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Spinning the Gitmo Task Force's Report

A "low-level" terrorist is still a dangerous terrorist.

12:00 AM, May 29, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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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.

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