U.S. Has Detained 83,000 in War on Terror

The AP reports that the United States has detained 83,000 foreigners since the beginning of the war on terror, with roughly 14,500 currently in custody.

U.S. Has Detained 83,000 in War on Terror

The United States has detained more than 83,000 foreigners in the four years of the war on terror, enough to nearly fill the NFL’s largest stadium. The administration defends the practice of holding detainees in prisons from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay as a critical tool to stop the insurgency in Iraq, maintain stability in Afghanistan and get known and suspected terrorists off the streets. Roughly 14,500 detainees remain in U.S. custody, primarily in Iraq.

I would note that many college stadia are bigger–many holding well over 100,000.

More seriously, the sheer number of people is irrelevant: All those truly dangerous to the United States should be confined; none who aren’t should be.

Aside from that, the total number ever “detained” is meaningless as a statistical measure. How many of those were simply brought in for questioning and released? As we’ll see several paragraphs later, almost all of them.

The number has steadily grown since the first CIA paramilitary officers touched down in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, setting up more than 20 facilities including the “Salt Pit,” an abandoned factory outside Kabul used for CIA detention and interrogation.

In Iraq, the number in military custody hit a peak on Nov. 1, according to military figures. Nearly 13,900 suspects were in U.S. custody there that day _ partly because U.S. offensives in western Iraq put pressure on insurgents before the October constitutional referendum and December parliamentary elections.

It stands to reason that the number would go up while we’re at war. And since Afghanistan and Iraq are the main battlefronts, that’s where they’re going to be captured.

Some 82,400 people have been detained by the military alone in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to figures from officials in Baghdad and Washington. Many are freed shortly after initial questioning.

To put that in context, the capacity of the Washington Redskins’ FedEx Field, the NFL’s largest, is 91,704. The second largest, Giants Stadium, holds 80,242. An additional 700 detainees were sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Just under 500 remain there now.

In Iraq, the Defense Department says 5,569 detainees have been held for more than six months, and 3,801 have been held more than a year. Some 229 have been locked up for more than two years.

Again, the comparison with sports stadia is silly. How many people are locked up in America’s domestic prisons for committing crimes? Well over two million. To put that into perspective, that figure is nearly as high as the number of poorly conceived articles published by the Associated Press each year.

What’s interesting is the low number of long-term detainees given that this is an ongoing war. Indeed, one could likely write a much more shocking story about the number of people –like Safah Mohammed Ali, who bombed a hotel in Jordan–formerly in U.S. detention and then released only to kill innocents.

I’ve been a consistent critic of the use of torture on detainees and of the holding of people, especially American citizens, as “enemy combatants” without reasonable due process rights. Those are separate issues entirely. But it’s rather silly to suggest that, while fighting a war, we should not be taking prisoners.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Uncategorized, US Constitution, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Gornrf says:

    Don’t get soft jimmy, these guys are terrorist scum and should be tortured first, questioned later. It is clear that we are not arresting enough people. Bush needs to send the Secret Service down to the Senate and arrest all of the democrats, strip them, and put them on a canoe in the Potomic and point the canoe to Cuba where these people belong.

  2. Mike says:

    The amazing thing about the whole Gitmo debacle is that there has not been one tribunal – a bunch of hearings but that is all. All that flack for what? I guess the good thing is that many of these guys have been taken out of circulation. I see the reasons for Gitmo but I also worry about the DP issues plus the negative publicity.

  3. Just Me says:

    There hasnt been a tribunal, because there is currently a case moving through the federal courts as to whether or not the tribunals are consituitonal or not.

    that said, given that we have over the course of the last 4 years held 83,000 people, but only continue to hold 14,000 means that we likely are only holding those we know are dangerous to our national security.

  4. Herb says:

    The Federal Courts and the Constitution have no place with this scum. What in the hell gives these rear ends the right to have anything to do with the US Federal Courts. What was, and is still, needed is to take them out back and put a bullet in their head.

    We had one of these so called innocent people in custody and turned him loose in Fallugah

    He just killed 57 people in Jordon.

