Mystery, Confusion Surrounds Americans Detained in Yemen

Amid Yemen's civil war, details surrounding the death of American contractor John Hamen, and the fate of other U.S. citizens held prisoner in the country, remain unknown.

Shiite fighters, known as Houthis, hold their weapons as they attend a tribal gathering showing support to the Houthi movement in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
Shiite fighters, known as Houthis, hold their weapons as they attend a tribal gathering showing support to the Houthi movement in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed) Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP

OVER A MONTH AFTER HIS DEATH, the details surrounding what happened to John Hamen, an American who was held by Houthi rebels in war-torn Yemen, remain a mystery.

United Nations-led peace talks beginning today in Switzerland will attempt to halt fighting in a brutal civil war in Yemen between Houthi rebels and the forces of ousted President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabian airstrikes. Amid the chaos, an unknown number of U.S. citizens have been detained by the Houthis, who have grown suspicious of any foreign presence.

The United States has provided intelligence and weaponry to Saudi Arabia throughout its bombing campaign, fueling Houthi suspicions. U.S. citizens remaining in Yemen have been imprisoned and interrogated, accused of being CIA operatives or working as spies for Saudi Arabia.

At least six Americans held by the Houthis have been released from captivity since March. They include Casey Coombs, a freelance journalist who has written for The Intercept and was released in June; Scott Darden, an aid contractor; and Haisam Farran, who had a security company. Darden and Farran were held for nearly six months. Three other U.S. citizens, whose names have not been released, were freed in mid-November.


Photo: Facebook

Hamen, a former Army master sergeant who worked as a security contractor at facilities in Sanaa where many U.N. staff and other foreigners stayed, was detained, along with a colleague, on arrival at the airport in Sanaa in October. According to a LinkedIn profile under his name, he previously worked as a trainer at U.S. Special Operations Command.

One version of what happened, provided by a source with close ties to the Houthi authorities, is that Hamen faked an illness while in captivity so that he would be taken to the hospital. En route, Hamen allegedly seized a rifle from one of his guards, killed at least one of his captors, and injured a number of others. He was then returned to his cell, where he was later found dead.

This version of events could not be independently confirmed. Hamen’s wife announced his death on Facebook in early November. The State Department has confirmed his death but would not comment on further details, citing the privacy of his family, and Hamen’s family also declined to speak about his death.

Hamen’s colleague, whose name The Intercept is withholding, remains detained in Yemen. The colleague’s wife said that she had been advised not to speak to the media.

At least one other American is still stuck in Yemen. Sharif Mobley, a 31-year-old man from New Jersey, has been imprisoned since 2010 on suspicions of links to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and now faces murder charges for allegedly killing a prison guard. In a phone call to his lawyers last month, Mobley said his guards were “showing a lot of animosity to me because I’m an American.” Mobley’s family has gotten no response from the U.S. government to repeated pleas to intervene on his behalf.

The State Department declined to comment on either Mobley’s case or that of Hamen’s colleague, or to say whether it had an estimate of the number of other U.S. citizens detained in Yemen. “We strive to assist U.S. citizens detained abroad whenever possible,” a spokesperson said. The FBI did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Americans under suspicion

Despite their frequent use of the slogan “Death to America,” the Houthis, who swept into Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, late last year, did not initially target or kidnap Americans. Journalists working in Sanaa in the early months of the takeover were able to move around with relative freedom.

But Hadi’s government collapsed in January, and in March, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states began pummeling the Houthis with airstrikes. Saudi Arabia sees the Shiite Houthis as an Iranian proxy force, and wants to restore Hadi to counter Iranian power in the region. (The actual level of Iranian support to the Houthi campaign is disputed.) The Houthis, meanwhile, have been joined by Yemeni Army soldiers loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who led Yemen for 30 years until the Arab Spring uprisings.

Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen has contributed to a humanitarian catastrophe. More than 5,700 people — at least 2,600 of them civilians — have been killed since March. The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights estimated in September that two-thirds of the civilian casualties had come from Saudi airstrikes, which have also destroyed a 1,200-year-old mosque, famed old city quarters, and other archeological treasures. Rights groups have said that many of the airstrikes kill civilians indiscriminately and could amount to war crimes. A Saudi blockade, in the meantime, has kept aid from reaching the country.

The United States has provided critical support for this campaign, including refueling assistance and intelligence, contributing to anti-American sentiment in Yemen. Last month, the State Department approved a $1.29 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, including thousands of bombs.

The United States withdrew all military and diplomatic personnel from Yemen last March as the fighting began. Any Americans who remained came under immediate suspicion. Haisam Farran, the American security contractor, told the Washington Post that his captors beat him and tried to make him sign a confession that he was a spy.

A Houthi source told The Intercept that Hamen and his colleague had also been arrested on suspicion of being spies and that the National Security Bureau tracked other U.S. citizens for the same reason. (The National Security Bureau, or NSB, is a remnant of the former government, with both Houthis and loyalists of ex-President Saleh now controlling its operations.) The three U.S. citizens reportedly released in November were “closely followed by NSB for being spy suspects,” the source said.

It’s not just Americans being rounded up. The Houthis have tagged local political parties and rag-tag armed groups as al Qaeda affiliates and arrested large numbers of them.

“Reporters, members of Islah [a rival Islamist political party], civil rights activists — everyone opposed to the Houthi regime is being threatened, regardless of citizenship,” said Charles Schmitz, a professor of geography at Towson University in Baltimore and longtime Yemen observer.

A new hostage policy at work?

Yemen has been a testing ground for the U.S. government’s much criticized approach to dealing with hostage situations. Families of those held or killed by the Islamic State and al Qaeda have questioned longtime U.S. policies, such as refusing to pay ransom demands and releasing little public information about the kidnappings. Families have also complained of a lack of communication and brusque treatment from U.S. officials.

Luke Somers, a photojournalist captured by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, died last year during a botched rescue attempt by U.S. commandos. His family was provided “very little information” from the U.S. government throughout his captivity, his stepmother told The Intercept in an interview at the time. “It was absolutely awful, the silence,” she said.

In June, the White House announced changes to its hostage policy, including the creation of an FBI-led Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which took the lead on communicating with families.

Jill Hammill, journalist Casey Coombs’ mother, said that the FBI had made an effort to assist her family, and called them regularly throughout the ordeal.

Oman has facilitated most of the evacuations of foreigners from Yemen. A Houthi source said that a delegation would meet with American officials in Oman to discuss John Hamen’s death and other U.S. citizens still in Houthi custody. “That will be one main part of the discussion topics with the Americans,” he said. He would not specify when exactly the discussions would take place. The State Department did not comment on the possibility of meetings in Oman.

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