This week has seen the jailing of a man the Americans consider to be one of the most dangerous facilitators of terrorism in the West. But he is likely to be free in less than a year. He was a pioneer when it came to using the web as a tool of jihadist propaganda. So why do thousands of people think that Babar Ahmad is a victim of an injustice?
If you wanted to find the face – and voice – of Generation Jihad, it would be Babar Ahmad.
A decade in jail fighting against conviction, he finally accepted last year that he had committed terrorist offences in 1990s London.
Ahmad pleaded guilty in an American courtroom to providing support for terrorism. The US authorities say that he ran a support network in south London which had near-unprecedented global reach. But his story is more complicated than that – the judge sentencing him concluded he was no international terrorist.
And at the heart of his network was a website – the first in English to spread jihad. The US says his network not only spread a dangerous ideology – it encouraged young Muslims to join al-Qaeda and turn their face against the West.
Behind these headlines is a story of a young British man struggling with his identity in the 9/11 age – a story which is still being played out by others today.
In the early 1990s, Babar Ahmad, who was educated at the exclusive Emmanuel School in Battersea, south London, co-founded an Islamic study group called the Tooting Circle. The teenagers who would get together for his talks would meet in each others’ houses or in a local mosque that was often empty – and more often than not in the Chicken Cottage takeaway on the High Street.
But according to the Americans, there was a secret layer to this group – one that used safe houses and coded messages. And it is those events that led to this bright young man from a loving home being jailed.
Andrew Ramsey met Babar Ahmad when he was 14.
“I was a Christian at the time and deeply religious and I had friends who had a similar devotion but at the Islamic end and we exchanged notes,” he says. “He was a straightforward guy, a guy you would hang out with, very friendly and polite. My mother noted him for impeccable manners.”
Ahmad came from an upwardly-mobile British-Pakistani home with education and ambition at its core. His mother was a teacher and his father a civil servant. Ahmad was a natural leader – and those skills came out in the Tooting Circle where he would tell his peers about how to live a good and honourable life, following the model of the prophet Mohammad.
Andrew Ramsey, whom Ahmad helped convert to Islam, says community elders didn’t want the meetings in their mosque because they objected to some of the subject matter of the discussions in the prayer hall.
“At the time it was all about getting young people away from the pitfalls of being a teenager,” he says. “Girls, parties, drink, that kind of thing – and into having a discipline where you are doing things in a Godly manner, so to speak.”
So why did the US Department of Justice spend a decade trying to bring this earnest young man to justice? They say it’s about how his ideology changed and what he did with it – and to understand that it is necessary to go back to a terrible moment in modern European history.
The Bosnian War that began in 1992 shocked the world. TV pictures showed Serbian soldiers killing white-skinned European Muslims. While the international community prevaricated, Muslims in Britain saw genocide on their doorstep – a new holocaust within living memory of the Nazis.
Their fears fed into an already tense debate within young Muslims about the place of Muslims in the West.
Usama Hasan is a cleric and former jihadi who was part of that intellectual conversation. “Throughout the 80s and 90s there was a huge resurgence in Muslim identity amongst my generation,” he says. “We were caught often between two worlds – the world of our parents and home communities, usually from Pakistan or Bangladesh or India or the Arab world who were devout traditional Muslims.
“We were living and being brought up in an increasingly secular post-religious Western British environment.
“And that had caused an identity crisis. Many of our generation decided to solve this identity crisis by firmly adopting political Islam and becoming not only devout Muslims but highly politicised Muslims and connecting with that resurgence of political Islam around the world.”
Babar Ahmad adopted that identity. And now, in talks across London and other cities, he and others applied it to the horrors of Bosnia. He split from the mainstream, frustrated by inaction, and said there was one priority – armed jihad. And aged just 18, this student at Imperial College London – one of the world’s finest Universities – went to fight.
Over the next three years Ahmad fitted in volunteering in the Bosnian war around his university studies. He returned something of a local hero – not least because he received a shrapnel wound to the head.
Youngsters would flock to hear him talk. He had become a key figure in Imperial College’s influential Islamic Society – an important forum in the debate over Muslim identity in the West.
Nothing Babar Ahmad did in Bosnia was illegal – he had risked his life to save others from slaughter. Even some mainstream commentators at the time compared the moral courage of the Brits in Bosnia to the foreign brigades in the Spanish Civil war sixty years before.
But according to the Americans, after the war ended, Ahmad’s ideology, full of pity for the victims – and fury at the world – took a fateful turn. Now working for his former university, he spent long hours tapping away at his office computer. In 1996, he launched Azzam Publications. This was the first English language website dedicated to jihad.
It has now long since disappeared from the web, but the site declared that its purpose was to propagate a call to arms “among the Muslims who are sitting down ignorant of this vital duty”.
