Ex-Guantanamo detainee carried out suicide attack near Mosul, Iraq

The British press buzzed yesterday with news that a former Guantanamo detainee known as Jamal al Harith (formerly Ronald Fiddler) had blown himself up in a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) in Iraq. Al Harith reportedly took part in the Islamic State’s defensive suicide attacks around Mosul, which is one of the organization’s de facto capitals. The so-called caliphate claims to have launched scores of suicide VBIEDs in defense of the city.

On the same day al Harith executed his attack (Feb. 20), the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency released a short video of three SUVs being deployed as bombs. All three vehicles had armor added to the front. One of the three was presumably driven by al Harith. The Islamic State also released a photo al Harith (seen above), identifying him by the alias Abu Zakariya al Britani. The group also issued a claim of responsibility for his bombing.

Al Harith’s death brings to an end one of the strangest stories in the history of the detention facility at Guantanamo. Along with four others, Al Harith was transferred to American custody in early 2002 after being found in the Taliban-controlled Sarposa prison.

According to leaked Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessments, jihadis in Afghanistan accused all five men of being spies for foreign powers looking to infiltrate the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s ranks. Sarposa (spelled “Sarpooza” and “Sarpuza” in JTF-GTMO’s files) was overrun by the Northern Alliance in late 2001 and the men (subsequently dubbed the Sarposa Five) were handed over to the Americans and then transferred to Guantanamo.

One of the other four men detained at Sarposa alongside al Harith was Ayrat Nasimovich Vakhitov, a Russian citizen. A photo of Vakhitov from his JTF-GTMO file can be seen on the right.

The US State Department designated Vakhitov as a terrorist in July 2016, saying he “is associated with Jaysh al-Muhajirin Wal Ansar” (JMWA, or “the Army of the Emigrants and Helpers”). The JMWA is a foreign fighter organization in Syria. One powerful faction in the group merged with the Islamic State, while the rest of the organization continued to operate independently before eventually swearing allegiance to Al Nusrah Front in Sept. 2015. Al Nusrah was the name of al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria until mid-2016. Its members are fierce rivals of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State.

Vakhitov was arrested by Turkish authorities shortly before his designation. According to Voice of America, Vakhitov was “among 30 people Turkish authorities say they have arrested in connection with” the terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in June 2016. The assault on the airport is widely suspected of being the work of the Islamic State. The State Department’s designation page does not mention Vakhitov’s reported arrest in Turkey, but does say he has “used the internet to recruit militants to travel to Syria.”

State also didn’t mention that Vakhitov was a former Guantanamo detainee, but FDD’s Long War Journal confirmed last year that he is the same individual. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: Ex-Gitmo detainee, Islamic State’s leader in Chechnya designated by State Department.]

A murky past

In some cases, Guantanamo recidivists were well-known to authorities before they were transferred and rejoined the jihad. That was not the case with al Harith. Just two pages of JTF-GTMO’s intelligence on him have been made available to the public via a leak. It is possible that the US government has more information on his past. But the details offered in the JTF-GTMO memo are incredibly murky. The opening paragraph even notes that al Harith was “accused of being a British or American spy,” which is why he was held at Sarposa.

A senior US military commander recommended that al Harith be considered for transfer or release as of Sept. 2002, finding that he was “not affiliated” with al Qaeda and was not a Taliban leader.

Less than one year later, in July 2003, Joint Task Force – Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) reversed this recommendation. Military intelligence officials concluded that al Harith should remain in US custody, as he was “assessed as being affiliated with” al Qaeda. JTF-GTMO concluded that he was “still of intelligence value” and posed a “high threat to the US, its interests and allies.”

However, the intelligence included in JTF-GTMO’s leaked threat assessment is thin and dubious.

For example, JTF-GTMO cited “sensitive information” indicating that al Harith “was probably involved in [a] terrorist attack against the” US. There is no indication which attack he was supposedly involved in.

Moreover, JTF-GTMO noted that he was not “questioned on his ties with those involved in this attack, nor has he been questioned on his own involvement.” It should be noted that other British detainees who were suspected of being tied to specific al Qaeda plots were held at Guantanamo for years after al Harith was transferred in Mar. 2004. If he were really suspected of being involved in a terror plot against America, it is likely that US officials would have fought to keep him in detention.

