On Sunday, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a suspected ringleader of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, was captured by a small Delta Force team. He’s now on a ship heading toward America.
He shouldn’t be. Instead, Khatallah should be on a ship heading toward southeastern Cuba — toward trial by military commission at Guantanamo Bay. There are a number of reasons why.
First, whatever the Obama administration might believe, Khatallah is not a civilian criminal. He’s a transnational terrorist who was detained on a foreign battlefield. It’s true, suspected terrorists are regularly tried in American courts. Still, this should happen only when the accused party is actually detained in the United States. That’s especially true in this case. After all, Ansar al-Sharia, the group that Khatallah helps lead, is a proven military adversary of the United States. Ideologically bound to its detestable Salafi-Jihadist compatriots around the world (ISIS, for example), Ansar al-Sharia seeks to destroy all who stand in its way. Like ISIS, Ansar al-Sharia enjoys massacring innocent worshippers (see its pride in desecrating Sufi shrines). And like ISIS, they believe that democracy is inherently corrupt.
As I noted yesterday, we desperately need to wake up to this reality.
America’s previous success in challenging the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and al-Qaeda Core didn’t arrive via law enforcement. Instead, these intransigent networks have been degraded by robust intelligence operations, targeted drone strikes, and relentless Special Forces raids. Of course, force is not the sole or even the primary answer to terrorism. We must also work with honest courage to reconcile others to peace: again, just as we once did in Iraq. On this point, it’s telling that Khatallah was captured by a U.S.-military-led operation. Ultimately, Delta Force was chosen because it has the greatest threat awareness and the most robust capability to counter terrorists. In short, the U.S. military offered the appropriate response to a specific military threat.
But our trepidation about applying civilian justice to terrorist combatants should be about more than military strategy. There are other reasons that giving a platform to men like Khatallah is a bad idea.
First, the evidence requirements of a civilian trial are fundamentally incompatible with the urgent terrorist threat we face. Consider that it took the U.S. over a year to detain Khatallah. Why? Because, as Eli Lake notes, the Justice Department was struggling to gather evidence for a civilian trial. And so, while American bureaucracy lumbered, Khatallah remained on the battlefield.
There’s another problem. Already renowned for reveling in the spotlight, Khatallah will likely use his trial to preach hatred toward America. Sure, liberals will shrug off his words as the humorous musings of a pathetic character. Their arrogance is damning in its consequence. What they see as pathetic, America’s enemies see as priceless propaganda. Consider how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other al-Qaeda leaders have acted during their military trials at Guantanamo. Even with the military’s far greater safeguards to prevent propaganda, we’ve seen consistent disruption and preaching. It’s a strategy straight out of the al-Qaeda playbook, and Khatallah’s civilian courtroom will afford him far better opportunities to engage in showmanship. Jihadist propagandists will hold up his words as the resolute, even divine thoughts of a martyr. This might be silly to us, but it isn’t silly to impressionable young men in Peshawar, Raqqah, Mosul, and many other cities across the world. For them, it’s proof that America can be defeated. An inspiration to join the festival of atrocities.
That’s why the Guantanamo commissions are specifically designed for men like Khatallah. And that’s why Guantanamo is where Khatallah should be heading. We need the courage to face these enemies as they are: not a few criminals, but a global movement of totalitarians dedicated to our destruction. Putting transnational Salafi-Jihadists in a civilian court is not a testament to American strength. Rather it’s a choice born of strategic delusion.