Inflating the Guantánamo Threat

Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul and Said Ali al-Shihri may be the two best arguments for why releasing detainees from Guantánamo Bay poses a real risk to America. Mr. Rasoul, who was transferred to Afghanistan in 2007 and then released by the Kabul government, is now the commander of operations for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. Mr. Shihri, sent back to his native Saudi Arabia in 2007, is now a leader of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen.

Are these two men exceptional cases, or are they emblematic of a much larger problem of dangerous terrorists who, if released, will “return to the battlefield”? To help answer that question, a Pentagon report made public on Tuesday concluded that 74 of the 534 men who have been freed from Guantánamo were “confirmed or suspected of re-engaging in terrorist activities.” This is a recidivism rate of around 14 percent, which was up from the Pentagon’s previous estimate in January of 11 percent.

But are things this bad? While we must of course be careful about who is released, these numbers are very likely inflated. This is in part because the Pentagon includes on the list any released prisoner who is either “confirmed” or just “suspected” to have engaged in terrorism anywhere in the world, whether those actions were directed at the United States or not. And, bizarrely, the Defense Department has in the past even lumped into the recidivist category former prisoners who have done no more than criticize the United States after their release.

Because of national security concerns, the new report does not include the names of the majority of those believed to have engaged in violence — 45 of the 74. There is surely some legitimacy to that claim. Yet the omissions make it hard to scrutinize the report. That said, thanks to previous Pentagon documents and other public records, we do have a good picture of what the 29 men the report does name have been up to.

First, nearly half of the men on the new list — 14 of the 29 — are listed as being “suspected” of terrorist activities, which makes “recidivist” a fairly vague definition. Next, the acts that at least nine of the 29 are either known or suspected of having been involved with were not directed at America or at our immediate allies in our current wars, the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This group includes men like Ravil Gumarov and Timur Ishmurat, who were convicted in 2006 of blowing up a gas pipeline in Russia. Another former detainee, Ruslan Odijev, was shot by the authorities in the city of Nalchik in the Russian North Caucasus who suspected he had taken part in a murderous raid against government security forces in 2005. Another Russian, Almasm Sharipov, made the list for “association” with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic organization that is not considered a terrorist group by the United States.

Eleven other men named in the report are Saudis who were put on a “most wanted” list the kingdom issued with much fanfare in February. While two of them have clearly taken up jihad against America, the other nine stand accused of fomenting resistance only to the monarchy, according to Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a top American expert on the Saudi program for the rehabilitation of terrorists. As he told us, “None of these guys has engaged in violence.”

In the end, the Pentagon has given out the names of only 12 former detainees who can be independently confirmed to have taken part in terrorist acts directed at American targets, and eight others suspected of such acts. This is about 4 percent of the 534 men who have been released. Obviously, the percentage would be higher if we were able to factor in the former detainees whose names were withheld. Yet it seems fair to say that the much-hyped 14 percent figure is likely a large overstatement of former Guantánamo inmates who have taken up arms.

Now, some Americans may argue that even a 1 percent recidivism rate from Guantánamo would be too high, while others will point out that this rate compares quite favorably to that of the United States writ large, as some two-thirds of people released from prison here are rearrested within three years.

We make neither of these arguments. Rather, our point is that the Pentagon should be as accurate as possible about how many of those released pose a threat to America. This is the only way that policy makers can make informed choices about closing Guantánamo, revising military commissions, deporting or repatriating prisoners or moving them to the United States, and keeping our nation safe.

Peter Bergen, a senior fellow and Katherine Tiedemann, a program associate at the New America Foundation.