By Kevin Rawlinson
22 February 2017
A suicide attack near the Iraqi city of Mosul, for which Islamic State has claimed responsibility, was carried out by a British former Guantánamo Bay detainee who was paid £1m in compensation by the UK government after his release, according to reports.
Jamal al-Harith, a 50-year-old Muslim convert from Manchester – who was born Ronald Fiddler – was identified by his family as the man Isis claims carried out the attack on coalition forces on Monday.
The terror group released an image of a smiling man, whom it gave the nom de guerre Abu-Zakariya al-Britani. While its claim that he was the attacker has not been verified, al-Harith’s brother confirmed the identity of the man in the picture to the Times.
Leon Jameson told the paper his brother al-Harith had “wasted his life”. He added: “It is him, I can tell by his smile. If it is true then I’ve lost a brother, so another family [member] gone.” The BBC and Channel 4 News also cited unnamed sources as identifying the same man in the picture.
Isis made unverified claims to have caused multiple casualties when its fighters drove a car filled with explosives into a military base outside the city in northern Iraq. It released a video of a vehicle driving away down a road, followed later by a plume of smoke rising in the distance.
Al-Harith was reportedly awarded compensation after claiming that British agents knew he was being mistreated during the time he was held without charge at Guantánamo.
He was taken to the detention centre after being found in a prison in Afghanistan early in 2002, where he had been placed after being intercepted by the Taliban, who believed him to be a British spy. According to his sister, Maxine Fiddler, he initially believed the Americans to be “his saviours”. However, they imprisoned him after coming to the conclusion that he had tried to join the Islamic fundamentalist group – until they turned on him.
In an interview in 2003, the year before al-Harith’s release, Maxine Fiddler said her brother had converted to Islam in his 20s. She said she believed he had found peace in doing so after a difficult childhood. She described him as “a very smart, a very serious person”, adding that he was gentle and quiet, with a sense of humour.
Al-Harith’s Guantánamo file showed that he was taken to the camp because he was “expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics”.
His release was recommended by Guantánamo’s commandant in 2002 “on the assessment that the detainee was not affiliated with al-Qaida or a Taliban leader”. But he was kept in captivity because it was decided he had been involved in a “terrorist attack against the US”, despite the fact he had not been questioned about one.
It was also noted that his “timeline has not been fully established” and that British diplomats who had dealt with him after his release in Pakistan thought he was “cocky and evasive”. He was finally released in 2004 after lobbying by the then home secretary David Blunkett, who said that none of the people whose release from Guantánamo he had secured “will actually be a threat to the security of the British people”.
A decade later, and despite his high profile, al-Harith was able to travel to Syria, one of about 850 individuals of national security concern who have travelled to join the conflict, according to figures published by the government last year. Of those, a little less than half have returned to the UK and about 15% are dead.
Al-Harith’s wife told Channel 4 News the following year that she had pursued him to Syria with her children in a failed bid to persuade him to come home. “He’s my husband and all of a sudden he’s not there,” Shukee Begum told the programme. “It didn’t feel like home any more. I was trying to manage school runs, things like that.
“I was thinking about the children’s futures. Was he part of it? Will he come back? All these things go through your mind. I was seeing on the news at this point that Isis was going from bad to worse … So I decided that I was going to try and speak some sense into him.”
Begum said she ended up in a safe-house before being reunited with al-Harith. “You’ve got hundreds of families living in one hall, sharing perhaps one or two bathrooms between them, one or two kitchens between them,” she said. “Children crying, children were sick.
“There was a gangster kind of mentality among single women there. Violent talk – talking about war, killing. They would sit together and huddle around their laptops and watch Isis videos together and discuss them and everything. It was just not my cup of tea.
“It was worse than I expected. I didn’t expect it to be so overcrowded for them to just lumber so many women and children together just for the sake of them being there, waiting for their husbands, waiting for properties to live in.”
She described finally realising that he would neither leave with her nor help her to get away. She turned instead to people smugglers, who took her to Aleppo, where she was held captive along with her children.
Relatives of al-Harith did not respond to the Guardian on Tuesday.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: “The UK has advised for some time against all travel to Syria, and against all travel to large parts of Iraq. As all UK consular services are suspended in Syria and greatly limited in Iraq, it is extremely difficult to confirm the whereabouts and status of British nationals in these areas.”