An email news alert sent out by the Washington Post on Friday evening reads: “Few Guantanamo detainees had significant roles, official review concludes.” This makes it sound as if most of the detainees held at Guantanamo are therefore insignificant. But that’s not true.
The email alert leads to an article with a different and less dismissive title by Peter Finn: “With Guantanamo detainee review completed, political implications remain.” Finn’s piece deals with the same report I wrote about on Thursday.
That report was authored by President Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force, which concluded that at least 95 percent of the detainees held at Gitmo as of January 2009 played some discernible role within the terror network. That is, they aren’t innocent goat herders.
But the Post did not lead off with the 95 percent figure. Instead, here is the introduction to Finn’s account:
About 10 percent of the 240 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when President Obama took office were “leaders, operatives and facilitators involved in plots against the United States,” but the majority were low-level fighters, according to a previously undisclosed government report. About 5 percent of the detainees could not be categorized at all.
For the record, and because the Post’s email alert is probably a good indication of how the Task Force’s report will be spun, “low-level fighters” are not insignificant. They are the ones who do the majority of al Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s fighting. They are also the ones who carry out martyrdom missions.
The big fish, those who are in the top 10 percent of the Gitmo population (terrorists such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), are few and far between. It isn’t surprising that the Task Force found that the majority of the detainees do not fit into this category. There are not hundreds of master terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed walking around. Most of the terrorists serving the Taliban and al Qaeda on the day of the 9/11 attacks were low-level. The same is true today. So, that is exactly what we would expect to find in any detention facility filled with a cross-section of detainees from across the terror network.
To drive home the point, here are ten examples of Gitmo detainees who, using the Task Force’s methodology, would have been considered “low-level” fighters while detained. These are Gitmo detainees who almost certainly were not believed to be in the top 10 percent of the Gitmo population prior to their transfer from Gitmo. There are many more. None of them are insignificant.
Othman Ahmed al Ghamdi, who appeared as a commander in an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) video earlier this week, was trained in an al Qaeda camp and fought on the front lines in Afghanistan for more than one year prior to his detention. He didn’t hold a leadership position prior to his detention at Gitmo. Now, a few years after being repatriated, he has risen the ranks to become an AQAP commander. Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have to start somewhere – that is, as “low-level” fighters. They don’t automatically jump into leadership roles.
Mullah Zakir, who is one of the top Taliban commanders today, convinced Gitmo authorities that he was a low-level Taliban fighter. He was transferred to Afghanistan, set free, and is now the head of the Taliban’s anti-surge forces in southern Afghanistan. He is close to Mullah Omar. When news of Zakir’s recidivism broke, the Taliban revealed that he was in fact an important Taliban leader prior to his capture. That is, some low-level fighters are able to conceal their identities.
Abdul Hafiz was repatriated to Afghanistan in December 2009 by the Obama administration. He was one of the low-level Taliban fighters that the administration figured they could transfer. Hafiz quickly rejoined the Taliban. Hafiz was detained because he was implicated in the murder of a Red Cross worker. Today, he heads a Taliban committee in charge of hunting charity workers.
Hani Abdo Shalaan was one of the few “low-level” fighters the Bush administration transferred to Yemen. He was killed while plotting a suicide attack against the British embassy in Yemen last year.
Yousef al Shihri was a low-level fighter transferred to Saudi Arabia by the Bush administration. He was killed by Saudi security forces last year. Al Shihri was dressed as a woman and wearing a suicide explosives belt at the time.
Abdullah al Ajmi was a low-level al Qaeda recruit at the time of his detention. He was transferred to his native Kuwait during the Bush years and then made his way to Iraq. In early 2008, he blew himself up in Mosul, killing 13 Iraqis.
Abdullah Mehsud was considered so low-level that he was transferred from Guantanamo before the combatant status review tribunals (CSRTs) were even held. He quickly rose up the terror network’s ranks upon release, becoming one of the most powerful Taliban commanders in South Waziristan. Mehsud blew himself up in 2007 in order to avoid recapture by Pakistani officials.
Mohammed Ismail, like Abdullah Mehsud, was considered so low-level that he was transferred from Guantanamo to Afghanistan before the CSRTs in 2004. According to the Department of Defense, Ismail is a “confirmed” recidivist after taking part in an attack on U.S. forces as a member of the Taliban.
Mohammed Yusif Yaqub, like the previous two former detainees on this list, was released before the CSRTs, indicating that officials thought he was low-level. He was repatriated to Afghanistan in May 2003. According to a DoD report, he became a Taliban commander in Afghanistan, organized a jailbreak in Kandahar, and was killed while fighting U.S. forces about one year later.
Ibrahim Shair Sen was also transferred in November 2003, or before the CSRTs. Again, this likely indicates he was considered to be low-level. According to a DoD report, he was arrested in Turkey in January 2008 and indicted in June 2008 “as the leader of al-Qaida cells.” Sen “also recruited and trained new members, provided illegal weapons to the group, and facilitated the movement of jihadists.”
There are many more examples such as those outlined above.
In 9 of the 10 examples, the detainee was transferred by the Bush administration. But based on a review of the DoD’s unclassified files on each of them, as well as other information, there is every reason to believe they would be classified as “low-level” using the methodology established by Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force. While the DoD’s files for most of them (there are no public files for some of them) indicate that they received at least some terrorist training and/or participated in fighting before their detention, there is no indication that the U.S. government believed any of them held leadership positions. (In Mullah Zakir’s case, it appears U.S. officials were fooled.)
The recidivism rate for former Gitmo detainees has swelled to at least 20 percent -- and continues to grow -- because of detainees who were considered “low-level.” The U.S. government, therefore, decided to risk transferring them. Every month we learn more about how mistaken that approach has been.
That is, there is absolutely no reason to believe that “low-level” al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are not significant. And the important point, as I outlined previously, is that at least 95 percent of the detainees held at Gitmo as of January 2009 were part of the terror network when they were detained.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.