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1 in 7 freed detainees rejoins fight, report says

NYT: A report provides new details concluding that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from Guantánamo has returned to terrorism or militant activity.
Image: Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base
Guantanamo detainees pray before dawn May 14 near a fence of razor wire, inside the Camp 4 detention facility at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. Brennan Linsley / AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

An unreleased Pentagon report provides new details concluding that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has returned to terrorism or militant activity, according to administration officials.

The conclusion could strengthen the arguments of critics who have warned against releasing any more prisoners as part of President Obama’s plan to shut down the prison by January 2010. Past Pentagon reports on Guantánamo recidivism, however, have been met with skepticism from civil liberties groups and criticized for their lack of detail.

The Pentagon promised in January that the latest report would be released soon, but Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said this week that the findings were still “under review.”

Two administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the report was being held up by Defense Department employees fearful of upsetting the White House, at a time when even Congressional Democrats have begun to show misgivings over Mr. Obama’s plan to close Guantánamo.

Obama to give speech Thursday
The White House has said that Mr. Obama will provide further details about his plans for closing the prison there in a speech Thursday morning at the National Archives.

Pentagon officials said there had been no pressure from the White House to suppress the report, and said they believed that the Defense Department employees, some of them holdovers from the Bush administration, were acting pre-emptively to protect their jobs.

The report is the subject of numerous Freedom of Information Act requests from news media organizations, and Mr. Whitman said that he expected it to be released shortly. The report, a copy of which was made available to The New York Times, says the Pentagon believes that 74 prisoners released from Guantánamo have returned to terrorism, making for a recidivism rate of nearly 14 percent.

The report was made available by an administration official sympathetic to its findings who said the delay was creating unnecessary “conspiracy theories” about the holdup.

A Defense Department official said there was little will inside the Pentagon to release the report because it had become politically radioactive under Mr. Obama.

“If we hold it, then everybody claims it’s political and you’re protecting the Obama administration,” said the official, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “And if we let it go, then everybody says you’re undermining Obama.”

Previous assertions criticized
Previous assertions by the Pentagon that substantial numbers of former Guantánamo prisoners had returned to terrorism were harshly criticized by civil liberties and human rights groups who said the information was too vague to be credible and amounted to propaganda in favor of keeping the prison open. The Pentagon began making these assertions in 2007 but stopped earlier this year, shortly before Mr. Obama took office. In recent days, the Pentagon has run into rising objections in Congress to closing the prison, particularly from Senator Harry Reid of Arizona, the Democratic majority leader, who said recently that Guantánamo detainees would “never” be released in the United States.

On Wednesday, Michele A. Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, reminded reporters that many of these now expressing reservations about the transfer of prisoners from Guantánamo had also called for the closing it.

“I think there will be some that need to end up in the United States,” she said.

Among the 74 former prisoners that the report says are again engaged in terrorism, 29 have been identified by name by the Pentagon, including 16 named for the first time in the report. The Pentagon has said that the remaining 45 could not be named because of national security and intelligence-gathering concerns.

Two ex-Gitmo prisoners return to fight
In the report, the Pentagon confirmed that two former Guantánamo prisoners whose terrorist activities had been previously reported had indeed returned to the fight. They are Said Ali al-Shihri, a leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch suspected in a deadly bombing of the United States embassy in Sana, Yemen’s capital, last year, and Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul, an Afghan Taliban commander, who also goes by the name Mullah Abdullah Zakir.

The Pentagon has so far provided no way of authenticating its 45 unnamed recidivists, and only a few of the 29 people who are identified by name can be independently verified as having engaged in terrorism since their release. Many of the 29 are simply described as associating with terrorists or training with terrorists, with almost no other details provided.

“It’s part of a campaign to win the hearts and minds of history for Guantánamo,” said Mark P. Denbeaux, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law who has represented Guantánamo detainees and co-written three studies highly critical of the Pentagon’s previous recidivism reports. “They want to be able to claim there really were bad people there.”

Mr. Denbeaux acknowledged that some of the named detainees had engaged in verifiable terrorist acts since their release, but he said his research showed that their numbers were small. “We’ve never said there weren’t some people who would return to the fight,” Mr. Denbeaux said. “It seems to be unavoidable. Nothing is perfect.”

Recidivism rate lower than for U.S. prisoners
Terrorism experts said that a 14 percent recidivism rate was far lower than the rate for prisoners in the United States, which, they said, can run as high as 68 percent three years after release. The experts also said that while Americans might have a lower level of tolerance for recidivism among Guantánamo detainees, there was no evidence that any of those released had engaged in elaborate operations like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Terrorism is perpetrated by organizations and not individuals,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

In addition to Mr. Shihri and Mr. Rasoul, at least three others among the 29 named have engaged in verifiable terrorist activity or have threatened terrorist acts.

Abu Hareth Muhammad al-Awfi, a Saudi national who was released from Guantánamo to Saudi Arabia in November 2007, and who is named on the most recent list of 16, appeared with Mr. Al-Shihri in a video released by Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch in January and reported by news organizations at the time. Like Mr. Shihri, Mr. Awfi passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for jihadists after their release from the prison. The program has been seen as a model, and the Saudi government has previously said that none of its graduates had returned to terrorism.

In the video, Mr. Awfi threatened attacks against Saudi Arabia and spoke angrily about Israeli attacks on Hamas in Gaza.

Another on the list of 29 whose case has been widely reported is Abdullah Salih al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti who was in Guantánamo from 2002 to 2005 and who subsequently carried out a suicide bomb attack in Mosul, Iraq, in 2008. The attack killed several Iraqi soldiers.

Margot Williams contributed reporting from New York.

This article, "1 in 7 Detainees Freed Returns to Terrorism, Pentagon Says" first appeared in The New York Times.