On January 22, President Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force completed its final report, which outlined the administration’s plan for the remaining detainees held at Guantanamo. The Task Force was set up as part of the president’s effort to close Gitmo.
THE WEEKLY STANDARD has obtained a copy of the report, as well as Attorney General Eric Holder’s transmittal memorandum. As explained below, the Task Force concluded that 95 percent of the detainees held at Gitmo, as of January 2009, had at least some noteworthy connection to the terrorist network.
The Task Force also concluded that the 240 detainees subject to its review, and held at Gitmo on President Obama’s first day in office, should be treated as follows:
126 of the detainees were approved for transfer to either their home nations or third countries. 59 of the 126 detainees had previously been approved for transfer by the Bush administration. As of the date the report was finalized, January 22, 44 of the 126 detainees had already been transferred. Several more detainees have been transferred since then.
36 detainees were referred for active prosecutions, either by a federal court or military commission. Initially, the Task Force recommended 44 detainees be prosecuted, but 8 were taken off the prosecution list for various reasons. 1 of those 8 was granted his habeas corpus petition by a District Court Judge.
48 detainees will be held indefinitely under Obama’s plan. These detainees “were determined to be too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution.”
30 detainees from Yemen are being held in “conditional” detention “based on the current security environment” of their home country. The Task Force highlighted the difficulties in transferring detainees to Yemen, especially in the wake of the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day 2009. That attack was planned by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is headquartered in Yemen and has many former Gitmo detainees in its ranks. After the attack, President Obama authorized a moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen. According to the Task Force, the 30 Yemeni detainees “are not approved for repatriation to Yemen at this time, but may be transferred to third countries, or repatriated to Yemen in the future if the current moratorium on transfers to Yemen is lifted and other security conditions are met.”
The Task Force’s report contradicts some popular misconceptions. For example, press accounts frequently note that detainees have been “cleared for release.” The implication is that the detainees are either innocent or no longer a threat. The Task Force’s report makes it clear that neither interpretation is correct.
The Task Force distinguishes between detainee “releases” and “transfers.” Release “is used to mean release from confinement without the need for continuing security measures in the receiving country.” Transfer “is used to mean release from confinement subject to appropriate security measures.” The distinction is an important one.
In fact, other than 17 Uighur detainees held at Gitmo in January 2009, “no detainees were approved for ‘release’ during the course of the [Task Force’s] review.” (The Uighurs were approved for “transfer or release” under a peculiar set of circumstances.) This means that all of the other 109 detainees approved for transfer are subject to release from Gitmo as long as “appropriate security measures” are taken by the receiving country.
The Task Force explained why such security measures are necessary for transferred detainees. “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. Moreover, “It is also important to emphasize that a decision to approve a detainee for transfer does not equate to a judgment that the government lacked legal authority to hold the detainee.”
The Task Force also found that the overwhelming majority of the detainees played some role in the terror network. This directly contradicts widespread assertions that many of the detainees are innocent goat herders.
The Task Force created four categories of classification (“threat profiles”) for the detainees held at Gitmo as of January 2009.
The first category is the “high end of the threat spectrum,” and includes “leaders, planners, operatives, and facilitators within al-Qaida or associated groups who are directly implicated in terrorist plots against U.S. interests.” The Task Force concluded that “roughly” 10 percent (or 24 detainees) of the detainee population as of January 2009 belonged in this category. Arch-terrorists such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are among the more notorious members of this first category.
The second category includes other detainees who have “played significant organizational roles within al-Qaida or associated terrorist organizations, even if they may not have been directly involved in terrorist plots against U.S. targets.” The Task Force explained:
This group includes, for example, individuals responsible for overseeing or providing logistical support to al-Qaida’s training operations in Afghanistan; facilitators who helped move money and personnel for al-Qaida; a cadre of Usama bin Laden’s bodyguards, who held a unique position of trust within al-Qaida; and well-trained operatives who were being groomed by al-Qaida leaders for future terrorist operations.
The Task Force placed “roughly” 20 percent (48 detainees) of the Gitmo population in this second category.
The Task Force’s third category includes “Taliban leaders,” as well as “members of anti-Coalition militia groups” who were “involved in local insurgent networks in Afghanistan implicated in attacks on Coalition forces.” The Task Force placed less than 10 percent (or less than 24 detainees) of the Gitmo population held as of January 2009 in this category.
The Task Force’s fourth, and final, category includes “[l]ow-level foreign fighters” with “varying degrees of connection to al-Qaida, the Taliban, or associated groups, but who lacked a significant leadership or specialized role.” The Task Force explains:
These detainees were typically captured in combat zones during the early stages of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, often by Northern Alliance troops or other allied forces, without being specifically targeted for capture by (or even known to) the U.S. military in advance. Many were relatively recent recruits to training camps in Afghanistan run by al-Qaida or other groups, where they received limited weapons training, but do not appear to have been among those selected for more advanced training geared toward terrorist operations abroad.
The Task Force placed a “majority of the detainees” in this fourth category. Low-level fighters are, of course, the ones who do the bulk of al Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s fighting. It is also from their ranks that the higher-ups recruit individuals for martyrdom operations. For example, Abdullah al Ajmi was a low-level fighter when he was captured and detained at Guantanamo. Al Ajmi was transferred to Kuwait in 2005 and then made his way to Iraq where he detonated a car bomb in a suicide attack in March 2008. 13 Iraqis were killed in that attack.
The Task Force did not argue that “low-level foreign fighters” pose no threat, of course. The Task Force simply concluded that these detainees pose less of a threat than terrorists such as the September 11 plotters and other more experienced detainees.
Reading between the lines, it appears that the Task Force placed roughly 55 percent of the Gitmo population (or 132 detainees) as of January 2009 in this fourth category.
In sum, the Task Force found that 95 percent of the detainees (or 228 detainees) held at Gitmo as of January 2009 were properly placed in one of the four categories described above. Only 5 percent of the Gitmo population did not fit into one of these categories, and the Task Force placed these individuals in a “miscellaneous” category. It is not clear who these detainees are, but the Task Force did not dismiss them as innocents either.
Reading the Task Force’s final report, it is clear why closing Gitmo has been so problematic. President Obama’s own task force concluded that the overwhelming majority, 95 percent, of the detainee population had some noteworthy connection to the terror network. And no detainees, except for 17 Uighur detainees, have been cleared for “release.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.