    Hope the goody two shoes liberals are happy now, 57 innocent people lost their lives. And the liberals are just as responsible as the killers.

  5. Mike says:

    Just Me,
    I agree that we have a good “vetting” process and that a majority have been released but I do believe that the whole tribunal process (if there is one) is more of a lightning rod than a solution to anything. I attended a lecture by the former lead prosecutor at Gitmo and he had a few points which I think are significant 1) there is no other way to try these folks; meaning fed court doesn’t work (due to the whole chain of custody/evidence issue – such as when you have SF/Spec Ops guys rounding up prisoners and evidence and then having intell guys sorting through documents months later) and 2) there have been no tribunals and not b/c of federal lawsuits but rather b/c of defense motions and other issues (political/bureacratic etc..); he never mentioned the federal cases as the reason for delays and this was before the current cases that have risen to the SC.

  6. ken says:

    How is some Iraqi guy who picks up a gun to defend his country a risk to our national security? He isn’t.

    But our troops, the ones he is fighting, have destroyed his his countries security. Right?

    It is time for you all to understand that the Iraqis fighting the invasion are guilty of nothing more nefarious than having enogh loyalty to their own country to fight for it. They pose no risk to America.

  7. Gornrf says:

    It is time for you all to understand that the Iraqis fighting the invasion are guilty of nothing more nefarious than having enogh loyalty to their own country to fight for it. They pose no risk to America.

    Listen Kenny-boy, these guys were an immanent threat. We didn’t want our smoking gun to show up in the form of a mushroom cloud. We axed the bums because they were on the verge of assassinating us. Muhammad Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence numerous times and it has been proven by David Kay that Saadam was trying to get yellowcake uranium from niger.

    During the first month of the war, we disrupted their plans and destroyed their omd factories. If we had not done this, you would be speaking Arabic right now and there would be a big statue of Saadam in the Lincoln Memorial.

    We must be thankful that we stopped the aggressive Saadam before he got us.

  8. ken says:

    …these guys were an immanent threat.

    Coward. What are you so afraid of? They are no threat to me, or to America. What makes your situation so different that you are frightened of a few fighters in a third world country? Haven’t you any faith in America?

  9. LJD says:

    Ken, you are truly living in outer space, man. First of all, it’s not some Iraqi picking up a gun to defend his home. It’s head chopping terrorists crossing the border to kill Iraqi civilians. Second, our troops have not destroyed their security, unless you consider Saddam’s death squads to be some form of “security”.

    How long ago were you dropped on your head, and from how high an elevation?

  10. ken says:

    LJD, who invaded who?

    Which army invaded another country and destroyed its internal security leaving the country in anarchy?

    Any objective reality based observer can answer that question. You however don’t seen to be capable of seeing what is right in front of your face.

    And we aren’t losing four or five soldiers a day to people chopping off heads. They are dying in well planned insurgent attacks against the hardened military assets of an occupation army.

  11. Herb says:

    Hey Guys,

    Don’t even try to convince Ken of anything, He is a cut and run Bush hater that does not have the mental capacity to know or understand that he and his family are in as much danger as is everyone here in the US are.

    Ken is the Champion of Cowards. He has not and will not serve his country prefering to let everyone else “do his fighting for himself”

    Ken is a Leach on our society that takes, takes and takes while giving nothing but his anti Bush hate, in return.

    Guys, don’t waste you time with him.

    In short, He’s a Jerk.

  12. RA says:

    It is time to try these terrorists by military tribunals and executing them. You can bet the Iraqis will start doing that as soon as they get control of their country and the pussy ACLU Americans get out of the way.

  13. Herb says:


    In short, Ken is an Anti American RADICAL Jerk.

  14. ken says:

    It is time to try these terrorists by military tribunals and executing them. You can bet the Iraqis will start doing that as soon as they get control of their country….

    In other words, let Saddam be Saddam? Right you are. Saddam would never have allowed any Islamist extremist group to operate in Iraq as they are free to do now.

    But what is really going to happen is that once we pull out it will the extremists aligned with the radicals in Iran who will control Iraq. Some victory that will be.

    You morons on the right are the ones responsible for this and we will never let you forget it.