The Magazine

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.” 

Joscelyn

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.” 

The first two conditions have certainly not been satisfied. And third-country resettlements have stalled for a variety of reasons. Even if any of these conditions were satisfied, the Yemenis approved for outright transfer “would receive priority for any transfer options” before the Yemeni detainees placed in “conditional detention,” including the 4 Yemeni hunger strikers being force-fed.

This leaves 6 detainees who have been approved for transfer out of the 24 identified by the Miami Herald as being force-fed. These 6 have not been “cleared for release,” as has been reported. For each of these 6 detainees, Obama’s task force recommended: “Transfer outside the United States to a country that will implement appropriate security measures.” 

In other words, the president’s task force concluded that these 6 detainees pose some level of risk and did not recommend that they be freed outright. The Obama administration wants to transfer them but has not been able to arrange their transfer either because of congressional restrictions or because a host country capable of implementing the “appropriate security measures” has not yet been found.

The Guantánamo Review Task Force was established by President Obama in early 2009. Each of the 24 detainees in question had been previously evaluated by Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the detention facility, and its threat assessments have been leaked online.

JTF-GTMO deemed 20 of the 24 detainees to be “high risk,” as they are “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies.” The other 4 were deemed “medium risk,” as they “may pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.” JTF-GTMO did not conclude that any of these 24 detainees posed a “low” risk. 

Much of the public discourse concerning the hunger strikers has been framed by the detainees’ advocates, who are eager to present the detainees as men who have been wronged by an American war machine run amok. President Obama’s rhetoric is consistent with this biased narrative. The truth about these detainees, as discovered by President Obama’s task force, is quite different.

In his latest message to the public, Zawahiri says al Qaeda “will not spare any effort until we free [the Guantánamo detainees] and all our captives, and on top of them, Omar Abdel Rahman, Aafia Siddiqui, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.” Zawahiri thus counts the Guantánamo detainees among jihadist ranks that include: a terrorist convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a follow-on plot against New York City landmarks (Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman), another convicted jihadist, known as “Lady Al Qaeda” for her efforts on behalf of the terrorist organization (Aafia Siddiqui), and the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, among other operations (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed). 

Since 2002, al Qaeda has dreamed of executing an operation that would force the United States to free its comrades from the American-controlled detention facility in Cuba. Those efforts have gotten the terrorist organization nowhere. And, contrary to President Obama’s claims, al Qaeda has not made Guantánamo a major theme in its propaganda. 

The controversy over the hunger strikers, however, is tailor-made for al Qaeda’s propaganda operation. After all, even the president of the United States thinks America is at fault for holding and “force-feeding” these detainees.

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