How Many Gitmo Alumni Take Up Arms?

Not nearly as many as the Department of Defense is claiming.

Almost a decade after the first detainees accused of terrorism were sent to the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and almost two years after U.S. President Barack Obama promised to close the prison within a year, more than 170 of Guantánamo's prisoners remain in custody.

A total of almost 800 men have been held at Guantánamo at one time or another since it opened in January 2002, and around 600 have been released, according to the New York Times's Guantánamo Docket database. More than half of the ex-detainees have been sent to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia; 14 percent to Pakistan and Yemen.

There's no question that some of these men have taken up arms since their release. But how many? On the ninth anniversary of Guantánamo's opening, understanding the threat posed by the detainees who have already been released will better inform the debate over what to do with those who remain. Unfortunately, that debate has been hobbled by a lack of transparency on the part of the U.S. government, making it difficult for outside observers to make their own judgments. What follows is an attempt to sort out what is known on the public record.

The U.S. intelligence community claims that the percentage of confirmed released detainees engaging in terrorism or insurgency increased from 5.1 percent of those who were released by March 2009 to 13.5 percent of releases by October 2010, and that the number of those suspected of terrorist or insurgent activity similarly rose from 8.8 percent in March 2009 to 11.5 percent in October 2010.

In other words, the U.S. government now asserts that an astonishing one in four of those released from Guantánamo are either terrorists/insurgents or suspected to be. (The government is careful to point out that detainees who merely engage in anti-U.S. propaganda after their release from Guantánamo are not counted as confirmed or suspected terrorists.)

The vast majority of the 150 men who the U.S. government has now identified as confirmed or suspected terrorists/insurgents were released under President George W. Bush administration, though five were released by the Obama administration. However, a statement from the director of national intelligence dated October 2010 that was released in December predicts that the number of detainees identified as terrorists or insurgents will very likely further increase, as a review of Guantánamo detainees' release dates shows a lag time of about two and a half years before they "reengaged in terrorist or insurgent activity."

The U.S. government is correct that some Guantánamo alumni have gone on to pose a significant danger to American interests following their release. Said al-Shihri, who was returned to his native Saudi Arabia in 2007, has since become a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was responsible for the failed attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, an attack that could have killed at least 300 people.

Similarly, Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul was sent back to Afghanistan in 2007 and was released by the Afghan government. Sometimes going by the name "Mullah Zakir," Rasoul has been named by U.S. military officials as the most important Taliban military leader in southern Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has identified by name only about 20 percent of those 150 men confirmed or believed to have taken up arms since their release from Guantánamo, citing security concerns, and so the government's claim that one in four are believed to be back on the battlefield must be largely taken on trust.

However, our analysis of Pentagon reports, news stories, and other publicly available documents concerning the 600 or so released detainees suggests that when threats to the United States are considered, the true rate for those who have taken up arms or are suspected of doing so is more like 6 percent, or one in 17. This figure represents an increase of 2 percentage points from our previous analysis from July 2009, which indicated that barely 4 percent of those released from the prison in Cuba were confirmed or suspected of engaging in terrorist or insurgent activities against the United States or its interests.

In our investigation of recidivism from Guantánamo, we identified 36 individuals by name who are suspected or confirmed of engaging in anti-American terrorist activities, and 12 who are engaged in alleged terrorism or anti-government insurgent activities somewhere in the world, though these activities are not targeted against the United States or its immediate allies in the current U.S.-led wars -- the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (When we had a reasonable suspicion that a former detainee had engaged in both anti-American militant actions and terrorism or insurgent activities against other governments, we included that person in the group of anti-American suspected or confirmed terrorists/insurgents.)

The first group, comprising 6 percent of total releases, records those accused of engaging in anti-American insurgent activities, men like Shihri and Rasoul, along with others like Mohammed Yusif Yaqub and Maulvi Abdul Ghaffar, who joined insurgent operations in Afghanistan and were killed in 2004; and Ibrahim bin Shakaran and Mohammed bin Ahmad Mizouz, who were convicted in Morocco in 2007 of trying to recruit Moroccans to join al Qaeda in Iraq. Another is Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who gained attention for his poetry while at Guantánamo and was reportedly traded to the Taliban in 2008 in exchange for Pakistan's ambassador in Afghanistan. Dost is now, according to some sources, a Taliban commander in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Other former Guantánamo detainees have been linked to plots against the West; the Swedish citizen Mehdi Mohammed Ghezali was released from the prison in 2004, only to be arrested with several others in Pakistan in 2009, allegedly on his way to meet with al Qaeda militants in Pakistan's restive North Waziristan.