US military and intelligence officials were uncertain about al Harith’s past. The “timeline” for his “extensive travels in the Middle East” between 1992 and 1996 had “not been fully established” when JTF-GTMO’s assessment was written in 2003. He was “accompanied by Abu Bakr, a well-known al Qaeda operative,” on a trip “to Sudan in 1992 during the same time that Osama bin Laden and his network were” based in the country. However, US officials did not cite any specific intelligence linking al Harith to bin Laden. Instead, they found that the school al Harith claimed he attended in Sudan “did not exist” and that “foreigners” who traveled to Khartoum for “Islamic studies” were often “recruited for training in sabotage, kidnapping, improvised explosive devices, and commando training.” The file does not indicate that al Harith himself attended such training.

Then there was the issue of al Harith’s suspected travels to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. US military intelligence could draw no firm conclusions about his travels, at least according to the JTF-GTMO memo.

US officials did conduct a “PSYOP/JDOG” [Psychological Operation/Joint Detention Operations Group] “experiment” in Guantanamo’s Camp Delta. It was called “Dining Out,” because “ethnic food was prepared for a select group of detainees.” Al Harith “was noticed calling out to other detainees in other blocks that the food tasted just like that from a restaurant in Jedda, Saudi Arabia.” But al Harith told authorities he had never been to Saudi Arabia. He also claimed to have visited “Pakistan in the early 1990’s,” but “this information” had “not been exploited.”

It is clear from JTF-GTMO’s file that US officials thought al Harith was lying, but they didn’t really know what to make of his story. On Apr. 4, 2003, he was “administered a polygraph exam and was found to be deceptive.” He was specifically asked if he had “contact with any persons connected with extremist groups prior to going to Afghanistan and if he went to Afghanistan for Jihad.” Al Harith “answered ‘no’ to both questions,” but was found to be “deceptive each time.”

Still other purported details about al Harith’s past can be found on the old website for Cageprisoners, a detainee advocate group that has been renamed CAGE. The group is affiliated with Moazzam Begg, another former Guantanamo detainee. American officials alleged that Begg was affiliated with al Qaeda prior to his own detention. The British press, including the Daily Mail, have posted a photo of al Harith and Begg standing next to each other at an event.

Some of the details in Cageprisoners’s short biography match those found in JTF-GTMO’s file, but with an especially benign-sounding twist. The group described al Harith as “a gentle, quiet man who rarely spoke of his faith unless asked, and after four years learning Arabic and teaching English at Khartoum University in Sudan, he seemed happy enough to return home where he started to study nursing.” (The JTF-GTMO file indicates that US officials thought al Harith’s explanation of his time in Sudan was not truthful.) Al Harith returned to the UK but then, “at the end of September 2001,” decided to travel to Pakistan, “retracing a journey he had made to Iran in 1993.” Al Harith “paid a lorry driver to take him from northern Pakistan to Iran as part of a backpacking trip, but they were stopped near the Afghan border by Taliban soldiers who saw his British passport and jailed him, in October, fearing he was a spy.” He was allegedly “interrogated by the CIA” before being transferred to Guantanamo.

After his transfer from Guantanamo, Al Harith stayed in the UK until early 2014, when he fled to Syria and joined the Islamic State. His decision to leave Britain caused a minor uproar in the press, as the British government had paid him £1 million after he claimed that he was abused during his time in custody.

Al Harith was also a plaintiff in a lawsuit claiming that US officials had tortured and abused detainees, among other allegations. The case was ultimately dismissed. Al Harith’s co-plaintiffs are known as the “Tipton three,” as they are from the town in England of that name. According to an account on the Guardian’swebsite, two of the three appeared on a television show, “Lie Lab,” in 2007. “Campaigners for the men have always maintained they were innocent tourists-cum-aid workers, caught up in the invasion of Afghanistan,” the Guardian’saccount noted. But one of the men, Rhuhel Ahmed, was confronted with evidence suggesting “he was less than forthcoming with the truth” and subsequently “confessed” to “visiting an Islamist training camp” and “also handling weapons and learning how to use an AK47.” This caused some mild embarrassment for their advocates in the UK, as the “Tipton Three” were widely portrayed as “blameless heroes.”

The “Sarposa Five”

It is possible that the Taliban was mistaken about al Harith in late 2001. There is no evidence in JTF-GTMO’s file indicating that he was really a spy for either the British or the Americans at the time. This fact would have been known to one or both governments. Many jihadis flocked to Afghanistan to support the Taliban in September and October 2001. We may never know the full truth of al Harith’s intentions, but it is conceivable that he was merely caught up in a chaotic situation and mistakenly accused of being a spy.

