Small Wars Journal

It is Time to Reassess How the US Conducts Detention Operations in the Current Fight and the Need to Incorporate our Regional Partners in the Future - Insurgents are Not Traditional Enemy Prisoners of War

Mon, 08/10/2015 - 4:57pm

It is Time to Reassess How the US Conducts Detention Operations in the Current Fight and the Need to Incorporate our Regional Partners in the Future - Insurgents are Not Traditional Enemy Prisoners of War

John Hussey

The Rand Corporation conducted a study entitled “The battle Behind the Wire, US Prisoner and Detainee Operations from World War II to Iraq.” Rand concluded that in each major conflict the US has been involved in from World War II up until present day detention operations, the US has taken in a large number of prisoners or detainees. US military planners and policy makers simply have not prioritized this part of the military plan, and as a result, detention operations became an afterthought which has created various personnel and logistical problems.1

Some of these issues have resulted in strategic consequences which have plagued the US and its coalition partners. For instance, the US did not have enough troops to guard the vast amount of detainees that were captured in the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The overcrowding and stress were contributory factors which resulted in the abuses at Abu Ghraib. More importantly, the United States simply has failed to capture many of the lessons learned from previous conflicts regarding the tactical through strategic lessons of detention operations. The same Rand study discussed the reeducation and vocational training of prisoners. It should be noted that these programs were nonexistent during the initial stages of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Senior leaders within the US military often view detention operations as a supply problem rather than a challenging and continually changing dynamic with strategic level implications. The concept was simply to build a large area or use preexisting facilities, guard it, and provide a safe and secure environment for the masses. In many instances, US military personnel simply missed or ignored the war or detainee counterinsurgency which continued inside the US detention facilities throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. In many cases it was simply “on the too hard to do list” as a consideration t0 counter.

The US military must change the paradigm with regard to detention operations. In future operations, US senior leaders must take into account exactly what type of detainee the US has in custody: Is the detainee a fully radicalized insurgent leader or a person caught moving weapons for his local tribe? Part of this process will be to determine how each of these individuals will be assessed, classified, and placed. This process will help determine and shape the programs that will be conducted in an effort to deradicalize detainees and return detainees to the nations from where they came. Consideration must also be given to the fact that there may not be a nation to return them to due to the fact that the government is either fragile or simply nonexistent.

Just Say No to FIFO

FIFO is an acronym which means first-in, first-out. It is an accounting technique used in managing inventory of produced goods, raw materials, parts, components, or feed stocks. Often those in charge of inventory will practice FIFO by ensuring that the first goods purchased are also the first goods sold. Simply stated, under the FIFO method, the earliest goods purchased are the first ones removed from the inventory account.2

While FIFO may be an accepted practice in managing inventory, it is not preferred practice when it comes to detention operations. Unfortunately, many leaders view detention operations solely a logistical problem. The belief is to simply capture detainees, house them, feed them, and provide medical care for them. Once the system is full, meaning the facility can hold no more, then detainees may be released. Releasing detainees to make room for new detainees based on the length of time they served in detention is not a common-sense approach to this problem. There should be a system of due process where detainee’s cases are heard by a military review board or local judge who may grant release based on local laws and the nature of the allegations.  The average incarceration period for a detainee at Camp Bucca, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom was about one to two years prior to being released despite the fact that the detainee may have been involved in insurgent activity against US or coalition forces. There are examples of insurgents who were released from Camp Bucca multiple times despite specializing in improvised explosive devices (IED).3 While the US does not make this a common practice, US officials have conceded that American-led forces in Iraq had  increased the tempo of the releases to foster good will and to free up space in the overcrowded prisons.4 In retrospect, this approach may have been flawed because several reports have concluded that several key leaders from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of  ISIS, and up to nine members of the Islamic State's top command were confined at Camp Bucca.5

COL James B. Brown, the commander of the Eighteenth Military Police Brigade, which oversaw the major detention operations facilities in Iraq during in 2005 gained an appreciation for the ongoing dynamics which occurred inside US detention facilities. Brown noted Camp Bucca was not just a holding pen but an integral battlefield in the insurgency.6 The difficulty with this battlefield, as with so many others, is some of the tightest bonds are formed. In this current conflict, these bonds have come back to hinder the US and international community. Unlike wars of the past in which prisoners of war returned to their communities and families and went on with their lives, this new battlefield within detention operations facilities has created new terrorists as well as new insurgent groups. These newly-developed links have continued to morph into more sophisticated insurgent or terrorist networks which the US, and the international community must come to terms with.

