How Guantanamo Bay's Existence Helps Al-Qaeda Recruit More Terrorists

It holds cleared detainees, and it's become a rallying point in jihadist propaganda.
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Detainees participate in an early morning prayer session at Camp IV at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, on August 5, 2009. (Reuters)

Guantanamo Bay has entered headlines again as at least 42 inmates are participating in a hunger strike to protest their continued detention. But those 42 are only part of the ongoing story.

There are still 166 prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay.

Eighty-six of these individuals have been cleared for release.

Forty-six others are being held "without enough evidence" to prosecute, but are still " too dangerous to transfer."

Only six people being held at Guantanamo Bay are facing formal charges.

It has become brutally clear that the detention center at Guantanamo Bay will not be closing. In January, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law, preserving Guantanamo Bay foreseeable future. Shortly thereafter, Obama closed the State Department Office tasked with finding suitable, lawful locations to transfer the Guantanamo detainees.

Of the 86 inmates cleared of charges, none will be released anytime soon. Obama administration officials have offered several reasons for continuing to hold cleared detainees:

  • Unstable home governments. The NDAA has made it virtually impossible for inmates to return home, stating detainees cannot return to a country where a "threat that is likely to substantially affect" the government's ability to "exercise control" over the repatriated individual may exist (Sec. 1028). This section of the law grants legitimacy to indefinitely holding any detainee, given the prevalence of Al-Qaeda affiliates and other insurgent groups in several nations.

For these reasons, these 86 cleared individuals, and others awaiting a prosecution that may never come, are stuck in a limbo that more closely resembles hell.


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To see the entire graphic, click here. (The Century Foundation)

While these human rights issues are egregious in their own right, and a vigilant minority continues to pressure the Obama administration on the situation, in the bigger picture, the continued existence of Guantanamo Bay is damaging our national security on a daily basis.

Guantanamo Bay has often been the focus of jihadist media and propaganda. Just recently, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan--the mouthpiece of the Taliban-- put out a statement calling attention to the ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay. The brief message claims that the hunger strike at the prison has been going on for forty days (as of March 24) and calls for international rights organizations to "spread awareness about the plight of the destitute inmates." Guantanamo Bay has become a salient issue used in jihadist propaganda.

In 2010, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released the first issue of Inspire , their English language recruitment magazine. To date, AQAP has released 10 issues of Inspire, and the plight of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has been featured prominently in several issues.

In the 2010 inaugural issue of Inspire, an essay by Osama bin Laden mentions "the crimes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo . . . which shook the conscience of humanity." Tellingly, bin Laden points out that "there has been no mentionable change" at Guantanamo and the prison is noted again later in the issue.

Gitmo features even more prominently in Issue 2 of Inspire. The essays of Abu Sufyan al-Azdi and Uthman al-Gamidi, two former detainees who returned to AQAP upon their release, call new individuals to join the jihad, whether at home or abroad. In Issue 7, Yahya Ibrahim notes that Guantanamo Bay "exposed the West for what it really is" and "showed the world the American understanding of human rights."

Most troubling, in the latest issue of Inspire released early this month, AQAP mentions Guantanamo Bay several times. In a prelude to the attention that the hunger strikers have been paid lately, Abu Musab al-Suri notes that Guantanamo is not only "filled with . . . mujahedeen" but also with "hundreds of innocent civilians." While it is quite rich to hear AQAP's concern for the plight of innocent civilians, given the high number of Yemenis cleared for release still at Guantanamo, this is a very salient message for AQAP's base in Yemen.

The constant refrain about Guantanamo Bay may be inspiring jihadist action. Anwar al-Awlaki issued a lecture discussing the plight of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay before his death by drone strike in 2011. Awlaki's lectures still play an important role in recruiting impressionable individuals to jihad. As we know, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan was impressed by Awlaki's message and was encouraged (although not directed) to carry out an attack on the states by the cleric himself.

The ramifications of the indefinite nature of Guantanamo have not been lost on American military and policy-makers, either.

Air Force Officer Matthew Alexander, who was in charge of an interrogation team in Iraq, states that many of his subjects mentioned Guantanamo in their discussions and that it remains a strong recruitment tool. Not only does it aid recruitment, but in Alexander's words, "the longer it stays open the more cost it will have in U.S. lives."

John Brennan, now director of the Central Intelligence Agency, echoed Alexander's words just less than two years ago: "The prison at Guantánamo Bay undermines our national security, and our nation will be more secure the day when that prison is finally and responsibly closed."

General Colin Powel underlined U.S. awareness of this perception in 2010. Powell said unless Guantanamo is closed, it gives "radicals an opportunity to say, you see, this is what America is all about. They're all about torture and detention centers." In Powell's words, the continuation of Guantanamo reinforces Al-Qaeda's "own positions."

General David Petraeus' own words on Guantanamo Bay now seem prophetic. Just a year into Obama's first term Petraeus stated,

I've been on the record on that for well over a year as well, saying that it [Guantanamo] should be closed. . . . And I think that whenever we have, perhaps, taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside. . . . Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are nonbiodegradables. They don't go away. The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick.

As the ongoing hunger strike intensifies at Guantanamo Bay, this issue and the facility itself continues to undermine our national security.

Joe Biden called Guantanamo the "greatest propaganda tool that exists for recruiting of terrorists around the world" in 2005. Eight years later, if human rights and budgetary concerns are not enough to end this intractable problem, maybe national security will be.

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Presented by

Thérèse Postel

Thérèse Postel is a policy associate in international affairs at The Century Foundation.

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