The second group, which makes up 2 percent of total identified releases, comprises men who are suspected or confirmed of having engaged in terrorism or insurgent activities not against the United States and its immediate allies in the war against al Qaeda but against governments elsewhere in the world. Several insurgents who have attacked Russian interests are included in this category. We do not condone terrorism or militancy in any form; in making this distinction, we are merely pointing out that those in this second category have not been accused or suspected of attacking U.S. interests and in many cases are accused only of the vague charge of "association" with a militant group somewhere in the world.

Because the Pentagon has not released the names of most of the men it claims are suspected or confirmed of engaging in terrorist activities (in the last relevant document, which was released in early 2009, only 29 of the government's 74 alleged confirmed or suspected recidivists were listed by name), there might be some additional former detainees who are suspected or confirmed of engaging in terrorism or insurgent activities who we could not identify in the publicly available sources. However, because al Qaeda and the Taliban consider recruiting former Guantánamo detainees as great propaganda victories and trumpet them in media releases, significant numbers of recidivists are unlikely to have gone unheralded.

Some may argue that even a 1 percent recidivism rate is too high, while others point out that recidivism figures among criminals released from American prisons are in the 60 percent range. Our point is not about what number of detainees "returning to the battlefield" should be deemed acceptable; rather we call on the U.S. government to be more transparent about the alleged terrorist activities of those it considers recidivists who pose a threat to America in order to better inform the debate about how and when to finally close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay.

Please click here for a list of those we have identified by name as potential confirmed or suspected recidivists.

Virginie Montet/AFP/Getty Images


AfPak's Strategic Blinders

One month after the Obama administration's strategic review of the Afghan war, it's become clear that there's little willingness to change what increasingly looks like a failure in the making.

As the past year came to a close, most commentators were pessimistic in their assessments of security in Afghanistan. A typical take came from Nic Lee, director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent group that analyzes security risks for aid organizations: "Absolutely, without any reservation, it is our opinion that the situation is a lot more insecure this year than it was last year."

But the analysts who mattered most -- those who were working on the Obama administration's review of the Afghan war -- had a very different view. The final report summary made public on Dec. 16 declared that NATO forces in Afghanistan have been succeeding in their mission and will continue to execute their current plan. Vice President Joseph Biden's sudden visit to Afghanistan this week serves to reinforce that decision.

While acknowledging that the gains were fragile and reversible, the report did not recognize that the plan depends heavily on military and political conditions that are quickly losing all credibility. A successful strategy would begin by acknowledging, rather than ignoring, all the uncertainties at the root of the current mission of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Let's take these one at a time. First, the Obama administration's strategy assumes that NATO is in a position to fundamentally "degrade" enemy Taliban militarily -- to the point that Afghan National Security Forces can be solely responsible for dealing with them. But as long as the Taliban have a sanctuary in Pakistan, the Taliban can choose when they will fight and how many casualties they are willing to sustain. In essence, at this point, it's the Taliban who decides how "degraded" they will let themselves become. The White House report admits that "the denial of extremist safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan." But the government doesn't hint at how the administration will manage in the next four years to finally convince Pakistanis to change their fundamental strategic calculus after nine years of repeatedly failing to do so.

The issue here is the conviction among Pakistani elites that India is their country's long-term existential threat. Pakistan has maintained a long-term relationship with the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani network, in a bid to gain strategic leverage in Afghanistan over its rival to the south. Biden's trip to Pakistan this week will simply be the latest in a long series of trips by senior U.S. officials. The renewed U.S. commitment to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government does not provide a reason for Pakistan to change its strategic appreciation or actions.

