Yesterday President Obama declared that in light of the “unsettled situation” in Yemen, he will not be transferring detainees held at Guantanamo Bay to that country. At the same time, Obama declared:
But make no mistake: We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda. In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
On the surface, that sounds like a persuasive case. Here’s why it’s not.
While the presence of Guantanamo Bay is used as a “recruiting tool” for al-Qaeda, it’s important to understand that, as Charles Krauthammer points out here, al-Qaeda’s grievances against America are almost endless. Like a game of Whack-A-Mole, if we got rid of one grievance, it would be replaced by another, and another, and another. Indeed, if Gitmo were closed, does anyone seriously think that it would satiate the demands of militant jihadists like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri? Would it make any difference in their war on us – or make it less likely that they could recruit people like the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks?
We are not dealing with rational state-to-state actors with whom we can negotiate reasonable demands; rather, we are dealing with Islamic fanatics who want to cut our throats and watch us bleed and watch us die. Closing Gitmo won’t change that. The roots of their hatred for America go much deeper than that.
It’s worth bearing in mind that in his 1996 fatwa, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” bin Laden said the latest indignity against Islam – “one of the worst catastrophes to befall the Muslims since the death of the Prophet” – was the presence of American and coalition troops in Saudi Arabia. And a 1998 fatwa cited grievances against America that included sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and “serv[ing] the Jews’ petty state [Israel].” At that time, those were the “recruiting tools” for al-Qaeda. New ones emerge whenever it is convenient for al-Qaeda. And of course the attacks on 9/11 came before we were detaining any Islamic terrorists in Guantanamo Bay.
President Obama has convinced himself that closing Guantanamo Bay is of crucial, and perhaps decisive, importance in our war against jihadism. That is self-delusion on a large scale and something we have seen before (witness Obama’s statement during the campaign that meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions might well convince the Iranian regime to fundamentally change its behavior). More than that, it means that on some basic level the president still does not understand the true nature of this struggle, of what is driving it, and what will be needed to eventually prevail in it.
If and when Obama finally does get around to closing Guantanamo Bay, he will discover how insignificant an issue it has been for jihadists. Militant Islamists will want to murder us as much then as they do now.