The Obama administration in recent days has proclaimed a “milestone” in its efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after achieving its long-held goal of reducing the remaining population to fewer than 100 detainees. With the expedited release this month of 14 detainees, the total now stands at 93.
This is nothing to celebrate.
In reducing these numbers, the White House has freed dangerous terrorists and set aside military and intelligence assessments warning about the risks of doing so. The Obama administration has deceived recipient countries about the threats posed by the jihadists they’ve accepted. And President Obama has repeatedly misled the American people about Guantanamo, the detainees held there, and the consequences of releasing them.
On Jan. 6, as part of the Obama administration’s accelerated Guantanamo process, Mahmmoud Omar Mohammed Bin Atef was transferred to Ghana, along with another detainee named Khalid Mohammed Salih al Dhuby. Ghana’s government portrayed the deal as an act of “humanitarian assistance,” likening the Yemeni men to nonthreatening refugees from Rwanda and Syria, noting that they “were detained in Guantanamo but have been cleared of any involvement in terrorist activities, and are being released.”
That description isn’t true for either of the men. Mr. Atef, in particular, is a cause for concern. Long before his transfer, the intelligence analysts at Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) assessed him as a “high risk” and “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.” (The JTF-GTMO threat assessments of 760 Guantanamo detainees, many written in 2008, were posted online in 2011 by WikiLeaks.) It is easy to understand the analysts’ worry about Mr. Atef. He was, they said, “a fighter in Usama bin Laden’s former 55th Arab Brigade and is an admitted member of the Taliban.” He trained at al Farouq, the infamous al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, “participated in hostilities against US and Coalition forces, and continues to demonstrate his support of UBL and extremism.”
Most ominously, the report warns that he “has threatened to kill US citizens on multiple occasions including a specific threat to cut their throats upon release.”
The obvious question: Why did officials in Ghana claim that Mr. Atef had been “cleared”? Perhaps because that is what the Obama administration led them to believe. Jojo Bruce-Quansah, the information minister at Ghana’s embassy in Washington, D.C., told us that the U.S. government provided assurances that Mr. Atef was “never involved in terrorism” and presented little risk. “If that assurance was not there,” he said, there is “no way” his government “would have taken the detainees.”
How does the White House square the intelligence assessment of Mr. Atef with the assurances the administration gave Ghana? Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the National Security Council, wouldn’t address that question directly, instead telling us that Mr. Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force, which included officials from six government agencies, approved him for transfer “nearly six years ago.” Mr. Caggins declined to address the damning JTF-GTMO assessment.
But there is another problem with Mr. Caggins’s explanation. The president’s Guantanamo task force, which finished its work in January 2010, didn’t clear either Mr. Atef or Mr. Dhuby of involvement in terrorist activities, nor did the task force recommend their release.
The Obama administration is understandably reluctant to be forthcoming about the risks associated with closing Guantanamo—because the risks are significant. If the two detainees released to Ghana, or any of the 10 Yemeni men sent from Guantanamo to Oman on Thursday, return to waging jihad, they will hardly be alone among their former fellow detainees. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 196 ex-detainees are now confirmed as, or suspected of, having returned to the fight; 122 of these recidivists are currently at-large.
Mr. Obama has failed in his effort to shut Guantanamo, in part, because Congress has blocked efforts to move the detainees to the U.S. mainland. For now, the president simply keeps shipping detainees elsewhere, reiterating excuses for emptying Guantanamo that are entirely without merit. To counter the White’s House’s inaccurate claims, let us review some basic facts:
• President Obama inherited a population of high-risk detainees.
In its leaked threat assessments, JTF-GTMO gauged the threat posed by each detainee, based on his intent and capability, and then divided the population into three risk categories: low, medium and high.
By the time Mr. Obama took office in January 2009, 240 detainees remained at Guantanamo. But nearly all of the low-risk detainees and most of the medium-risk ones already had been transferred or released. Of the detainees left, the joint task force deemed approximately 180 (or 75%) to be high risk. In other words: If released, they were “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.” Fifty-eight (or 24%) were considered medium risk because they “may” pose a threat. Just two of the detainees (1%) were low risk.
Today, 93 detainees are held at the facility. At least 83 of them—almost 90%—are high risk, according to the JTF-GTMO reports.
• President Obama’s own task force didn’t find any innocent goat herders or charity workers in Guantanamo.
