The Pentagon is boasting of the al Qaeda operatives it has killed to make America safer, yet the same type of terrorists have been transferred out of the Guantanamo prison to countries with a poor history of security, and some have ended up back on the battlefield.
The practice of killing terrorists with one hand and releasing them with the other points out the Obama administration’s mixed message as federal agencies push to evict nearly all detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Republicans fear that, post-election, President Obama will decree the prison closed and move the last cadre of irredeemable terrorists, such as Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to a U.S. prison.
And conservatives are criticizing the administration’s replenishment of al Qaeda ranks with transferred detainees.
“The hypocrisy of the Obama administration knows no limit,” said retired Army officer Robert Maginnis, author of the counter-jihad book “Never Submit.” “On one hand, they boast about bagging al Qaeda bomb makers, and on the other, they are releasing known bomb makers from Gitmo.”
A House committee chairman last month accused the Obama administration of knowingly sending Gitmo terrorists to countries with lax monitoring.
The Pentagon has posted a half-dozen press releases in recent months announcing big al Qaeda kills.
For example, the Pentagon announced in September it had exterminated French national David Drugeon, an al Qaeda bomb maker in Syria.
“As an explosives expert, he trained other extremists in Syria and sought to plan external attacks against Western targets,” said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook. “Drugeon’s death will degrade and disrupt ongoing external operations of al Qaeda against the United States, its allies and partners.”
In other words, Drugeon’s death makes America safer.
A few months later, the Pentagon announced it was transferring one of al Qaeda’s best bomber makers from Cuba to the government of Bosnia. Whether Egyptian Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed al Sawah goes back to the explosives business and shares his knowledge with jihadis is unclear.
But his personnel file at Gitmo depicted him as a hardened terrorist personally praised by Osama bin Laden. Sawah was instrumental in the development of a shoe bomb that could be secreted onto an airliner to blow it out of the sky, killing all on board.
In April the Pentagon announced the transfer of two other al Qaeda explosives experts.
In another kill announcement, the Pentagon said on April 1 that it had conducted an airstrike that likely eliminated Hassan Ali Dhoore, who was active in al Qaeda’s al-Shabab wing in Somalia.
“Removing Dhoore from the battlefield, the Pentagon said, “would be a significant blow to al-Shabab’s operational planning and ability to conduct attacks against the government of the Federal Republic of Somalia, its citizens, U.S. partners in the region, and against Americans abroad.”
Months earlier, Ibrahim al-Qosi, a committed bin laden loyalist who had been transferred from Gitmo to Sudan in 2012, emerged in a video by another terrorist unit, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Despite assurances that al-Qosi was a changed man, he has returned to the terror business, urging Muslims to join al Qaeda and murder Americans.
The bottom line: One al Qaeda chieftain is killed in Somalia, making Americans safer; another, a dedicated al Qaeda operative, transfers from U.S. custody and quickly goes back to an al Qaeda unit dedicated to striking the U.S. homeland.
As the Obama administration works to empty Guantanamo (another large prisoner transfer is expected soon), Rep. Edward R. Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, is essentially accusing the State Department of lying.
In a May 16 letter to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Mr. Royce said two senior State officials were asked at a hearing whether the Pentagon ever transferred Gitmo detainees to a country that lacks the ability to reduce the risk of recidivism or is unable to control the subjects. Both answered no.
In his letter, Mr. Royce, California Republican, said their assurances are directly contradicted by classified reports submitted to Congress by the Defense Department, as required by law, in 2013 through 2015.
These reports, he said, “are riddled with derogatory assessments of some of the countries to which the Bush and Obama administrations have transferred detainees. In many cases, these intelligence assessments preceded the transfer of individuals to these same countries. Others were transferred after multiple derogatory assessments and public reporting of recidivism. Congressionally mandated certifications by the secretary of defense — also submitted prior to transfers — similarly indicated an inability to maintain custody and control in certain instances. It certainly appears, therefore, that the administration has indeed transferred individuals to countries that it knew could not meet critical security requirements.”
Army Col. Valerie Henderson, a Pentagon spokeswoman, defended the selection process.
“Since 2009, the Administration has implemented rigorous review processes and requires robust security and humane treatment assurances that significantly reduce the risk of reengagement,” she said. “As a result of that process, fewer than five percent of detainees released since January 2009 are confirmed of reengaging in terrorism.”
Shifting transfer standards
Guantanamo’s dwindling prison population tells the story of Mr. Obama’s drive to adjust how detainees are evaluated for transfer so his campaign promise to close the prison is met.
Thomas Joscelyn, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an editor for The Long War Journal, posted an extensive detainee chronology.
In 2009, Mr. Obama’s first year in office, the administration set up the Guantanamo Review Task Force to decide on 240 terrorism suspects. Its final report in 2010 recommended 156 for transfer, though noting all carried risks of returning to battle. The George W. Bush administration had OK’d 59 of them for transfer.
Today, most of the 156 have left Cuba, leaving about 80 detainees.
In 2011 Mr. Obama set up a second process, the Periodic Review Board (PRB), consisting of representatives from a number of agencies, including defense, homeland security and intelligence.
So far the PRB has approved 21 terrorism suspects for transfer to another country who had been denied such status by the Review Task Force. Nine of them have been flown out of Cuba.
Mr. Joscelyn found that the PRB could quickly reverse itself. He points out that the PRB in March 2014 found that Abd Malik Ahmed Abdel Wahab Al Rahabi needed to remain in custody to “protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”
But by that December, the board changed its mind and said the al Qaeda operative could be transferred.
In 2008 the prison judged Al Rahabi a continued threat to the U.S. He was a bin Laden bodyguard in Afghanistan, schooled in explosives-making and general terrorism.
He now has a business plan to return to Yemen and start a milk and honey farm, the Miami Herald reported.
Mr. Joscelyn said the board reversed itself on another inmate, Fayez al Kandari.
The number of Guantanamo alumni confirmed or suspected of returning to terrorism stands at 204, up from 37 in 2008. Most recidivists were released during the Bush years.
The 204 number would be even higher if those who went back to associating with terrorists were added.
“The U.S. intelligence community’s assessment does not include those jihadists who have communicated with other former detainees or ‘past terrorist associates’ about ‘non-nefarious activities.’ The production of anti-American propaganda is not enough to be considered a recidivist either,” Mr. Joscelyn said.
“America paid a high price to capture and detain al Qaeda and other terrorists held at Gitmo,” said Mr. Maginnis, the retired Army officer. “These detained combatants unquestionably return to their homelands to continue the fight either overtly by rejoining fellow combatants or covertly by recruiting, raising funds and or advising younger stock. It is a strategic failure of the highest order in the midst of a war to release the terrorist brain trust back into the fray in order to sooth domestic progressive sensitivities.”
In an interview with Yahoo News in December, Mr. Obama spelled out his philosophy for sending terrorism suspects to third countries, saying that if they don’t have a “special” skill for killing people, they can qualify.
“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?’” Mr. Obama said. “‘What do they add? Do they have special skills? Do they have special knowledge that ends up making a significant threat to the United States?’”
Col. Henderson, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said: “We work together with foreign governments after a detainee has been transferred to monitor the former detainee’s status. When we detect possible signs of reengagement, we work through the appropriate channels to prevent the former detainee from engaging in terrorist activity. As a result of that process, fewer than five percent of detainees released since January 2009 are confirmed of reengaging in terrorism.”