Yemen locks up American AQ terrorist, at least for now

The US has tried to get Yemen to arrest and deport Jaber Elbaneh for years, with his alleged involvement in the Lackawannah Six, the Americans who traveled to Afghanistan to train with al-Qaeda. The Bush administration has a $5 million bounty on his head and has repeatedly pressed Yemen to send the American with dual Yemeni citizenship back to the US for trial. That process could be underway with the surprise detention of Elbaneh by a Yemeni judge:

Jaber Elbaneh, the al-Qaeda operative who had roamed free in Yemen despite a $5 million reward offered by the U.S. government for his capture, was jailed Sunday by a Yemeni judge.

Elbaneh’s detention was ordered one day after a Washington Post article on how he was living under the personal protection of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Yemeni government has repeatedly refused U.S. requests to extradite Elbaneh to stand trial on terrorism charges, straining diplomatic relations between the two countries.

According to Yemen’s official news agency, a judge ordered Elbaneh’s arrest after prosecutors filed a request to lock him up. Elbaneh is one of three dozen Yemeni defendants being tried on charges of conspiring to blow up oil installations in 2006.

Until Sunday, prosecutors had allowed Elbaneh to remain free while the trial proceeded in Sanaa, the capital, in spite of recent demands from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and other U.S. officials that he be imprisoned.

U.S. officials welcomed the news. “We have been waiting for the arrest of this wanted terrorist for a long time,” said an official at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Elbaneh’s arrest sends the right message that terrorists will be held accountable for their crimes.”

We’ll see. Elbaneh spent two years in prison between 2004 and 2006 after the US pressured Yemen to imprison him. He escaped in 2006, and the Yemeni government appeared to treat it as parole. The Post reported on Elbaneh’s apparent presidential protection yesterday, but Elbaneh himself made that proclamation in court three months ago — and at the time the court apparently agreed, as it allowed him to remain free while pending trial.

What makes this even more ridiculous is that Elbaneh got convicted in absentia two years ago for terrorist acts in Yemen. This is actually a retrial, but the court didn’t see fit to incarcerate him when he made that appearance. Yemen shows great deference to their convicted terrorists, even those who escape jails, which doesn’t bode well for Elbaneh’s continued detention.

Perhaps the belated action by the government to re-incarcerate Elbaneh points to a change of direction in their handling of his case. It’s most likely a momentary concession to the US, and it won’t be long before Elbaneh enjoys the streets of Sanaa again. The US may need to find other ways to bring Elbaneh and others like him back to the US to face justice, methods that bypass Yemen’s diffidence towards terrorism.