Upon taking office, Mr. Obama created a panel to re-evaluate the detainees. The findings of the Guantanamo Review Task Force, which completed its work in January 2010, were broadly consistent with those of JTF-GTMO. The task force grouped the 240 detainees as of January 2009 into one of five categories: “Leaders, operatives, and facilitators involved in terrorist plots against U.S. targets” (10% of the detainees); “Others with significant organization roles within al-Qaida or associated terrorist organizations” (20%); “Taliban leaders and members of anti-Coalition militia groups” (10%); “Low-level foreign fighters” (55%); and “Miscellaneous others” (5%).
It is important to note that just because a detainee was designated “low-level” doesn’t mean he posed little threat. “Low-level” fighters carry out suicide attacks, or they can graduate to more important roles. JTF-GTMO deemed many “low-level” fighters to be “high risk” for this reason.
It is often reported that a detainee has been “cleared for release,” implying that he is no longer thought to be a threat. This is not true. Mr. Obama’s task force did not recommend that a single detainee be freed. Nor did the task force “clear” any detainees of wrongdoing. Instead, the task force used the phrase “approved for transfer,” meaning “release from confinement subject to appropriate security measures.” This key distinction is often lost.
The task force also placed 30 Yemeni detainees in “conditional detention,” meaning they were “approved for transfer” under certain circumstances, but not back to their home country unless the security situation there dramatically improved. Both Mr. Atef and Mr. Dhuby were placed in this “conditional detention” category. They were not supposed to be outright “released,” as Ghana claimed. Mr. Obama’s task force envisioned that some sort of security assurances would be implemented in whichever country ultimately accepted the pair—procedures that often fail on the rare occasions that they are actually put in place.
• Detainees transferred by the Obama administration have gone back into the fight, and some have become senior al Qaeda leaders.
In many cases, the Obama administration relies on foreign governments to keep tabs on jihadists who are transferred. But the rising number of recidivists shows that, in practice, this is nearly impossible. As noted above, the intelligence community acknowledges that 196 ex-detainees are confirmed or suspected recidivists; that number is almost certain to rise as we learn more about detainees’ activities after being freed.
One notable example: In July 2010, Ibrahim al Qosi, a high-risk detainee who had served Osama bin Laden in a variety of roles, accepted a favorable plea agreement from military prosecutors. Two years later, he was transferred to his home country of Sudan. By 2014 he had joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has repeatedly tried to strike the U.S. Last month AQAP revealed that Mr. Qosi has become one of its senior leaders.
Most of the Guantanamo recidivists were freed by the Bush administration. But by transferring Mr. Qosi and other high-risk detainees, Mr. Obama is repeating his predecessor’s mistakes. Under President Bush, dozens of high-risk detainees were transferred, including Said Ali al-Shihri, who helped establish AQAP in early 2009. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2013. Mr. Qosi has effectively taken his place.
• Guantanamo is not a “recruitment brochure” for jihadists.
President Obama has repeatedly attempted to justify the transfers by describing Guantanamo as a major recruiting tool for Islamic State and al Qaeda. “The existence of Guantanamo,” the president claimed in 2009, “likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.” At his year-end news conference in December, Mr. Obama called the prison a “key magnet” for jihadist recruitment. His administration has not offered any evidence to support this assertion. A careful review of jihadist propaganda reveals that it is simply not true.
We reviewed more than 200 videos produced by Islamic State and al Qaeda since 2014 and failed to find a single one that focused on Guantanamo. The 12 extant issues of Dabiq, Islamic State’s English-language magazine, contain only four references to Guantanamo. None of these mentions it in the context of recruiting. On the occasions that Inspire, al Qaeda’s English-language magazine, has mentioned Guantanamo, it has done so mainly to note that some of the group’s most senior leaders were once held there. If anything, Inspire highlights the dangers of Mr. Obama’s policy. Guantanamo has held far more terrorists than it ever created.
Mr. Obama’s obfuscation is not limited to his specious claim about Guantanamo’s importance for jihadist recruitment. In an interview last month with Yahoo News, the president said he expected that “a handful” of detainees would return to the fight once freed. “The bottom line,” he said, “is that the strategic gains we make by closing Guantanamo will outweigh, you know, those low-level individuals who, you know, have been released so far.”
As the numbers from the Director of National Intelligence and the examples above make clear, that’s simply not true. Nearly 200 former detainees have returned to jihad or are suspected of having done so, and they include senior leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
In a quest to burnish his record by fulfilling a campaign promise to close Guantanamo, President Obama is courting a dangerous legacy.