Guantanamo Bay Still Open, But Release of Youngest Detainee by Obama is a Step in the Right Direction

It was a bit of important news that went under-reported this past weekend, amidst Obama/Romney debate hype and the return of proper NFL referees. With the release of 26-year-old, Toronto-born Omar Khadr on September 29, the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba has one less prisoner.

There still remain 166 detainees at the infamous prison, but the release of Khadr is particularly significant: he was just 15 years old when he was sent to Cuba, making him the youngest detainee at Guantanamo. He is also the last Westerner to be released.

Khadr, who was accused of killing Army Sargent Christopher Speer during a firefight in Afghanistan back in 2002, will complete the remainder of his eight-year sentence at a maximum-security prison in Ontario, Canada. The reduced sentence, down from the 40-year sentence first issued in 2010, comes as part of bargain that saw Khadr plead guilty to murdering Speer, as well as a series of other “war crimes” including “conspiracy, providing material support for terrorism, and spying.” 

The case is interesting for any number of reasons, not the least being the political wrangling that has taken place between the U.S. and Canadian governments over the past few years as to just what to do with Khadr. The Conservative government under Stephen Harper did not exactly jump at the opportunity to welcome the return of a member of Canada’s “first family of terror” (Khadr’s father and brother were both militants; his mother and sister are vocal in their radical views). As the Globe and Mail put it, “[the Harper government] made it abundantly clear that [Khadr] could languish in Guantanamo for the rest of his life, as far as they were concerned.”

But for President Obama, closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay — a 2008 campaign promise that has proven easier said than done — remains a primary focus, even if the transfer of detainees is frustratingly piecemeal. The day before Khadr’s release, the Department of Justice released the names of 55 other detainees now deemed fit for transfer to either another facility on the U.S. mainland, or in many cases, their home countries.

But a combination of congressional unwillingness at home and security concerns abroad has stymied the administration’s best intentions. For a time during the latter half of President Bush’s second term, prisoners were transferred back to Saudi Arabia to undergo “rehabilitation.” The policy continued under Obama, but the program has had mixed results at best, with many former detainees eventually returning to violence. One such former prisoner, Said al-Shihri, a Saudi national who spent six years at Guantanamo Bay before being rehabbed back in the kingdom, was killed in a drone strike in early September after having risen to become one of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s senior commanders.

Yemen also developed its own moderately successful rehab program for former jihadists. Of the 55 prisoners the Justice department named, 24 are Yemeni and are deemed fit for transfer and rehabilitation. But U.S. officials say they are reluctant to return the detainees given the ongoing violence in Yemen. For now, they will remain in Cuba.

Though Obama put an end to the nefarious practices at Guantanamo Bay that have been held up as evidence that America had gone over to the “dark side,”, so long as it remains open, it serves as a recruiting tool for America’s enemies.

President Bush came to understand this; political maneuvering has slowed Obama’s efforts at a swift closure. But closing the site, and hopefully closing the chapter on a particularly dark part of the post-9/11 era, will remain a considerable challenge for the next president, whoever it may be. In the meantime, Omar Khadr is now Canada’s problem, not ours.