The administration also overlooks the probability that, even if Pakistan decides to control traffic across its porous and remote border with Afghanistan, it may well lack the capability to do so. Previous attempts by outside powers to close the same frontier have failed. Indeed, the Soviet war effort in Afghanistan fell apart because the United States was able to arm mujahideen fighters in Pakistan, from which they traveled into the border regions. Senior Pakistani officers have complained to me in several venues that Pakistani militants have retreated to sanctuaries in Afghanistan despite Pakistani requests that the United States prevent border crossings from the Afghan side. That may sound like an expedient excuse, but U.S. commanders have admitted similar difficulties with closing the border. The limited willingness of security forces to reach into the country's hinterlands is an even greater problem: Although Pakistan is completing operations in South Waziristan, it has indicated publicly that it is not ready yet to commence operations in North Waziristan -- and has not been willing to discuss the need for operations or even permission to fly drones in the Quetta region, the headquarters for Mullah Omar and his Taliban organization.

The U.S. government also admits that its military goals will have to be advanced by "effective development strategies." But that matter-of-fact description belies the fact that economic development in the primary terrorist sanctuary of North Waziristan can't begin until Pakistan conducts major military operations to secure the region. Lasting economic development is a decades-long process in the best of situations. In the absence of basic security, it is an impossibility.

NATO's plan also depends on Karzai's government in Kabul developing the willingness and capacity to extend effective governance nationwide. That's a remarkably optimistic assumption given both its failure to do so for the last nine years and its current lack of legitimacy and popular support throughout the country. There's little to suggest that Karzai is preparing to improve his government's accountability and competency: He is still actively resisting ISAF efforts to prosecute corrupt officials. Even if NATO continues to bear the brunt of the battle against the Taliban, outside military forces can at best only provide an opportunity for indigenous governance to develop. The idea that Karzai will suddenly change his approach seems to be a very thin reed on which to build a strategy.

Even if Karzai does have a change of heart, it is very unlikely that the Afghan government will have the capacity to extend its reach across the entire country by the end of 2014, the date at which the Obama administration aims to conclude its "path to complete transition." Indeed, the Afghan government has still failed to fill most government jobs in Kandahar, a task that has been one of NATO's highest priorities. If after nine years of mentoring, Kabul still cannot find a couple of hundred officials to fill key positions in a critical province, how can it possibly be ready to govern the entire country in four years?

The administration makes another leap of faith concerning the future capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces. The United States has been training the Afghan National Army (ANA) since 2003 and professes great hopes about its future. But one can only wonder how NATO reconciles its positive reports on the ANA's performance with the fact that Afghan forces have been notably absent in recent key operations. In October, NATO kicked off its offensive to clear Panjwai, a vital Taliban stronghold. Despite Panjwai being declared a critical campaign, apparently none of the ISAF-trained Afghan National Security Force units were up to leading this critical offensive. Because the NATO commander thought it important that Afghan forces lead, he turned to Abdul Razziq, a self-appointed "colonel" who raised and trained his own force to control a border crossing near Kandahar. At NATO's request, Razziq brought about 500 men to provide an Afghan lead for the operation. In short, though NATO has contributed six years of mentoring and claims to have trained 235,000 Afghan troops, the ANA still cannot contribute a single battalion to lead the most important military operation in the country. The Obama administration's strategic review gave no indication of how that dreadful record can be turned on its head over the next four years.

When there's a strong possibility that the key assumptions underlying a military strategy are mistaken, it is time to reframe the problem and rethink the strategy. Unfortunately, where the Obama administration's strategic-review panel ought to have challenged the assumptions underlying the current Afghan strategy, it instead offered unquestioned acceptance. Despite a steady stream of pessimistic reports, including the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate and countless testimonies from NGOs and independent experts in Afghanistan, the administration has not challenged its basic assumptions about Karzai and Pakistan. The West has hitched its wagons to political leaders in Kabul and Islamabad who don't share its long-term strategy and don't have the capabilities to realize it in any case. That's an oversight likely to doom the war effort. If Washington is wise, it would organize another strategic review to correct the failures of the last.

A clear-eyed auditing of the West's current mission may well conclude with a sobering reduction of its goals -- perhaps the United States shouldn't be developing nation-building plans for Afghanistan at all, but rather be focusing on how to ensure stability in a nuclear-armed Pakistan. Certainly, there's a strong argument to be made that regional and global security would be better served that way. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seemed less interested in delivering a candid assessment than in providing justification for continuing its current strategy.