President Barack Obama says his administration will continue releasing terrorists from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, so long as those released are less dangerous than the jihadists currently fighting against the U.S. and its interests.
The bizarre argument comes in a new interview with Olivier Knox of Yahoo! News and is one of several comments in their discussion that reinforces the president’s stubborn nonchalance on issues related to jihad. Obama also shrugs off concerns about recidivism of former Guantanamo detainees, suggesting that only a “handful” of former detainees have returned to the fight and claiming that only “low-level” terrorists have been released from the detention facility. Both claims are demonstrably false.
In the interview, Knox asked Obama about Ibrahim al Qosi, a Guantanamo detainee transferred by the Obama administration to Sudan in July 2012, who recently resurfaced as a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, often described as the most dangerous al Qaeda branch. Al Qosi appeared in a propaganda video disseminated by the group last week. Knox asked Obama whether having someone return to the fight “in a big way,” like Qosi, has caused the administration to revisit its vetting procedures.
“I am absolutely persuaded, as are my top intelligence and military advisers, that Guantanamo is used as a recruitment tool for organizations like ISIS,” Obama began. “And if we want to fight ’em, then we can’t give ’em these kinds of excuses.”
There is no reason that Obama would need to be “persuaded” of something that can be easily demonstrated. Either Guantanamo is a major recruitment tool or it’s not.
Administration officials have been making this claim for years and it’s not true.
Guantanamo rarely appears in jihadist propaganda, whether ISIS or al Qaeda, and reviews of recent propaganda materials from ISIS and al Qaeda – online videos and audio recordings, glossy magazines, etc. – found very few mentions of the facility.
“Keep in mind that between myself and the Bush administration hundreds of people have been released and the recidivism rate – we anticipate,” Obama said. “We assume that there are going to be – out of four, five, six-hundred people that get released – a handful of them are going to be embittered and still engaging in anti-US activities and trying to link up potentially with their old organizations.”
A handful? Obama is woefully ill-informed or he’s being dishonest. According to the most recent report on Guantanamo recidivism, prepared in September 2015 by James Clapper’s office, Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence, 196 former detainees are either confirmed (117) or suspected (79) of returning to the fight. That’s a recidivism rate of more than 30 percent. Intelligence officials tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that those numbers are almost certainly low, as they do not include jihadists the United States and its allies are no longer tracking.
(Obama’s formulation there is odd, too, using “embittered” as if the reason the jihadists would once again take up arms against the United States is their time in detention.)
Obama continued, describing the process officials use to determine whether a detainee can be released or transferred. “The judgment that we’re continually making is: Are there individuals who are significantly more dangerous than the people who are already out there who are fighting? What do they add? Do they have special skills? Do they have special knowledge that ends up making significant threat to the United States?”
It’s an odd set of criteria for evaluating threats unless your main objective is emptying the detention facility. These are standards set up to allow the administration to claim that the knowledge base and skill sets of Guantanamo detainees are outdated. But former Guantanamo detainees return to the fight with elevated status and often assume leadership roles in the groups determined to attack the U.S. and its interests. Just like Ibrahim al Qosi.
Obama went on to suggest that those released don’t present much of a threat anyway. “And so the bottom line is that the strategic gains we make by closing Guantanamo will outweigh, you know, those low-level individuals who, you know, have been released so far.”
Again, Obama’s claim is false. Many of the 653 detainees transferred or released from Guantanamo as of September 2015 were much more significant than “low-level individuals.” It’s a group that includes al Qaeda operatives who worked directly for Osama bin Laden, senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban, and veteran jihadists with decades of experience fighting.
According to assessments provided by Joint Task Force Guantanamo, the original population of Guantanamo was 43 percent “high risk,” and 36 percent “medium risk.” Only 20 percent of those ever detained at Guantanamo were deemed “low risk.” The Bush administration transferred many of the detainees found to present minimal risks to the U.S. and by the time Obama took office, 98.7 percent of those remaining were considered medium risk (23.8 percent) or high risk (74.9 percent).
Consider the Taliban Five, released in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl. Although Obama administration officials initially downplayed the significance of these detainees, intelligence and military officials made it clear that they were high-risk transfers. Michael Leiter, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center under Obama, said it was “very, very likely” that the five Taliban leaders would return to the fight. Rob Williams, the national intelligence officer for South Asia, who briefed Congress shortly after the transfer, testified that there was a high likelihood that at least four of the five freed detainees, and possibly all of them, would rejoin the fight.
And what about Ibrahim al Qosi? He’s the Guantanamo recidivist that triggered Knox’s question to the president. Was he a “low-level” fighter, as Obama suggested?
He is not. Qosi is now a senior leader in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the group’s public spokesman. AQAP has repeatedly attempted to attack the U.S., while taking over large parts of Yemen. The dossier compiled by U.S. officials for Qosi demonstrates that he served bin Laden in multiple roles because he was so trusted.
A threat assessment of al Qosi prepared by the intelligence officials on the Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) reported that he would present a “high risk” of taking up arms against the United States or its allies if he were freed from the detention facility. “Detainee is an admitted veteran jihadist with combat experience beginning in 1990 and it is assessed he would engage in hostilities against US forces, if released.”
Virtually everything Obama said in his Yahoo interview about Guantanamo is false. Guantanamo is not a leading recruitment tool for jihadists. From the earliest days of the facility, many of those detained there were deemed more than the “low-level” fighters the president would have us believe. And far more than a “handful” of released detainees – nearly 200 suspected or confirmed – have returned to the fight.
We are left with this uncomfortable but incontrovertible fact: Barack Obama is releasing jihadists known to present a serious threat to the United States and he’s misleading the country about it.