LONDON — A suspected al-Qaeda member who became a cause celebre among human rights groups and British lawmakers returned home Friday after being held more than 13 years at Guantanamo Bay.
Shaker Aamer, who was first cleared for release in 2007, crossed the Atlantic on a plane chartered by the British government, touching down at London’s Biggin Hill Airport just before 1 p.m. local time. British broadcasters covered the landing.
A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said that he “welcomes his release and that people should be reassured that everything necessary to ensure public safety — those measures have been put in place.”
The spokeswoman added that there are no plans to detain Aamer, 46, a former British resident and a Saudi national whose family lives in London. His wife and children are British.
Congress was notified in late September that the Pentagon planned to transfer Aamer to the United Kingdom. He was the last detainee at the U.S. detention facility in Cuba who was a British citizen or former resident.
Aamer was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and brought to Guantanamo Bay in February 2002. He was suspected of being a “close associate of Osama bin Laden” who fought in the battle of Tora Bora, according to U.S. military files disclosed by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
His support in Britain has centered on claims that he faced abuses in custody and complaints that he was held without formal charges filed. Aamer has asserted he was in Afghanistan to help with humanitarian projects.
In a statement issued through his attorneys, Aamer praised his supporters for their campaign to secure his release and for their efforts to “bring an end to Guantanamo.”
“Without knowing of their fight I might have given up more than once,” he said in the statement, adding that “without their devotion to justice I would not be here in Britain now.”
Dominic Grieve, chair of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, told Sky News that Aamer’s incarceration hurt the global image of the United States.
“It’s quite clear that the circumstances in which he was detained for this long period in Guantanamo were a serious error by the United States of America and one that has done the United States reputation on issues of human rights a great deal of damage,” he said.
Cori Crider, a lawyer with Reprieve, a human rights organization, said the group was “delighted” Shaker was freed. “It is long, long past time,” Crider said. “Shaker now needs to see a doctor and then get to spend time alone with his family as soon as possible.”
Aamer was considered a leader among the detainees at the prison and was seen by Pentagon officials as someone who encouraged hunger strikes and other protests.
Former and current U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials also said he was suspected of playing a role in the suicides of three Yemeni detainees in 2006. One of Aamer’s attorneys said his client denies any involvement, pointing out that he was in solitary confinement before and after the suicides.
His attorney said Aamer was unable to communicate with other inmates, although U.S. military officials said prisoners were able to pass messages no matter where they were held.
“I was and am opposed to any suicide. Then and now. I had no hand in it whatsoever,” Aamer said, according to a statement released through his attorney Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York.
A total of 112 detainees remain at the prison, with 52 cleared for release, as the Obama administration tries to fulfill the president’s goal of accelerating transfers in order to close the prison before he leaves office.
“It’s wonderful news that Shaker is finally coming home and will be reunited with his family or, in the case of his youngest child, seeing him for the first time. But it draws attention to how appalling it is he has been detained without trial for 14 years,” said Andy Slaughter, a Labour Party lawmaker who was part of the cross-party delegation that visited Washington to raise the case. On Wednesday, the Pentagon repatriated a Mauritanian detainee.
Born in Medina, Saudi Arabia, in 1966, Aamer attended college in Jiddah and trained to be a nurse at a military hospital. He lived briefly in Atlanta in 1989 before moving to Gaithersburg, Md. After the Persian Gulf War began, he got a job as a translator for the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia, according to the military files.
The British government had agreed to accept Aamer years ago, but not without reservations, a former U.S. official said.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because details of the discussions remain secret, said elements of the British government, including the country’s counterterrorism officials, were reluctant to take Aamer.
On the American side, U.S. officials were equally concerned about the activities of former Guantanamo detainees living in Britain, including Moazzam Begg, who was released in 2005.
“The activities of former detainees were factored into the discussions,” the former official said.
Begg, who traveled to Syria in 2012, was later charged with attending a terrorist camp in the war-torn country. The charges were eventually dropped in 2014. Begg denied any wrongdoing, and his attorney said he had informed the British authorities in advance about his travel plans, including to Syria.
Fourteen British nationals and former residents have been transferred from the prison to the United Kingdom.
A U.S. official said British authorities will continue to monitor Aamer. “They asked for him, and now they got him,” the U.S. official said. “They’ll do what they need to do to watch him.”
Goldman reported from Washington. Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.