Former Gitmo Inmate Now al Qaeda Leader

There has been quite a bit of blogospheric reaction to the news that two former inmates at Gitmo appeared in an al Qaeda video:

Former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Sufyan al-Azdi al-Shahri (Formerly Prisoner 372)

Former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Sufyan al-Azdi al-Shahri (Formerly Prisoner 372)

Two men released from the US “war on terror” prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have appeared in a video posted on a jihadist website, the SITE monitoring service reported. One of the two former inmates, a Saudi man identified as Abu Sufyan al-Azdi al-Shahri, or prisoner number 372, has been elevated to the senior ranks of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, a US counter-terrorism official told AFP. Three other men appear in the video, including Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi, identified as an Al-Qaeda field commander. SITE later said he was prisoner No. 333.A Pentagon spokesman, Commander Jeffrey Gordon, on Saturday declined to confirm the SITE information. “We remain concerned about ex-Guantanamo detainees who have re-affiliated with terrorist organizations after their departure,” said Gordon. “We will continue to work with the international community to mitigate the threat they pose,” he said.

On the video, al-Shihri is seen sitting with three other men before a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq, the front for Al-Qaeda in Iraq. “By Allah, imprisonment only increased our persistence in our principles for which we went out, did jihad for, and were imprisoned for,” al-Shihri was quoted as saying.

Al-Shiri was transferred from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia in 2007, the US counter-terrorism official said.

Obviously, if these two men were still being held prisoner indefinitely, they would have had a hard time making this tape.  And, if they’re in fact senior leaders and commanders in al Qaeda, it would seem just as obvious that they should in fact still be locked up.  (Note:  A couple of bloggers have treated this news as as additional piece of evidence piled upon Wednesday’s NYT story “Freed by the U.S., Saudi Becomes a Qaeda Chief.”  In actuality, said chief is the above-pictured al-Shahri.)

But here’s the thing: Former prisoners in our criminal justice system are let out all the time, either because they’ve completed their sentence, earned parole, a jury couldn’t be persuaded to convict them, or various other reasons.  A sizable portion of those people then go on to commit other crimes.   We nonetheless have not adopted a policy of keeping everyone who comes through the doors of our prison system locked up indefinitely as a precautionary measure.

Are al Qaeda terrorists different than American citizens suspected of committing crimes?  They are.  We’ve got more discretion at our disposal under international law than in our domestic system.   We can hold al Qaeda commanders caught on the field of battle “for the duration” of hostilities which, theoretically, is forever since this is a “long war” with no foreseeable end.  But, under the terms of international treaties that we’ve not only committed ourselves but led the way in negotiating, we have to provide some minimal level of due process establishing that these people are who we say they are.  Rather clearly, we were unable to do that in the case of these two individuals.

I don’t like the outcome here.  I’d rather have these two guys (and the numerous others Jim Hoft links to at the bottom of this post) still under the control of the American military.  But not at the price of a system that violates our treaty obligations and keeps hundreds of innocents locked up simply because we can’t distinguish the good guys from the bad guys and therefore treat them all like the latter.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    Have not read the details o this yet, but are we sure they were involved with al Qaeda before they went to Gitmo? If I were an al Qaeda recruiter, I would be looking to sign up anyone released from Gitmo. If I was someone completely innocent who got turned in for bounty, then spent six years at Gitmo, plus/minus torture, I might just sign up. I can see some of these guys being released being pretty pissed. Hell, if I were al Qaeda I might even take a page out of Anbar and pay these guys. After 5 or 6 years in Gitmo you probably do not have a job waiting for you.

    In other words, why do we take this at face value. IO has not generally been our strong point, while al Qaeda has intermittently been pretty good at it. Otherwise, I agree with your general points. Part of the cost of freedom and liberty is risk.


  2. Scott Lucas says:

    Agree fully with your last paragraph, but I think you miss the wider story. Officials in the Pentagon have been “spinning” against the closure of Guantanamo for the last two weeks. They tried the story that dozens of ex-detainees had joined Al Qa’eda, but were unable to back it up under scrutiny. The one story they could establish,al-Shihri, fed to the NYT, is another attempt to grab the headlines.

    See the analysis at the website Enduring America.

  3. Obama’s going to wish his campaign promise would just go away. His far-left base won’t let him. I wonder how much he knew his promises were unrealistic before becoming president. And how much of an education he’s just getting now. We conservatives don’t have to get red-faced, not yet anyway. It’s his political problem now. I predict he’s not going to release the worst of the worse, or put them in our backyards.

    BTW, there’s a liberal blog in my state that I follow just to keep better tabs on state politics. But they post on national politics too. This morning they had a headline and lead that a al-Qaeda is struggling since it lost a key recruiting asset. Then they showed a picture of Bush.

    I let ’em have it back with a parody of their post on BBOW.

  4. John Burgess says:

    There seems to be some question–or at least confusion–about whether al-Shihri completed the Saudi rehab course or, as CNN reported, fled it.

  5. odograph says:

    This sentence is unbalanced James, because it uses “suspected” only at one end:

    Are al Qaeda terrorists different than American citizens suspected of committing crimes?

    Of course “terrorists” are different than “suspects.”

  6. odograph says:

    BTW, as I read this I’m conscious of my own personality. If I’d been innocent and locked up in Gitmo for a few years, I might be pissed enough when I got out to act.

    I’m not saying that happened here, but by my reading of human nature (and introspection) I think it is certain to happen in some cases.

  7. steve says:

    “Hmmm. But I thought all Republicans cared about was making government smaller? How do you do that while simultaneously undertaking a “blind and narrow pursuit of power”?!”

    Republicans only talk about making government smaller. What they really do is decrease taxes and increase the size of government. Look at our debt when we have a Republican president in office since 1980.


  8. Michael says:

    While steve and odograph hit on one reason why these people may have been recruited post-imprisonment, I think a more likely explanation exists: Al Qaeda picked them for their publicity value. The fact that they are advertising their former imprisonment seems to re-enforce that idea.

    If that is indeed, the case, we should definitely release the most incompetent prisons right away, the more of them Al Qaeda puts into leadership roles the better. We can even put suggestions in their ear about a political divide within Al Qaeda, one side being against their tribe or nationality, to implant some dissension in the ranks.

    Heck, once we take out some senior level members we know associated with these prisons recently, we could let slip some “top secret” documents (on a disreputable website or course) suggesting that those released prisoners may have tracking/eavesdropping devices implanted, or are acting as double agents, and watch the infighting begin.

  9. Bootlegger says:

    Actually Michael, who’s to say that these new AQ stars aren’t double agents and these stories are cover? Ooops. Guess I blew that.

  10. Franklin says:

    As James’ previous posts have pointed out, even with these two guys, the actual confirmed “recidivism” rate (assuming we can prove they were bad guys in the first place) is extraordinarily low. Since we know the Pentagon’s numbers of around 11% were pure fluff (“we released this guy and he turned around and called us doodoo heads”), but not knowing how many people did return to the fight without any evidence so far, we can still guesstimate that the rate is pretty dang low.

    Yeah, I don’t want the worst of the worst set free. No duh. But I’ve always believed that it’s better to let quite a few guilty people free than send away (and torture) one innocent person. And we have several confirmed cases of the latter.