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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.

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Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, appears to have developed a relatively successful effort to rehabilitate terrorists, though there are still no comprehensive and objective assessments. For a time, the Saudis boasted a 100 percent success rate, but recent cases like that of Shihri have put a damper on that record.

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Still, the Saudi approach of intense religious discussion, followed by generous financial support, employment assistance, and long-term monitoring seems, so far, to have reintegrated a large number of former militants.

Yemen should study the Saudi example, but it will take several years and significant funding to replicate that program effectively. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia probably remains the best destination for Yemeni detainees.

Since 9/11, the US has consistently failed to anticipate and plan for the consequences of its counterterrorism decisions. It underestimated the radicalizing impact of US military operations in Iraq – a costly oversight given the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It has also underestimated the impact of creating a legally ill-defined detention center at Guantánamo. Both have proved damaging to US interests.

The approach taken toward the detainee issue portends similar strategic consequences, as do the ongoing operations in the volatile regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. How will the US handle the terrorist operatives it captures there? A greater effort should be made to anticipate the long-term effects of American actions.

There is a growing body of research on extremism that must be absorbed into counterterrorism strategy. Studies have documented a pattern of radicalization inside prisons even among prisoners not previously affiliated with terrorist networks. How is this process compounded in environments like Guantánamo?

Further study may provide clues to mitigating the factors that fuel radicalization and offer insights into effective measures for rehabilitation.

Closing Guantánamo Bay will remove a deeply resented symbol, but it will not address the enduring challenge of dealing with incarcerated militants.

The detainees who remain at Guantánamo have had years to reevaluate and perhaps upgrade their ideological convictions as well as develop new personal networks. Those who are ultimately released are likely to be welcomed home as heroes by Al Qaeda followers, their status enhanced by the legend of their Guantánamo experience.

The cases of Rasoul and Shihri – perhaps isolated – should serve as warnings.

As his self-imposed January deadline approaches, President Obama is likely to face mounting political pressure to resolve these issues. Guantánamo serves as a reminder of Bush-era policies that many would like to forget.

One way for Mr. Obama to demonstrate a new era in the fight against terrorism is to show a great degree of foresight. Before he closes Guantánamo, he needs a plan that anticipates the next chapter of this struggle.

Aidan Kirby Winn is a national security project associate at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit institution that aims to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.