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 organizations. And 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.
A closer look at the 3 out of 34 messages in which “Al Qaeda Central” actually referred to Guantanamo reveals just how weak the president’s argument is. Even in these messages al Qaeda is far more interested in other themes.
In a February 17, 2010 message entitled, “The Way to Save the Earth,” Osama bin Laden made an offhand reference to Guantanamo. But it is hardly a prominent feature of the terror master’s message. As bin Laden makes clear in the opening lines, his main concern is climate change.
“This is a message to the whole world about those who cause climate change and its dangers – intentionally or unintentionally – and what we must do,” bin Laden said. Bin Laden blames the “greedy heads of major corporations” and “senior capitalists” who are “characterized by wickedness and hardheartedness” for the supposed deleterious effects of global warming.
Bin Laden does refer to Guantanamo, but it is brief and in the context of a rambling passage. In the surrounding sentences, bin Laden criticizes America for waging war in Iraq for oil, incorrectly claims that America and her allies have “killed, wounded, orphaned, widowed and displaced more than 10 million Iraqis,” and calls President Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize “an extreme example of the deception and humiliation of humanity.”
If bin Laden’s February 17th message is evidence that al Qaeda is using Guantanamo as a recruiting tool, then it is also evidence that al Qaeda is using climate change and President Obama’s Nobel to earn new recruits.
The other two messages in our sample that refer to Guantanamo do not fare much better when any amount of scrutiny is applied.
In a message dated September 15, 2010, Ayman al Zawahiri focuses most of his critique on Muslim governments and especially the Pakistani government. There is a single reference to Guantanamo and it is a throwaway line in which Ayman al Zawahiri repeats the myth that America has desecrated the Koran at Gitmo. Referring to NATO, Zawahiri asks rhetorically, “And aren’t they the forces which humiliated the noble Qur’an in Guantanamo, Iraq and elsewhere?” There is no other mention of Guantanamo in the 12-page translation provided by NEFA.
In an August 5, 2009 tape entitled, “The Facts of Jihad and the Lies of the Hypocrites,” Ayman al Zawahiri mentioned Guantanamo five times. The August 5th tape comes closest to validating the president’s theory of jihadist recruitment and yet it still falls way short. Words related to “Iraq” and “Afghanistan” appear more than 70 times each. The words “Israel” and “Israelis” appear 39 times. And the word “Zionist” appears another four times—in the context of the aforementioned 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.
Last week, President Obama cited jihadist propaganda as his chief reason for closing Guantanamo. But as the analysis above makes clear, it is not true that Guantanamo is the terror network’s “number one recruitment tool.” Even if it were, al Qaeda would just move on to another pretext for its terror once Gitmo is closed.
There is no good reason for an American president to cite jihadist propaganda in defense of his policy decision. By that standard, if President Obama must close Guantanamo, then he must also withdraw all American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as move to end the “Zionist-Crusader” conspiracy against Muslims elsewhere around the world.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.