In his Dec. 22 news conference, President Barack Obama claimed that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility was "probably the No. 1 recruitment tool" for al Qaeda and its affiliates. This is an escalation: Earlier this year he merely called it "a tremendous recruiting tool" for Islamic terrorists.
But the president is wrong to assign such importance to Gitmo and, by implication, to suggest it would be a major setback to al Qaeda were he to close it, as he promised but failed to do by the end of his first year in office. Shuttering the facility would not take the wind out of terrorism, in part because it is not, and never has been, its "No. 1 recruitment tool."
If it were, then al Qaeda leaders would emphasize it in their manifestos, statements and Internet postings, mentioning it early, frequently and at length. They don't.
Tom Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, reviewed 34 statements and interviews of top al Qaeda leadership since January 2009. Writing for the Weekly Standard, he reported only seven references to Guantanamo in just three public pronouncements.
In the same period, however, Mr. Joscelyn found top al Qaeda leaders mentioned Crusaders (their label for Western leaders and military) 322 times, Palestine 200 times, Gaza 131 times, Jews 129 times, Israel 98 times and Zionists 94 times. Al Qaeda leaders also talked more about Afghanistan (333 mentions), Pakistan (331), Iraq (157), Somalia (67), Yemen (18) and even Chechnya (15) than they did about Guantanamo.
New York Daily News reporter James Gordon Meek obtained similar results last January. U.S. government officials told him that al Qaeda and its affiliates "griped" about Guantanamo in only 58 out of hundreds of public statements and interviews between 2003 and 2009.
Far more numerous and more extensive in these documents are complaints about the existence of Israel, the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, Western notions of democracy and freedom, Western culture, and the fact that al Qaeda's leaders see America as the obstacle to their achieving a restoration of the Golden Age of Islam.
Take Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri's Sept. 15, 2010, statement entitled "Nine Years After the Start of the Crusader Campaign." He is one of al Qaeda's top strategists, and his statement was meant to draw attention, being released close to the anniversary of 9/11. Of its 12 pages, nearly four are devoted to Pakistan, two to the conflict in Afghanistan, nearly two to Egypt, two to the plight of the Palestinians, and two to al Qaeda's prospects for victory. Gitmo receives one mention—in a single sentence about how the Quran was "humiliated" in "Guantanamo, Iraq and elsewhere."
The lesson is obvious: Al Qaeda will invent any excuses to justify its war on America and the West. If one excuse is no longer salient, another pops up. Al Qaeda's rhetoric also moves in cycles. When things were going badly for the United States, as they were in Iraq in 2006 or Afghanistan in late 2007 and early 2008, al Qaeda's chieftains emphasized their growing chances for defeating America.
It is the combination of a fierce, unquenchable hatred for the U.S. and a profound sense of grievance against the modern world that helps Islamists to draw recruits—not the presence of the brig at Guantanamo Bay.
Perhaps while he is on his Hawaiian vacation, the president might consider spending a few hours with a slim volume entitled "Messages to the World," a collection of the writings of Osama bin Laden. He would discover Guantanamo Bay has only a tactical utility, not a strategic importance, in al Qaeda's ideology.
In addition, what would replace detention in a secure facility—criminal trials in civilian courtrooms—would provide al Qaeda with the biggest and most effective venue possible to inflame passions in the Islamic world.
Public trials for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, would turn him into a martyr, provide al Qaeda an international stage on which to condemn the West, and draw on the resentment and dissatisfaction in the Muslim world to motivate a new generation of terrorists.
If undermining al Qaeda's recruitment efforts is the goal, then our commander in chief's wisest course of action is to keep Guantanamo Bay open.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, December 29, 2010.