The Need for Caution in Releasing Guantanamo Inmates

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on February 21, 2017

Ronald Fiddler (Abu Zakariya al-Britani)

Ronald Fiddler (Abu Zakariya al-Britani)

Since the offensive against Mosul, the Iraqi capital of the Islamic State (IS), began five months ago, IS has expended a high number of lives quite deliberately in suicide attacks. One of the suicide-attacks conducted on 20 February 2017, a car bombing against an Iraqi base, was by Abu Zakariya al-Britani, a British citizen now identified as Ronald Fiddler from Manchester. In 2002, Fiddler, then calling himself Jamal Udeen al-Harith, was sent to Guantanamo Bay, before being released in 2004 while still protesting his innocence. After suing the British government over his imprisonment, Fiddler received a substantial cash settlement in order to avoid compromising state secrets. Fiddler’s demise invites some revisiting of widely-held assumptions surrounding Guantanamo.

The Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), the task force overseeing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, pieced together the biography of Fiddler, whom it refers to as Jamal Malik al-Harith.

Born 20 November 1966 to Jamaican immigrants in the United Kingdom, Fiddler converted to Islam and was moving in Islamist extremist circles from at least the early 1990s. In 1992, Fiddler went to Sudan, then home to Usama bin Ladin and his nascent al-Qaeda, “accompanied by Abu Bakr, a well-known al-Qaeda operative,” JTF-GTMO records. It is likely that “Abu Bakr” refers to Jamal al-Fadl, one of whose aliases was Abu Bakr al-Sudani (others include Abu Kastani and Abu Kazam). Al-Fadl had been part of al-Qaeda almost since its inception in 1988 but defected in the mid-1990s and testified at the U.S. trial against Bin Ladin.

JTF-GTMO was unable to ascertain exactly what Fiddler did in his “extensive travels” in the Middle East between 1992 and 1996, but a psychological operation in prison disclosed to the Guantanamo staff that he had spent time in Saudi Arabia—Jeddah, to be exact—and Fiddler himself claimed to have spent time in Pakistan in this period. There was also “sensitive information” that showed Fiddler was “probably involved in [a] former terrorist attack against the U.S.,” though it is not specified which attack.

Fiddler struck up a relationship with an Australian woman, Samantha Cook, daughter Peter Cook, a former Labour member of the Senate, and travelled to stay with her for several months in Perth in 2000.

Fiddler went to Pakistan shortly after the 9/11 massacre for what he claimed was a religious holiday. By Fiddler’s account, he paid a truck driver in Pakistan to take him to Iran, and did not realize the man would take a detour through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where Fiddler was arrested as a suspected British spy. It is certainly true that Fiddler ended up imprisoned at Surpozza, a notorious political prison of the Taliban’s in Kandahar, which is now a high-security facility for the elected Afghan government.

In December 2001, the Northern Alliance overran the Taliban’s positions in Kandahar, collapsing their regime, and breaking open the Surpozza, freeing about 1,500 people. But five inmates—later known as the “Kandahar Five”—had remained at the prison facility, apparently having nowhere else to go. After some were named as terrorists, they were arrested by the Northern Alliance and handed over to American custody, from where they were subsequently transferred to Guantanamo.[2]

Fiddler landed in Cuba in early February 2002. In late September 2002, it was judged that Fiddler could be transferred to a third country because he had not been affiliated with the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That decision was overturned in July 2003, however. Fiddler was found to be brazen, deceptive, and evasive in interrogation. Subjected to a polygraph test in April 2003, Fiddler was asked if he had been associated with extremist groups before he went to Afghanistan and if he went to Afghanistan for jihad. Fiddler answered “no” to both; he was lying. It was assessed that he had been connected to al-Qaeda, rather than the Taliban.

On 9 March 2004, five British detainees at Guantanamo were transferred back to Britain. They included Fiddler, Tarek Dergoul, a man of Moroccan origins from London, and Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, and Shafiq Rasul from Tipton in the West Midlands (hence being known as the Tipton Three), who claimed to have gone to Pakistan for a wedding in October 2001. Fiddler was freed after debriefing by border security; the other four were arrested, but released the next day.

Fiddler and the Tipton Three immediately began political and legal warfare against the United States. A case was filed against U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, in collaboration with the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), accusing Rumsfeld of command responsibility for violations of American and international law, including arbitrary detention and torture. The case, Rasul v. Rumsfeld, even after the notorious Boumediene v. Bush decision that broke with two-centuries of precedent and ruled that civilian courts could interfere with military jurisdiction in a time of war, was dismissed entirely by the Supreme Court on 14 December 2009.

