GITMOGuantanamo Bay: Twenty Years of Counterterrorism and Controversy

By By Jonathan Masters

Published 13 September 2022

The U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has generated intense debate for two decades, raising enduring questions about national security, human rights, and justice.

More than twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay drifts on into an uncertain future, as does its cloud of controversy. Nearly eight hundred prisoners from some fifty countries have passed through its gates since 2002. Although most have been transferred to other countries, a few dozen detainees remain. 

To its supporters, Guantanamo is a fitting warehouse for the “worst of the worst” in the war on terrorism (WOT). They say it has kept some of the world’s most dangerous men from waging war on the United States while providing essential counterterrorism intelligence and helping bring war criminals to justice, including the alleged 9/11 plotters.

To its critics, however, it stands as a haunting monument to human rights violations perpetrated by the United States in the name of national security. Over the years, many detainees have claimed that they were detained unlawfully, denied due process, and subjected to grave physical and psychological abuses—some amounting to torture—by their American captors. As a result, critics say, Guantanamo has undermined U.S. influence and moral authority in many parts of the world.

The 9/11 Backdrop
Many of the most controversial U.S. counterterrorism policies, including those associated with Guantanamo, were forged in an extraordinary political and security context. The 9/11 attacks were an unprecedented shock that sent ripples of fear around the world. Never had any hostile actor—foreign power or nonstate group—targeted and killed so many civilians on U.S. soil. That an Islamist terrorist group based in a country seemingly a world away could deliver such withering blows to the political and financial centers of the preeminent superpower was all the more alarming.

In the aftermath, U.S. officials feared more terrorist attacks could be imminent. Reports indicated that al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, were interested in acquiring biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons [PDF] to use against Western enemies. In December 2001, Richard Reid’s failed attempt to set off explosives in his shoes on a flight from Paris to Miami highlighted the looming threat. This was the security environment from which Guantanamo sprang.