A variety of senior military officers categorized the prions in Iraq as “unique settings for prisoner radicalization and inmate collaboration”.7 Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic state of Iraq (ISI) weren’t only using US -run prisons as “jihadi universities,” according to Major General Doug Stone, former commander of Task Force 134, they were actively trying to infiltrate those prisons to cultivate new recruits.8  Consequently, one may conclude the same indoctrination took place in US prisons in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay. Senior officers in both Iraq and Afghanistan realized that the placement of hard-core jihadist prisoners with everyday, common prisoners would be a mistake and allow for a more indoctrinated radicalization program to develop within the confines of the prison. The difficulty was classifying the detainees by how radicalized they were when they came into US custody. Subsequently, when detainees were transferred to the camp, the US lacked the capacity to monitor and adjust for how radicalized they became while confined in the camp. The lack of this assessment coupled with the placement of these individuals into large style camp settings, communal living, allowed the indoctrination of those less radicalized detainees and also allowed for the forming of new networks to emerge.

The challenge was not only confined to Iraq. The same setbacks have occurred with detention operations in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Dr. Michael Welner, who is the Chairman of The Forensic Panel and an ABC News Consultant, has extensive knowledge of US detention operations at Guantanamo Bay. He noted that if the US government does not actively deradicalize detainees held in custody then detainees will continue to “soak in hate and find comrades-in-arms who buy into that now-dominant message of Islamist supremacy and entitlement to violence.”  9   In Afghanistan the situation is similar in that Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents were radicalizing noninsurgent inmates in an already overcrowded prison system.10

The Current Problem in the Middle East is Not Confined to that Region

As this paper is being written, Iraqi forces are conducting military operations in and around the city of Tikrit, Iraq in an attempt to dislodge ISIS fighters from the city and regain control. The Pentagon has announced that upwards of 25,000 Iraqi and Peshmerga Soldiers will conduct military operations against ISIS in the May 2015, time frame to dislodge these fighters from the city of Mosul and restore Iraqi sovereignty over the population. Based on the sheer number of fighters, common sense should dictate that there may be prisoners captured from ISIS. The question is: What will be done to secure these prisoners? Strategically, the US and its coalition partners must take an active role in the detention operations planning and also serve in an advisory role at the tactical level. If ISIS personnel are captured, there is a possibility that other ISIS members will attempt to free their comrades from captivity similar to the “breaking the walls campaign” of 2012. The “breaking the walls campaign” was a coordinated, well- planned  operation in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi described its objective to “refuel” his operations with additional manpower. He outlined two campaign objectives, namely, to secure the release of prisoners and to regain control of lost territory in Iraq. The 12-month campaign that ensued was characterized by 20 waves of simultaneous vehicle-borne explosive attacks, eight major prison attacks which resulted in the release of two hard-core veterans who had likely participated in AQI’s signature VBIED network during the period 2006-2007.11 It was estimated that more than 500 inmates had been set free in the operation.12 Coincidently, in April of 2015, Al Qaeda fighters attacked a prison in the coastal city on Al Mukallah in Yemen and released 270 prisoners.13

While this current dilemma occurred in the Middle East, there are strategic implications for the West and national security concerns for the US. In an effort to deal with this problem, the US should be prepared to discuss and educate those governments affected by the crisis on the different aspects of detainee operations. This should include the differences between correctional detentions which is a secure, safe, and humane environment for detainees to include the opportunity for a successful re-entry in the community versus security detention, the detention in the absence of a criminal charge or trial. Part of any detention program should be preventing the spread of extremism within the broader detainee population.

