The New York Times reports that “the emergence of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee as the deputy leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.”
The militant, Said Ali al-Shihri, is suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing of the United States Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana, in September. He was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before resurfacing with Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Back in November, the Times had this story on the jihadist rehabilitation program, which apparently didn’t take with al-Shihri. Though the Times notes that Al Qaeda in Yemen “has been reinforced by foreign fighters,” it does not point out that some of those fighters, including some involved in the September attack, were returned fighters from Iraq.
Shahri was picked up in Pakistan in 2001, and shipped to Guantanamo in early 2002 after spending a month and a half in a hospital, recovering from wounds from an air strike. Pentagon documents charge Shihri with participation in “military operations against the United States and its coalition partners,” stating that he was an “Al Qaeda travel facilitator” who helped arrange travel to Afghanistan via Iran, that he trained in “urban warfare” in a camp north of Kabul, and that he attempted to assassinate a writer.
Asked about the Times story, CAP’s Ken Gude responded that “it is impossible to guarantee that no detainees released from Guantanamo will ever join up with terrorists or commit violent acts. The Obama admininstration must do all that it can to prevent this from occuring, but the chances are likely that it will.”
But you cannot assess the dangers of Guantanamo simply by looking at a handful of released detainees and whether they participate in terrorism. Guantanamo’s existence has driven far more individuals into al Qaeda’s ranks than those who could join the fight after being released.
And the Iraq war provided an environment in which to train them. Contrary to what conservatives will inevitably insist, the story of Said Ali al-Shihri doesn’t argues for abandoning the effort to close Guantanamo (it’s unknown whether al-Shihri’s Gitmo stint further radicalized him, as it has other detainees), but for a more competent and responsible process for dealing with detainees. More importantly, given the apparent ease with which al-Shihri was able to hook up with an Iraq-fed Al Qaeda affiliate after his release, it argues for a counter-terrorism policy that doesn’t actually fan the flames of extremism in the Middle East, as the Bush administration’s did.