US released Baghdad bombers (Law & Order: Special Jihad Unit)

The AFP quickly reported that the two suicide bombers behind the recent spectacular attacks in Baghdad on Aug. 19 were released from American custody at Camp Bucca a few months ago.

There is some relevant background worth understanding about US detention of Iraqis:

1. The transfer of detainees out of US custody and back into society or Iraqi detention facilities has been continuing apace to fall in line with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) conditions and looming withdrawal deadline. American forces had been able to hold suspects who are not charged under Iraqi law before the SOFA terms kicked in on January 1. Since then, charged detainees are being transferred to Iraqi custody and prisoners held without sufficient evidence for charges under Iraqi law are set free. The total detainee population in US custody has fallen to less than 9,000, as of Aug. 27, down from a peak of 26,000 in 2007. American spokesmen say that every case is thoroughly reviewed, but it’s not hard to imagine that the pace of the transfer, as well as the unavoidably imperfect standards of evidence-gathering and subjective review of individual cases, will cause some genuine terrorists to slip through the cracks and wind up on Iraqi streets.

2. Americans prioritize insurgents they consider particularly intractable and dangerous, and present an evidence package to the Iraqis to make a case under local law. An Iraqi investigative judge reviews the case and decides whether the suspect goes free or the case goes forward and into court. Iraqi investigative judges are odd by Western legal standards, in that they serve as almost District Attorney and judge. Once a packet is recommended to go forward and into court, the odds a suspect will go to jail are very high. And if the charge is terrorism or murder, and the suspect doesn’t have stellar political connections, he goes away for a very long time.

3. Camps Bucca, Cropper, and other US detention facilities became incubators for violent jihad during the early years of the war. This fact was first revealed to me during an interview I conducted with then Fallujah Police Chief Faisal Ismail Hussein, and was repeatedly confirmed by American advisers and open source reports (note: Faisal was necessarily anonymous at the time, and is referred to as “Yusef” in the below interview):

INDC: Who is the insurgency? Who are the people who plant bombs every day and shoot at Americans, IA and police?

Yusef: “They have some ideology from some of the American prisons, the one in Bucca and south, in those two prisons there were extremist religious insurgents. The Americans took those people and put them in the prison too and they (the radicals) worked on the other prisoners, teaching them and feeding them that ideology of fighting and to think that everyone else is a sinner and that they should be killed.”

Note: I spoke to a Marine Detention Facility Officer intimately familiar with the mentioned corrections facilities, and he verified this characterization; young Iraqis on the fence are often radicalized there, initially associating with fundamentalists as a survival mechanism.

INDC: So the majority of the insurgents here are religious radicals?

Yusef: “People in Iraq fighting, they are kids. They have no knowledge, they are ignorant from both sides, about their religion and education-wise. They (the radicals) buy them with money, so why not? Some guys who work with insurgents and start killing people, when they begin and kill one, they cannot leave.”

INDC: What do you mean, they can’t stop killing?

The interpreter explains: “It’s like when you join a gang in the states. Once you do something, that’s it, you cannot leave.”

4. The much publicized efforts to reform American detention facilities by Major General Douglas Stone attempted, and to some degree succeeded, in alleviating the problem of radicalization. Stone concentrated on reforming tractable insurgents and separating those who ran with the insurgency for money from those who were true, die-hard radical jihadists. The Western press lionized the effort, as it fulfilled several attractive narratives: a blunt US military developing delicate cultural sensibilities, an unorthodox warrior-scholar bucking conventional wisdom, and the idea that violent jihad is a misinterpretation of Islamic theology. I enjoy and agree with some of these narratives to an extent, but the reality is that the process was improved from something particularly damaging, to something better, but inevitably imperfect.

US screeners are doing their best, but recidivism among some hard-core insurgents is inevitable, because many of them are smart enough to hide the horns and shine up a halo during review of their case. A US Reserve major who served on a release board last year shines some light on the process:

As for the board itself, it was interesting duty. To determine whether a person should be recommended for release or not, we were not simply supposed to focus on the charges against the detainee. We were not conducting a criminal trial to determine guilt or innocence for past conduct. We were conducting hearings to determine who we believed could be released with a high expectation that they would no longer commit negative acts against us. (The recidivism rate after several years of MNFRC boards, by the way, is only .7% – that is “point 7 percent”). One of the factors that we had to take into account is the detainee’s willingness to admit that what they did was wrong. Unfortunately, none of these guys admit that they did anything in the first place. They can be caught on tape laying an IED or shooting at US forces, or they can be shot while engaged in a fire fight, or they can have a hand blown off while emplacing an IED, but that doesn’t matter. In their version, they were just walking down the street heading towards the mosque to pray when out of nowhere shots rang out and here they are. How about the explosive residue on your hands? (What is an explosive?) How about the anti-aircraft weapon buried in your back yard? (Those damn neighbors probably snuck it there one night). How about the 152 millimeter field artillery round sitting on your dining room table with wires hanging out of it? (You know, I never even noticed that). Like I said, it was interesting. There were certainly people in the TIF who were swept up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These brave AQI/ISI souls and their Jaysh al-Mahdi counterparts do fight amongst civilians, so oftentimes these civilians get hurt or they get detained. The MNFRC boards are a way to help sort this out.

