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Gitmo Is Not Al Qaeda's 'Number One Recruitment Tool'

2:24 PM, Dec 27, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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During a press conference on December 22, President Obama was asked about the difficulties his administration has encountered in trying to close Guantanamo. The president explained (emphasis added):

Obviously, we haven’t gotten it closed.  And let me just step back and explain that the reason for wanting to close Guantanamo was because my number one priority is keeping the American people safe.  One of the most powerful tools we have to keep the American people safe is not providing al Qaeda and jihadists recruiting tools for fledgling terrorists.
 
And Guantanamo is probably the number one recruitment tool that is used by these jihadist organizationsAnd we see it in the websites that they put up.  We see it in the messages that they're delivering.

President Obama and his surrogates have made this argument before, but they have provided no real evidence that it is true. In fact, al Qaeda’s top leaders rarely mention Guantanamo in their messages to the West, Muslims and the world at large.

No journalist in attendance had the opportunity to challenge President Obama’s assertion. The president should have been asked: If Guantanamo is such a valuable recruiting tool, then why do al Qaeda’s leaders rarely mention it?

THE WEEKLY STANDARD has reviewed translations of 34 messages and interviews delivered by top al Qaeda leaders operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan (“Al Qaeda Central”), including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, since January 2009. The translations were published online by the NEFA Foundation. Guantanamo is mentioned in only 3 of the 34 messages. The other 31 messages contain no reference to Guantanamo. And even in the three messages in which al Qaeda mentions the detention facility it is not a prominent theme.

Instead, al Qaeda’s leaders repeatedly focus on a narrative that has dominated their propaganda for the better part of two decades. According to bin Laden, Zawahiri, and other al Qaeda chieftains, there is a Zionist-Crusader conspiracy against Muslims. Relying on this deeply paranoid and conspiratorial worldview, al Qaeda routinely calls upon Muslims to take up arms against Jews and Christians, as well as any Muslims rulers who refuse to fight this imaginary coalition.

This theme forms the backbone of al Qaeda’s messaging – not Guantanamo.

To illustrate this point, consider the results of some basic keyword searches. Guantanamo is mentioned a mere 7 times in the 34 messages we reviewed. (Again, all 7 of those references appear in just 3 of the 34 messages.)

By way of comparison, all of the following keywords are mentioned far more frequently: Israel/Israeli/Israelis (98 mentions), Jew/Jews (129), Zionist(s) (94), Palestine/Palestinian (200), Gaza (131), and Crusader(s) (322). (Note: Zionist is often paired with Crusader in al Qaeda’s rhetoric.)

Naturally, al Qaeda’s leaders also focus on the wars in Afghanistan (333 mentions) and Iraq (157). Pakistan (331), which is home to the jihadist hydra, is featured prominently, too. Al Qaeda has designs on each of these three nations and implores willing recruits to fight America and her allies there. Keywords related to other jihadist hotspots also feature more prominently than Gitmo, including Somalia (67 mentions), Yemen (18) and Chechnya (15).  

Simply put, there is no evidence in the 34 messages we reviewed that al Qaeda’s leaders are using Guantanamo as a recruiting tool. Undoubtedly, “Al Qaeda Central” has released other messages during the past two years that are not included in our sample. Some of those messages may refer to Guantanamo. And some of the al Qaeda messages provided by NEFA, which does a remarkable job collecting and translating al Qaeda’s statements and interviews, may be only partial translations of longer texts.

However, the messages we reviewed also surely include most of what al Qaeda’s honchos have said publicly since January 2009. These messages do not support the president’s claim.

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