U.S. intelligence analysts are gauging Guantanamo detainees’ interest in the Islamic State movement – the radical group that has decapitated and burned alive prisoners in iconic orange prison uniforms – to analyze captives’ potential dangerousness if they are released from the prison camps in Cuba.
The latest example of this came Tuesday in a short profile of a Saudi captive who was brought to the remote U.S. Navy base prison as a suspected al-Qaida member in early 2002 – years before ISIS emerged from the chaos of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war to declare itself a borderless caliphate led by a 44-year-old firebrand, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
The captive, Muhammed abd al Rahman al Shumrani, 40, one of Guantanamo’s 32 “forever prisoners” who have been considered too dangerous to release but ineligible for a criminal trial, was asking to go home. His American lawyer of nine years said in a statement to the board that he wants to “focus on his family and building a peaceful life.”
But his profile described him as a former Saudi al-Qaida recruiter and fighter who “almost certainly remains committed to supporting extremist causes.” It also said with no further explanation that since February 2014 he had “indicated possible plans to re-engage in terrorist activity” – and has followed the news of the Islamic State movement’s “growing strength in Iraq and Syria with apparent interest.”
As the data point illustrates, the U.S. military intelligence is not just tracking devotion to al-Qaida at Guantanamo; it has morphed into analyzing interest in a movement that didn’t exist when the prisoners got there.
In fact, detainees have learned about ISIS at Guantanamo. Cooperative men among the prison’s 116 captives, the majority of the detainees, get near around-the-clock access to free satellite news channels on their cellblocks. And prison staff and attorneys say that they follow all of the developments in the Middle East – from the Yemen conflict, which a health official blamed recently on increasing despair at the prison, to the organization that has beheaded, burned alive and drowned men in orange jumpsuits.
“They talk about whatever’s in the news – everything, everything,” said Zak, the prison commander’s cultural affairs adviser, a Muslim Pentagon employee who goes by the first name Zak, during a Ramadan visit.
And they follow ISIS news “by the minute,” he said. “Some of them agree. Some of them disagree – like normal people. They’re human beings.”
The Army officer in charge of the detention center library said during the same Ramadan visit that staff don’t excise news about ISIS from the Arabic-language newspapers that the U.S. military circulates on the cellblocks, although they do avoid books that include “military tactics, religious extremism and sexual nudity.”
A popular source of cellblock information is the all-news Russia Today network, which is available at no charge on air-to-ground satellite transmissions, the way the military provides programming to the prison.
Former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who interrogated many al-Qaida leaders and foot soldiers starting in 2000, said that it’s reasonable to assess whether a released Guantanamo captive would be drawn to ISIS. As he sees it, the Islamic State has growing legitimacy in the global jihadist movement, especially after the news that Mullah Mohammed Omar died years ago and unwitting al-Qaida devotees were continuing to pledge loyalty to him, called bayat.
The question is whether time at Guantanamo has mellowed or radicalized the captives, Soufan said.
“Some of them, if they are released, they would say, ‘I paid my dues and I don’t owe them anything,’” he said in a telephone interview. “Some of them would say ‘I joined for martyrdom, I want my martyrdom.’”
It’s understandable that the detainees learn about ISIS from the news, Soufan added. There’s no point in cutting them off from the world. Yet, he said, he found it amusing that the military lets the detainees learn about ISIS, a movement that emerged after they were locked up, but prohibits them from reading his landmark al-Qaida book, “Black Banners,” about the movement they ostensibly had joined and ended up landing them at the detention center in Cuba.
“They do watch a lot of the news,” said Ohio public defender Carlos Warner, who represents several detainees seeking release through the federal courts. He added that, for his Yemeni and Afghan clients, the rise of ISIS caught their attention because their elder, “al Baghdadi, has proclaimed himself the grand master of all Islam and they think it’s completely off the ranch.”
Plus, he said, his clients “think they’re scary and brutal.”
Guantanamo’s youngest prisoner is pushing 30 and, like all the detainees, was taken captive before ISIS challenged al-Qaida for the mantle of the radical jihad movement with the help of new media, notably Twitter, which also didn’t exist when nearly all the detainees got to Guantanamo.
The Islamic State organization, now disavowed by al-Qaida, provides a strange sort of looking glass for the captives who were brought to the Pentagon prison in Cuba during the George W. Bush administration as suspected al-Qaida devotees if not leaders.
In February, senior Pentagon official Brian McKeon testified at Congress that the prison damages U.S. relationships with key allies and is “used by violent extremists to incite local populations.”
“It is no coincidence that the recent ISIS videos showing the barbaric burning of a Jordanian pilot and savage execution of a Japanese hostage each showed the victim clothed in an orange jumpsuit, believed by many to be the symbol of the Guantanamo detention facility.” said McKeon, the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.
The Herald first learned about the ISIS calculus earlier this year when a source described Defense Department jitters over the potential for release of a prisoner who had taunted his Guantanamo guards with a threat to join ISIS upon his release. That captive, who was cleared for release before ISIS' emergence on the global stage, is one of 52 men at Guantanamo whom U.S. review panels had approved for release to foreign countries, with arrangements designed to help them resettle peacefully.
Warner said he can imagine some captives taunting their guards by invoking the movement because, “if you’re being bombastic and trying to say horrible things, that’s the tender spot, no?”
The captives know their conversations are being monitored, he said, and for men who don’t know if they can ever go, “it’s just in the context of being in full conflict, being as aggressive as you can.”
Soufan said he doesn’t view extremist al-Qaida ideology as that different from ISIS.
After all, he pointed out, the operations chief Khalid Sheik Mohammed, accused of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, reportedly boasted that he personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl before ISIS ever emerged to behead journalists in orange jumpsuits.