“Return To Terrorism”

Yesterday, a Pentagon spokesman said:

“I can disclose with you the fact that we have a new — we have updated recidivism numbers of people who have been at Guantanamo, and these are the latest numbers we have as of the end of December. And it shows a pretty substantial increase in recidivism. I think prior to this report, I think the rate had been about 7 percent of those who had been held at Guantanamo and released who have been confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight. At that time we suspected that 30 — confirmed or suspected that 37 former detainees had returned to the fight. We now believe that that number has increased and that the overall known terrorist reengagement rate has increased to 11 percent. The new numbers are, we believe, 18 confirmed and 43 suspected of returning to the fight. So 61 in all former Guantanamo detainees are confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight.

So there clearly, Barbara, are people who are being held at Guantanamo who are still bent on doing harm to America, Americans, and our allies. So there will have to be some solution for the likes of them, and those are among — that is among the thorny issues that the president-elect and his new team are carefully considering.”

Reuters helpfully wrote a story on this headlined “Pentagon: 61 ex-Guantanamo Detainees Return To Terrorism”, and CNN headlined its piece: “Pentagon: Ex-Gitmo Detainees Resume Terror Acts”. So I suppose it’s no surprise that some bloggers on the right described these detainees as having “returned to their terror-waging ways”, “returned to jihad”, or (from the Heritage Foundation’s Foundry) “returned to the battlefield to fight the United States”.

The Pentagon spokesman did not say which detainees he was talking about, or what constituted “returning to the fight”. However, the last time the Pentagon released figures like these, Mark Denbeaux at the Seton Hall Center for Policy and Research examined their claims (pdf). At that point, the Pentagon claimed that thirty detainees had “returned to the fight”. Based on the DoD’s own evidence, he concluded (p. 5) that “There appears to be a single individual who is alleged to have both been detained in Guantanamo and later killed or captured on some battlefield.”

Among the people the Pentagon counted as having “returned to the fight” were the Tipton Three — three British citizens who were thought, wrongly, to have belonged to al Qaeda. They were subsequently cleared by British intelligence (one of them was working at an electronics store in Birmingham when he was supposed to have been at an al Qaeda rally in Afghanistan), and released to the UK. Since they were not in “the fight” to begin with, they can hardly be said to have “returned” to it. But even if they had, their “return” consisted in participating in a documentary about their experiences.

The Uighurs in Afghanistan were also supposed to have also “returned to the fight”. Since the DoD found that they were not enemy combatants, it is, again, hard to see how anything they did could count as “returning”. What the DoD actually counted as their “return to the fight” was– I hope you’re sitting down — the fact that one of them published an op-ed in the New York Times. Here is part of his act of war column:

“I learned my respect for American institutions the hard way. When I was growing up as a Uighur in China, there were no independent courts to review the imprisonment and oppression of people who, like me, peacefully opposed the Communists. But I learned my hardest lesson from the United States: I spent four long years behind the razor wire of its prison in Cuba.

I was locked up and mistreated for being in the wrong place at the wrong time during America’s war in Afghanistan. Like hundreds of Guantanamo detainees, I was never a terrorist or a soldier. I was never even on a battlefield. Pakistani bounty hunters sold me and 17 other Uighurs to the United States military like animals for $5,000 a head. The Americans made a terrible mistake.

It was only the country’s centuries-old commitment to allowing habeas corpus challenges that put that mistake right — or began to. (…) Without my American lawyers and habeas corpus, my situation and that of the other Uighurs would still be a secret. I would be sitting in a metal cage today. Habeas corpus helped me to tell the world that Uighurs are not a threat to the United States or the West, but an ally. Habeas corpus cleared my name — and most important, it let my family know that I was still alive.

Like my fellow Uighurs, I am a great admirer of the American legal and political systems. I have the utmost respect for the United States Congress. So I respectfully ask American lawmakers to protect habeas corpus and let justice prevail. Continuing to permit habeas rights to the detainees in Guantanamo will not set the guilty free. It will prove to the world that American democracy is safe and well.”

Well, that’s an act of terror if ever I saw one! I hope you weren’t injured by any of the incoming shells on the battlefield to which Abu Bakker Qassim returned by writing that op-ed. Another Uighur’s “return to terrorism” consisted of giving an interview. I thought of excerpting it too, but there are limits to the perils to which I am willing to expose my readers.

I’m not trying to argue that no Guantanamo detainees have ever taken up arms against the US. I imagine that some have. I do think that it’s important to be clear about how many of them there are, and what the Pentagon is counting as a “return to the fight”. Claims about detainees “returning to the fight” figure in arguments about whether we should release those who remain. It matters how many of them have actually taken up arms, and how many have just exercised their rights to free speech in ways our government doesn’t care for.

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