Tony Blair attacks Daily Mail’s ‘hypocrisy’ over suicide bomber
Former prime minister denies his government paid £1m to British jihadi who died in Iraq
Former British prime minister Tony Blair hit out at the Daily Mail’s “utter hypocrisy”, pointing out that the newspaper led a media campaign for Jamal al-Harith’s release from Guantanamo Bay. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images
Tony Blair has denied that a Labour government paid compensation to the former Guantanamo Bay detainee who went on to blow himself up in Iraq, in a strongly worded statement in which he accused the Daily Mail of hypocritical coverage over the Manchester-born jihadi’s death.
The former UK prime minister said that compensation – thought to amount to £1 million – was paid out under the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010 – and criticised the tabloid for blaming him and Labour instead.
“He was not paid compensation by my government,” Mr Blair said. “The compensation was agreed in 2010 by the Conservative government.”
On Wednesday morning, the Daily Mail front-page story was the death of Jamal al-Harith – who changed his name from Ronald Fiddler after converting to Islam in his 20s but most recently went by the nom de guerre Abu-Zakariya al-Britani – in which Mr Blair’s government was singled out for “intense lobbying” for his release.
Mr Blair hit out at the Daily Mail’s “utter hypocrisy”, pointing out that the newspaper led a media campaign for Harith’s release from Guantanamo Bay.
“It is correct that Jamal al-Harith was released from Guantanamo Bay at the request of the British government in 2004,” he said.
“This followed a massive media and parliamentary campaign, led by the Daily Mail, the very paper that is now supposedly so outraged at his release, and strongly supported by the then Conservative opposition.”
The former prime minister singled out a headline entitled “Still think he wasn’t a danger, Mr Blair? Fury at Labour government’s £1m compensation for innocent Brit.”
“The Mail headline shortly after he was released after months of their campaigning was ‘Freedom at last for Guantanamo Britons’. They then quoted with approval various human rights activists saying, ‘Clearly by what’s happened they’re not bad guys, they are entirely innocent’.”
Harith, 50, is said by Islamic State to have carried out the suicide attack on coalition forces near Mosul on Monday.
A British former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Manchester-born Harith was paid the £1 million in compensation by the UK government after his release in 2004 from the US-operated military prison. In 2014, 10 years after he returned to the UK, he left for Syria to join Isis.
Fiddler was reportedly awarded compensation after claiming that British agents knew he was being mistreated during the time he was held without charge at Guantanamo.
Mr Blair, who was prime minister from 1997 to 2007, said: “The fact is that this was always a very difficult situation where any government would have to balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security, and we were likely to be attacked whatever course we took. The reason it did take a long time for their release was precisely the anxiety over their true affiliations.”
He added: “Those who demanded their release should not be allowed to get away with now telling us that it is a scandal that it happened.”
Former Labour home secretary Jack Straw said it was not only the left and civil liberties groups that were calling for the release of detainees from Guantanamo Bay in the early 2000s, the Daily Mail and others on the right were very outspoken too.
“At the time the Daily Mail was demanding their release. It is very convenient for journalists and commentators and for the public to flip on this . . . [but] we had to make the best decision at the time which I think we did.”
But Mr Straw said that although it was a Tory government who agreed the compensation deal in 2010, he accepted a Labour government may have taken the same decision.
“The difficulty at that time was that there was no mechanism by which the evidence against these people who were suing the British government for complicity could be taken into court without the risk of us disclosing really sensitive intelligence which could, in turn, literally have led to the death of British agents.”
Earlier, a former counter-terror strategist said that British authorities must accept some responsibility for failing to sufficiently monitor Harith before he left the UK to join Isis.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Arthur Snell, the former head of the Prevent programme, the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, said it was clear there was a problem with Harith that was not adequately dealt with.
“It’s obvious that collectively the authorities – and obviously I have some personal responsibility there – we failed to be aware of what Fiddler was up to,” he said.
Harith was taken to Guantanamo Bay 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. 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 Guantanamo he had secured “will actually be a threat to the security of the British people”.
Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, told the Today programme he believed Harith was paid off to avoid disclosing sensitive national security material in court.
“It should have never been paid on the merits,” he said. “There was absolutely no merit in paying him a penny because plainly he was a terrorist and he was a potentially dangerous terrorist.
Legal disclosure rules
“The issue was the legal disclosure rules. If somebody brings a civil action for damages then they are entitled to disclosure, some of which may be national security material. In my view, the UK government and its legal advisers were absolutely right not to disclose to an enemy of the state clear national security material. But there is an issue as to why the UK paid money but not the US, which has much stricter rules about the disclosure of national security materials.”
Harith’s Guantanamo file shows 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 Guantanamo’s commandant in 2002 “on the assessment that the detainee was not affiliated with al-Qaeda 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 such an attack.
A decade after his release, and despite his high profile, 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 per cent are dead.
Harith’s wife told Channel 4 News the following year that she had pursued him to Syria with her children in a failed attempt to persuade him to come home.
Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at Rusi, said: “This is a guy who first converted in the early 90s, gets on a radical path in the late 90s, gets caught up in Gitmo [Guantanamo], comes out of Gitmo, and it’s not clear what he did after that.
“Then almost 20 years later the he decides to take the ultimate choice. That’s intriguing to me. It shows how these ideas never leave you. It’s a very deep-set ideology.”
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.”
A spokeswoman for Greater Manchester police said: “In line with national policy we don’t comment on people who are believed to have travelled to Syria.”
Timeline: Jamal al-Harith
1966 – born Ronald Fiddler in Manchester, England, to parents who had migrated from Jamaica.
circa 1994 – converts to Islam and officially changes his name to Jamal Udeen al-Harith.
Harith travels to Pakistan, reportedly for a backpacking trip. While there, he pays a truck driver to take him to Iran. At the Afghan border, Taliban guards, seeing his British passport, arrest him on suspicion of being a British spy.
US troops discover Harith in a Taliban jail in Kandahar and release him. The Red Cross is in the process of making arrangements for his return to Britain when the Americans become suspicious about the purpose of his travels. He is arrested as a suspected enemy combatant and transported to Guantanamo Bay.
2004, March – Harith is among five British citizens released and repatriated to the UK without charges.
Harith, with three other British former Guantanamo Bay detainees, sues then US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, claiming they were subjected to illegal interrogation tactics, including torture and religious abuse.
2009 – after going through several levels of hearings, the US supreme court declines to accept the case for hearing on appeal.
2014 – Harith travels to Syria to join Isis.
2015 – his wife and their five children join him for some months in 2015 before fleeing from the Isis-controlled territory. She tells reporters she left to persuade him to return.
2017, February – according to reports, Harith is killed when he carries out a suicide car bombing at an Iraqi army base south-west of Mosul.
– (Guardian service)