The foursome had more success against the British government. In order to avoid disclosure of intelligence sources and security methods in court, it was revealed on 16 November 2010 that London had paid around £1 million of taxpayer’s money to each of the sixteen British detainees who had been released from Guantanamo: Fiddler, Dergoul, the Tipton Three, Moazzam Begg, Binyam Mohamed, Feroz Abbasi, Bisher al-Rawi, Umar Deghayes, Ahmed Errachidi, Richard Dean Belmar, Martin Mubenga, Ahmed Belbacha, Abdelnour Sameur, and Jamil el-Banna. Shaker Aamer, who was then still imprisoned, was also given the same when he was released.

A slight embarrassment, then, that Fiddler should have joined the Islamic State, crossing from Turkey into Syria in April 2014. Fiddler’s return to jihad has been known about since September 2015 at the latest when his wife, Shukee Begum, escaped the caliphate and revealed that in August 2014 she had taken herself and the couple’s five children—all under nine-years-of-age—to IS’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, to try to “speak some sense” into Fiddler, to persuade him return home. Fiddler remained in the caliphate and so did she.

Ms. Begum said IS was “not [her] cup of tea,” with somewhat suboptimal living conditions and a whiff of totalitarianism to Raqqa City. Begum, who is of Somali background, only intended to stay a month but she feared terrorism charges in Britain and had had her passports and money stolen, she said. Begum was allegedly living inside Syria, near the Turkish border, and felt that by allowing Fiddler to see his children and then taking them away again she would convince him to abandon the takfiris. There are hints that IS prevented Begum from leaving (“You can’t just expect to come into ISIS territory and then expect that you can just leave again easily,” Begum was quoted as saying by the Manchester Evening Standard.)

At some point, Begum did get across the border into Turkey via a smuggler, but it seems she was unable to pay them and was then kidnapped. Reports of these events and Begum’s mission surfaced in August 2015, only confirmed the next month after Begum had been freed by the Syrian rebel group al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (The Levant Front).

The initial reports wrongly stated that Fiddler was dead. Of the around 850 Brits who have become jihadists in “Syraq,” just under 10% are dead, among them important propagandist-recruiters like Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”) and one of Amn al-Kharji’s earliest guides for foreign terrorists Junaid Hussain. Similar numbers have been convicted and are believed to still be fighting in Syria. Slightly less than half have returned to Britain. Which leaves one-quarter unaccounted-for.

Now Fiddler is dead, in an act of simultaneous suicide and murder. From this saga there are at least two important takeaways.

One is that there should be a lot more public scepticism about the claims of the men who ended up in Guantanamo Bay, and the current bias toward believing their professions of innocence should be revoked. The mendacity of Fiddler is hardly an isolated case. Just because sources, methods, and other technical impediments prevent the release of details about what the Guantanamo inmates did or planned to do does not mean they didn’t do these things, or intend to. It is also necessary that a firm distinction be made between those activists who campaigned so loudly for the release of Fiddler and other Guantanamo inmates on the basis of an argument related to the Rule of Law, and those who made this demand because they were supporters of the cause Fiddler gave his life to. It would perhaps be best if this process began with the first kind of activist asking themselves if their good faith was not being abused by the latter kind of activist.

Second, the drive to empty Guantanamo Bay is a serious security challenge. Nearly a third of the inmates released from Guantanamo have returned to active jihadist militancy and many more have gone completely missing; doubtless some of these men will, as their comrades have, including Ayrat Vakhitov who was arrested with Fiddler, eventually show up in Syria and Iraq. Beyond that is a sphere of financiers, logisticians, and propagandist-recruiters whose activities contribute to the jihadist cause, often covertly, and therefore do not show up in the recidivism statistics. The argument for closing Guantanamo is that it gives jihadists a propaganda point that allows recruitment. This trade-off—creating a concrete security challenge by the release of skilled jihadists back into the field during a war in exchange for something ephemeral (denying the enemy a propaganda-recruitment pitch)—is dubious on its own terms, and not supported by evidence.

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[1] UPDATE: One of the minor mysteries in the aftermath of this was how much destruction Fiddler had caused with his suicide attack, which was a car bombing against an Iraqi base in Tal Kaysum, southwest of Mosul. A lot of press reports hinted that Fiddler had killed nobody but himself, but the Islamic State report said:

After relying on Allah, our istishhadi (martyr) brother Abu Zakariya al-Britani (may Allah accept him) set out and detonated his explosive vehicle on a base belonging to the Rafidi (Shi’i) Army and militias in the village of Tal Kaysum, southwest of Mosul. This was followed by the brother Abu Anas al-Iraqi (may Allah accept him) detonating his explosive vehicle on a Russian-made tank in the same village. The two operations resulted in several personnel being killed and the tank being destroyed. All praise is due to Allah.

