Guantánamo's Final Days

America prepares to shutter the infamous prison camp, and jihad looms.

It was, after all, inside a brutal Egyptian prison where Ayman al-Zawahiri went from devout Muslim to radical jihadist. And it was the torture Khadr's father endured at a prison in Pakistan during the late '90s that first radicalized the young Omar. "It's clear some [inmates] have engaged in violence since their release," says Ken Gude of American Progress, a liberal think tank. "You can't help but worry that some of these detainees will look back on their experience and think ill of the United States."

This past January, two former Guantánamo prisoners, numbers 372 and 333, appeared in a jihadist video produced by al Qaeda in Iraq. One of them, Said Ali al-Shahri, is reported to now be a high-ranking al Qaeda leader in Yemen. "By Allah, imprisonment only increased our persistence in our principles for which we went out, did jihad, and were imprisoned for," al-Shahri says in the video. He had passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before returning to Yemen.

Says Gude: "We may have lost a generation in the Middle East and in the Muslim world who view the United States as a place where torture and indefinite detention occur. It's a real challenge, and it will be a lasting challenge for the U.S. to overcome. We're going to carry this burden for a long time."

Omar Khadr was 15 and near death when captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2002.
Public Domain, courtesy Khadr family
Omar Khadr was 15 and near death when captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2002.
The Toronto-born Canadian citizen is accused of throwing a grenade that blinded one soldier and killed another.
Office of Military Commissions
The Toronto-born Canadian citizen is accused of throwing a grenade that blinded one soldier and killed another.

Still, many argue that the methods used at Guantánamo and other military prisons holding terrorists were justified. In recent interviews, former Vice President Dick Cheney has said waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed directly led the government to capture "a very impressive" list of top al Qaeda leaders in 2003.

The future of detainees still at the camp is unclear. Of more than 750 "unlawful enemy combatants" who have been detained at the facility since 2002, about 245 are left. That group includes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief architect of 9/11; Mohammed al-Qahtani, a would-be 9/11 hijacker; and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, Osama bin Laden's personal propagandist.

About 100 of the remaining prisoners are Yemeni, and President Obama would like to send them to their homeland. Another 60 are cleared to leave Guantánamo but have nowhere to go because, at least so far, no country has agreed to accept them. It's likely some will end up in the United States. Another 17 inmates are ethnic Muslims from China, called Uighurs, and Obama will send them anywhere but China.

That leaves about 60 detainees to be tried, either by federal judges or in a new national security court system modeled after the existing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews FBI requests for wiretaps. It would give the government a place to try detainees outside the public eye, behind closed doors, at the government's leisure.

Many legal experts are opposed to the idea of creating a new court system. "It's always been a farce, this idea that you can't for some reason try these guys in federal court," says Tom Fleener, a former Navy lawyer who quit in protest last year over Guantánamo's military tribunal system.

But Benjamin Wittes, an adviser to the Justice Department's transition team, argues that while civilian trials for terrorists are the most legitimate, they can also endanger juries and judges. "I'm all for trying terrorists in federal court. Let's figure out who we can try in federal court, and when we get to the end of that list, we'll have a group left over," Wittes says. "Human-rights activists are kidding themselves if they think this is going to be a small group."

Prosecution won't be easy. For instance, top officials have admitted that al-Qahtani was tortured. That could call evidence into question. And it'll be difficult to prove that Khadr threw the grenades that blinded Morris and killed Speer. The military's own account of the event leaves some doubt. Another enemy fighter might have lived long enough to have tossed them. But Morris and others maintain that Khadr is the only survivor — and thus the only one who can be held responsible.

In any case, Khadr's attorney, Canadian Dennis Edney, says Omar can be rehabilitated. Edney describes him as an open-minded young man who likes to read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings books. According to a welfare report conducted by Canadian officials in March 2008, Khadr is a "likeable, funny, and intelligent young man" who, despite limited education, six years of detention, and no rehabilitation opportunities, demonstrates "remarkable insight and self-awareness." The report concludes Khadr is "salvageable" and "non-radicalized."

"I don't think anyone really has a handle on who he is today," says Michelle Shephard, author of a book about Khadr called Guantánamo's Child. "Before he was captured, he had a close relationship with his family, but we've heard various reports that at one point he had no interest in talking to his family... At one point, I heard he was very devout, that he was leading prayers on the prison block; and then there's references [in the welfare report] where he's rather blasé about it.

"The only thing that's certain is that if he's released, he will need a lot of help integrating into society."

Khadr's attorney has a rehabilitation plan already in place. He wants Khadr to move in with him and enroll at nearby King's University College. Edney will also assemble a team of Muslim clerics to help reeducate the young man.

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