On the other hand, we came face to face with some hard core killers as well. Some came in with their horns clearly visible, and some were very sophisticated. There is a way to ask the right question in the right way to shine the light on what is really inside a person. You have all heard the stories of the medieval brutality that some of these people inflict on others, and when a person is capable of doing something like that to other people, that piece of them comes out. No, you don’t have to waste time wondering how many of these types are recommended for release.

The leaders of the insurgent groups are generally intelligent people. Unfortunately, there were a high number of high school teachers and college professors among them. They have easy access to young people and they use this access to recruit for the insurgency. These are the people who would come in and explain that an insurgent is a dumb and poor young person who can be easily manipulated to carry out senseless acts of violence against others and, as educated and respected community members, they certainly wouldn’t fit the profile of an insurgent. At that point, I would agree that they did not fit the profile of an insurgent fighter, but then I would ask them to do the board the favor of describing the people who recruit these poor, easily manipulated young people. Not one of those who we thought were the recruiters and leaders would go down that road. None of them would take the chance of describing themselves to us. That was telling in and of itself.

The low recidivism rate the major mentions is indeed impressive, but may go up with the batch of suspects released after January 1, 2009 under the terms of the SOFA. And unfortunately, it only takes a couple of insurgents skillfully claiming rehabilitation, connected to organizations with enough resources to buy off security and outfit them with bombs, to kill and wound hundreds of people and make an international statement about Iraq’s security.

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  • Lisan says:

    It’s really lovely to see your writing again in LWJ.
    I don’t want to be pessimistic here, but we (US) turned over the captured Iranians, the Iraqis are turning loose many of the rest of the bad actors that were rounded up, and Sheikh Issa al Masri is in Syria directing traffic for AlQaeda in Iraq. So if your crystal ball is handy, what do we need to be looking for that will indicate a regression to the 2006-2007, pre-surge days?

  • KnightHawk says:

    Not cool news, but sadly not unexpected, was only a matter of time before some of the released jackels return to old trix. Not the first time and will not be the last.
    Thank you for tracking and reporting on this.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Lisan –
    First, thanks for the kind words (you too, KHawk). Second, crystal balls and those who use them are notoriously unreliable on Iraq. But …
    A regression to 2006-2007 would mean anarchy, noted by regular spectacular attacks massacring civilians, barely to no functioning government, and a citizenry divided into armed camps along sectarian lines and looking to criminal elements as champions. I doubt this will happen.
    Some of the new things to watch for are noted in my other recent post here at LWJTM: the pace of the GOI using the state apparatus to seek wide revenge on competitors, the amount of dealing between sectarian parties, and pace of retaliatory/revenge assassinations and bombings. IMO, the ultimate character of these activities will not be known until soon before, during and after the SOFA withdrawal deadline (which I suspect is a lot more flexible than it’s made out to be, btw).
    Also – I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as Iraqis turning loose many of the bad actors, though that happens, especially with the politically connected. For example, in the case of the Baghdad bombers above, it may very well have been that we had poor evidence on them and thus let them go before they even saw an Iraqi judge, I don’t know. The unfortunate point is, it only takes a few to slip through the cracks.
    On the bright side, when a legit terrorist gets turned over to Iraqi custody and he has no political chips to cash, he gets dropped in a hole for a very long time, as opposed to the catch and release program US detention facilities played for much of the war. For more than half the war, we’d keep casual insurgents in Bucca a few months, just long enough for them to get indoctrinated into a gang, and then street them as newly minted killers.

  • Lisan says:

    Dear BillA–
    I knew you would give me solid ground for shedding the pessimism. Thanks. I always forget about those deep holes…
    I’ve been wondering though how much expenditure of political capital the Iraqis may be willing to make if they find themselves in a mess come the deadline 1/1/2010. Another big concern is whether our CIC will even assist if it means a delay in the exodus..but I’ll wait for another Ardolino post to ask those weighty questions.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Oh, don’t shed the pessimism. This is Iraq, after all. It’s a default position that is better than many… 🙂
    This will all take some time to shake out.


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