[2] The other four of the Kandahar five were:

Abdul Rahim Janko, a Kurd born in Turkey, had been moved to Syria after his parents were killed when he was four-years-old and brought up in a household headed by a Salafist stepfather. Janko began studying in the United Arab Emirates in 1998 and in 2000 moved to Taliban Afghanistan, attending al-Faruq, al-Qaeda’s terrorist training camp. Soon afterwards, Janko was arrested by his al-Qaeda commander and given to the military leaders of the organization, Mohammed Atef and Sayf al-Adel. Janko was accused of being a spy of the U.S., U.A.E., and/or Israel, trying to assassinate Bin Ladin, and being a homosexual (gay infiltrators from Dubai were under investigation as a serious problem at the time). Al-Qaeda gave Janko to the Taliban for imprisonment at a certain point. A video of Janko was found in Atef’s hideous after he was killed; it was claimed by the Americans to show he was a terrorist and he was added to the FBI’s most-wanted list. He says it showed a forced confession to espionage and sodomy while in Taliban custody. The Northern Alliance then arrested Janko, gave him to the Americans, and he was then transferred to Guantanamo. He was released to Belgium in 2009.

Sadik Ahmad Turkistani, an ethnic Uyghur and Chinese citizen born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Taif, less than fifty miles from Mecca, had been imprisoned for four-and-a-half years by the time the Taliban fell. Turkistani was repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2006 and resettled in Taif.

Ayrat Nasimovich Vakhitov (Salman Bulgarsky), an ethnic Tatar and imam, claims that he fled from his native Russia for Tajikistan in anticipation of a crackdown against Chechen militants, and from there was kidnapped by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and transferred to Taliban Afghanistan in the summer of 2000 under a deal between Tajik authorities and IMU. “We were not looking for evidence that corroborated his story because we had no doubt that it was truthful,” said Alexandra Zernova, Vakhitov’s attorney. “I never even thought to question it.” Others did, of course. The Russian government said Vakhitov was one of the most prominent jihadists waging war against it. Members of the Taliban laughed at the story and said that IMU had only kidnapped people when there was a faction fight over ransom money from the Japanese government. At some point Vakhitov was arrested by the Taliban on suspicion of espionage, and he was transferred to Guantanamo on 13 June 2002.

Vakhitov was assessed to be of little intelligence value and released to Russia in 2004. Vakhitov was arrested in 2005 by Russian special forces. Released two months later, Vakhitov has lived in a number of states in the Greater Middle East since then. In the spring of 2013, a report from Moscow suggested that Vakhitov had taken his militant activity to Syria, along with Daud Khalukhayev, a veteran jihadi from Ingushetia, who was killed in Aleppo in February 2013. A series of reports in the summer of 2013 appeared to confirm that Vakhitov and the faction of the Bulgar Jamaat (or Uyghur-Bulgar Jamaat) he led had relocated to Syria, and that Vakhitov was acting as a propagandist-recruiter, luring Russians to the Syrian jihad.

Vakhitov was arrested on 5 July 2016 as part of the Turkish government’s dragnet after the 28 June Istanbul airport attack, planned by Ahmet Chatayev and carried out by three Russian-speaking IS inghimasiyeen under the control of IS “centre”. Within a week, the U.S. named Vakhitov as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, saying he was associated with Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a group that split during the IS-Qaeda dispute and which inter alia incubated Mohammed Emwazi. Vakhitov had been acting as both a fighter and recruiter for jihadism in Syria, according to the State Department.

Abdul Hakim Bukhary, a Saudi, was assessed by JTF-GTMO as a “veteran jihadist,” who was a “member of al-Qaeda since its inception.” Bukhary had been to Britain in 1979 and America in 1982, and went to Afghanistan—via Jamaat Tablighi—to fight the Soviets in the mid-1980s. After training at the Khalden camp in 1992, Bukhary took part in the Chechen jihad and was associated with the Saudi, Ibn al-Khattab, who led the jihadist wing of the insurgency; he is also is suspected of a role in the Bosnian jihad. Having settled back into Saudi Arabia and built a business in the late 1990s, Bukhary then went to Taliban Afghanistan in August 2001—unintentionally, apparently: he had arranged for eye surgery in Pakistan, coordinated with a known al-Qaeda facilitator, and his friend then innocently suggested they go to Kandahar where he listened to a speech by Bin Ladin at al-Faruq terrorist training camp. (Bukhary’s passport had an Afghan entry stamp for 5 August 2001 and an exit stamp for 20 August.) Bukhary then travelled back to Saudi Arabia, before moving to Jordan for “spiritual growth” at the Nur Mosque in Amman. Inspired by the call for a war on Christianity after 9/11, by Bukhary’s own account, he went back to Afghanistan and was arrested by al-Qaeda on his way to joining the Taliban’s ranks in October 2001. Bukhary acted strangely, according to Abdu Ali Sharqawi, an important al-Qaeda facilitator, which led to his arrest on suspicion of being a Saudi spy. Initially screened by the Americans on 24 January 2002 in Kandahar, Bukhary was sent to Guantanamo, where he displayed considerable counter-interrogation know-how. Bukhary, despite being assessed as a high risk and of high intelligence value, was transferred to Saudi Arabia in 2007.


Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society

3 thoughts on “The Need for Caution in Releasing Guantanamo Inmates

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