Conceptually, if the US is to again become involved in the region militarily, the US military will have to revamp and deal with future detainee operations with a much more sophisticated methodology.  This will require detailed planning regarding facility construction, detainee assessment, classification and placement, deradicalization programs, rehabilitation and reintegration, and finally monitoring released detainees. These programs will not be successful if they are done unilaterally. Rather, this is a strategic problem with international ramifications, and ISIS exemplifies the challenge. To resolve the conundrum will require input, assistance, and expertise from a variety of regional actors, predominantly by nations being breached by Sunni insurgents.

Those responsible for detention operations must understand that there is a “constant chess game” ongoing within the detention facility. The US, in conjunction with regional and religious experts, must use Military Information Support Operations (MISO) in an effort to change or modify a detainee’s behavior.  There are a variety of tools available to assist prison officials to change or positively influence a detainee’s perception and, thus, his behavior. These PO programs are often inexpensive and they can foster reconciliation, rehabilitation, and support to the US, host nation, or nation where the detainee will be repatriated. Often we allow detainees the opportunity to simply linger and either become frustrated at their detention or to be indoctrinated by a radicalist’s viewpoint. This must not be allowed. Overt PO policies and programs must be in place to counter their ever-prevailing “chess game” within the facility.

Assessment, Classification/Placement and Facility Construction

When detainees first arrived at the Abu Ghraib prison they were often placed within the facility according to their behavior after a minimal review. Abu Ghraib was divided into five sections known as levels. Level I was communal living for well-behaved detainees. Levels II through IV were 25 person compounds which were more restrictive and for moderately behaved detainees, and level V were individual cells for poorly-behaved detainees.  Detainees were initially placed into a Level III hosing category and then monitored. If they behaved and followed the facility rules, they would be eligible to move to level II or even Level I. Level I was a large compound that housed in excess of 500 detainees. Once in a large compound such as level I, or any of the compounds at Camp Bucca, a detainee could simply “fly under the radar”. While his behavior may have met facility rules and, therefore, he may never have been disciplined, his ability to recruit and indoctrinate individuals into a more hard-core radical form of Islam would have been undetected by the average guard. The process in Camp Bucca was very similar. Although the cells at the Afghan National Detention Facility in Parwan (ANDF-P) were much smaller when compared to Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib, there was insufficient consideration given to the assessment, classification, and placement of detainees at any of the above-mentioned facilities.

The US must reconsider and revamp how it assesses, classifies, and places detainees particularly when engaged in a counter-insurgency operation. When a detainee first enters a US detentions facility, an initial assessment (IA) must be conducted. The IA involves a basic assessment in which detainees are provided the rules, regulations, and roles of the prison authorities. The IA will include a health assessment, a review of the detainee’s charges and the evidence seized in an effort to determine what type of detainee is in custody.  Upon the completion of the IA, the detainee should be reviewed for classification purposes. Classification systems help both the Military Intelligence (MI) and Military Police (MP) personnel to know the potential for the level of radicalization, influence, misconduct, and escape. Proper classification is critical to reducing the level of radicalization and influence within the prison and, thus, the overall operation and level of cooperation within the facility. Once the IA and classification has been completed, the placement into a facility will occur.

If the US military has targeted a high-level individual and captures that detainee, it would be inappropriate to place this hard-core, committed insurgent in general population with individuals who may be classified as “economic insurgents”. (Those individuals who were paid a fee to plant an IED). Those hard-core insurgents should be classified and placed in maximum security prisons that are constructed to isolate and change behavior while the “economic insurgent” should be placed in a medium or minimum facility without the influences of hard-core jihadists. While these classifications may be subjective in nature, one could argue that at least a detainee went through a vetting process and was placed according to an assessment and classification.

If the MI personnel or MP personnel noticed, or learned through some other form of monitoring that a certain detainee was conducting indoctrination programs within the facility, that individual detainee could be relocated from a minimum or medium security facility to a maximum security facility. For those detainees identified as minimum and medium-security risks, the facilities such as Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca with communal living may be appropriate. For those detainees who wish to continue the fight within the wire and have been classified as maximum-security threats, facility construction will be vital to the success of their rehabilitation as well as the security of US personnel within the facility.

