The British former Guantánamo detainee thought to have carried out a suicide bombing for Islamic State in Iraq this week was not being monitored by the British security services when he left the UK in 2014.
Jamal al-Harith was not a subject of active investigation at the time, the Guardian understands, because he was not considered to be a major security threat, so there would not have been a reason to have stopped him travelling abroad to join the terror group.
The admission came as the intelligence agencies and Conservative and Labour politicians came under criticism for allowing Harith – born Ronald Fiddler – to leave the UK and for the decision to pay him a six-figure sum in compensation after he was released from Guantánamo in 2004.
Downing Street refused to answer questions about the 50-year-old Muslim convert from Manchester on Wednesday, with Theresa May’s spokesman insisting that it remains unclear whether Harith was in fact the suicide bomber. “I am yet to see any element of fact produced in this case,” he said.
May’s spokesman declined to comment on the surveillance that Harith was placed under while she was home secretary, as well as whether compensation paid to him by the Conservative-led government while she was in the same job could have been used to fund terrorism.
Pressed repeatedly, the spokesman added: “The simple fact is, it’s been reported as a matter of fact about this individual, but there is not independent confirmation of the identity of this man who’s believed to be dead in Mosul ... There is no indication at all. Obviously, the situation in Syria means that we don’t have the capacity to verify anything.”
Claims by Isis that Harith, whom it gave the nom de guerre Abu Zakariya al-Britani, was the man who carried out the suicide bombing on Monday have not been independently verified. A video shot from long range did not show definitively who was in the vehicle when it was driven into a military compound near Mosulbefore exploding and causing multiple injuries.
Harith was taken to Guantánamo in 2001 after being discovered in a Taliban prison in Pakistan. He was held there without charge until his release 2004, which followed lobbying from the government to release some UK nationals held in the US-run prison camp.
Some Conservative backbenchers suggested that the government had questions to answer over surveillance of Harith, including over whether the Home Office, of which May was in charge at the time, should have done more to stop him travelling.
Crispin Blunt, the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee, said he would hope to see a review of how Harith had been monitored and how he had been able to reach Iraq.
“There needs to be a proper review of what monitoring was done, what signs were missed and, when he chose to travel to Syria, why was that journey not interdicted at some point? Is it our fault through inadequate exit controls or Turkey’s? It’s about operational oversight.”
Downing Street’s reluctance to confirm that Harith was the suicide bomber reflects the general wariness of the security services in making categorical assessments. While the authorities are likely to have assumed it was him, they cannot offer 100% assurance unless there is evidence, such as DNA from the scene. That can be difficult for the Iraqi army to acquire, given that Mosul is a conflict zone.
The fact that Harith had returned from Guantánamo means the security services would have taken an interest in him. But the intelligence agencies repeatedly stress that they have only limited resources and 24-hour surveillance, which requires anything from 20 to 40 watchers, tends to be restricted to only those believed to pose a real threat.
There have been 12 terrorist plots uncovered in the UK in the last three years and resources tend to be devoted to cases such as those rather than individuals just classified as being of interest.