The Pentagon never instituted an anti-extremism rehabilitation program for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, even as it released hundreds of detainees to their home countries and saw scores go back to practicing terrorism.
The lack of a deradicalization program takes on added importance this year as the Obama administration prepares to shut down the Guantanamo prison and send more combatants to other countries for adjudication.
Guantanamo's lack of an anti-extremism program stands in contrast to prisons in Iraq, where a commander instituted programs that swayed insurgents away from an extremist view of Islam.
"We don't have a rehabilitation program down there," said Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, the Pentagon spokesman regarding Guantanamo. "It was constructed to keep dangerous enemy combatants off the battlefield." The complex of camps in Cuba was expanded after the Sept. 11 attacks to house terror suspects, most of whom were captured in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater. At its peak, the prison held 780 detainees.
At least 61 ex-Guantanamo inmates have returned to terrorism, according to the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). That number may not reflect all ex-detainees who have reverted. For example, a former detainee who recently appeared on an extremist Web site as an al Qaeda leader had not been listed among the 61.
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The utility of rehabilitation programs run by other countries is questionable.
Saudi Arabia, the home country of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, announced recently that 11 ex-Guantanamo detainees who went through a Saudi rehabilitation program are on the government's most-wanted list for terrorism.
Last month, U.S. counterterrorism officials disclosed that Said Ali al-Shihri, who was released from Guantanamo in late 2007, had resurfaced as the deputy leader of al Qaeda operations in Yemen.
However, the U.S. had more success with a program it ran at the Iraqi prison in Abu Ghraib.
In Iraq, Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, who led detainee operations until last year, created a deradicalization program aimed at separating the truly hardened extremists from those who had the potential to abandon violence. Gen. Stone told reporters at the Pentagon last June that he relied on seven deradicalization plans now employed in the Islamic world.
"These efforts include education, vocational training, civics, Islamic discussion, family visitation, pay-for-work programs that actually empower the more moderate detainees and ultimately marginalize the violent extremists," he said.
Cmdr. Gordon said about 70 of the 245 prisoners currently at Guantanamo are eligible to attend art and English classes. Those detainees also are allowed 12 hours or more of recreation daily, during which they can play soccer and engage in other activities, including gardening.
"It's not a program to rehabilitate the detainees, though detainees who follow camp rules are authorized more privileges than those who don't," the spokesman said. "Rehabilitation wasn't part of the policy from the outset, but rather detention at Guantanamo was designed to keep the detainees from the battlefield."
Cmdr. Pauline Storum, a prison spokeswoman, said, "The focus here is intellectual stimulation." She said the prison began art classes last year and also teaches English, Pashtu and Arabic. The prison library holds more than 12,000 books, magazines, DVDs and newspapers.
"Additionally, all detainees are provided a Koran in Arabic and/or their native language, along with prayer caps, beads, rugs," Cmdr. Storum said. "They are also provided a Tafsir [commentary on the Koran]. Prayer is observed five times each day in the camps, led by a detainee-appointed prayer leader in each block. Quiet is maintained in the camps, and movements are restricted to accommodate the observance of call to prayer."
All detainees have access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, but those who misbehave by abusing guards - a regular occurrence - are not given special privileges and have limited time outside their cells.
Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's top policy adviser when the camp opened, said day-to-day operations were left to the U.S. Southern Command, but he said he viewed the availability of books, recreational time and instructional classes as a form of rehabilitation.
"These are things that could change people's thinking," he said, as well as "encouraging good behavior."
However, Lawrence Korb, a military analyst at the Center for American Progress and an adviser to the Obama presidential campaign, called it "shortsighted" that no deradicalization program was started at Guantanamo.
"If you look at it long term, this battle against radical extremists isn't going to be quick," he said. "They didn't do any long-range planning. They just opened it up without thinking how long we were going to leave the people there." If rehabilitation had been attempted, Mr. Korb said, "I don't think we would have had as many people join back up. I think they should have had a rehabilitation program at Guantanamo from the beginning."
Max Abrahms, a fellow at Stanford University, has researched extremist groups and finds they conduct violence for generations without ever accomplishing their main political objectives. This indicates their members are absolutely committed to anti-Western violence.
Mr. Abrahms said that when you return a detainee to his home country and he subsequently is released, he likely goes back to the same associates who radicalized him in the first place.
"Many of the communities they come from are, in fact, radical," he said. "If you return him to his native environment, he will continue to be radical. The social relationships these people have are really formative. If somebody is friends with an al Qaeda member, they are more likely to join al Qaeda."