For those detainees who are not classified as extreme radicals and are placed in medium and minimum security facilities, the US must incorporate some form of deradicalization programs in conjunction with vocational training for detainees. Considering the fact that many of the detainees are not educated or simply lack the requisite job skills necessary for employment, it would be cost effective both monetarily and militarily to provide them some form of vocational training. This may help them to be productive members of the community and not reengage in insurgent activity.  While these detainees may not be the “center of gravity” in the war within the wire, they can’t be ignored for they too may gain resentment against their captors and become radicalized while in detention.

A great deal of planning went into the construction of the Afghanistan National Detention Facility-Parwan (ANDF-P). The construction of the ANDF-P cost approximately $218 million dollars to build. The facility offered the MPs more protection than those detention centers constructed in Iraq while reducing a variety of problems simply by the design and location of the facility. The most notable items that benefited the security of the US guard force and also prevented the radicalization of other detainees are noted below:

  • The size of the cells allowed the guard force to house detainees based on a variety of factors, thus having more control over the camp and the population,
  • Segregation cells allowed for separation due to investigatory, administrative, or disciplinary purposes as well as hunger strikes,
  • Reduced population of the cell allowed the guard force more control of the population to include feeding, escort, medical care, and riot control,
  • The concrete pads reduced the detainees’ ability to throw rocks/debris at the US guard force,
  • The concrete pads reduced the detainees’ ability to tunnel out of the facility.

Implementation of Deradicalization Programs

Saudi Arabia has one of the most comprehensive and well-founded deradicalization programs being used today.14 Saudi Arabian prison officials also realize it would be irresponsible to house large groups of individuals in communal-type settings. They too realize it would be careless to house common criminals with hard-core jihadists.15 The Saudis are using prisons very similar to the ANDF-P as part of their deradicalization program. The isolation of detainees coupled with their inability to spread jihadist concepts has been beneficial to the rehabilitation of detainees and the program’s overall success.

Strategically, the US and Western European powers must come to the realization that the deradicalization of those being held in detention facilities can’t be done alone and will require assistance from the regional actors.  Any deradicalization program must attempt to gain an understanding of what motivated a particular detainee to join a terrorist organization. The US does not have this expertise and it is simply beyond the scope of the mission of MI or MP personnel within a detention facility. The US will only enhance success if the religious, political, and intellectual leaders of Islamic countries are actively involved in an effort to confront extremist views at a religious and ideological level.16 The US must involve and incorporate Islamic countries and religious leaders into their detention operations planning and deradicalization programs. While deradicalization is not going to be a “silver bullet” the US simply can’t house future detainees as they once had in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the detainees that the US has held, and will hold in the future, will be returned to the nation from which they came. There must be a focus in conjunction with allies and Islamic nations to institute programs within detention facilities to focus on hard-core radical detainees with the goal of deradicalization.

There are several nations throughout the Middle East and Asia which have implemented deradicalization programs within the confines of the prison. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia, and Singapore have instituted such programs and have asserted some success in these programs. These nations have used a several prong approach to the deradicalization programs to include respected religious leaders, counseling programs to include mental health treatment, education to include religion, and family members. The concept, once again, is to isolate the radicalized individual keeping him apart from other detainees so they cannot influence their thought process or behavior patterns. Once isolated, both physically and psychologically, the re-education program of the detainee begins. Family and societal norms are key factors in the deradicalization programs and, thus, US military planners will have to incorporate this into their operational plan. The nations whose wayward citizens have crossed the borders to fight the jihad in foreign lands should have a vested interest in providing personnel and funding for this type of endeavor. Nations throughout the Middle East realize that in many instances the detainee will be repatriated back to that nation. Additionally, those nations will understand the cultural norms, have the ability to provide vetted religious leaders, and produce family members and/or tribal leaders who will assist in the deradicalization process and the postrelease supervision process. These programs are not full proof. Saudi government officials were proud to note that the recidivism rates of released security prisoners are only 1–2 percent of 1,400 prisoners who have been released after participation in the program.17

Successful elements of the Saudi Arabian deradicalization program are:

  • High profile and credible religious leaders,
  • The involvement of family members in the deradicalization program,
  • Financial, educational, and social programs to assist the detainees, integration back into society
  • Cultural values to include societal, family, and tribal norms,
  • The use of social networks to prevent recruitment and radicalization,
  • Aftercare and monitoring the detainee after his release.18


The failure of the US to alter its detention operations and facilities will enhance jihadist recidivism and potentially allow radicalized detainees to form new networks such as ISIS. Senior leaders within the US military should not view detention operations as a supply problem, rather a challenging and continually-changing dynamic with strategic-level implications and ramifications. The US must truly understand what type of detainee they actually have in their custody. Once determined, the US must have a method to determine how each of these individuals will be assessed, classified, and placed. The US must work with various nations to plan and implement a whole of government and regional-level detention operations policy that incorporates many of the assets that are unavailable to US forces.

The US does not possess the regional, religious, or societal expertise, and most importantly, the credibility to institute these programs. In this regard, the US must use the cultural and regional expertise of the nations in the region to assist in delivering the types of programs to be conducted in an effort to deradicalize detainees and return detainees to the nations from where they came. The failure of the US to work in unison with the host nation and the nations in the region to assist in detention operations within US facilities will have strategic ramifications.

End Notes

1 Rand, The battle Behind the Wire, US Prisoner and Detainee Operations from World War II to Iraq

2 The First-in, First-out Method (FIFO) | FIFO Inventory Method

3 Whiteside, Craig Catch and Release in the Land of Two Rivers

4 Buckley, Cara, 500 Iraqis Freed from Crowded U.S. Detention Center, NY times 9 Nov 2007

5 McCoy, Thomas US Prison was “terrorist university” for Islamic State, Waterloo Region Record

 6 Fainaru, Steve and Shadid, Anthony, In Iraq Jail, Resistance Goes Under Ground, The Washington Post, Aug. 24, 2005.

 7 Mcoy, Ibid

 8 ISIS, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, Inside ISIS.

 9 Welner, Michael, Facing Jihad’s Risk a Corrections Issue, Inside Guantanamo and Out, Good Morning America

 10 Boon, Kristen E, Huq, Aziz, and Lovelace, Douglas Jr., Terrorism Commentary on Security Documents, Volume 110 Assessing the GWOT, Oxford 2010, P. 416

 11 Institute for the Study of War,

 12 Spillius, Alex, Al Qaeda claims responsibility for Iraq mass prison break, The Telegraph

 13 Almasmari, Hakim and Melvin, Don, Officials: Al Qaeda fighters free 270 from Yemeni prison

14 Christopher Boucek, “Saudi Arabia’s ‘Soft’ Counterterrorism Strategy: Prevention, Rehabilitation,

and Aftercare,” Carnegie Papers, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, no. 97 (2008): 23.

 15 Christopher Boucek, “Jailing Jihadis: Saudi Arabia’s Special Terrorist Prisons,” Terrorism

Monitor6, no. 2 (2008): 4.

16 Anthony H. Cordesman, “Winning the ‘War on Terrorism’: A Fundamentally Different Strategy,”

Middle East Policy13, no. 3 (2006): 106.

17 Oucek, “Saudi Arabia’s ‘Soft’ Counterterrorism Strategy: Prevention, Rehabilitation, and

Aftercare, P.21

  18 Ezzarqui, Leila De-Radicalization and Rehabilitation Program: The case Study of Saudi Arabia, P. 32

About the Author(s)

Brig. Gen. John Hussey was recently named as the commander of the 75th Great Lakes Division. He is a U.S. Army Reserve officer with a Military Police/Civil Affairs background who commanded the 306th MP Battalion at the Abu Ghraib Prison in 2005 and was in charge of detention operations in Afghanistan as the Task Force Parwan commander under CJIATF 435. He has also earned four masters degrees to include a Master’s Degree in Strategic Studies from the United States Army War College.


Outlaw 09

Thu, 08/13/2015 - 9:16am

Knew the writer when he commanded the MP unit at Abu G where I was working with the ICE/Tiger Team--BUT before we discuss future detainee ops let's discuss and learn from our serious detainee ops failures in both Abu G and Bucca from an intel perspective as well as the DIV and then in 2005 BCT detainee ops processes in Iraq from 2003 until 2010 and there were many.

THEN especially when we turned over detainee ops to the Iraqi side when they were not ready at all.

Only then can we discuss what needs to be done in the future.