fourth sort of alphabet soup type of review.

Pardiss Kebriaei, detainee counsel

Yemen Milk and Honey Farm Ltd. also hopes to provide Montessori-inspired kindergarten education for children living on the property.

Daniel Green, a Yemen and al-Qaida analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says he’s wary of any plan that comes from a detainee.

“I think the reaction most people would have to hearing such an idea would be ‘Oh, these are men who are committed to returning to peaceful lives—gosh, doesn’t that sound so wonderful and very environmentally sensitive?’ ” he said in a phone interview. “Maybe it could work, but it would have to be part of a comprehensive approach that’s not just focused on providing them a livelihood.”

For Green, the most important step that detainees potentially returning to Yemen would have to undertake is an act that creates what he calls a “blood debt”—a deed that publicly breaks their ties with radical Islam. “They have to take positive action against al-Qaida to demonstrate their bona fides,” guaranteeing that they wouldn’t, as has so often been heard over the years, return to the battlefield.

Yemen has had a comparatively successful political transition between President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down after more than 30 years following Arab Spring protests in 2011, and his former vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Still, considering the rise of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and other regional affiliates, and foreign fighters pouring into Syria, Green believes conditions are volatile: "Things have deteriorated with respect to al-Qaida globally that there’s a real reluctance to approve these detainees returning” to Yemen.

“We have to think about this in a comprehensive way, not as a sort of tactical one-off decision,” he elaborated. “Some of these guys will return to al-Qaida. That’s guaranteed.”

Pardiss Kebriaei, the senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, is preparing to take her client, Ghaleb Nassar al Bihani, through his upcoming Periodic Review Board hearing. And she’s also sensing a reluctance to transfer or release any detainees.

When I spoke with Kebriaei, she had just got off the phone with al Bihani’s brother back in Yemen, to whom she was explaining the upcoming hearing. “Here in the States, we think this is great, it’s movement, this is the result of pressure from the hunger strike. Things are just very slowly churning forward. But from their perspective it just all sounds like talk,” she said, frustrated.

“I found myself saying these words about ‘new government review,’ that I had been thinking was like—,” Kebriaei said, then paused, skipping over whatever positive description it was that she decided was too generous to give. “And it's not that I have any illusions about it, but it’s just been something. Some movement, a step toward release.”

“But just on the phone now I heard myself from his standpoint," she said, "and it just sounded ridiculous. Like are you kidding me? Another government review? How many have there been? This is the fourth sort of alphabet soup type of review. And we’ll go through it, and I hope it will help lead to his release. But it’s just so frustrating at this point. It’s 2014 and we’re still talking about these government reviews.”

While her client hopes to get a fresh start somewhere other than Yemen, Kebriaei thinks documents like the Yemen Milk and Honey Farm Ltd. feasibility study can help chip away at the “worst of the worst” myth—but only incrementally. “I think it’s a continual challenge to make people see the human beings at Guantánamo.”

“There will be certain documents made public through the PRBs—there will be the detainees' statements and plans like this—but for there to be a real window, there needs to be access, direct access.” For more than a decade, neither press nor independent human rights monitors have been able to speak directly with detainees. In the early days the government even blocked habeas lawyers like Remes and Kebriaei from access to detainees. Today they provide the only window into the lives of the men in the prison camp.

Remes, who is decidedly more upbeat about the Periodic Review Board process, observes the same link between the government narrative about Guantánamo detainees and the lack of opportunities to see what he calls “the humanity” of the men held there.

“The way that the Defense Department set things up in the beginning—‘the worst of the worst’—was horse manure,” he told me. “And the lack of access to the detainees was bound to create a situation where they were viewed as this undifferentiated mass of terrorist jihadists coming at you in the desert on their steeds with their slingshots—or to take it more seriously, the World Trade Center attacks.”

U.S. lawyer David Remes represents a number of Yemeni detainees held at Guantánamo. (Photo: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

In the 12 years since the camp opened, analysts like Green and, until last December, consistent majorities in Congress, have continued to worry about releasing men who would go on to commit violent acts. That risk has led many to argue that transfers should be limited across the board—especially to volatile countries like Yemen. Habeas lawyers like Remes and Kebriaei, however, are working against that monolithic view of the detainees to make a highly personalized case for their clients' release.

That’s where Remes sees detainees' plans for what they want to do in life post-Guantánamo playing a role. “Because the last thing they want to do is liberate someone who is going to go out and engage in violent activity,” he said.

“You can use the different formulations, which I hate all of them: rejoin the battle, go back to the battlefield, reengage—I don’t like those terms because they imply that they were doing this beforehand. The bottom line is, nobody wants a situation where a detainee is set free and goes and commits acts of terrorism—that’s really the bottom line. There’s a great deal of dispute about the number of detainees who have engaged in violent activity, for those who have returned.”

Last September the director of national intelligence published the most recent report on recidivism for the 603 detainees released as of July 15, 2013. The numbers show a slight uptick in both confirmed and suspected reengagement rates, up from 16.1 percent to 16.6 percent and 11.9 percent to 12.3 percent respectively. The biannual report, however, is not long on detail—no names, instances, or incidents are documented. The suspected reengagement rate is based on “plausible but unverified or single-source reporting.”

“And then there are hundreds of people who have been released who are rebuilding, who are living their lives without incident. But the only people that we usually hear about, at least in the mainstream press, are the people the government says are recidivist—these alleged recidivist,” said Kebriaei.

Of the 155 detainees remaining at the prison, nearly 80 have been approved for conditional release or transfer but continue to be held. In Guantánamo, the line between being told you can leave and actually departing the island is far from thin.

“Being approved for transfer, as my first client was, doesn’t really get you very far if you’re not transferred,” Remes said, referring to Mahmoud Abd al Aziz Abd al Mujahid (ISN 31), also from Yemen, who was approved for conditional release by the Periodic Review Board early last month. In a press release, the Department of Defense announced that the conditions of his release are that the “security situation improves in Yemen, that an appropriate rehabilitation program becomes available, or that an appropriate third country resettlement option becomes available.”

“My worry is that Obama will be, and the administration will be, seen as trying, perpetually trying, in good faith to move people out, have these reviews,” Kebriaei said of the lag between being approved for release and actually being released. “It’s really just going to be the appearance of progress and release without actual release. It’s sort of going through the motions to keep people busy and keep people thinking that things are actually happening without actually releasing people.”

Speaking of the five men behind Yemen Milk and Honey Farm Ltd., Remes said, “This plan for reality simply becomes a fantasy if they’re stuck in Guantánamo.”