This past Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced renewed efforts by Iraqi forces to retake western Mosul from ISIL, which would include about 450 U.S. advisers “operating closer and deeper into Iraqi formations,” according to Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend. News of the surge was eclipsed, however, by a suicide bombing carried out by the Islamic State. The attack consisted of three vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, commonly called VBIEDs. While the Long War Journal notes that the “so-called caliphate claims to have launched scores of suicide VBIEDs in defense of [Mosul],” this attack has gained particular attention for two reasons: First, one of its perpetrators, Jamal al-Harith—identified in the Islamic State’s news release of the attack by his nom de guerre, Abu-Zakariya al-Britani—is actually a British national. Second, al-Harith was detained by the United States at the Guantanamo Bay prison from 2002 until 2004.
Afghanistan and Guantanamo
According to his own statement, al-Harith was “born and brought up in Manchester, England,” having “lived in the U.K.” his entire life. A British news station reported in 2015 that al-Harith—born Ronald Fiddler—converted to Islam “in the 1990s and chang[ed] his name to Jamal Udeen Al-Harith.”
Al-Harith writes that in 2001, he “travelled to Pakistan intending to attend a religious retreat.” Upon arriving, he “was given advice by friendly people that it would be better for me to leave the country because of animosity towards British citizens . . . so I made plans to return to Europe by travelling overland through Iran to Turkey by truck.”
While en route, al-Harith reports that he was detained at gunpoint and “handed over to the Taliban,” who beat him and accused him of being a British spy. Once the facility he was kept at in Afghanistan was liberated, al-Harith says he was offered transportation to Pakistan, but chose to stay “because [he] thought it would be quicker and easier to contact the British Embassy in Kabul.” A Centre for Research on Globalization Report claims a “British journalist . . . alerted British diplomats in Kabul [to al-Harith’s situation], believing they would arrange his repatriation. Instead, they arranged for him to be detained by U.S. forces, who took him straight to an interrogation centre at Kandahar.” Al-Harith’s account confirms this, only adding that British officials told him his transportation home was being arranged via the International Committee of the Red Cross.
While detained in Guantanamo, The Guardian reports, al-Harith claims he was tortured, having been
kicked, punched, slapped, shackled in painful positions, subjected to extreme temperatures and deprived of sleep. He was refused adequate water supplies and fed on food with date markings 10 or 12 years old. On one occasion, he says, he was chained and severely beaten for refusing an injection. He estimates he was interrogated about 80 times, usually by Americans but sometimes by British intelligence officers.
Citing a still-classified document, the paper writes:
His Guantánamo file, which was among a large cache of documents later passed to WikiLeaks, shows that the camp authorities quickly reached the conclusion that he had no connection with the Taliban or al-Qaida but decided against releasing him because his “timeline has not been fully established”, and because the British diplomats who had seen him at Kandahar had found him to be “cocky and evasive."
Meanwhile, reports allege that after his capture, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and then-Home Secretary Dave Blunkett engaged in a “high profile campaign” for al-Harith’s release, in addition to other British nationals being held at the U.S. facility in Cuba. Ultimately, al-Harith was released in 2004.
Immediately after his release, al-Harith sued the British government along with 15 other plaintiffs, alleging that “British agents knew or were complicit in his mistreatment.” Al-Harith was awarded a £1 million payout to drop the suit.
Little is known about al-Harith’s whereabouts in the decade following his release, but The Daily Mirror discovered “Islamic State registration papers signed by Fiddler in April 2014 when he crossed into Syria from Turkey.” Four months later, The Sun states, “[h]is wife Shukee Begum reportedly took her five children to Syria to try to ‘speak some sense’ into him.’” Begum, who was interviewed by a British news station, failed to bring al-Harith back to the U.K. and “endured a ten-month ordeal being passed between hostages and rebel groups as she tried to escape.”
Questions regarding al-Harith’s restrictions and the British government’s surveillance have now surfaced. Indeed, The Guardian reports that “al-Harith was not a subject of active investigation at the time . . . because he was not considered to be a major security threat, so there would not have been a reason to have stopped him travelling abroad to join the terror group.”
Al-Harith is one of a number of Britons who have traveled to the Middle East to support terrorist organizations. As of October 2016, the BBC reports that “[a]pproximately 850 people from the UK have travelled to support or fight for jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq.” “About half” of those foreign fighters have returned to the United Kingdom since departing.
Released Detainee Recidivism
The recidivism rate of released Guantanamo detainees has long been the subject of debate. For example, in January of 2015, Senator John McCain publicly claimed, “We know for a fact that roughly 30 percent of those who have been released have re-entered the fight.” At the time, the White House refuted Sen. McCain’s numbers, arguing that the recidivism rate was far lower and that McCain had collapsed rates of confirmed recidivism with suspected recidivism.
More recently, Donald Trump raised this issue in a tweet prior to his inauguration referencing the flurry of transfers from the detention center in the waning days of the Obama administration.
There should be no further releases from Gitmo. These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence offered the most recent update on recidivism rates last September, finding that of the 693 detainees transferred as of July 2016, 122 former detainees had at one point in time rejoined the fight and 86 were suspected of reengaging. This comes out to a 17.6 percent rate of confirmed reengagement and a 12.4 percent rate of suspected reengagement. Additionally, in July 2016, the Washington Post independently reported that at least 12 former detainees, nine of whom were either dead or in custody, had engaged in attacks on U.S. citizens after their release.
In other words, al-Harith is not alone. In fact, the Long War Journal notes, al-Harith “is not the first ex-Guantanamo detainee to launch a suicide VBIED attack” in Mosul, citing Abdullah Salih al-Ajmi, who carried out a similar attack in 2008, killing thirteen people.