Another Ex-Con, Another Terrorist Attack: The Danger in Closing Gitmo
Said Kouachi, Cherif Kouachi, and Amedy Coulibaly – the radicalized Islamic terrorists who brutally murdered police, journalists, and civilians in the streets of Paris – share a common feature with other Muslim terrorists such as Mohammed Merah (Toulouse, France Massacre 2012) Alton Nolen (the Oklahoma beheading), Michael Zehaf Bibeau (attack on Canadian Parliament), and Carlos Bledsoe (Arkansas Army Recruiting Station).
All spent time behind bars.
This list would be larger if we included those arrested for plotting terrorist attacks that were thwarted by counter-terrorism officials.
Now we are discovering that at least two of the Paris attackers received training in Yemen from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). More disturbing is that while there, they met with noted al-Qaeda bomb maker Said Shihri. Shihri spent almost six years in prison for terrorism before his release in 2007. He was incarcerated at Camp Delta Detention Center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. U.S. officials released him to a Saudi Arabian rehabilitation program designed to help captured terrorists re-acclimate themselves into society.
The program clearly did not work.
The Paris tragedy is another clear example that releasing terrorists from prison may not be such a good idea. France’s problem is that they have no alternative. There is no death penalty and no sentence of life without parole. Everyone eventually gets out of prison.
The fact that ex-cons often get released from prison neither rehabilitated nor transformed is nothing new. Recidivism rates for common criminals continue to be an issue for sociologists and criminologists to explore. However, the phenomena of individuals coming out of prison radicalized and then traveling overseas to continue their journey to jihad is relatively new, yet not unknown to law enforcement or counter-terrorism experts.
French authorities have known for a time of the cauldron of radicalization brewing in their correctional system. In 2006, Pascal Maihlos, the director of Renseignements Généraux (RG), France’s domestic intelligence agency, admitted to a problem of mixing hardened Islamic terrorists with common criminals that was producing a crop of new jihadists.
In 1999, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in New York learned of a plan hatched by an incarcerated terrorist to send recently released convicts overseas to the Middle East to receive tactical training. In 2010, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report stating that as many as three dozen ex-cons had traveled to Yemen to receive AQAP training.
Which brings us to the Obama Administration’s plan close the Guantanamo detention center, something it cannot do without Congressional approval, by either releasing detainees to other countries or by transferring them to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Both options are dangerously foolish and fraught with peril. Releasing terrorists to a neutral country does not insure that they will not be able to travel or reconnect with former jihadist associates, as Said Shihri did.
Placing them in the Bureau of Prisons will not restrict them from influencing other inmates to their cause. John Walker Lindh, otherwise known as the “American Taliban,” was captured in Afghanistan fighting alongside al-Qaida. Many counter-tterrorism experts also felt that he was in part responsible for the death of CIA Officer John Michael Spann killed during a prison uprising at Qala-i-Jangi Detention Center.
Lindh recently won a lawsuit filed in Federal court challenging the BOP’s authority to restrict his movement and interaction with other inmates. He is now allowed to co-mingle with other potential jihadists at least five times a day. The fact that he was chosen by the other inmates to be their spokesman and imam – leader of the inmate Muslim community – demonstrates his influence.
The current threat posed by ISIS is compounded by the fact that officials are now finding out that the group’s entire command and control structure was formulated by its leaders, including its emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, while incarcerated in Camp Bucca prison in Iraq. All were subsequently releaesd when the prison was turned over to Iraqi officials.
Unless the United States and other Western democracies take firm decisive action to keep captured or convicted terrorists behind bars, we will see more heinous acts like the ones that took place in Paris.
The current “catch and release” program in the war on terrorism simply does not work.
Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections and author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad. He currently teaches a class on terrorism for the United States Military Special Operations School.