Still, according to JTF-GTMO’s threat assessments, the Taliban and al Qaeda accused all four of the other men detained alongside al Harith at Sarposa of being spies as well. At the American detention facility in Cuba, the Sarposa Five were given sequential internment serial numbers (ISN) ranging from 489 to 493. Al Harith’s ISN was 490.

Abdul Rahim Abdul Razak al Janko (ISN 489), a Syrian, was either “recruited by al Qaeda or sent on a United Arab Emirates (UAE) sponsored intelligence mission targeting al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.” That assessment was made on June 30, 2008, more than six years after Janko was first transferred to Guantanamo, indicating that the confusion surrounding him and the others lingered for years.

JTF-GTMO found that Sadik Ahmad Turkistani (491) may have been deported from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan because of his criminal activities. The jihadis apparently suspected that he was sent by Saudi intelligence to spy on al Qaeda and bin Laden.

The aforementioned Ayrat Nasimovich Vakhitov (ISN 492) was “arrested by the Taliban on suspicion of espionage.”

Abdul Hakim Bukhary (ISN 493), a Saudi, was by far the most interesting of the Sarposa Five. He was assessed to be one of al Qaeda’s original members. One of Bukhary’s fellow detainees, Jawed Jabber Sadkhan, told officials that Bukhary knew Abdullah Azzam, the godfather of modern of jihadism and Osama bin Laden’s mentor. Bukhary admitted to authorities that he trained at the Sada camp, which was run by Maktab al-Khidamat, a forerunner of al Qaeda. (He provided conflicting details about his time at Sada.) Bukhary also told officials that he had trained at the al Qaeda-associated Khaldan camp in the early 1990s and he likely attended other al Qaeda camps, such as Al Farouq, as well.

Bukhary claimed that he returned to his home in Saudi Arabia after training at Khaldan in 1992, but US officials found evidence contradicting his claim. Namely, JTF-GTMO cited the testimony of Enaam M. Arnaout, who was convicted in the US of using a charity, the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), to bankroll jihadists in Bosnia. Arnaout “stated than an Abdul Hakim…held a position with the BIF in Bosnia in 1992.” JTF-GTMO assessed that “Abdul Hakim” was in fact Bukhary. Arnaout explained that “Abdul Hakim” had “traveled inside Bosnia at an unspecified time with BIF financier Adel Batterjee.” Arnaout also “stated he knew Abdul Hakim from Pakistan and added that Abdul Hakim had previously been employed by ARAMCO,” the Saudi Arabian oil company. Bukhary separately “acknowledged working for ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia,” and many of the details he provided about his own past were consistent with the timeline Arnaout provided for “Abdul Hakim.” Bukhary admitted, for example, that some of his fellow trainees in Afghanistan traveled to Bosnia for jihad.

Bukhary was tied to a constellation of senior al Qaeda figures. Regardless, it appears he eventually had a falling with his comrades. Sadkhan, an Iraqi who was transferred from Guantanamo in June 2009, told US officials that Osama bin Laden himself had Bukhary imprisoned at Sarposa over a disagreement regarding the transfer of some money. The funds were reportedly intended for Jumaboy Namagani, the leader of the al Qaeda and Taliban-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), but bin Laden apparently became suspicious that it may be used to fund a “coup against him.” It is not clear what exactly transpired. A senior al Qaeda facilitator who is still detained at Guantanamo, Sharqawi Abdu Ali al-Hajj (aka “Riyadh the Facilitator”), explained that Bukhary “aroused suspicion while in Afghanistan because of his actions and was suspected of being a Saudi Arabian intelligence agent.”

Not the first former Guantanamo detainee to become a suicide bomber in Iraq

Jamal al Harith is not the first ex-Guantanamo detainee to launch a suicide VBIED attack in Iraq.

Abdullah Salih al Ajmi blew himself up in Mosul in 2008. Thirteen people were killed in the explosion and dozens more were wounded. The US detained Ajmi after he fought at the Battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in 2001. He was transferred to Guantanamo and held there until he was returned to Kuwait on Nov. 2, 2005. Ajmi was acquitted by a Kuwaiti court in Mar. 2006, released, and then joined the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The ISI is the predecessor organization to the current Islamic State.

Al Harith’s death means that the Islamic State has now used at least two former Guantanamo detainees in suicide operations in and around Mosul, Iraq.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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