“Fight in the cause of Allah,” it said, “incite the believers to fight along with you.”
He and others working with him also produced video and audio tapes in English of the stories of Muslims killed in the war – The Martyrs of Bosnia was the first and most important of these.
These tapes were distributed around the UK, along with more complex sermons from clerics who were at the forefront of supporting jihad.
One of the tapes was called In the Hearts of Green Birds – more stories of martyrs and battles in Bosnia. Babar Ahmad was the narrator, and this tape – and the ideas in it – took on a life of their own.
The 7/7 London suicide attackers had this tape and others from Azzam – and today quotes from it can still be found on social media posts by British fighters in Syria.
Elsewhere, the website included a copy of Osama bin Laden’s 1996 “declaration” of war against the West. It also made open appeals for Muslims to send help to the Taliban.
Tom Ridge was the Secretary of Homeland Security in the United States when Ahmad came under investigation. I asked him why Washington was interested in an arcane website managed in London.
“The advocacy, the recruitment, the proselytising and the support of terrorists had found a new medium, a new method of communication through the internet,” he says.
“It was striking how effective he was. For every fighter on the ground, for every terrorist, there’s a support network.
“You don’t have to be pulling a trigger or releasing the power of an IED to be supporting terrorism.”
Late last year, Babar Ahmad entered a plea bargain agreement with the US Department of Justice. He admitted that his website and activities had provided material support to terrorists, including seeking donations for the Taliban.
The US says that prior to 9/11, Ahmad used safe-houses in Tooting and established a route to get recruits into Afghanistan.
Prosecutors say he used sophisticated counter-surveillance techniques – such as codes and false identities – to cover his tracks online and in the real world.
Babar Ahmad’s childhood friend Andrew Ramsey, who freely admits he went to Afghanistan, rejects this.
“Yeah, I read comic books too you know,” he says. “It wasn’t a thing where ‘Let’s team up and become these wicked terrorists, we’ll call ourselves Crimson Jihad, and we are going to blow everywhere up.’ It wasn’t like that… ‘We’re going to turn on John, Mary and Sue and blow up the next chip shop,’ it wasn’t like that.”
Despite the plea bargain, prosecutors sought the highest possible sentence and deployed what they regarded as their trump card. They had the testimony of a British man, a would-be suicide bomber turned supergrass – a man radicalised by Babar Ahmad himself.
In 2001 Saajid Badat, a former grammar school boy from Gloucester, trained in Afghanistan to blow up a plane with an al-Qaeda shoe bomb.
But he had a remarkable change of mind and later admitted everything to the police. His eventual jail sentence was cut in return for offering to testify against other members of al-Qaeda.
Badat told investigators that Babar asked him to go to Afghanistan and help welcome men arriving from London.
Two years ago, I interviewed Babar Ahmad in his British prison while he was still fighting extradition – I wanted to find out what he had to say for himself.
“I never went to Afghanistan, I never lived under the Taliban and I was not familiar with them, I don’t know anything about them,” he says.
“I have nothing to do with al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda has nothing to do with my case. I have not looked into and studied their ideology but my position is that killing innocent people is absolutely wrong no matter who does it and what their justification for it.
“(With) 9/11, like most of the world I was shocked at those events. Those feelings were amplified when I found out that a relative of mine was killed. And the same thing for the 7/7 attacks. I was shocked like the rest of the country. My sister missed one of those Tube trains by two minutes.”
“I actually find it extremely offensive to be called a terrorist supporter because there is no allegation that is more serious than the allegation of terrorism. And in my life I have never supported terrorism, I have never financed terrorism. I believe that the targeting and killing of innocent people I believe that to be wrong, whatever the circumstances, whatever the justification, whoever does it.”
Can these two versions of events – the American accusations and the suspect’s denials – be reconciled, or is Babar Ahmad simply a liar?
Andrew Ramsey says the atmosphere in London in 1999 excited young Muslims. Many men like him believed the Taliban appeared to be forming a genuine Islamic government and wanted to go and see it for themselves. Ramsey says he had no idea how it would turn out.
Babar Ahmad helped him go to Afghanistan, via a Taliban contact in Pakistan. Ramsey has never been accused of wrongdoing. He says that he attended Arabic classes in Kabul and Jalalabad.
Jihad was among questions the young convert wanted to explore – and he met some Londoners who wanted to fight.
Did Babar Ahmad send him for violent jihad?
“No – because that’s not what he has promoted,” he says. “We have been friends for a long time. I know that friends can turn but as far as I am concerned no, he was not that way inclined. Never once did I ever (see) him promote, encourage or push for the killing of anyone.”
So jihad was the talk of the town in London in 2001.