Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How big a terror risk are former Guantanamo prisoners?

By Peter Bergen and Bailey Cahall
June 8, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
These are photos obtained by WikiLeaks that match the names of the detainees released by the Department of Defense. Their release was in exchange for the release of <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/19/us/bowe-bergdahl-fast-facts/index.html' target='_blank'>Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl</a> who was being held by the Taliban. The Department of Defense would neither confirm nor deny their accuracy.<strong> Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa </strong>was an early member of the Taliban in 1994 and was interior minister during the Taliban's rule. He was arrested in Pakistan and was transferred to Guantanamo in May 2002. During questioning, Khairkhwa denied all knowledge of extremist activities. These are photos obtained by WikiLeaks that match the names of the detainees released by the Department of Defense. Their release was in exchange for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl who was being held by the Taliban. The Department of Defense would neither confirm nor deny their accuracy. Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa was an early member of the Taliban in 1994 and was interior minister during the Taliban's rule. He was arrested in Pakistan and was transferred to Guantanamo in May 2002. During questioning, Khairkhwa denied all knowledge of extremist activities.
HIDE CAPTION
Guantanamo detainees swapped for Bergdahl
Guantanamo detainees swapped for Bergdahl
Guantanamo detainees swapped for Bergdahl
Guantanamo detainees swapped for Bergdahl
Guantanamo detainees swapped for Bergdahl
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John McCain cites U.S. statistic that 30% of Gitmo released prisoners return to battle
  • Peter Bergen: A close study of the record finds only a third of that number are recidivists
  • Vast majority of recidivist Gitmo detainees were freed under the Bush administration, he says
  • Bergen: Only one prisoner freed under Obama is known to have returned to the fight

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Bailey Cahall is a policy analyst at the New America Foundation's International Security Program.

(CNN) -- Following the Taliban prisoner swap that led to the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, told Fox News that 30% of the detainees released from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay "have already gone back into the fight."

It's a figure that has been frequently repeated in recent days, but is it true?

It depends on who is doing the counting.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

According to the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which regularly releases an unclassified summary report about former detainees, as of January this year, 104 of the 614 detainees (17%) released from the prison have engaged in "terrorist activities," while another 74 (12%) are suspected of doing so. It is impossible to assess the validity of the U.S. government's claim, referenced by McCain, that nearly 30% of the released detainees are confirmed or suspected of engaging in terrorist activity because the government has not publicly released the names of any of these detainees for the past five years.

The U.S. government defines a "confirmed" terrorist or insurgent as based on a "preponderance" of information pointing to that conclusion, while someone in the "suspected" category is based on plausible but unverified or single source reporting to that effect.

In order to shed some light on exactly which graduates from Guantanamo have joined a militant group or engaged in some other kind of terrorist activity, the New America Foundation analyzed Pentagon reports, news stories, and other publicly available documents to create a list of former detainees who have "returned to the battlefield." The list can be found here.

The New America list documents a much smaller number than does the U.S. government. Of the 620 former detainees who have been transferred from the prison camp, we have identified 15 former Guantanamo detainees (2.5%) who are confirmed to have engaged in terrorist or insurgent activities against the United States or its citizens, while there are 21 individuals (3.5%) who are suspected of engaging in such activities.

Exchanged prisoners' Taliban ties
New video shows homecoming of Taliban
Who is Bob Bergdahl?

We also identified 18 former detainees (3%) who are confirmed or suspected of involvement in militant attacks against non-U.S. targets. Taking all three categories together, the New America list finds only a third as many Guantanamo prisoners have returned to the battlefield, compared to the U.S. government estimate.

A recent example of this is British citizen Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo prisoner released in 2005, who was arrested in December on terrorism charges related to the Syrian civil war. He has denied the charges.

It's important to note that the vast majority of individuals who are confirmed or suspected to have militant groups were released under the George W. Bush administration, a fact that is missing from much of the current commentary.

For the purposes of our study, for a former detainee to be considered "confirmed" that he had joined a militant group, there had to be a preponderance of information claiming he was directly involved in terrorist or insurgent activities. For those "suspected" of such acts, there were plausible but unverified accounts about their involvement in such activities.

While it is certainly possible there are some former detainees participating in terrorist and insurgent activities who have not been identified publicly, we are confident that our numbers are reasonably accurate because groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban are eager to trumpet the identities of released Guantanamo detainees who join their ranks, as it is a propaganda coup for them, and the media is also quick to highlight such stories.

Based on our findings, even if you combine all of the released detainees who are confirmed or suspected of taking part in any form of militant activity anywhere in the world, the total comes to 54, or 8.7%, which is much lower than the 30% being cited by the U.S. intelligence community and members of Congress.

This percentage is also much lower than the recidivism rate of criminals within the United States, which currently stands around 67.5%, according to the most recent statistics by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Some of the Guantanamo prisoners who were released by the Bush administration are certainly quite dangerous. Said Ali al-Shiri, who co-founded al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2009, was transferred to Saudi Arabia in 2007. Shiri completed the kingdom's rehabilitation program and promptly headed to Yemen, where he became AQAP's deputy commander. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike last year.

Another example is Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul (who also goes by the name Mullah Zakir), who has emerged as one of the top Taliban commanders. Rasoul was also transferred from Guantanamo to Afghanistan in 2007 by the Bush administration and rejoined the Taliban shortly after the Afghan government released him from custody.

Under Obama, the U.S. State Department and U.S. Defense Department use comprehensive threat assessments to determine a detainee's eligibility for release. This has contributed to the fact that of the 88 prisoners released under Obama, we were only able to find publicly available information about one of those who had joined a militant group: Abdul Hafiz, who was returned to Afghanistan and is accused of fighting for the Taliban and targeting Afghan aid workers. (The intelligence community claims five Obama-era releasees have joined militant groups.)

Of course the high-ranking Taliban prisoners released in the exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl are not just low-level militants and President Obama himself has admitted that they might pose some future threat. "Is there the possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely. There's a certain recidivism rate that takes place," Obama said.

But these men are not being released freely into Afghan society. They have been transferred to the custody of Qatar, which is a rich, efficient police state and they have been banned from travel for a year. Assuming that ban holds, by the time they are able to travel back to Afghanistan, there will no longer be any U.S. combat presence as American combat soldiers are all pulling out at the end of December 2014. So any potential threat that those five Taliban officials might pose to American targets in Afghanistan will be much smaller by then.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT