The United States has a first-rate, professionally run facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that is designed for terrorist detentions, interrogations and military trials. So why would a suspected Somali terrorist, captured half a world away, be held on a Navy ship for two months of interrogations and then brought to a New York federal court for trial? In our opinion, there is no good reason.
Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a member of al-Shabab with close ties to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was captured in April on a boat traveling between Yemen and Somalia. He stands accused of providing material support to AQAP and al-Shabab, as well as conspiring to teach the making of explosives.
AQAP is a franchise of the al-Qaeda terrorist network that operates out of Yemen and is widely viewed as the most dangerous and operationally active al-Qaeda affiliate. The group played an important role in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted “underwear bombing” of a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 and the 2010 plot to ship package bombs to the United States.
Al-Shabab has traditionally focused on Somalia but in the past pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and claimed responsibility for twin bombings in Uganda last year that killed more than 70 people. Increasingly, al-Shabab appears to be adopting an agenda that extends well beyond Somalia.
Given the activities that Warsame is suspected of having engaged in and his affiliation with two groups the State Department has designated as international terrorist organizations, the logical place for the Obama administration to have sent him was Guantanamo Bay — he is a suspected enemy combatant in our global war against Islamist terrorism, not a suspected common criminal.
When an enemy combatant is captured, the primary focus should be intelligence-gathering, not criminal prosecution. This is because intelligence allows us to stay ahead of the enemy and prevent future attacks. If enemy combatants know that they will be held on naval vessels at sea for a relatively short duration before being transferred to civilian courts, they will have every incentive to refuse to cooperate. In contrast, the enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay for long-term detention under the law of war or awaiting a military tribunal can be interrogated for as long as necessary in order to gain intelligence needed for operations such as the Osama bin Laden raid. The Guantanamo detainees are treated in a manner that conforms to international law and honors American values.
Moreover, the administration’s decision to send Warsame to New York ignores the advantages of trying suspected terrorists at Guantanamo and is in direct contravention of Congress’s clear intent that terrorists captured abroad should not stand trial on American soil. Guantanamo has a state-of-the-art courtroom that was designed to safeguard classified information and avoid the risks associated with a terrorism trial in a U.S. city. Americans overwhelmingly opposed Attorney General Eric Holder’s plan to try Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York — a decision the administration later reversed, sending Mohammed to Guantanamo for a military tribunal.
The events surrounding the Warsame case are not the only evidence of the need for a clear, cohesive policy for detaining and interrogating terrorists.
In June, we had the opportunity to question Adm. William McRaven during his confirmation hearing to be the next head of Special Operations Command. McRaven, who oversaw the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed, testified that it “would be very helpful” to have a designated location for the long-term detention and interrogation of terrorist detainees.
Given the administration’s unwillingness to use Guantanamo for new detainees, we discussed with McRaven where the military would detain a terrorist captured outside of Iraq or Afghanistan. He said such detainees would be transferred to a third country, prosecuted in an American court or released. That is an unacceptable set of choices to give our military.
In the Senate, we have written a number of legislative proposals that aim to establish an effective terrorist detention policy. Our legislation would keep the Guantanamo Bay facility open for the detention, interrogation, and trial of current and future terrorist detainees; prevent Guantanamo detainees from being brought to the United States; and permanently limit the transfer of detainees from Gitmo to foreign countries.
With our nation at war against violent extremists, our military should not be pressured to detain and interrogate dangerous terrorists on an ad hoc basis or even to release them. The Warsame case highlights the urgent need for a legislative solution that sets forth clear guidelines and protects the American people. We believe that is exactly what our legislation would accomplish.
Joseph I. Lieberman is an independent Democrat from Connecticut. Kelly Ayotte is a Republican from New Hampshire. Both serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee.