The news this week was full of the controversy surrounding the British born suicide bomber Jamal al-Harith, formerly known as Ronald Fiddler. Al-Harith was picked up by American forces in Afghanistan in 2001, where he was suspected of fighting with the Taliban. He spent time in the U.S. detention centre at Guantánamo Bay, before being returned to the U.K. It seems that he subsequently traveled to the Middle East to join ISIS and launched a suicide bomb attack during the current battle with the Iraqi army for the city of Mosul.
Aspects to this story include whether security services had been monitoring his movements; whether the policies of previous Home Secretaries (including Teresa May) made it easier for him to do what he did; The Daily Mail’s ridiculous attempt to smear Tony Blair for being at fault; and the alleged £1m compensation paid to al-Harith.
It’s worth noting that, from a security policy point of view, there is very little controversy in this case. There was a decade between al-Harith’s return from Guantánamo and his departure for Syria and Iraq. That he was not deemed a threat by security services is not particularly remarkable and intellegence officials past and present are comfortable making this point.
However, the debate surrounding this case, kicked off by the Daily Mail’s hypocritical attack on Tony Blair, serves to put a confusing message into the public consciousness—that of ‘terrorists’ being paid ‘compensation’. This story will become another factoid that undermines the case for human rights protections. I will be very interested to see what contribution the Prime Minister makes to the story. I suspect that she will say something hostile to civil liberties, reinforcing the idea that the attempts of politicians and the police to keep us safe are being frustrated by pesky human rights laws. Teresa May has made this point consistently.
We need to push back against any such suggestion. We need to say that the compensation that was paid (in part) to Jamal al-Harith was right and proper in a society governed by the Rule of Law.
Guantánamo Bay is a civil liberties travesty and a stain on America’s reputation. It is known that the U.K. acquiesced to torture and other abuses of civil and human rights. This is a source of deep shame.
Jamal al-Harith was not convicted of any crime. There may well have been convincing intelligence that linked him to the Taliban or other violent groups, but no admissible evidence that could have been presented to him at trial. In law, then, he was no different from those Guantánamo detainees who had nothing to do with any terrorism, or indeed anyone suspected of a crime with little or no justification.
Habeus corpus is one of our oldest civil liberties. Magna Carta says that any imprisonment or punishment of a person “must only be carried out after lawful judgment of his peers”. Like many human rights, there is plenty of legislation and case law that sets out the limits on how long someone may be detained before a charge or before a trial, and other provisions for prisoners of war. But there is a clear consensus that Guantánamo Bay regime violated and continues to violate those laws. It is right that someone like Jamal al-Harith should have been compensated after being detained there.
That this compensation was paid to him makes me feel safe. If such payments happen even when the security services have intellegence that could incriminate a person, then that is a sort of insurance against more arbitrary or political detentions. It deincentivises human rights abuses.
The alternative would be a regime where people could be detained on the say-so of security personnel citing secret intelligence. That would be intolerable in a free society.
We should all be ashamed of what Jamal al-Harith, a.k.a. Ronald Fiddler has done and the manner in which he ended his life. He chose war and hate. He is the worst of Britain.
But his story teaches us other things too. First, it reminds us of the trade-offs and compromises that security services have to make when they assess the threat posed by individuals. There can be no state of absolute safety and security when we also respect civil liberties, and the al-Harith case is an example of reasonable decisions that unfortunately panned out badly.
We should also note that abusing someone, whether egregiously at Guantánamo Bay or through ‘micro-aggressions’ and smaller indignities (such as harassing Muslim-looking people at airports) can radicalise people against us. We can’t say whether Al-Harith’s treatment at Guantánamo Bay caused his defection to ISIS but I would be astonished if that experience did not catalyse the decision. Compensation – a sort of corporate apology – can mitigate feelings of alienation, and therefore may be useful and appropriate use of tax-payers money.