Ahmad, 41, is the Alexander Graham Bell of online terrorism. The website he ran, azzam.com, was the pioneer, the template, for all the thousands of jihadi sites that followed. Set up in 1996, it was the first English-speaking site to publish bin Laden’s declaration of war against the West; the first to offer guidebook-style tips for the aspiring holy warrior; the first to publish Islamic rulings on the “permissibility of martyrdrom operations”.
Ahmad’s site solicited funds for the Taliban. It described how to get money to their representative in Pakistan, and transferred some money directly. It made overt appeals for people to join the jihad in Afghanistan. And cricially, as Ahmad admitted in court, it went on doing this for at least nine months after bin Laden, with the Taliban’s support and protection, attacked the US, killing 2,996 innocent people.
Ahmad, who pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism, also radicalised others through personal contact. His “Tooting Circle” included Saajid Badat, sentenced to 13 years for his part in the Richard Reid shoe-bomber plot. Badat testified that Ahmad arranged for him to receive “training in taking up arms”, and that “when we talk[ed] about jihad it meant armed jihad, taking up arms”.
Now, surely to the immense relief of us all, Ahmad tells the Beeb that he didn’t really mean any of it. As he explained: “I did it in good faith, but in hindsight, I regret doing that and it was naive of me to do that, because it was a complicated situation.”
Yes, he did support bin Laden, but “not knowingly,” because he did not know what the al-Qaeda leader “was really up to.” Sticklers might object that perhaps 9/11 should have given something of a clue – not to mention the declaration of war published by Ahmad on his own website.
Those with more detailed knowledge of the case can point out that this is also, in fact, the third version of events Ahmad has given us.
Fighting extradition to be tried in the United States, where his site was hosted, Ahmad became a cause célèbre for many of the liberal classes. He claimed that he was an “innocent, law-abiding member of the public”, who had been “terrorised in order to satisfy some political ambitions”.
“The crime that I committed is that I dared… to seek justice in an unjust world”, he declared.
Once the extradition battle had failed, having been prolonged literally for years in order to wring out every last drop of propaganda, Ahmad performed a swift handbrake turn, and pleaded guilty to his crimes.
The trial judge told him: “I view what you did as very serious. What you were doing was enabling bin Laden to be protected in Afghanistan and train the men who drove into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center…
Your websites were a source of information [to jihadis] unlike anything that had been on the web before.”
Yet Ahmad is not only a convicted accomplice to mass murder. He was and remains a skilled propagandist – before, during, and now after his imprisonment.
The campaign to prevent his extradition and “free Babar Ahmad” employed the same “war on Muslims” rhetoric as Ahmad himself used. It seized on his admittedly brutal arrest by the Met to claim that he had been “tortured.” Its explicit, and very effective, message was that in the “police state” for Muslims that is the UK, any British Muslim could suffer the “innocent” Ahmad’s fate. As the campaign kept saying: “Today it’s Babar Ahmad, tomorrow it could be you.”…