Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: Releasing Detainees Requires a Risk Management Approach

A New York Times article today reports that a former Guantanamo detainee, Said Ali al-Shihri, became the deputy leader of al Qaeda in Yemen following his release to a Saudi rehabilitation program in 2007. The story, which broke just one day after President Obama issued an Executive Order establishing a one-year deadline for closing Guantanamo, sparked further debate about what to do with remaining detainees in the NYT “Room for Debate” blog. National security court and administrative detention proponents cited the story as further evidence of the need for such frameworks. But our colleague, Deborah Colson, argued that the story instead serves as another example of Guantanamo’s damage as a terrorism recruiting tool and that a risk management approach is more effective:

What’s Needed: Risk Management

Today’s report about a former Guantánamo detainee turned al Qaeda leader is sure to become a rallying cry for those who question President Obama’s decision to close Guantánamo and persist in believing that all Guantánamo detainees are dangerous terrorists.

But keeping Guantánamo open would undoubtedly pose a greater risk to our national security than shutting it down. Coercive interrogations, prolonged detention without trial and flawed military commissions at Guantánamo have only nurtured the recuperative power of al Qaeda, increasing rather than decreasing the danger to the United States.

Recently, the Center for Strategic International Studies reported that West Point researchers have uncovered scores of references to Guantánamo by al Qaeda leaders, as far back as 2002 and as recently as January 2008.

Historically, overbroad detention practices have only served to alienate and radicalize communities and undermine the work of law enforcement. As the Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual states, in order to gain the popular support it needs to confront insurgency threats, the United States must send an unequivocal message that it is committed to upholding the law and basic principles of human rights. President Obama’s executive order closing Guantánamo does just that.

Some remaining Guantánamo detainees will be prosecuted. Releasing others will require an assumption of risk, but those risks can be managed and must be weighed against the dangers posed by their continued detention. A risk management program should include individualized risk assessments of prisoners selected for repatriation and resettlement; security assurances from receiving countries, including assurances to lawfully monitor returned detainees’ activities; investment in reintegration programs; and investment in law enforcement training to assist other countries in monitoring suspects and prosecuting criminal activity.


Published on January 23, 2009


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