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July 13, 2015

Issue Brief: Al Qaeda and ISIL Use of Guantanamo in Propaganda

National security experts and U.S. officials have long stated that the Guantanamo Bay detention center acts as a powerful propaganda symbol in terrorist groups’ recruiting materials. According to Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “[I]t has been a symbol, and one which has been a recruiting symbol for those extremists and jihadists who would fight us.” President George W. Bush wrote in his memoir Decision Points, “[T]he detention facility had become a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.” President Obama agrees, saying, “It is used by terrorists around the world to help recruit jihadists.” In this brief, we demonstrate exactly how al Qaeda and ISIS use the existence of the offshore prison and the notorious mistreatment of detainees there Guantanamo Bay to their advantage by providing examples.

We identify here numerous examples of al Qaeda, its affiliates, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL or Islamic State) using the prison at Guantanamo Bay in their propaganda since 2009. The groups reference Guantanamo Bay mostly in an attempt to paint the United States as hypocritical and amoral, and as a call to arms for fellow Muslims, but also in more simplistic, symbolic terms (ISIS use of orange jumpsuits for their hostages, for example).

This is not an exhaustive list, but attempts to point out many relevant examples. Of course, Guantanamo is not to blame for any of the crimes committed by these groups and it is not the only or even primary reason for al Qaeda or ISIS targeting the United States. But there is no doubt that the detention center at Guantanamo has been, and continues to be, a powerful propaganda tool for violent terrorists who seek to harm the United States.