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Gitmo Transfers are Not Risk Free

Spain worries about the risks of former Gitmo detainees, while a German official repeats a common meme.

2:45 PM, Jul 8, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Two noteworthy stories dealing with Gitmo detainee transfers came out of Europe this week. The first comes from Spain, where the daily newspaper El Mundo reports that Spanish intelligence authorities are worried about the risks posed by transferred detainees.

Gitmo Transfers are Not Risk Free

In an article titled “Intelligence Services Warn of Terror Attacks by Al Qaeda,” El Mundo reported on classified assessments performed by intelligence officials who concluded that the risk of a terrorist attack “continues to be high.”  The Spanish officials did not cite any imminent plots, but noted that there had been numerous terror-related arrests across Spain in recent years.

They also noted something else: The threat posed by Gitmo detainees transferred to Europe.

According to a translation of the El Mundo article, Spanish intelligence officials warned that when European nations take in Gitmo detainees, it is viewed by terrorists as “cooperating with the declared enemies of Islam.” These same officials consider transferred detainees to be a “risk factor” when evaluating the threat of future attacks.

This will surely come as news to many. There is a widespread misperception that when detainees are transferred from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, they have been “cleared for release.” The implication of this three-word phrase is that the detainees who are transferred are considered to be either innocents who were wrongly detained, or non-threats. However, as President Obama’s own Gitmo task force made clear in its final report, neither interpretation is accurate.

In fact, no detainees have been “cleared for release” other than some of the Uighur detainees who were held at Gitmo when President Obama first took office. Instead, the task force approved a subset of the detainee population for “transfer,” which does entail some risk.

As the Task Force explained in its report, “It is important to emphasize that a decision to approve a detainee for transfer does not reflect a decision that the detainee poses no threat or no risk of recidivism.”

The task force explained further, that the word transfer “is used to mean release from confinement subject to appropriate security measures.” That is, all of the detainees transferred to Europe are supposed to be subjected to some security measures by their new host country. In practice, this is probably not the case, as there is wide latitude to travel around Europe. But that is the intent behind detainee transfers.

Despite the fact that President Obama’s task force was clear on this, there is still much confusion.

This brings us to the second piece of Gitmo transfer-related news this week: Germany has agreed to take in two detainees.

In justifying that decision, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere explained: “We are not going to allow any terrorists into Germany.” According to Reuters, de Maiziere elaborated: “The United States has asked us to take three people who were cleared for release. We decided to take in two who we were almost certain would pose no threat to society. With the third we weren't sure.”

You will notice that de Maiziere used the “cleared for release” phrase. Again, no detainees (with the exception of some of the Uighurs) have been “cleared for release.” And neither of the two detainees Germany has agreed to take -- one is Syrian and the other is from the Palestinian Territories – have been “cleared for release.”

Either de Maiziere doesn’t know this, or he is simply trying to downplay the significance of Germany’s decision by using phraseology that is commonly employed by Western press outlets. And when de Maiziere says Germany is “almost certain” the detainees in question “would pose no threat to society” he is using language that is stronger than wording employed by Obama’s task force.

It is worth repeating the task force’s words: “It is important to emphasize that a decision to approve a detainee for transfer does not reflect a decision that the detainee poses no threat or no risk of recidivism.”

To get a better understanding of the risks posed by transferred detainees, perhaps de Maiziere should contact the Spanish intelligence officials cited by El Mundo. Not all of the detainees approved for transfer are first-order threats, but the potential threat posed by any individual detainee cannot be dismissed entirely either.  

After all, more than 100 former Gitmo detainees are either confirmed or suspected recidivists. Just this past week, for example, one former detainee was arrested in Pakistan on terrorism-related charges. And, interestingly, even de Maiziere concedes that Germany was not sure about one of the detainees the Obama administration asked his nation to take in.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). 

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