Whatever Guantanamo Bay was meant to achieve, it isn’t working

A detainee at Guantanamo Bay (AP)

The ever-dependable Guardian carries a story that must be disturbing reading for more or less everyone apart from terrorists: it seems that a considerable number of men released from detention at Guantanamo Bay later turn up on other jihadists’ battle-fields.

There are several observations to be made about this.

First of all, a considerable number of former prisoners re-offend and end up going back to jail. This is a well-know fact. Of course the prisoners in question are “normal” criminals, who have been sentenced by the courts and sent to jail after proper trial. But, given the failure of prison to rehabilitate or educate prisoners, it is not surprising that Guantanamo should be failing too, if indeed rehabilitation was the purpose of Guantanamo.

Secondly, I am not inclined to take the figures mentioned by the Guardian’s report very seriously. It is clear that a percentage of former inmates at Guantanamo, who were originally taken as “battlefield detainees” have, on release, gone back to doing what they did originally. But the exact percentage must be hard to calibrate, I should imagine, given that former inmates would have little interest in telling the American authorities about their subsequent movements, particularly if these were terrorist related. Terrorism, by its very nature, is an undercover operation. How many ex-Guantanamo men are out there, in some terrorist capacity, and have not yet been caught?

The main question to ask is why do men go back to being terrorists, and how do you stop them doing so? Clearly, whatever deradicalisation programme Guantanamo is using (if it is using one) is not working. Or is something more sinister happening? Is the experience of imprisonment in Guantanamo actually making the inmates more determined to take up arms against America and her allies than they were before? Is Guantanamo, to use the old phrase, a recruiting sergeant for terrorism?

Here we perhaps approach the crux of the matter: has the strategy of using detention without trial, in what has been called a legal black hole, badly misfired? Has the practice of detaining suspected terrorists who are denied recourse to the law in fact fuelled terrorism rather than deterred it? Indeed, was there not something contradictory and incoherent in the first place about fighting terrorism (which denies the rule of law) by suspending the very rule of law that the terrorist denies?

There is another side to the coin as well: sometimes we allow apologists for terrorism full access to the legal system, and in so doing we allow them to make fools of the system and ourselves, thus giving them the satisfaction of undermining the prestige of the very system they wish to destroy.

Whichever way, it seems the democratic state cannot win when faced with militant jihadis, who acknowledge no states and no laws apart from the Sharia, as interpreted by them. But we also need to ask what was Guantanamo’s purpose? The rehabilitation of the prisoners? If so, that has failed. Or was it purely aiming to keep them out of circulation? In which case, it has been a partial success – but at what price?