The Holy War Revolving Door

While Congress acts to keep Guantanamo Bay open, a report shows an increasing number of detainees head back to the jihad.

The release of Congress’ omnibus spending bill on December 8 may have effectively ended President Obama’s long held desire to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. However, this news is overshadowed by a report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) that shows a disturbing increase in the number of Guantanamo’s former detainees heading back to wage jihad.

If passed, the spending bill would block all funding to either transfer detainees to existing American prisons, or to build a new prison on American soil in which to house them. Even though the measure would be in effect for only one year, chances of its funding restrictions being extended beyond that are very good, given Republicans will soon be in control of much of Congress for the next two years.

While the Congressional move comes as a relief to those who have long advocated keeping Guantanamo the permanent home for terrorist detainees, the release of the DNI report, which found that 25% of the detainees released from Guantanamo Bay had resumed terrorist activities, dampens that mood.

The DNI report, whose publication had been mandated by the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Bill passed by Congress, found that 150 of the 598 detainees released as of October 2010 were either confirmed or suspected to be “reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities after transfer.”

Most of the 598 detainees had been released under the Bush administration, although President Obama, since taking office in 2009, has reduced the Gitmo population from 240 terrorists down to 174.

The DNI findings display a marked increase from earlier Department of Defense (DOD) estimates on the number of former detainees choosing a return back to the jihad. In June 2008 the DOD found 37 such cases; in January 2009, 61: and in April 2009, 74.

As troubling as these figures may be, there are those who believe the true recidivism rates to be probably much higher than what has already been reported. They point out that, absent encountering the returned terrorist on the battlefield, one must be in possession of some extremely good intelligence to ascertain what the terrorist is really up to, intelligence which is often a rare commodity. As such, any recidivism figures reported can be considered just so much conjecture.

In either case, the DNI warns the current number of released detainees resuming their former trade may not remain static for too long, stating, “The Intelligence Community assesses that the number of former detainees identified as reengaged in terrorist or insurgent activity will increase."

The DNI findings evoked some harsh criticism, in particular from Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO), Vice-Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who called the idea of so many terrorists roaming free “alarming.” Yet, the report seemed to come as little surprise to the Obama administration. According to State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley, the administration “actually expected this would happen.”

While that view may provide little comfort to those who may soon find themselves targets of these newly re-circulated terrorists, it did line up with previous administration sentiments, specifically those voiced by President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan. In February 2010 he had noted that 20 percent of terrorists caught rejoining the jihad wouldn’t be “that bad.”

In fact, for its part, the Obama administration has blamed any increased terrorist recidivism as due to the Bush administration’s poor review process, a step that was supposed to be rectified by Obama’s January 2009 Executive Order that aimed to strengthen the process to determine which detainees could be placed on trial and which could be transferred overseas.

Yet the DNI report has stated that since January 2009, 66 terrorists have been released, with 5 either confirmed or suspected as returning to reengage in terrorist activities. This comes despite the administration’s own insistence earlier in 2010 that none of the detainees it had released had returned back to the terrorist fold. In a February 2010 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, John Brennan had written:

“I want to underscore the fact that all of these cases relate to detainees released during the previous Administration and under the prior detainee review process. The report indicates no confirmed or suspected recidivists among detainees transferred during this Administration.”

Of course, to find this now not to be the case comes as little surprise to critics who have claimed the Obama administration has been long relaxing the review process in order to drain the facility of detainees as quickly as possible.

Intelligence analysts have been on record accusing the Obama administration of purposely minimizing the dangers associated with transferring detainees by rewriting the threat assessments given to them by military and intelligence officials

For its own part, the DNI defended the current review process in its report, stating “every decision to transfer a detainee to a foreign country under this review was made after a full assessment of intelligence and threat information.”

However, the DNI also acknowledges that even the most stringent review won’t prevent a return to jihad by some detainees, reporting that “based on trends identified during the past six years, the Intelligence Community further assesses that if additional detainees are transferred from GITMO, some of them will reengage in terrorist or insurgent activities."

That seems like a gamble the US government has been willing to take as it has been furiously trying to find new overseas homes for its detainee population for some time. This fact was unfortunately detailed through the damaging disclosure of documents publicized by Wikileaks that cited a long standing effort begun under the Bush administration and continued by Obama to pressure foreign governments into taking detainees from Guantanamo.

These efforts included offering millions of dollars in aid to the island nation of Kirabati if it would take in Chinese Muslim detainees; informing Belgium that acceptance of detainees would constitute “a low-cost way to gain prominence in Europe”; and efforts to get Canada to take Omar Khadr, who had already confessed to five counts of war crimes, including the murder of an American soldier in Afghanistan.

Despite these diligent attempts to secure foreign terrorist housing, many nations still remain reluctant to take in the detainees, which makes a lot of sense given that the United States has no desire to house them on its soil either.

In the end, however, it probably matters less where the remaining and/or future detainees at Guantanamo are taken to anyway, but rather more important what happens to them once they get there. For, if that trip happens to include a scheduled release, as the DNI report so starkly reveals, then sooner or later we all, unfortunately, will be seeing them again.

Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog, or contact him at [email protected].