The Magazine

Clear and Present Danger

The Obama administration is about to discover that the terrorists detained at Guantánamo are there for good reason.

Dec 1, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 11 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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It is because of these men, in particular, that the Bush administration initiated the preventive detention regime of which Guantánamo is a part. Processing them as mere lawbreakers would not have advanced the war on terror. To read them their rights and provide them lawyers would have been to throw away their intelligence value. It would have allowed them to carry to the grave many details of still active terrorist plots. The Bush administration chose a different route-harsh interrogations designed to ferret out al Qaeda's current operations before it was too late to stop them or capture those involved.

It is not clear from the early press reports whether the Obama administration will continue preventive detention in any form. Some accounts suggest that the president-elect wants to abandon it entirely, rather than reforming it. During the campaign, Obama said he wanted to return to the way we did things in the 1990s, when terrorists were put on trial after the fact. "And, you know, let's take the example of Guantánamo," Obama said. "What we know is that, in previous terrorist attacks-for example, the first attack against the World Trade Center-we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial. They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated."

This is not true. The chief bomb designer for the 1993 strike on the World Trade Center, Ramzi Yousef, was eventually detained years after the attack and was then convicted, and imprisoned. But the man who mixed the chemicals for the bomb, Abdul Rahman Yasin, is still at large, having fled to Saddam's Iraq shortly after the bomb left a crater several stories deep in southern Manhattan. More important, Obama's comment misses the fundamental lesson of 9/11. The successful prosecution of some of those responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing, as worthwhile as it was, did little to disrupt the broader terrorist network, which grew exponentially between 1993 and 2001. The best evidence of this is the fact that Ramzi Yousef's uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ("KSM"), continued to operate unmolested long after his nephew was confined at a maximum security prison in Colorado.

KSM is the best known of the high value detainees imprisoned at Guantánamo. According to the 9/11 Commission, he first proposed to Osama bin Laden the plot that grew into the September 11 attacks, and he was involved throughout the operation. KSM has also admitted involvement in dozens of other plots and attacks, including providing some of the funds for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Members of KSM's family have been at the heart of al Qaeda's conspiracy. Another of KSM's nephews, Ammar al-Baluchi, is a high value detainee at Guantánamo. The government's files note that Ammar was a "key lieutenant for KSM" during the September 11 operation.

Ramzi Binalshibh, one of KSM's 9/11 coconspirators, is another high value detainee at Guantánamo. He was al Qaeda's chief liaison between the hijackers living in the West and more senior terrorists, such as KSM, who resided in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Al Qaeda central needed Binalshibh to coordinate various details of the plot. And the hijackers, including their ringleader, Mohammed Atta, relied on Binalshibh for both advice and cash. Some of the money Binalshibh provided the hijackers came from another high value detainee, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi. During the week prior to 9/11, four of the hijackers returned unused funds to al-Hawsawi.

If the new administration follows the vision set forth by candidate Obama, terrorists such as KSM, Binalshibh, al-Baluchi, and al-Hawsawi will be tried in our federal courts with the same constitutional protections as American citizens including the presumption of innocence. But trying elite terrorists for their crimes does nothing to expose the unconsummated plots they had already set in motion at the time of their capture. Had the Bush administration taken this approach, it is likely that America would have failed to stop many al Qaeda terrorist operations that were in fact foiled.