The Magazine

The Real Gitmo

What I saw at America's best detention facility for terrorists.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Guantánamo Bay, Cuba

Shortly after 5 A.M., a detainee with an uneven voice sings the call to prayer. After a few bars, a second detainee joins in by sounding out another hymn.

"That's unusual," a tower guard who looks bored after a few months on the job remarks. "Usually, just one of them does it."

Detainees assemble in a corner of the camp and begin praying. Others pace back and forth in front of their cells with prayer beads in hand. For several minutes all is quiet--eerily so. Some of the world's most dangerous terrorists lurk just a short distance from our perch atop a guard tower, but you would never know it.

Welcome to Camp 4 at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.

The iconic images of Gitmo are not photos of Camp 4, however. The pictures that have captured the world's imagination are of detainees shackled on bended knee in bright orange jumpsuits with their eyes and ears covered. Those pictures were taken more than seven and a half years ago at Camp X-Ray, in the long corridor that runs down the middle of the camp.

Today that corridor is overrun with weeds and unruly grass, and the rest of the camp is in no better state of repair. Camp X-Ray housed "war on terror" detainees for just four months, from January to April 2002. It has long since been abandoned. Banana rats, which look like some mutant combination of possum and rat, now hang from the cages that once housed the detainees. Gone, too, are the orange jumpsuits. They have been replaced by tan, white, and other neutral-colored clothing. During my multi-day tour of Guantánamo Bay, one official tells me that some journalists from Turkey wanted to take pictures of the detainees in their bright orange jumpsuits. When this official explained the detainees no longer wear those outfits, the Turkish reporters asked if a detainee could be dressed up in one for the photos as that is what their readers expect to see.

The story is emblematic of the disconnect between life at Guantánamo as it is today, and the Guantánamo of popular mythology. It is the latter that is the basis for the Obama administration's decision to close the detention facilities there.

As one of his first acts in office, President Obama ordered Guantánamo shuttered by January 2010. He has since conceded that his administration will not meet that goal. But both he and his team remain committed to the task. The chief rationale they offer is that Guantánamo has so tarnished America's image that it has become a major recruiting tool for al Qaeda. During a press conference last week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that al Qaeda's senior leaders have referred to Guantánamo some 32 times in their recruitment videos since 2001. Gibbs implied that this is a lot. It isn't. Al Qaeda refers to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the existence of Israel, as reasons to wage jihad far more frequently in its propaganda.

Gibbs pointed to the fact that senior al Qaeda leaders referred to Guantánamo four times in 2009 alone. Gibbs did not specify which messages he had in mind, but Zawahiri's August 5 tape, entitled "The Facts of Jihad and the Lies of the Hypocrites," is a typical example of al Qaeda's Gitmo-related propaganda. According to a 26-page translation published online by the NEFA Foundation, Zawahiri mentioned Guantánamo five times. By way of comparison, words related to "Iraq" and "Afghanistan" appear more than 70 times each. The words "Israel" and "Israelis" appear 39 times. The word "Zionist" appears another four times--in the context of an imagined American-Zionist conspiracy against the Muslim world. (According to Ayman al-Zawahiri, by the way, Obama is himself a participant in this conspiracy.) And the words "Jew," "Jewish," and "Jewishness" appear another 12 times.

Guantánamo has simply never been a major part of al Qaeda's recruitment strategy. But even if it were and we closed it, the terror masters would simply find the next pretext for justifying their acts. After all, if we are to close Guantánamo because al Qaeda objects to it, then why not abandon America's entire foreign policy agenda?

Nonetheless the White House presses on with closing Gitmo--even in the face of substantial controversy.

This past week, the administration confirmed that it had selected an underutilized correctional center in the town of Thomson, in northwest Illinois, as the new home for up to 100 Gitmo detainees. A letter to Illinois governor Pat Quinn announced the administration's plan for the federal government to buy the prison in Thomson and rebuild one section of it to make the facility even more secure than America's "supermax" prison in Colorado--where several convicted terrorists are currently housed. This assurance is intended to assuage any concerns over the government's ability to safely detain the Gitmo detainees on U.S. soil.