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Hunger Games

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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In a newly released video, Ayman al Zawahiri, confederate and successor of Osama bin Laden, vows to free al Qaeda’s “imprisoned brothers” at Guantánamo. Seeking to capitalize on the controversy over the U.S. government’s force-feeding of some detainees, Zawahiri says the ongoing hunger strike exposes “the real odious and ugly face of America.” 


Oddly, Zawahiri’s opinion of the hunger strike, and Guantánamo, is similar to President Obama’s. 

Referring to Guantánamo during a speech at the National Defense University in May, Obama said that “history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it.” The president continued: “Imagine a future—10 years from now or 20 years from now—when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country.” 

Obama was particularly disturbed by the hunger strike at Guantánamo. “Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike. .  .  . Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.” 

As is so often the case, Obama’s rhetoric on Guantánamo is at odds with reality. 

According to press reports, 45 detainees have been fed via nasal tube during the hunger strike. The Miami Herald, relying on the detainees’ lawyers, has identified 24 of these detainees. We don’t know who the other 21 are. But a look at the 24 reportedly force-fed detainees who have been identified is eye-opening. 

One of the 24, for example, is Mohammed al-Qahtani, the would-be 20th hijacker on September 11, 2001. If it were up to Qahtani, he would have died a “martyr” more than a decade ago in al Qaeda’s greatest day of terror. The fact that Qahtani is being force-fed by the U.S. government says nothing about his guilt or innocence. Nor does it say anything about the necessity of keeping him in custody. 

President Obama’s own Guantánamo Review Task Force recommended that 12 of the 24 detainees identified by the Miami Herald be held in “continued detention.” This is commonly referred to as “indefinite detention,” as the detainees are not slated for prosecution or transfer. 

The task force’s decision about these detainees, according to a file released by the Defense Department, reads as follows: “Continued detention pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001), as informed by principles of the laws of war.”

So when President Obama laments the supposed lack of “justice” granted to Guantánamo’s hunger strikers, he is ignoring the fact that some of those same men are going to be held by the United States indefinitely because of a decision made by his own task force. Again, that these detainees are being force-fed says nothing about why the United States is holding them. 

The same argument applies to 2 other detainees who were slated for prosecution by the task force. One is the aforementioned Mohammed al-Qahtani.

This means that the Obama administration itself has no intention of transferring or freeing 14 of the 24 reported hunger strikers who have been force-fed.

An additional 4 detainees are Yemenis whom the task force placed in “conditional detention” because of the security situation in their native country, which is home to one of the most prolific al Qaeda affiliates, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). 

The president himself put a moratorium on transfers to Yemen after AQAP’s attempted Christmas Day 2009 attack on a Detroit-bound airliner. This was a reasonable decision for many reasons, but also means that since at least late 2009 the administration has had no intention to transfer these 4 detainees home. 

For these 4, the situation is even more complicated. In late May, the administration decided to lift the moratorium on transfers to Yemen. But if the administration sticks to the task force’s plan, these 4 Yemeni hunger strikers will not be among the first Yemenis transferred to their home country.

In its final report, the task force noted that one of three conditions must be met before these 4 Yemeni detainees (as well as the others placed in “conditional detention”) can be transferred: “(1) the security situation improves in Yemen; (2) an appropriate rehabilitation program becomes available; or (3) an appropriate third-country resettlement option becomes available.” 

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