On Tuesday, Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR), John Cornyn (R-TX), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) sent a letter to President Trump to urge him to send the worst of the Islamic State jihadists presently detained in Syria to Guantanamo Bay (GTMO). Led by Cotton, the senators wrote:
As U.S. and partner forces have waged a campaign against the Islamic State over the past four years, we have captured hundreds of foreign enemy combatants. Our partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), are currently detaining over 700 of these battle-hardened terrorists in northeast Syria. … Given the rapidly shifting dynamics in Syria, it is possible that these terrorists may escape or be released from SDF custody in the coming weeks and months. It is imperative that these Islamic State fighters not be released. If given the opportunity, many of them will take up arms against our Syrian and Iraqi partners or attempt to infiltrate the United States and Europe to carry out terror attacks against civilian targets, like they have already done in France and Belgium.
We urge you to consider transferring the worst of these Islamic State fighters to the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, where they will face justice.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump vowed to to keep GTMO open and “load it up with bad dudes.” In January, Trump fulfilled this campaign promise, signing an executive order to keep GTMO open and operational. Trump’s order directly countermanded President Obama’s order, promulgated near the end of his presidency, which called for GTMO’s closure.
Senator Cotton has made a defense of GTMO one of the many core tenets of his tough-on-terror national security platform. In a fiery February 2015 Senate Armed Services Committee exchange, the Arkansas senator famously opined, “We should be sending more terrorists [to GTMO] for further interrogation to keep this country safe. As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in Hell. But as long as they don’t do that, they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.”
The issue of what to do with dangerous Islamic State jihadists presently detained by U.S. forces and U.S. allies in Syria — such as the SDF — was recently thrust into the national conversation by President Trump’s December announcement of a planned drawdown of all residual U.S. military forces in the war-torn country. The Cotton plan had previously been promoted last month by columnist Marc Thiessen of The Washington Post:
Transfer to Guantanamo is a less than optimal solution, because right now high-value detainees held on the battlefield in Syria do not have access to lawyers and cannot challenge their detentions in court — which means they can be effectively interrogated for intelligence purposes. But once transferred to Guantanamo, they would immediately get lawyers and the right of habeas corpus — which dramatically reduces their intelligence value …
We cannot allow more than a thousand dangerous terrorists to be released into the world so that they can return to the fight. They must be kept off the battlefield. Better to keep them in Syria than in Guantanamo, to be sure. But better to keep them in Guantanamo than release them to carry out jihad against the West.