Estimated number of Guantanamo recidivists continues to rise

The number of former Guantanamo detainees “confirmed” or “suspected” of rejoining the jihad has grown to 208, according to statistics released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) this week.

More than 60 percent of the jihadists, 132 in total, are at-large. The remaining 76 ex-detainees have been killed, died of natural causes, or were re-captured.

The overwhelming majority of the ex-detainees on the ODNI’s recidivist list, 188 out of 208 (90 percent), were transferred or released during the Bush administration. An additional 20 recidivists (9 confirmed, 11 suspected) were transferred from Guantanamo during President Obama’s tenure.

The US government’s list of ex-Guantanamo detainees who have rejoined the fight has grown significantly since 2008, when the first statistics were made public. [See LWJ report, ODNI: 204 former Guantanamo detainees are confirmed or suspected recidivists.]

In June 2008, the Department of Defense reported that 37 former detainees were confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight. On Jan. 13, 2009, a Pentagon spokesman said that number had climbed to 61. In April 2009, the Pentagon told the press that same metric had risen further to 74.

The estimated number of recidivists more than doubled between April 2009 and Oct. 2010, when the ODNI released an updated analysis saying that 150 former detainees were on the list. Since then, the ODNI’s assessment has steadily climbed. In March, the ODNI counted 204 men who had returned to the fight, which is slightly lower than the current figure of 208.

In the past, the US government provided examples of the men included in its recidivist database, but it no longer publishes such lists. Therefore, while some can be identified via open source reporting or previous Defense Department reports, others on the list haven’t been publicly identified.

ODNI’s methodology

The ODNI tracks former Guantanamo detainees who are involved in both “terrorist” and “insurgent” activities, including those thought to be “planning terrorist operations, conducting a terrorist or insurgent attack against Coalition or host-nation forces or civilians, conducting a suicide bombing, financing terrorist operations, recruiting others for terrorist operations, and arranging for movement of individuals involved in terrorist operations.”

The US 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 recidivist either, according to the ODNI.

In order to be considered a “confirmed” recidivist, a “preponderance of information” must identify “a specific former GTMO detainee as directly involved in terrorist or insurgent activities.” The “suspected” category requires “[p]lausible but unverified or single-source reporting” that identifies a “specific former GTMO detainee” as being “directly involved in terrorist or insurgent activities.”

The current estimate includes 122 “confirmed” and 86 “suspected” recidivists, for a total of 208.

To date, 693 Guantanamo detainees have been transferred. Therefore, the reengagement rate is approximately 30 percent. However, US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that this figure may underestimate the true rate.

US intelligence does not track all of the jihadists who were once held at Guantanamo, so even more former detainees could have rejoined terrorist or insurgent groups without the ODNI’s knowledge. There is also a lag time in the ODNI’s reporting. “A February 2010 review of GTMO detainees’ release dates compared to first reporting of confirmed or suspected reengagement shows about 2.5 years between leaving GTMO and the first identified reengagement reports,” the ODNI previously noted.

Ex-Guantanamo detainees serve jihadist organizations in various roles

Former Guantanamo detainees have served jihadist groups in a variety of capacities, ranging from suicide bombers to leadership positions. Both al Qaeda and the Taliban have filled senior roles with alumni from the detention facility in Cuba. Some have also joined the Islamic State.

Former Guantanamo detainees helped found Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Said al Shihri, who became AQAP’s deputy leader, was transferred from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia in 2007. He was killed in a US drone strike in 2013. Shihri was featured in the January 2009 video announcing AQAP’s founding. He appeared alongside three others, including Abu Hareth Muhammad al Awfi, who was also once held in Cuba. Al Awfi was quickly apprehended, or turned himself in, and returned to Saudi Arabia.

Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish was transferred from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia in 2006. He fled south for Yemen, where he became one of AQAP’s most senior ideologues. Rubaish played a key role in the rivalry between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, often arguing that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s enterprise was illegitimate. Rubaish was killed in a drone strike in 2015.

Ibrahim al Qosi, who was transferred in 2012, is currently a senior AQAP leader. Qosi served Osama bin Laden for years prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He is now a fixture in AQAP’s propaganda, which features Qosi’s discussions of his time with bin Laden and other issues.

Still other ex-Gitmo detainees have joined AQAP’s ranks. For example, the State Department added Othman al Ghamdi, an AQAP military commander, to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorists in 2011. Ghamdi has appeared in AQAP’s Inspire magazine in the past. It is not clear if he is still active, or has perished.

The Taliban has relied on ex-Guantanamo detainees to fill leadership positions as well. For instance, Mullah Zakir was sent from Cuba to Afghanistan in 2007, and quickly became one of the Taliban’s top military commanders. Zakir was later removed or resigned as the head of the Taliban’s military commission, but he appears to still be an influential figure.

In July, the State Department designated Ayrat Nasimovich Vakhitov as a terrorist. According to Voice of America, Vakhitov is “among 30 people Turkish authorities say they have arrested in connection with” the terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in June. No terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for the assault on the airport, which left dozens dead. But it is widely suspected to be the work of the Islamic State.

These are just some of the publicly-identifiable examples of ex-Guantanamo detainees who have become recidivists.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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2 Comments

  • Thank you for posting this well informed article. It explains more in detail some issues raised in the ODNI report and provides useful facts. Yesterday, when I shared the report via LinkedIn, I wrote that the fact of reengagement had been somewhat expected; while it was difficult to say whether the percentage of those who reverted back to the type was tolerable or alarming. Perhaps, the absolute (let alone comparative, like in the report’s presidents’ term related pre-/post-Jan’09–different people, different times) numbers are not much useful, and each case shall be considered on its own terms. One thing to avoid is yet another campaign and branding, for at least the majority of c. 70 percent haven’t reengaged–and this fact shall be promoted in counter-terrorism communications. Finding balance is never easy job, but necessary, especially when the adversaries use every opportunity for their propaganda.

  • Buzz says:

    Send this narrative to the President and Attorney General.??! ” Because that’s who we are “

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis