Guam Unlikely Venue For Al-Qaeda Prison Camp, Tribunal

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Guam's representative in the U.S. Congress has assured concerned citizens there that it is unlikely the Pacific island territory will be used to house and bring to trial captured members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Pentagon officials have been quoted recently as saying that both Guam and Wake Island - a tiny atoll west of Hawaii used by the U.S. military - were being considered as locations to detain and prosecute terrorist suspects detained in Afghanistan.

Wake is just 4 square miles in area, with no indigenous inhabitants. Guam, however, is home to more than 150,000 people and until recently, has had a thriving tourism trade.

Representatives of the tourism industry there expressed alarm that an already troubled economy could be exacerbated should the island be asked to host detentions centers and tribunals.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in reply to queries during a press briefing Wednesday he could not comment on reports that Guam was being considered for this purpose.

From Washington, Guam's non-voting delegate in Congress, Robert Underwood, held a videoconference Wednesday with members of the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association, Underwood spokesman Paul Perez Hattori said from Guam Thursday.

"The congressman made the assurance that Guam remains an unlikely location for these activities," Hattori added.

"Based on conversations with several [Pentagon] officials, I believe that Guam is simply one of several options worldwide to hold al-Qaeda prisoners and that it is not the preferred option," Underwood said in a statement.

The congressman said regional military commanders worldwide had been requested to assess the suitability of various locations for such a purpose. Pentagon officials had assured him his office would be notified immediately should a decision be taken on using Guam or Wake Island, he added.

Underwood said he had taken up the issue with government and military officials in Washington, stressing to them that the economic situation on Guam had become "more precarious" as a result of the media speculation.

He had also made it clear, however, that "Guam stands ready to do its part if the decision to use Guam is made by the Secretary of Defense."

Legal considerations

The U.S. holds bin Laden's al-Qaida network responsible for the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. U.S. forces inside and near Afghanistan are building up forces ahead of an expected push against the last stronghold of the al-Qaida-allied Taliban militia, Kandahar.

"We are tightening the noose around the Taliban and the al-Qaeda and reducing the amount of real estate that they have available to move around on," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a Pentagon press briefing Tuesday. "We'll pursue them until they have nowhere else to run."

Rumsfeld said in reply to a question about possible al-Qaeda defections that it was his hope members of the network "will be imprisoned and dealt with as people who have engaged in mass murder in the world."

President Bush recently signed an executive order authorizing the use of secret tribunals to try non-American terrorist suspects, presided over by military judges and juries.

Because the tribunals may not require the same burden of proof as courts in the U.S., civil liberties campaigners could bring legal challenges. For this reason as well as because of security concerns, such trials may be held abroad.

But holding them on Guam could prompt challenges in a Guam court, as in any state of the U.S.

Underwood was quoted as saying that in his conversations with Pentagon officials, the issue of possible legal challenges was seen as a consideration in the decision about where to hold trials.

"They are trying to make sure that these trials are conducted in an unencumbered way," he said. If the tribunal was held in a foreign country, potential problems would be minimized.

The Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association has voiced concern about the negative impact an al-Qaeda connection could have on the island's tourism industry.

In response to inquiries Thursday, the association's president, David Tydingco, said discussions with Underwood led him to believe that Guam was "not a viable location to house prisoners of war or to hold military trials due to logistical and legal constraints.

"Therefore, this becomes a non-issue as far as we are concerned, although Guam is ready to do its part in the war against terrorism."

Tourism is Guam's chief industry, and the territory boasts more than 30 hotels, including Hilton, Holiday Inn, Marriott and Hyatt resorts. The effects of the Sept. 11 terror attacks have hit the sector particularly hard, with "a significant decline in visitor arrivals," Tydingco said.

According to the association, the average number of visitors staying at Guam hotels each month last year was around 106,000. From January to August of 2001, the monthly average rose to 113,000. But in September it plummeted to 71,000. October's figures were considerably worse, Tydingco said.

Up to 85 percent of Guam's visitors come from Japan, but 58 percent fewer Japanese visited in October 2001 than during the same month a year earlier.

"We are seeing some signs of recovery, and we hope that the next few months will see improved confidence by consumers to get back on airplanes and return to some sense of normalcy," he said.

Guam and bin Laden made headlines last December, when the office of the governor and the international airport received emails from someone claiming to represent the Saudi-born terror chief, threatening a Christmas Eve chemical warfare attack unless the U.S. promised not to harm "Afghanistan and its allies."

Although the authorities did not believe the threat to be particularly credible, the FBI was called in to investigate.
See also:
FBI Probe 'Bin Laden Threat' On Guam (Dec. 22, 2001)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow