Khalil Hamra / AP

US prisons can handle Gitmo detainees

The ‘Blind Sheik’ has been at a medium-security facility for more than two decades without incident

September 22, 2015 2:00AM ET

Over the past couple of weeks, there have been a number of objections to the Obama Administration’s plan to possibly move some number of Guantanamo detainees to U.S. prisons in an effort to close the notorious island prison. Politicians such as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, whose state’s U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig is being considered, has harshly criticized the plan. And Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, home to Fort Leavenworth — another potential home for the detainees — has also objected and held a public forum near the prison to spur opposition.

Whether these protests are out of genuine fear or just an effort to stir voters up, they’re without merit.

Consider the case of one man: Omar Abdel Rahman, otherwise known as the Blind Sheik. Rahman’s biography reads like a greatest hits of international terrorism: He was involved with violent jihadist groups in 1980s Egypt (including a group linked to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat). During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Rahman hooked up with Osama bin Laden and eventually became a member of al Qaeda, relocating to New York to do international fundraising for the group. He had connections with the first World Trade Center bombers and was arrested in 1993 for his connections with plots to attack various sites around New York. He was sentenced to life in prison that same year.

Rahman’s case counters the overblown concerns about bringing Guantánamo detainees to the U.S. Critics object that transferring detainees to U.S. prisons, either military or federal, would be too dangerous. It would put a target on the communities where they’re housed, inspiring jailbreak attempts or attacks on people in those communities. It’s no surprise, then, that a town such as Leavenworth, Kansas, would seem largely opposed to the move.

Hundreds of terrorists have been incarcerated in federal prisons since 9/11, and none of these facilities or the surrounding communities have ever been attacked as a result.

Meanwhile, Rahman is safely housed at a medium-security facility, Federal Correctional Complex Butner, in North Carolina, near the cities of Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Al Qaeda hasn’t forgotten about him, though. The group mentions Rahman, along with al Qaeda member Aafia Siddique, also in U.S. prison in Fort Worth, Texas, and calls for his release in its propaganda on a regular basis. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for Rahman’s release in his latest video message, released earlier this month. It has been a part of multiple hostage demands by al Qaeda and related groups.

Yet there have been no jailbreak attempts in North Carolina and no attacks on surrounding cities. One of the highest-profile jihadists in the world languishes in a medium-security U.S. prison and none of the nightmare scenarios pushed by Guantánamo closure opponents have happened.

It’s hardly surprising, since prison officials from the American Correctional Association, the Bureau of Prisons, and correctional unions have all along said that Guantánamo detainees wouldn’t be a problem to house in U.S. prisons. These facilities, including some being considered for the detainees, are home to some incredibly infamous and dangerous prisoners – gang leaders, serial killers, murderers and other criminals.

In fact, hundreds of terrorists have been incarcerated in federal prisons since 9/11, and none of these facilities or the surrounding communities have ever been attacked as a result. The Guantánamo detainees have been called “the worst of the worst,” but few of them have ever been convicted of any crime, and most of them are likely, at most, lower-level fighters. These men are nothing special in terms of the threat they pose. The Government Accountability Office even released a report in 2012, evaluating the possibility of moving Guantánamo detainees to U.S. prisons and concluded that with some augmentations to those facilities, it could be done without issue.

The paranoia about moving Guantánamo detainees to U.S. prisons is just a lot of hot air from terrorism hawks and NIMBYism by community groups. U.S. prisons already house people such as terrorist darling Omar Abdel Rahman and hundreds more like him. If politicians and the public took an honest look at the matter, there wouldn’t be so much fear about bringing a handful of detainees stateside.

Adam Jacobson is a Researcher at Human Rights First. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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