Adam L. Silverman PhD
Recent remarks by John Brennan, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism have further enflamed the IO fratricide as a reaction to terrorism that I wrote about recently. On the recent Sunday news shows their were even calls for Mr. Brenna’s ouster. While COL (ret) Lang has expressed his concerns with Mr. Brennan in the past, I think that this case is a perfect example of the over reactions that lead to the counter-terrorism IO fratricide that I detailed on February 4th. As such a detailed look at what Mr. Brennan said is in order.
Mr. Brennan stated that a recidivism rate for released detainees of 20% would be acceptable. For many, including those now calling for his ouster, this is clearly too high. Before the sky falls in, though, it makes sense to step back and actually look at the data available to us and see what this actually means in context. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics most recent posted analysis the recidivism rate for all crimes in the US is about 67.5% and for violent crimes is 61%. So in context to the regular crime, as opposed to political crime, the rate of recidivism for terrorist detainees is comparatively low. A pair of Seton Hall Studies make the rate for detainee recidivism based on data released from the Department of Defense much, much lower: between 1% and 4%. Regardless of whether the Seton Hall’s numbers are correct or Mr. Brennan’s it is clear that detainee recidivism rates are comparatively quite low. It is also important to remember, as COL (ret) Lang wrote about just the other day, that the vast majority of detainees at Guantanamo are not in fact terrorists or enemy combatants. Rather they are poor unfortunates who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But what about rates of recidivism for terrorists elsewhere? As is the case with so many things dealing with terrorism two of the best comparative examples to the US are the UK and Israel. Both states have had historically long periods of dealing with terrorism and both are liberal democracies. As a result we are able to compare apples to apples, even if they are red delicious, granny smiths, and galas. It is for this reason of similarity that I am specifically not going to compare against the reported rates that come out of the Saudi Arabian program. The Saudis, while a US ally, are not a liberal democracy, their program is religious in nature and not secular, and is very unlikely to be emulated in the US. One study that deals with early released IRA prisoners indicates a recidivism rate of 3.56%. Another source indicates that IRA recidivism is very, very low without supplying a number or percentage. As for the Israelis, various studies put the rate at between 14% and 17%.
If we split the difference between the higher Seton Hall estimate and Mr. Brennan’s statement, which gives us a detainee recidivism rate of 16%, then what the US is facing is in line with our two closest comparable cases. The Israeli and British numbers, derived, from cases that are both liberal democracies, even if not exactly the same as our liberal democracy, and that are both US allies, show us that recidivism rates for those detained or imprisoned for terrorism offenses are comparatively low. Moreover, the Seton Hall numbers are inline with those for early release IRA detainees and Mr. Brennan’s with the Israeli numbers pertaining to Palestinians detained for terrorism related offenses.
Staging a protracted, collective freak out over the best way to handle terrorism cases, as well as attempting to politically posture by attacking the factual remarks of a high ranking terrorism official only contributes to terrorism related IO fratricide. The messaging of our own elected officials, as well as those commentators who have contributed to this hissy fit, transforms Abdulmuttalab’s failure to successfully commit an act of terrorism into a success because we are terrorizing ourselves. Moreover, it sends the message that our counter-terrorism officials and specialists should not even consider these issues because they too could have their reputations tarnished in order to score cheap political points. I am a huge fan of civil liberties, rights, protections – what ever you want to call them, but a little bit of forethought and self filtering by our elites and notables before they comment would go a long way to diminishing the effects of terrorism on America and Americans.
 Adam L. Silverman, PhD was the Field Social Scientist and Team Leader for Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 (HTT IZ6) assigned to the 2BCT/1AD from OCT 2007 to OCT 2008. Upon his redeployment to the US he served as the US Army Human Terrain System Strategic Advisor through June 2009. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the 2BCT/1AD, the US Army Human Terrain System, or the US Army.
 Please remember that these studies get updated every decade or so, so the results linked to are from the study of data through 1994 that was done during the 2002. The next study should include data through the mid 200s and be out in a couple of years.
 . This actually creates a problem set that no one seems to talk much about: those who were not radicalized when we detained them, but upon their release have real and legitimate grievances against the US because of their detention.
 At the cited text this is presented as 16 out 449, which I quickly converted into a percentage using a conversion calculator. The author then compares it with the general US recidivism rate.
 Full Disclosure: I was invited to, and gave, an unclassified briefing in June of 2009 on this topic to a Department of Defense element. They were very keenly aware of the problem set, the issues of data, and were trying to get smart on the issue in regards to detainee operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo. They deserve a ton of credit in their attempts to get ahead of this issue and the demagoguery of it is an insult to their hard work and forethought.