What Happens To Guantanamo Detainees After Their Release

Jun 8, 2014
Originally published on June 8, 2014 5:34 pm
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The fierce debate this past week over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five high-profile Taliban detainees has raised fresh questions about what happens to people in Guantanamo after they've been released. More than 600 detainees have been transferred out of the prison since it opened in January 2002. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston covers Guantanamo for NPR. She joins me now in our studio. Thanks for being with us, Dina.


MARTIN: First off, let's start with the Taliban detainees now in Qatar. Many on Capitol Hill are criticizing the deal saying these detainees are now going to be able to rejoin the fight against the United States. What did the Qatari say they would do to make sure that these men don't return to the battlefield?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, one of the reasons the Obama administration hasn't released the document detailing the terms of the men's release is in deference to the Qataris. As far as conditions of release, what we understand is that the five men are not going to be allowed to incite Taliban followers or to fundraise for the group in any way. And they're also under a one-year travel ban, which the Qataris are supposed to be required to enforce. They can be joined by their families, these five men. They can move relatively freely around Qatar. They can go to the market. That sort of thing. But as a general matter, they are basically being put under the same sort of arrangements that other detainees who have been transferred from Guantanamo to third countries have been put under.

MARTIN: Is there any way to measure how often detainees released from Guantanamo Bay actually return to terrorism?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the figures vary. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which tracks these kinds of things, 104 of - more than 600 detainees have engaged in what they call terrorist activities. So that's about 17 percent. The new America Foundation has different numbers. They only count detainees who are confirmed members of militant groups. And they say about 50 people are confirmed returnees to terrorism. So that's a little less than nine percent.

MARTIN: Different countries have different ways of dealing with the detainees and assuring the United States that they won't pose a threat in the future. The Saudis, for example, have a rehab program to which some detainees were sent. What are these programs like? You visited one in Pakistan last year. Can you tell us it?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the programs really vary. The program in Saudi Arabia took in some Saudis and Yemenis from Guantanamo. And some of those people did return to the fight. I visited one of these jihadi rehab centers in Pakistan that focused on young men the Taliban had recruited. The rehab center was called Mishal, which is in the Swat Valley of Pakistan near the Afghan border. And this is how a teacher there explained how they were going to try to change the mindset of these young jihadis who were brought there.

NADIM: I think the focus at these centers was not specifically about jihad. They were training them much more on skills, specifically telling them that you need to get your life back in order to emotional sentiments like your mother, your sister, they're waiting for you.

MARTIN: So do these programs work? Do they do what they set out to do?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's hard to tell. A lot of the kids were never hard-core fighters. They were basically snatched off the street by the Taliban. So when the army gives them an education, teaches them a trade, gives them a small business loan, that often is enough to focus their attention on their families instead of jihad. The current head of al-Qaida's arm in Yemen - the group the U.S. is most worried about in terms of al-Qaida groups - is lead by a former Guantanamo detainee who went through the Saudi version of the rehab program. So that's the big cautionary example. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This report incorrectly stated the rank of an al-Qaida operative in Yemen who had been a Guantanamo detainee. NPR correspondent Dina Temple-Raston said that the current head of al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen went through a terrorist rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia after his release from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo. It was actually the deputy leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Said Ali al-Shihri. Reports in 2013 said al-Shihri was killed in a U.S. drone strike, but that has not been confirmed.]

MARTIN: And lastly, Dina, President Obama says he still wants to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. What are the remaining obstacles to doing that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I mean, the last few days have demonstrated just how hard that's going to be. This is going to be a really tough political fight.

MARTIN: NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston. Thanks so much, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.