How Many Gitmo Alumni Take Up Arms?

Not nearly as many as the Department of Defense is claiming.

Virginie Montet/AFP/Getty Images
Virginie Montet/AFP/Getty Images

Almost a decade after the first detainees accused of terrorism were sent to the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and almost two years after U.S. President Barack Obama promised to close the prison within a year, more than 170 of Guantánamo’s prisoners remain in custody.

A total of almost 800 men have been held at Guantánamo at one time or another since it opened in January 2002, and around 600 have been released, according to the New York Times‘s Guantánamo Docket database. More than half of the ex-detainees have been sent to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia; 14 percent to Pakistan and Yemen.

There’s no question that some of these men have taken up arms since their release. But how many? On the ninth anniversary of Guantánamo’s opening, understanding the threat posed by the detainees who have already been released will better inform the debate over what to do with those who remain. Unfortunately, that debate has been hobbled by a lack of transparency on the part of the U.S. government, making it difficult for outside observers to make their own judgments. What follows is an attempt to sort out what is known on the public record.

The U.S. intelligence community claims that the percentage of confirmed released detainees engaging in terrorism or insurgency increased from 5.1 percent of those who were released by March 2009 to 13.5 percent of releases by October 2010, and that the number of those suspected of terrorist or insurgent activity similarly rose from 8.8 percent in March 2009 to 11.5 percent in October 2010.

In other words, the U.S. government now asserts that an astonishing one in four of those released from Guantánamo are either terrorists/insurgents or suspected to be. (The government is careful to point out that detainees who merely engage in anti-U.S. propaganda after their release from Guantánamo are not counted as confirmed or suspected terrorists.)

The vast majority of the 150 men who the U.S. government has now identified as confirmed or suspected terrorists/insurgents were released under President George W. Bush administration, though five were released by the Obama administration. However, a statement from the director of national intelligence dated October 2010 that was released in December predicts that the number of detainees identified as terrorists or insurgents will very likely further increase, as a review of Guantánamo detainees’ release dates shows a lag time of about two and a half years before they "reengaged in terrorist or insurgent activity."

The U.S. government is correct that some Guantánamo alumni have gone on to pose a significant danger to American interests following their release. Said al-Shihri, who was returned to his native Saudi Arabia in 2007, has since become a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was responsible for the failed attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, an attack that could have killed at least 300 people.

Similarly, Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul was sent back to Afghanistan in 2007 and was released by the Afghan government. Sometimes going by the name "Mullah Zakir," Rasoul has been named by U.S. military officials as the most important Taliban military leader in southern Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has identified by name only about 20 percent of those 150 men confirmed or believed to have taken up arms since their release from Guantánamo, citing security concerns, and so the government’s claim that one in four are believed to be back on the battlefield must be largely taken on trust.

However, our analysis of Pentagon reports, news stories, and other publicly available documents concerning the 600 or so released detainees suggests that when threats to the United States are considered, the true rate for those who have taken up arms or are suspected of doing so is more like 6 percent, or one in 17. This figure represents an increase of 2 percentage points from our previous analysis from July 2009, which indicated that barely 4 percent of those released from the prison in Cuba were confirmed or suspected of engaging in terrorist or insurgent activities against the United States or its interests.

In our investigation of recidivism from Guantánamo, we identified 36 individuals by name who are suspected or confirmed of engaging in anti-American terrorist activities, and 12 who are engaged in alleged terrorism or anti-government insurgent activities somewhere in the world, though these activities are not targeted against the United States or its immediate allies in the current U.S.-led wars — the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (When we had a reasonable suspicion that a former detainee had engaged in both anti-American militant actions and terrorism or insurgent activities against other governments, we included that person in the group of anti-American suspected or confirmed terrorists/insurgents.)

The first group, comprising 6 percent of total releases, records those accused of engaging in anti-American insurgent activities, men like Shihri and Rasoul, along with others like Mohammed Yusif Yaqub and Maulvi Abdul Ghaffar, who joined insurgent operations in Afghanistan and were killed in 2004; and Ibrahim bin Shakaran and Mohammed bin Ahmad Mizouz, who were convicted in Morocco in 2007 of trying to recruit Moroccans to join al Qaeda in Iraq. Another is Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who gained attention for his poetry while at Guantánamo and was reportedly traded to the Taliban in 2008 in exchange for Pakistan’s ambassador in Afghanistan. Dost is now, according to some sources, a Taliban commander in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Other former Guantánamo detainees have been linked to plots against the West; the Swedish citizen Mehdi Mohammed Ghezali was released from the prison in 2004, only to be arrested with several others in Pakistan in 2009, allegedly on his way to meet with al Qaeda militants in Pakistan’s restive North Waziristan.

The second group, which makes up 2 percent of total identified releases, comprises men who are suspected or confirmed of having engaged in terrorism or insurgent activities not against the United States and its immediate allies in the war against al Qaeda but against governments elsewhere in the world. Several insurgents who have attacked Russian interests are included in this category. We do not condone terrorism or militancy in any form; in making this distinction, we are merely pointing out that those in this second category have not been accused or suspected of attacking U.S. interests and in many cases are accused only of the vague charge of "association" with a militant group somewhere in the world.

Because the Pentagon has not released the names of most of the men it claims are suspected or confirmed of engaging in terrorist activities (in the last relevant document, which was released in early 2009, only 29 of the government’s 74 alleged confirmed or suspected recidivists were listed by name), there might be some additional former detainees who are suspected or confirmed of engaging in terrorism or insurgent activities who we could not identify in the publicly available sources. However, because al Qaeda and the Taliban consider recruiting former Guantánamo detainees as great propaganda victories and trumpet them in media releases, significant numbers of recidivists are unlikely to have gone unheralded.

Some may argue that even a 1 percent recidivism rate is too high, while others point out that recidivism figures among criminals released from American prisons are in the 60 percent range. Our point is not about what number of detainees "returning to the battlefield" should be deemed acceptable; rather we call on the U.S. government to be more transparent about the alleged terrorist activities of those it considers recidivists who pose a threat to America in order to better inform the debate about how and when to finally close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay.

Please click here for a list of those we have identified by name as potential confirmed or suspected recidivists.

Andrew Lebovich is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a doctoral candidate in African history at Columbia University. He is currently based in Senegal and has conducted field research in Niger and Mali.

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