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Can Gitmo's terrorists be rehabilitated?

Before he closes Guantánamo, Obama must take a clear-eyed look at the record – and anticipate the next chapter of the fight against terrorism.

By Aidan Kirby Winn / June 29, 2009


What happens to terrorist suspects after they leave the detention center at Guantánamo Bay?

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According to a Pentagon report leaked in May, 14 percent are engaged in terrorist activity. While many of their identities remain unknown, details are available about a handful of high-profile recidivists.

Abdallah Saleh al-Ajmi was picked up by the United States in Afghanistan, accused of aiding the Taliban. He spent four years at Guantánamo and was then released and repatriated to Kuwait. Acquitted by a criminal court, he then traveled to Iraq, where he drove an explosives-packed truck into an Iraqi Army base in 2008, killing 13 Iraqi soldiers and himself.

More troubling are the cases of Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul and Said Ali al-Shihri. Mr. Rasoul, who was released to the Afghan government in December 2007, is now the Taliban's operations leader in southern Afghanistan. Mr. Shihri was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program before becoming the deputy leader of Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen.

Some argue the alleged 14 percent rate is inflated, as it is based on a definition of "militant activity" so broad as to include merely associating with terrorists. Others say the figure compares favorably with the 68 percent recidivism rate for US criminals. Even if slightly inflated, these examples illustrate a broader policy problem for the Obama administration: unanticipated consequences of US counterterrorism policy actions.

Detainees from Yemen pose an especially difficult problem. Forty percent of the remaining detainees at Guantánamo are from Yemen, but it is a country ill-equipped to deal with their return.

Yemen has developed a rehabilitation program modeled on Saudi Arabia's, but so far it has yet to work as well. The escape of 13 Al Qaeda suspects from a Yemeni prison in 2006 undermines confidence in the country's ability to secure dangerous inmates if the US were to send them home.

Al Qaeda has a growing presence in Yemen, underscored by the attack last September on the US Embassy – an attack in which Shihri's involvement is suspected. A brutal murder of three foreign aid workers occurred just this month, bearing the hallmarks of Al Qaeda. An infusion of battle-tested jihadists back into that nation could further embolden the movement.

Yemen is applying diplomatic pressure to have its detainees repatriated upon the closure of Guantánamo. But in light of the country's counterterrorism track record, this would be unwise.