Shaker Aamer was the last remaining British resident at Guantánamo Bay. He spent 13½ years there; today, the U.K. government confirmed that he is to be imminently released.
This will be cause for celebration for some; people like Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party and Her Majesty’s Opposition who had lobbied the U.S. government for Aamer’s release; for Amnesty International, who called Aamer’s detention an “absolute travesty of justice;” for the editors of the left-wing Guardian and right-wing Daily Mail, who put aside their differences in order to launch a sustained campaign for Aamer’s release. The Daily Mail, especially, has been willing to print virtually any old nonsense in order to facilitate this.
All these disparate forces have achieved is to put another dangerous man onto the streets of the U.K. (something that the Daily Mail has tended not to be advocates for in the past). Aamer fought (PDF) in Bosnia in the 1990s and spent time with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. He moved to that country in the summer before 9/11. After the U.S. invasion, according to a Department of Defense memorandum from 2007, he fought alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban in the caves of Tora Bora against the U.S. and its allies. The same memorandum states that Aamer is thought to have served as a sub-commander under the command of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a well-known Libyan jihadist. He was captured in Jalalabad in December 2001, and was in possession of a fake Belgian passport at the time.
His supporters and lawyers reject all this. They say he was only in Afghanistan to do charity work and has been abused while in detention. Yet what these same supporters have not said is what charities it was he has been working for. There are two possible reasons behind this: ignorance, or the knowledge that if they did, they would only implicate their man further. Because Aamer himself has been very clear about the types of “charities” he was involved (PDF) with: the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS) and al-Ahya al-Turath.
In January 2002, RIHS was placed on the United Nations Security Council Committee’s “Al-Qaida Sanctions List;” and in June 2008 was designated by the U.S. Treasury for providing “financial and material support” to al Qaeda and its affiliates. Al-Ahya al-Turath is merely an alias for RIHS. So Aamer’s cover story involves working for what turned out to be al Qaeda support groups.
There is plenty more evidence in Shaker Aamer’s file at Guantánamo to show he was closely tied to the al Qaeda network. Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of Abu Zubaydah. Or Muhammad Basardah. Or Abdul Bukhary. Or Tariq Mahmud Ahmad al-Sawah. Or Humud Dakhil Humud Said al-Jadani. Or Abdallah Yahya Yusif al-Shibli. All of these jihadists outlined Aamer’s closeness to Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda while in U.S. detention.
Yet the danger that Aamer presents is not that he is going to seek out an AK-47 and carry out an attack in London. It is that, according to his Department of Defense file, he has a reputation as a prodigious recruiter. Spend time talking to Mike Bumgarner, the former warden at Guantánamo Bay, and it becomes clear that Aamer is a charismatic and persuasive figure. According to Bumgarner, Aamer’s closeness to bin Laden meant he was immediately a respected figure among detainees there. One one occasion, when other detainees got a glimpse of Aamer, Bumgarner said that “it was like I was with Bon Jovi … I have never seen grown men … crying at the sight of another man.”
I will invite readers of The Daily Beast to draw their own conclusions as to whether hardened jihadists would break into tears at the sight of a regular charity worker. Abdullah al-Noaimi, another former Guantánamo Bay detainee, has claimed that Aamer held a position of huge influence among other detainees and “was born to be a leader”. Bumgarner even had to let go one of the senior female members of his guard force because she had become so “infatuated” with Aamer that she could no longer be trusted to be around him. It’s no surprise he was dubbed a “Svengali” figure by his captors at Guantánamo.
We will discover in the coming months the extent to which Aamer seeks out the public limelight. Either way, a desk for Aamer may be being cleared as we speak over at the offices of Cage, the Islamist advocacy organization which labeled ISIS beheader Mohammed Emwazi a “kind, gentle, beautiful young man” and which has provided such a welcome base for Aamer’s good friend and fellow Guantánamo detainee, Moazzam Begg. However, there may be some awkward conversations between the two to come over the water cooler. While being detained by the US military, Begg said (PDF) that Aamer had “served as a recruiter for al-Qaida” and spent a month of his life training on AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades.