Terrorists Freed by Obama
By Stephen F. Hayes
and Thomas Joscelyn
Wall Street Journal
January 15, 2016
The Obama administration in recent days has proclaimed a
“milestone” in its efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba, after achieving its long-held goal of reducing the remaining
population to fewer than 100 detainees. With the expedited release this month of
14 detainees, the total now stands at 93.
This is nothing to celebrate.
In reducing these numbers, the White House has freed
dangerous terrorists and set aside military and intelligence assessments warning
about the risks of doing so. The Obama administration has deceived recipient
countries about the threats posed by the jihadists they’ve accepted. And
President Obama has repeatedly misled the American people about Guantanamo, the
detainees held there, and the consequences of releasing them.
On Jan. 6, as part of the Obama administration’s
accelerated Guantanamo process, Mahmmoud Omar Mohammed Bin Atef was transferred
to Ghana, along with another detainee named Khalid Mohammed Salih al Dhuby.
Ghana’s government portrayed the deal as an act of “humanitarian
assistance,” likening the Yemeni men to nonthreatening refugees from Rwanda
and Syria, noting that they “were detained in Guantanamo but have been cleared
of any involvement in terrorist activities, and are being released.”
That description isn’t true for either of the men. Mr.
Atef, in particular, is a cause for concern. Long before his transfer, the
intelligence analysts at Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) assessed him as
a “high risk” and “likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and
allies.” (The JTF-GTMO threat assessments of 760 Guantanamo detainees, many
written in 2008, were posted online in 2011 by WikiLeaks.) It is easy to
understand the analysts’ worry about Mr. Atef. He was, they said, “a fighter
in Usama bin Laden’s former 55th Arab Brigade and is an admitted member of the
Taliban.” He trained at al Farouq, the infamous al Qaeda training camp in
Afghanistan, “participated in hostilities against US and Coalition forces, and
continues to demonstrate his support of UBL and extremism.”
Most ominously, the report warns that he “has threatened
to kill US citizens on multiple occasions including a specific threat to cut
their throats upon release.”
The obvious question: Why did officials in Ghana claim that
Mr. Atef had been “cleared”? Perhaps because that is what the Obama
administration led them to believe. Jojo Bruce-Quansah, the information minister
at Ghana’s embassy in Washington, D.C., told us that the U.S. government
provided assurances that Mr. Atef was “never involved in terrorism” and
presented little risk. “If that assurance was not there,” he said, there is
“no way” his government “would have taken the detainees.”
How does the White House square the intelligence assessment
of Mr. Atef with the assurances the administration gave Ghana? Myles Caggins, a
spokesman for the National Security Council, wouldn’t address that question
directly, instead telling us that Mr. Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force,
which included officials from six government agencies, approved him for transfer
“nearly six years ago.” Mr. Caggins declined to address the damning JTF-GTMO
But there is another problem with Mr. Caggins’s
explanation. The president’s Guantanamo task force, which finished its work in
January 2010, didn’t clear either Mr. Atef or Mr. Dhuby of involvement in
terrorist activities, nor did the task force recommend their release.
The Obama administration is understandably reluctant to be
forthcoming about the risks associated with closing Guantanamo—because the
risks are significant. If the two detainees released to Ghana, or any of the 10
Yemeni men sent from Guantanamo to Oman on Thursday, return to waging jihad,
they will hardly be alone among their former fellow detainees. According to the
Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 196 ex-detainees are now
confirmed as, or suspected of, having returned to the fight; 122 of these
recidivists are currently at-large.
Mr. Obama has failed in his effort to shut Guantanamo, in
part, because Congress has blocked efforts to move the detainees to the U.S.
mainland. For now, the president simply keeps shipping detainees elsewhere,
reiterating excuses for emptying Guantanamo that are entirely without merit. To
counter the White’s House’s inaccurate claims, let us review some basic
• President Obama inherited a population of high-risk
In its leaked threat assessments, JTF-GTMO gauged the
threat posed by each detainee, based on his intent and capability, and then
divided the population into three risk categories: low, medium and high.
By the time Mr. Obama took office in January 2009, 240
detainees remained at Guantanamo. But nearly all of the low-risk detainees and
most of the medium-risk ones already had been transferred or released. Of the
detainees left, the joint task force deemed approximately 180 (or 75%) to be
high risk. In other words: If released, they were “likely to pose a threat to
the US, its interests and allies.” Fifty-eight (or 24%) were considered medium
risk because they “may” pose a threat. Just two of the detainees (1%) were
Today, 93 detainees are held at the facility. At least 83
of them—almost 90%—are high risk, according to the JTF-GTMO reports.
