A terror suspect nabbed last week in North Africa is the latest in a mounting and alarming list of former Guantanamo Bay detainees to return to the battlefield, say experts who have tracked Gitmo prisoners in and out of the facility for the last 14 years.
Hamed Abderrahaman Ahmed, nicknamed the “Spanish Taliban,” was arrested with three others Feb. 23 by Spanish and Moroccan authorities on the North African coast. He reportedly led a jihadist effort aimed at recruiting teens to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and was prepared to commit terrorist acts on Spanish soil. Ahmed was deemed particularly dangerous by Spanish law enforcement because he was “trained in handling weapons, explosives and in military tactics (which) makes this cell particularly dangerous.”
“The prisoners in Gitmo now should not be released," said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and editor of the Long War Journal. "These are dangerous members of Al Qaeda and allied jihadist groups. It is suicidal in my opinion to release members of a group you are at war with while you continue to be at war with them.”
Often after they are released to their home country, they are freed and return to fight Americans and their allies, Roggio said.
"It is suicidal in my opinion to release members of a group you are at war with while you continue to be at war with them.”
- Bill Roggio, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
In the case of Ahmed, a 2004 Joint Task Force Guantanamo report said he should not be released because he “poses a high threat to the U.S., its interests and its allies”… and “remains dedicated to the cause of jihad against the U.S.,” but the U.S. transferred him into the hands of the Spanish government, which released him after the Spanish Supreme Court overturned his conviction on terrorism related activities.
Some 779 prisoners were held at Guantánamo since January 2002 when the facility opened, and since, 678 were transferred or released, nine died while in custody, and another 91 are still behind bars.
There are petitions being circulated by those who want to see the Gitmo prisoners released, including groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. They are pushing President Obama to keep his 2008 campaign pledge to close the facility. Obama transferred 10 of the prisoners in January without the approval of Congress. Obama traded another five prisoners to the Taliban in a highly controversial deal for the return of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban after he deserted.
Obama has maintained holding prisoners at Gitmo feeds the terrorist recruitment efforts, but Roggio said Guantanamo is not a recruiting tool for terror groups.
“We are closing Guantanamo for all the wrong reasons. For reasons that continue to be repeated and are flat out wrong,” Roggio said.
Congress has passed numerous measures opposing the prisoners' transfer to U.S. soil, and military and defense experts have opposed their outright release, maintaining the prisoners are still extremely dangerous.
“There is pretty strong evidence, even from the Obama administration, that the majority of the folks we released and sent back have eventually made their way to the country we sent them to, back into the fight somehow,” said Steve Bucci, director of the Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy at the Heritage Foundation and a retired Army Special Forces officer. “Who does that in the middle of a war?”
Some of the most notorious former Guantanamo Bay prisoners who rejoined the jihadist movement include:
- Abdullah Salih al Ajmi, a Taliban operative released in 2005, only to orchestrate a massive attack in Mosul, Iraq, using 10,000 pounds of explosives, that killed 13 Iraqi soldiers and left another 43 wounded.
- Ibrahim al Qosi, a former foot soldier who worked directly for Usama bin Laden in the 1990s, who was transferred from Guantanamo to Sudan in July 2012, and since he has become a prominent face of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) propaganda including videos calling for jihad on all fronts.
- Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish, who was detained by Pakistani authorities in 2001, transferred to Guantanamo Dec. 13, 2006, and then subsequently placed in a Saudi rehabilitation program for jihadists in Saudi Arabia. He escaped the program, fled to Yemen, and then reemerged as a “leading ideologue and theologian for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” He, along with 10 other former Gitmo prisoners, are listed among the 85 most-wanted terrorists in Saudi Arabia.
- Said Ali al Shihri, a deputy of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen who allegedly helped orchestrate a 2008 attack on the American embassy in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, killing 10 civilians and six terrorists, was released from Guantanamo a year prior and sent to a Saudi Arabia rehabilitation program for jihadists. He and another Gitmo detainee, Abu Hareth Muhammad al Awfi, now are the faces of al Qaeda propaganda, and claim their time at Gitmo only increased their desire for war.
- Mullah Adbul Qayoum Zakir, the Taliban's "counter-surge" commander and chief operations officer in southern Afghanistan, was held at Gitmo between 2002 and 2007. He is in charge of operations against U.S. and Afghan forces in southern Afghanistan, according to a 2009 report by the AP.
- Ibrahim Bin Shakaran, a Moroccan who founded Sham al Islam to “recruit fighters for the Syria war” and “establish a jihadist organization within Morocco,” spent more than three years at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility before being released to Moroccan custody. He was killed in April 2014 during a battle with Syrian government forces.
Malia Zimmerman is an award-winning investigative reporter focusing on crime, homeland security, illegal immigration crime, terrorism and political corruption. Follow her on twitter at @MaliaMZimmerman