CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress this month that if captured, Osama bin Laden would be sent to Guantanamo. This was no surprise to those who follow news of the controversial detention facility. It was, however, a concern – not because Guantanamo is still open for business but because, by maintaining the status quo, pressing questions about the future of U.S. and international counterterrorism strategies continue to be ignored. There is no answer to “what’s next” for terrorist detention efforts.
For all of the media attention on Guantanamo Bay, debates about the future of this facility and its detainees have not changed significantly in more than five years. Even President Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo within a year of taking office affected little, save briefly improving the U.S. government’s public posture on the issue.
This focus on detainees who are already in custody has drowned out a more important discussion: What about detainees yet to be captured? Panetta might as well have said: Of course the world’s most notorious terrorist would be transferred to Guantanamo if he were caught – where else could he go?
Bringing terrorists to the United States remains an option. But the feasibility of prosecuting international terrorists in civilian courts is still a concern, particularly for those captured on the battlefield. Yes, a U.S. civilian court sentenced Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Guantanamo detainee, to life in prison for his part in the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. But he was acquitted of 284 other charges. Few in the United States are convinced that the U.S. judicial system is prepared to handle terrorists who represent an ongoing threat – not just to the United States but to the international community.
How else can we handle the most dangerous terrorists, individuals such as bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or senior leaders of al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and the Horn of Africa? What do we do when – not if, but when – a transnational terrorist is captured who represents a serious, strategic threat and possesses important intelligence?
Perhaps the answer lies in redefining “we.” More than 90 nations lost citizens in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Al-Qaeda has carried out or threatened attacks in numerous countries since then, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians worldwide. Terrorism is not merely an American issue. Not surprisingly, it cannot be addressed with a solely American solution – and that includes detention efforts.
Over the past decade, key members of the international community have taken on greater responsibility for worldwide counterterrorism efforts. This has meant increased collaboration on intelligence gathering, pursuit of terrorist supporters and their finances, and efforts to ensure that al-Qaeda does not radicalize and recruit more followers. Yet the United States has continued to carry a disproportionate burden regarding detention operations and to bear the brunt of the associated political backlash. And even while publicly bemoaning the existence of Guantanamo, some foreign officials have privately conceded that the dangerous individuals held there remain a threat and should be detained. But most were happy to see Washington shoulder that responsibility.
Rather than debating simply whether to shut Guantanamo or transfer the remaining detainees to the continental United States, we should discuss a third option. We should focus on rewriting Guantanamo’s future so it is more acceptable worldwide. We should focus, in other words, on internationalizing Guantanamo.
Transforming Guantanamo into an international prison for terrorists would require finding a broadly acceptable definition for the role of detention in modern counterterrorism efforts. It means reaching a new understanding of how the international community can share responsibility for handling suspected terrorists after capture. As regards future operations at Guantanamo, it means exploring how international forces could help oversee the facility, under a security agreement among participating nations.
This will require nations around the world to come to terms with the fact that, in the decades ahead, fighting al-Qaeda will demand a place to hold terrorists – a place like Guantanamo. That is no easy task but one that ultimately brings us closer to knowing “what’s next.”
In his testimony this month, Panetta stated the obvious. We will capture more dangerous individuals who pose a worldwide threat and need to be detained. But that should no longer be America’s responsibility. The international community should step forward to play a greater role in future detention efforts, including at Guantanamo.
Marisa L. Porges, an associate fellow at the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. She served as a policy adviser in the Defense Department’s Office of Detainee Affairs from 2006 to 2008 and in the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crime until mid-2009.