How Guantanamo Is Used in Jihadist Propaganda
Hint: It's less than Obama suggests.
In his last year in office, President Obama has submitted to Congress a plan to achieve what he had promised to do in his first: Close the facility housing terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In the interim, Obama and a series of other officials, including former CIA Director David Petraeus, have called the prison a propaganda tool for terrorists. Shuttering the detention center, Obama argues, would eliminate that tool.
There are other reasons to close Guantanamo. In 2008, then-candidate Obama campaigned against what he portrayed as the excesses of the Bush administration in its zeal to fight terrorism, including the harsh interrogation techniques and indefinite detentions that Guantanamo came to symbolize. On Tuesday, Obama listed several more reasons: things like saving taxpayer money, upholding “the values that define us as Americans,” and removing an irritant in relationships with close allies. There’s also the matter of reputation: The prison, Obama said, “undermines our standing in the world. It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law.”
But some of those who study jihadist propaganda say Guantanamo actually isn’t all that important as a recruitment tool, and doesn’t feature especially prominently in jihadist materials. Mentions of it, moreover, have declined in recent years as the prisoner population at the facility has declined and as ISIS, which tends to emphasize Islamic utopia and conquest in its propaganda, has risen.
This is not to say the prison doesn’t appear in jihadist texts. It does, repeatedly, whether the propagandists in question belong to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. But according to Charlie Winter, a senior research associate at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative, it’s seldom as part of a straightforward call to arms. Rather, Guantanamo fits into a broader motif of Muslims unjustly imprisoned and under assault by the West, whether that’s in Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq or, hypothetically, in some new prison in the United States where the Obama administration proposes to send the 40-odd Guantanamo detainees currently deemed too dangerous to try or release. As Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake pointed out on Tuesday, “It’s true that Obama has winnowed the pool of Guantanamo detainees to 91 and he plans to transfer 35 of these prisoners to third countries. But for those remaining, Obama does not propose an end to their indefinite detention—which, let’s face it, is what troubles their supporters in the Muslim world.”
“They’re still prisoners,” Winter told me. “I think jihadis don’t really care about the legal implications of being in Cuba or in the U.S.”
And the jail is not a major theme relative to others in any case, said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has tracked jihadist propaganda for more than a decade. In the 13 issues so far of ISIS’s English-language magazine Dabiq, for example, “there have been something like four references in more than 700 pages of propaganda from ISIS,” he said. (ISIS execution videos do feature captives wearing orange jumpsuits, which Winter sees as an overt reference to those worn by Guantanamo detainees. For his part, Joscelyn is skeptical of the symbolism, given that ISIS videos feature numerous different colors of jumpsuits. “Orange jumpsuits are used all over the world,” Joscelyn says. “And they don’t mention Guantanamo in those videos.”)
In a review of English-language and translated jihadist propaganda published on Lawfare last year, Cody Poplin and Sebastian Brady of the Brookings Institution found that Guantanamo “has grown far less salient over the last few years, playing a much bigger role in the words of al-Qaeda and [its Yemen affiliate] AQAP a few years ago than it does now.” Members of those groups cited Guantanamo for a variety of reasons that become clear in context. For example, Osama bin Laden himself cited the “ugly crimes” committed by the United States at Guantanamo and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in a 2010 essay for AQAP’s English-language magazine Inspire—crimes that “shook the conscience of humanity.” Still, Joscelyn noted, the remark is “a throwaway line” in an essay blaming the West for, of all things, climate change.
Joscelyn also mentioned a simple reason for Guantanamo’s presence in AQAP propaganda: The group had a lot of members imprisoned there. In AQAP’s weekly Arabic newsletter, Joscelyn said, the group refers to Guantanamo, but not in the context of recruitment: “Some of the articles are basically, ‘We want our guys back.’” While the newsletter’s authors criticize the facility, Joscelyn added, they don’t do so as an exhortation to others to come fight on their behalf. “Does that have some recruiting effect? Maybe, I mean, I doubt it. I think that newsletter is basically designed for people who are already in the fold.”
The United States stopped sending new prisoners to Guantanamo in 2008, years before the rise of the Islamic State, which may help account for the prison’s relative absence in ISIS propaganda. ISIS may also have found a better pitch in focusing, among other things, on the promise of its so-called caliphate, on its military challenge to the West, and on violence against Shia Muslims. This suggests that ISIS will be able to attract new fighters whether or not the facility is closed. And it also suggests that the imperative to close Guantanamo, and Obama’s sense of urgency about doing it before he leaves office, might have less to do with its importance as a terrorist recruitment tool, and more to do with the fact that Obama said he would do just that.