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From Enemy Combatant to American Immigrant

2:30 PM, Mar 19, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Yesterday, Attorney General Holder said that some of the current Guantanamo detainees may be released in the United States. Press reports indicate that Holder and the Obama administration are considering releasing some or all of the Uighur detainees at Guantanamo onto U.S. soil. That would be a mistake.

There are currently 17 Uighurs held at Guantanamo. Five others were previously sent to Albania. All 22 of the Uighurs are openly opposed to the Chinese government, but claim that they have no animosity for America. Before the Obama administration dropped the "enemy combatant" label altogether, the government decided that the Uighurs did not satisfy the definition of an "enemy combatant."

It is not entirely clear why. The Uighur detainees were initially classified as enemy combatants during hearings at Guantanamo and then, only later, the classification was dropped. It may be that the politics of Guantanamo (including pressure from various anti-Gitmo groups, and pro-Chinese opposition sentiment) played a role in that decision. It is also likely that the government thought it was not worth fighting in the courts after judges decided the Uighurs did not meet the enemy combatant standard. (In my view, the opinions that have been issued thus far ignore a wealth of publicly-available information.)

Let's be clear on the Uighur detainees: None of them are first-order threats. None of them should be counted among the "worst of the worst" detained by American forces, either at Guantanamo or abroad. We are not talking about terrorists of the same caliber as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It is also clear that some detainees who posed a more serious threat to national security have already been released or transferred. The only reason the Uighurs are still at Guantanamo is because the Bush administration could not safely transfer them back to China. There were and are human rights concerns. The Uighur detainees probably would have received rough treatment, or possibly even been executed.

Given all that, however, it is mistake to say the Uighur detainees pose no threat whatsoever. In brief, here are four reasons why. (You can also read my previous reporting on this topic here and here.)First, the Uighur detainees are alleged, for good reasons, to be members or associates of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The ETIM is a designated terrorist organization affiliated with al Qaeda.

There is sound evidence that the Uighur detainees are affiliated with the ETIM. For example, most of the detainees have made admissions during their tribunals and hearings at Guantanamo that tie them to the group. The ETIM is a jihadist organization and not part of some noble anti-China resistance. So, even if you have sympathy for the Chinese government's opposition (as I do), including other Uighur organizations, the Uighur detainees at Guantanamo are not part of any legitimate, anti-Chinese government organization that deserves our support. The ETIM is an ideological cousin of al Qaeda that seeks to establish a radical Islamist state throughout South and Central Asia.

Second, many of the Uighur detainees have freely admitted during their tribunals and hearings at Guantanamo that they were trained by two known terrorists: Hasan Mahsum and Abdul Haq.

Mahsum was killed in Waziristan in 2003. Haq is still active. Neither Mahsum nor Haq can be considered legitimate freedom fighters. Open source accounts, as well as the testimony of knowledgeable experts, indicate that both Haq and Mahsum had ties to senior al Qaeda terrorists, including Osama bin Laden and Abu Zubaydah. Mahsum operated in the Mullah Omar's Kabul for years and received the Taliban's support repeatedly.

Third, the Uighur detainees' training took place at a camp in Tora Bora, Afghanistan -- a known stronghold for al Qaeda and the Taliban.