Supporters of closing the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center, including President Barack Obama, often refer to the military prison’s existence as a major recruitment tool for terrorist groups.
The theory is that terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can rally potential followers by highlighting alleged human rights abuses against suspected terrorists held at the prison.
But Weekly Standard senior editor Stephen Hayes said this is flat-out wrong.
Guantánamo has “never been a key component of ISIS or al-Qaida propaganda, and yet the president is insisting on moving forward and closing it,” Hayes said on Fox News Sunday Dec. 27.
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We decided to get to the bottom of this question.
When we reached out to Hayes, he said there’s no question that Guantánamo features in some terrorist propaganda, but he emphasized that it’s not a “key component.” Experts we spoke with generally agreed.
Hayes pointed us in the direction of Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert in counterterrorism.
“Guantánamo plays an insignificant role in the jihadis’ propaganda” Joscelyn told PunditFact. “It is rarely mentioned.”
Joscelyn’s conclusion is based on statistical analyses of keywords used in ISIS and al-Qaida propaganda, which he has followed closely for the past decade. Over the years, he has amassed a database of messages, videos, transcripts of audio statements and publications produced in multiple languages, predominantly Arabic.
For example, Joscelyn found just four mentions of Guantánamo out of 12 issues — or more than 700 pages in English — of ISIS’ monthly magazine, Dabiq. Not one article included Guantánamo as a main theme. None of the four mentions were in a recruitment context; one was in a footnote.
Other topics dominate, such as the fight against the “Zionist-Crusaders,” establishing the caliphate, the fate of Palestine, U.S. military airstrikes targeting ISIS, and American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Researchers at the Brookings Institution also conducted an analysis of terrorist propaganda earlier in 2015 and published their findings in the respected Lawfare blog. Even though their review only included material that was in English or came with a translation, they came to a similar conclusion as Joscelyn.
Overall, the authors found that ISIS has rarely used Guantánamo as a propaganda tool, and al-Qaida uses the prison a lot less frequently than it used to, though the group didn’t use it much to begin with. When groups did mention Guantánamo, it was often listed alongside other controversial facilities, like the now defunct Abu Ghraib prison, and other grievances concerning the United States.
“Guantánamo has never played a big role in any terrorist group’s propaganda compared to the issues that really animate those groups,” the authors wrote. “So while it’s easy to find examples of terrorist leaders mentioning and denouncing Guantánamo, these were never the major themes of jihadi propaganda but were, at most, supporting arguments.”
One expert told us Hayes’ claim is an overstatement.
Max Abrahms, a political science professor at Northeastern University, said Hayes is downplaying Guantánamo’s significance in propaganda. For example, al-Qaida’s Inspire magazine has prominently featured the prison, such as the fall 2010 issue, which included accounts from former detainees.
He added that in recent ISIS’ beheading videos shared widely on social media, the terrorists often dress the hostages in orange jumpsuits, which many people assumeis a reference to the iconic Guantánamo detainee uniforms.
Joscelyn disputed this argument, saying that many prisons use similar jumpsuits and Guantánamo no longer uses those uniforms. Further, these so-called “Jihadi John” videos rarely mention Guantánamo.
The orange jumpsuit is likely a visual reference to Abu Ghraib, rather than Guantánamo, dating back to the first beheading video by al-Qaida in Iraq, said J.M. Berger, a nonresident fellow at Brookings.
In any case, Guantánamo is not necessarily an effective recruiting tool, Abrahms added. In fact, it might be less valuable in terms of propaganda now than it used to be because Guantánamo was associated with President George W. Bush, while it’s widely known that Obama wants to close the prison.
The general topic of Muslim religious and political prisoners is popular among jihadists and can be used in recruitment, said Berger, author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam and ISIS: The State of Terror. Terrorist group members can monitor related social media accounts and websites looking for potential recruits.
For example, a former Guantánamo detainee runs one of the most important English-language websites on this topic, the London-based Islamic prisoner advocacy website CAGE, and they cover Guantánamo issues in some detail.
“Guantánamo has not been a massive focus in jihadist propaganda, but it does feature in recruiting,” Berger said. “ISIS and al-Qaida recruiters can use it as a wedge issue when approaching someone who is not fully radicalized.”
He added, though, that U.S. counterterrorism action, particularly drone strikes, are arguably much more important to recruitment and definitely more important to propaganda than Guantánamo.
Hayes said, Guantánamo has “never been a key component of ISIS or al-Qaida propaganda.”
Experts told us that Hayes’ point has merit. Analyses of jihadist propaganda materials show that Guantánamo is rarely mentioned, especially compared to other grievances against the United States, like military airstrikes. Al-Qaida uses Guantánamo less frequently now than it used to, though it was never a primary focus of their propaganda.
Because he specified that Guantánamo is not a “key component” of jihadist propaganda, we rate Hayes’ statement True.