The forgotten inmate of Guantanamo Bay and the British secret service connection

'IoS' investigation: London resident believes he was set up after being illegally arrested by US intelligence. By Severin Carrell
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The Independent Online

Bisher al-Rawi's bizarre odyssey from an unexceptional life in west London to a solitary cell in Guantanamo Bay began at a departure gate in Gatwick airport more than two years ago.

Bisher al-Rawi's bizarre odyssey from an unexceptional life in west London to a solitary cell in Guantanamo Bay began at a departure gate in Gatwick airport more than two years ago.

He and one of his best friends, Jamal el-Banna, were about to fly off to Gambia to help his brother Wahab launch an ambitious new business there - building a peanut processing factory that they hoped would make the family's fortune. Yards from the plane, they were stopped from boarding by British intelligence officers, and held for four days.

It was the first episode in one of the oddest stories to emerge from Guantanamo - a story which led from Gambia to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and finally, their detention in Cuba as alleged activists in the al-Qa'ida network. Now details of Mr al-Rawi's trip can be revealed in his own words, using his lengthy testimony to a US military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay late last year.

The 37-year-old Iraqi is one of at least five men in Camp Delta with very close ties to Britain who are now in a legal black hole. Despite living in Britain for 18 years, he is the only member of a family of refugees from Saddam Hussein's regime who did not take British citizenship. His family needed one son with Iraqi papers who could reclaim their confiscated property in Baghdad. His Palestinian friend Jamal is in a similar position, as are several others in Guantanamo. But with the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, revealing last Tuesday that the four remaining British citizens in Camp Delta are being released, the plight of those known as the "British residents" is coming under far closer scrutiny.

After the two friends were detained at Gatwick, they were interrogated by British security officers about their relationship with Abu Qatada, the radical Palestinian-born Islamic cleric now in Belmarsh prison, accused of being a senior ringleader of the al-Qa'ida network in Europe.

Both men had known "Abu" for years, and are adamant he was just their friend and priest. They deny any knowledge of his alleged al-Qa'ida links, and vehemently deny supporting its terrorist agenda. The Taliban, Mr al-Rawi later told the Americans, were "Muslim fascists".

Abu Qatada went missing just before David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, got powers in December 2001 to detain foreign terror suspects without charge. He lived secretly for nine months in a flat in Elephant and Castle, London, not far from MI5's headquarters, before being arrested, and Mr al-Rawi admitted finding him a safe house. "I don't deny it," he told his interrogators. "When I was young, people saw my father as being a bad person because he was arrested by the Iraqi secret police. I made a conscience decision not to abandon Abu Qatada."

Asked why he helped the cleric make several $2,000 (£1,100) and $3,000 bank transfers to the Middle East, Mr al-Rawi declared: "The money was collected from joint prayer during our festive season. The money was sent legally to Jordan to help the poor. I went to the bank and filled out the form with my name and address. I have no reason to doubt what these funds were for."

After four days, both men were released by the British uncharged. Two days later, they flew to Gambia, only to be rearrested by Gambian intelligence agents. Within hours, Mr al-Rawi's brother Wahab, and Omar, another business partner already in Gambia, were also detained. Bisher al-Rawi recalled: "The next morning US officials were running the show, taking pictures and asking questions. However, the words terrorism or al-Qa'ida were never mentioned. They were interested in my brother's peanut processing business."

Wahab and Omar were released. Yet a month later, Mr al-Rawi recounts: "We were taken from Gambia to Kabul, and then to Bagram airbase. In Bagram, I provided information only after I was subjected to sleep deprivation and various threats were made against me."

What puzzles Mr al-Rawi and his family is how the US knew they were in Gambia - and why he was arrested. They fear he may have been set up by sections of British intelligence, and allowed to leave the UK to be arrested illegally by the US - a controversial process used to seize numerous Guantanamo detainees in third countries. They also ask why he was not held with Abu Qatada in Belmarsh if he was so dangerous to the West. "If I presented such a threat, I would have thought they would have arrested me," he said.

Yet despite this, last month the US declared Mr al-Rawi an "enemy combatant" on the strength of his links to Abu Qatada.

He is now in legal limbo and faces repatriation to Spain, where he is also wanted for questioning over his links to Abu Qatada, and from there, to Iraq. And there, say his family, he faces the very serious risk of death.