I think we can all agree – well except maybe some in the new Trump administration – that the US decision to use the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba to hold terrorist suspects extra-judicially was a particularly bad idea. Not only did the practice sully the US image as the protector of democratic values, it also gave the very groups the base was designed to weaken by locking up their members both a propaganda coup and a disturbing practice they themselves adopted – dressing up ‘prisoners’ in orange jumpsuits before beheading them.
Despite its questionable legality and its clear boon to the terrorists, Gitmo (as it usually referred to) did not house a homogenous bunch of inmates. Of course there were what I call the Casablanca prisoners (after Captain Renault’s line at the end of that iconic film ‘Round up the usual suspects’) and probably a few picked up after information was offered to settle what were likely neighbourly disputes (‘the guy next door is Al Qaeda – and he built his house over my property line’). But there were some legitimate terrorists there as well. You don’t have to accept the legal or moral premises of Gitmo to recognise that.
(By the way, that goes for Omar Khadr too. At the risk of getting bombarded with hate mail, I will state yet again that Mr. Khadr was never a ‘child soldier’ but a terrorist created by his terrorist father, and my colleagues at CSIS were entirely justified in interviewing him given his pedigree and potential knowledge on threats to Canada. Mr. Khadr may have turned his life around – and I wish him well if he has – but that does not take away what he represented in the immediate post 9-11 period. The Canadian government and its security apparatus would have been remiss not to talk to him.)
It is not rocket science to suggest that the conditions under which Gitmo prisoners were kept probably led to further radicalisation and we do know that there was a measurable recidivism rate for terrorism, although it is impossible to really know whether those that were released and went on to carry out terrorist attacks were true recidivists or people who became terrorists at Guantanamo (it is interesting that the newest Trump ‘alternative fact’ is that the percentage of those set free from the camp who executed terrorism, in the new administration’s account, is 40 percent, when every credible estimate from qualified people is closer to 12%). Whatever the numbers, there was always a subset of inmates who did pose a real and serious threat and probably still do (they sure aren’t being put through any ‘deradicalisation’ programme).
Now if turns out that a former ‘guest’ of Gitmo who was released by the US and returned to the UK (and given compensation) in 2004 was the man behind a suicide attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul. This event will most certainly feed the arguments of those who now maintain that no further releases should be made since, they will say, those let go will just return to terrorism anyway. Regardless of the sheer improbability that this kind of judgment can be supported, it will carry weight.
It thus seems that the US will be stuck with the Guantanamo problem indefinitely. It will continue to be an international embarrassment for the US and feed the Islamist extremist narrative that the US/West hates Islam. The extremists have if not regained the moral high ground – after all it is hard to be perceived as righteous if you keep raping, beheading, immolating and engaging in other heinous criminal acts – they have at least been able to point their fingers at the US and say “See, they’re just as bad as us”. The US in effect handed them a freebie propaganda win.
In the end, Guantanamo was a colossal PR error. The US should have put those suspected of engaging in terrorism on trial in the US and allowed the weight of a Western judicial system to bear on their cases. In fairness, even when the Obama administration tried to arrange proceedings in the US it was defeated by shameless and cowardly NIMBY’s in Congress who cited inflated ‘security threats’ (does anyone really believe that holding terrorist court cases in the US would have been more of a red flag to the world’s terrorists than keeping them without due process at Gitmo forever?).
No, the US will wear the mistake that was (is) Guantanamo for a very long time. At the very least it should ramp up the departure of the few remaining to whatever country the Americans can cajole to take them. What they should not do is send more alleged terrorists there. Then again, the current version of the US government seems bent on doing whatever makes less sense from a national security perspective.