• President Obama’s own task force didn’t find any
innocent goat herders or charity workers in Guantanamo.
Upon taking office, Mr. Obama created a panel to
re-evaluate the detainees. The findings of the Guantanamo Review Task Force,
which completed its work in January 2010, were broadly consistent with those of
JTF-GTMO. The task force grouped the 240 detainees as of January 2009 into one
of five categories: “Leaders, operatives, and facilitators involved in
terrorist plots against U.S. targets” (10% of the detainees); “Others with
significant organization roles within al-Qaida or associated terrorist
organizations” (20%); “Taliban leaders and members of anti-Coalition militia
groups” (10%); “Low-level foreign fighters” (55%); and “Miscellaneous
It is important to note that just because a detainee was
designated “low-level” doesn’t mean he posed little threat.
“Low-level” fighters carry out suicide attacks, or they can graduate to more
important roles. JTF-GTMO deemed many “low-level” fighters to be “high
risk” for this reason.
It is often reported that a detainee has been “cleared
for release,” implying that he is no longer thought to be a threat. This is
not true. Mr. Obama’s task force did not recommend that a single detainee be
freed. Nor did the task force “clear” any detainees of wrongdoing. Instead,
the task force used the phrase “approved for transfer,” meaning “release
from confinement subject to appropriate security measures.” This key
distinction is often lost.
The task force also placed 30 Yemeni detainees in
“conditional detention,” meaning they were “approved for transfer” under
certain circumstances, but not back to their home country unless the security
situation there dramatically improved. Both Mr. Atef and Mr. Dhuby were placed
in this “conditional detention” category. They were not supposed to be
outright “released,” as Ghana claimed. Mr. Obama’s task force envisioned
that some sort of security assurances would be implemented in whichever country
ultimately accepted the pair—procedures that often fail on the rare occasions
that they are actually put in place.
• Detainees transferred by the Obama administration have
gone back into the fight, and some have become senior al Qaeda leaders.
In many cases, the Obama administration relies on foreign
governments to keep tabs on jihadists who are transferred. But the rising number
of recidivists shows that, in practice, this is nearly impossible. As noted
above, the intelligence community acknowledges that 196 ex-detainees are
confirmed or suspected recidivists; that number is almost certain to rise as we
learn more about detainees’ activities after being freed.
One notable example: In July 2010, Ibrahim al Qosi, a
high-risk detainee who had served Osama
bin Laden in a variety of roles, accepted a favorable plea agreement from
military prosecutors. Two years later, he was transferred to his home country of
Sudan. By 2014 he had joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has
repeatedly tried to strike the U.S. Last month AQAP revealed that Mr. Qosi has
become one of its senior leaders.
Most of the Guantanamo recidivists were freed by the Bush
administration. But by transferring Mr. Qosi and other high-risk detainees, Mr.
Obama is repeating his predecessor’s mistakes. Under President Bush, dozens of
high-risk detainees were transferred, including Said Ali al-Shihri, who helped
establish AQAP in early 2009. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2013. Mr.
Qosi has effectively taken his place.
• Guantanamo is not a “recruitment brochure” for
President Obama has repeatedly attempted to justify the
transfers by describing Guantanamo as a major recruiting tool for Islamic State
and al Qaeda. “The existence of Guantanamo,” the president claimed in 2009,
“likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.” At
his year-end news conference in December, Mr. Obama called the prison a “key
magnet” for jihadist recruitment. His administration has not offered any
evidence to support this assertion. A careful review of jihadist propaganda
reveals that it is simply not true.
We reviewed more than 200 videos produced by Islamic State
and al Qaeda since 2014 and failed to find a single one that focused on
Guantanamo. The 12 extant issues of Dabiq, Islamic State’s English-language
magazine, contain only four references to Guantanamo. None of these mentions it
in the context of recruiting. On the occasions that Inspire, al Qaeda’s
English-language magazine, has mentioned Guantanamo, it has done so mainly to
note that some of the group’s most senior leaders were once held there. If
anything, Inspire highlights the dangers of Mr. Obama’s policy. Guantanamo has
held far more terrorists than it ever created.
Mr. Obama’s obfuscation is not limited to his specious
claim about Guantanamo’s importance for jihadist recruitment. In an interview
last month with Yahoo News, the
president said he expected that “a handful” of detainees would return to the
fight once freed. “The bottom line,” he said, “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.”
As the numbers from the Director of National Intelligence
and the examples above make clear, that’s simply not true. Nearly 200 former
detainees have returned to jihad or are suspected of having done so, and they
include senior leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
In a quest to burnish his record by fulfilling a campaign
promise to close Guantanamo, President Obama is courting a dangerous legacy.