Counter-Terrorism: Secrets To Die For


May 25, 2009: The U.S. has revealed, via a leaked report, that 14 percent of the 534 terrorism suspects released from Guantanamo have returned to terrorist activities. This was not a big surprise, except for the extent of the recidivism. There had long been reports of men released from Guantanamo backsliding. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia announced that at least 14 of the 117 Saudis released from Guantanamo Bay, have returned to terrorist activities. There are still 22 Saudis at Guantanamo Bay, along with about 218 other hard core terrorists. Saudi Arabia said it would either rehabilitate, or keep jailed, those released from Guantanamo Bay. Thus the admission that 14 of these men returned to terrorism (and 11 are still on the loose) was embarrassing. But overall, the rehab program has been a success. Many young men who were leaning towards a life of terrorism, for some good attitude adjustment. But this reminds the Saudis that the hard core will just go through the motions.

The problem with the 240 remaining prisoners is that, if the Guantanamo prison is shut down (which the newly elected U.S. government promised to do), you have to send these guys somewhere. There is a lot of opposition to sending some prisoners back to their own country, because these guys are often wanted there for terrorist activity. But there is fear, among American officials, that these terrorists might be tortured or executed if prosecuted in their homelands. Other nations, including the United States, are unwilling to take these terrorist suspects. If 14 percent of them revert to terrorism, whoever approved letting in someone who carried out a terrorist act, would be in big political trouble. Sending the terror suspects to U.S. prisons is an uncertain solution, as the U.S. legal system is vulnerable to exploitation by terrorist suspects, and they can be freed, within the United States.

Some believe that Saudi Arabia, the homeland of many Arab Islamic terrorists, and much of the theology driving groups like al Qaeda, has developed ways to deal with the problem. The Saudis have arrested several thousand terrorist suspects, and released or rehabilitated most of them, in the last six years. But Saudi Arabia is a very different kind of place.

Since 2003, Saudi Arabia has foiled over a dozen attacks, mainly on oil facilities or foreigners working in the kingdom. While Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, the royal family spreads the wealth around, thus most Saudis are opposed to al Qaeda attempts to damage the oil production and shipment facilities.

Although Saudi Arabia has formed a special oil and industrial facility protection force of 35,000 security personnel, this was a last ditch defense. It's much better to catch the terrorists while they are still planning their strikes. This is easier to do in Saudi Arabia because the royal family has excelled in maintaining the support of most of the population. This is done largely because the Saud family has always recognized that they rule via the support of a network of tribes and clans. This schmoozing is time consuming, and often aggravating, but it pays off when there is a perceived threat. The al Qaeda bombing campaign in 2003-4 (to "punish" the Saudis for "allowing" the invasion of Iraq) turned most Saudis against Islamic radicals, and the security and intelligence services took advantage of the subsequent flood of tips (there are a lot of al Qaeda fans in the kingdom, but most are talkers, not doers.)

But Saudi counter-terror efforts have to keep in mind that many Saudis support the idea that Islam is under attack (if only culturally) by the West, and that it's generally OK to kill non-Moslems abroad. Before 2003, Saudi Arabia tended to leave Islamic radicals alone as long as they did no harm in the kingdom. It's reverting to this, as an Islamic terrorist can live in the kingdom as long as they promise to behave. But that does not prevent these men from supporting terrorism elsewhere. Many other countries, particularly in Europe, are willing to operate this way. Terrorism supporters in these sanctuaries provide money and recruits for places where terrorists can operate more openly (Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan.)

The U.S. Department of Defense has kept secret its data on the released terrorism suspects who returned to killing, because knowledge of who they know is back at it, would reveal what they know and how they came to know it. The American counter-terror officials are desperate to guard their secrets, since secrecy about what you know, and how you know it, is crucial in tracking down and catching terrorists.





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