A September 18 dispatch from Reuters announces:
“A former prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay US naval base died fighting for anti-government rebels in Syria, according to an Islamist opposition group which posted a video of his funeral on YouTube”.
Held in Guantanamo from 2002 until 2006, Moroccan-born Mohammed al Alami is reportedly the first former prisoner to perish in the war in Syria.
In charge of deciphering this news for the Reuters journalist is Aaron Zelin – fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), proprietor of the website Jihadology.net, consultant and lecturer at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, and a shining example of the boost 9/11 has given to the industry of terrorism expertise.
Reuters quotes Zelin as follows:
“It [Alami’s death] has implications for the debate about what the United States does with the individuals still in Guantanamo and what might happen if they return home, or are released”.
Given WINEP’s position as a pillar of the Israel lobby, it’s perhaps not surprising that the organisation’s representatives might view the practice of turning other people’s land into illegally operated prisons (see “Gaza”) as something categorically unjustifiable.
‘Oh, made a mistake!’
The “debate” about what to do with the remaining Guantanamo prisoners – 84 of whom Reuters acknowledges were “cleared for release years ago” – boils down to what has become Barack Obama’s signature move: pursuing the same fundamental policies as his detractors while pretending not to.
Those detractors lend a hand to the arrangement by making Obama appear sane. A recent documentary for Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines, entitled “Life after Guantanamo”, includes footage of Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s performance at the first Congressional hearing on the prison in four years:
|Fault Lines – Life after Guantanamo|
“I have a hard time seeing how it is responsible to shut down our detention facilities and send these individuals home where they almost surely would be released and almost surely would return to threaten and kill more Americans”.
For those of us residing outside the head of Mr. Cruz, of course, the picture is a bit different. The Fault Lines documentary notes that, “[t]o this day, only seven of the 779 men the US has held at Guantanamo have been tried and convicted by a military tribunal”.
The film features various appearances by retired Army colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who confirms the prevalence of Guantanamo detainees who “weren’t guilty of anything except having been in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
Contrary to Cruz’s we-can’t-let-them-go-because-they’ll-kill-us logic, Wilkerson offers a more compelling explanation for US reluctance to kick its habit of indefinite detention:
“You’ve told the American people [that the Guantanamo detainees are] hardcore Al Qaeda operatives; you can’t then suddenly say, ‘Oh, made a mistake! These people are not really tough Al Qaeda operatives – oh my god, we’ve got to reverse this, we gotta close this camp’. You can’t do that. It’s politically impossible”.
Indeed, Obama’s decision last May to suspend his self-imposed moratorium on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen has caused Fox News to go into a tizzy but has yet to assist any un-charged, un-tried Yemenis – including those cleared for release – in recuperating of their freedom.
Meanwhile, groups of people who are actually guilty of crimes include US administrations that engage in the slaughter of Yemeni civilians via drone strikes – also a handy tactic for dealing with former detainees released from Guantanamo.
Perpetual war, perpetual detention
Intent as ever on displacing the blame for terror, Fox reminds us of the “ongoing terror threat emanating from Yemen”:
“…Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen that US intelligence officials say is now the greatest Al Qaeda threat to the US homeland, was formed in part by several former Guantanamo Bay detainees who were released in 2006″.
Hence the opposition to the repatriation of Guantanamo Yemenis, who currently constitute approximately half of the prison population.
Granted, US fears may not be entirely misplaced. From an objective standpoint, Guantanamo is a pretty perfect petri dish for the cultivation and incubation of anti-American sentiment. Participants have been treated to not only illegal and indefinite detention but also torture, force-feeding, genital searches, and prolonged exposure to Sesame Street music. As journalist Adam Hudson remarked in an August interview following a trip to the prison, Guantanamo may be best described as a place of “institutionalised inhumanity”.
It’s not terribly difficult to see that the closure of the prison – as initially promised by Obama – and the cessation of the US hobby of remote-control killing in Yemen would complicate the job of terrorist recruiters.
However, as Hudson also remarks:
“When it comes to Obama’s plan to ‘close Guantanamo’, we need to be clear about what his plan actually is – and it’s not to ‘close Guantanamo’. Obama’s plan amounts to transferring the practices of indefinite detention and military commissions – practices that made Guantanamo so odious in the first place – from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a federal prison in Illinois. So his plan is purely cosmetic, not institutional”.
Prospects for the perpetuity of inhumanity are perhaps best summed up by Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo of the House Intelligence Committee, who chuckled in response to Fault Lines‘ questions about indefinite detention in Guantanamo and the denial of the right to a fair trail: “It’s not indefinite, sir, it’s continuin’ while the war’s goin’ on”.
Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.