Briton believed to have blown himself up in Iraq was once shackled and tortured, but attempts to link death to his detention are disingenuous
Reports that former British Guantanamo prisoner Jamal al-Harith, who was born Ronald Fiddler, killed himself in a car bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul are shocking, but not surprising. The Islamic State group he joined is in a fight to the death.
Jamal was released from Guantanamo in 2004 - the year preceding my release. I had of course heard about all the British prisoners even if I hadn’t met them since most of my time in Guantanamo was spent in isolation.
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I didn’t know him well enough to form a comprehensive opinion but on the few occasions I did hear him speak, Jamal, who hailed from Manchester, spoke with a distinct Mancunian accent and came across as unassuming and reserved. The last time I saw Jamal was in late 2010, when many of the British former Guantanamo prisoners met with a senior Conservative Party minister to discuss our case against the government.
The former prisoners had begun a joint action against the government for complicity in our false imprisonment and torture. Following protracted court proceedings where our evidence was challenged by government lawyers, they were ordered to disclose documents that proved the government was aware of and taking part in our abuse.
At this point, the government sought to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with us. The discussions included seeking the return of remaining British prisoner Shaker Aamer and an apology. The minister assured us that these considerations would be taken up by the government and that a full inquiry into torture complicity would be launched. We were told that the new Conservative government wanted to turn over a new leaf regarding past associations with human rights violations.
The ensuing Gibson inquiry, however, achieved very little. Shortly after, Gibson was shelved and its workings were handed over to the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). The apology never came.
The government at that time argued that the settlement was necessary for national security interests and to save mounting legal costs but that it was not compensation. Our view was that they capitulated in the face of incontrovertible evidence about torture. In other words they were about to lose in court.
The cases of Canadian nationals Maher Arar and most recently Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin prove that the British weren’t the only ones complicit in the torture of their own citizens. Both compensation and apologies were forthcoming in these cases. That’s what’s supposed to happen when people have been subjected to war crimes. In fact, it's precisely because perpetrators have escaped criminal proceedings, anywhere, that US President Donald Trump has openly endorsed torture.
Detainees at the US millitary's Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba (AFP)
Jamal al-Harith has described in detail how he was hooded, shackled, slapped, punched and kicked, placed in stress positions, deprived of food and water and subjected to sleep deprivation. This concurs with the torture techniques we all faced (some of which was admitted in a US Senate Report on CIA Torture). He said that he’d given up on asking for human rights in Guantanamo and instead sought “animal rights”.
Jamal’s story is unique in that he went straight from Taliban custody to US military custody. He had come to Afghanistan with no connections or contacts to the Taliban or al-Qaeda and was imprisoned by the Taliban on suspicion of being a British spy. No one could vouch for him.
And yet, the US military decided to send him to Guantanamo, just in case he knew something. Naively, Jamal had initially viewed the Americans as his rescuers. Perhaps it was that same thought process that caused him to join the Islamic State (IS) group?
There has been much talk about governmental failings that allowed Jamal to become an IS fighter and linking that trajectory directly to his incarceration in Guantanamo. However, Jamal was released from Guantanamo 13 years ago after being cleared and vetted by the world’s most powerful law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Considering none of the above deemed him a risk, it is disingenuous to suggest that monitoring Jamal for the rest of his life, based solely upon the fact that he was a Guantanamo prisoner, was a viable option. The hard truth is this: Jamal was released from Guantanamo an innocent man. What he chose to do with his life over a decade later, however unpalatable, cannot detract from that.
Having said that, by the time he joined IS it would be safe to assume that Jamal had increased his knowledge of Islam as well as geopolitics. Certainly, the overwhelming majority of former Guantanamo prisoners I have encountered from around the world are quick to disavow IS. But I don’t think Jamal was aware of this fact.
IS documents said that Jamal “knew very little about Islam” - a common theme amongst IS recruits - but had gone to Syria to help. Jamal did not consult me about his intentions. Had he done so, my colleagues at CAGE and I would have tried, based upon my practical knowledge of Syria, my connections on the ground and my understanding of Islam, to dissuade him from joining - as I’ve done with others. In addition, his wife and children - at great risk to themselves - tried very hard to persuade him to return, to no avail.
Between us - 16 British citizens and residents - we have spent over 71 years imprisoned without charge or trial in Guantanamo. Despite the perpetual stigma and discrimination we face as Muslims once described as “the worst of the worst”, in a post-Trump world, we have regularly welcomed our former captors into our homes.
We’ve even earned unsolicited praise from their governments and sought dialogue and debate with our detractors and promoted justice and acceptance in society - where intolerance and hatred are on the rise. Whatever the reasons behind Jamal al-Harith’s choices, there are plenty of us who did not follow the same path.
- Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and research director for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Ronald Fiddler travelled to Syria in 2014 despite being under surveillance (screengrab)