150 former Guantanamo detainees are either “confirmed or suspected of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities,” according to a new intelligence assessment released by the Director of National Intelligence’s office on Tuesday. In total, 598 detainees have been transferred out of U.S. custody at Guantanamo. 1 out of every 4, or 25 percent, of these former detainees is now considered a confirmed or suspected recidivist by the U.S. government.
The DNI’s latest assessment is a significant increase over previous estimates. In June 2008, the Department of Defense reported that 37 former detainees were “confirmed or suspected” of returning to terrorism. On January 13, 2009 -- seven months later -- Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that number had climbed to 61. As of April 2009, the DoD found that same metric had risen further to 74 -- exactly double the Pentagon's estimate just 11 months before.
In February 2010, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, confirmed that the estimated number of recidivists had increased to 20 percent. At that recidivism rate, and based on the total number of detainee transfers at that time, between 110 and 120 former Guantanamo detainees were on the U.S. government’s recidivist list in early 2010.
Thus, the DNI’s latest assessment of the Gitmo recidivism rate is higher than all previous estimates by an appreciable margin.
As with past studies, the DNI differentiates between “confirmed” and “suspected” recidivists. For a former detainee to be considered a “confirmed” recidivist, analysts must find that a “preponderance of information” identifies “a specific former GTMO detainee as directly involved in terrorist or insurgent activities.” The standard for “suspected” recidivism is somewhat less, with only “[p]lausible but unverified or single-source reporting” being necessary.
The DNI finds that 81 of the 150 former detainees on its list are confirmed recidivists, while 69 are suspected. This, too, is a marked difference from previous estimates. The last assessment of Gitmo recidivism that was released to the public, dated April 7, 2009, found there were more suspected recidivists (47) than confirmed recidivists (27). Now, not only are there more confirmed recidivists (81) than suspected recidivists (69), but the number of confirmed recidivists has also increased dramatically – from 27 to 81.
Contrary to popular mythology, former detainees who have spread anti-American propaganda, but engaged in no other terrorist activity, are not included in either the suspected or confirmed categories.
The overwhelming majority of the 150 former detainees on the DNI’s recidivist list were transferred from Gitmo by the Bush administration. This makes sense since most detainee transfers (532 of the 598 total) occurred during the Bush years.
Of the 66 detainees transferred by the Obama administration, 5 are now on the DNI’s recidivist list. Two of the five former detainees are confirmed recidivists, while three are suspected.
As recently as February of this year, the Obama administration claimed that none of the detainees it had transferred had returned to terrorism. “We believe that significant improvements to the detainee review process have contributed to significant improvements in the results,” John Brennan wrote in a letter to House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Brennan continued:
“I want to underscore the fact that all of these cases relate to detainees released during the previous Administration and under the prior detainee review process. The report indicates no confirmed or suspected recidivists among detainees transferred during this Administration, although we recognize the ongoing risk that detainees could engage in such activity.”
While that may have been true at the time, it was not for long. In March, intelligence officials confirmed that Abdul Hafiz, a former Gitmo detainee who was transferred to Afghanistan in December 2009, had returned to terrorism. Hafiz is currently a Taliban commander who hunts charity workers in Afghanistan. Hafiz was held at Gitmo because he was implicated in the murder of a Red Cross worker.
The DNI’s new assessment notes that the “number of former detainees identified as reengaged in terrorist or insurgent activity will increase.” On average, there is “about 2.5 years between” when a detainee leaves Gitmo and the U.S. Intelligence Community first learns that he has reengaged in terrorist or insurgent activities.
In other words, it is likely that more detainees who have been transferred since January 2009, and even before, will be added to the DNI’s recidivist list in the future.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.