Babar Ahmad: The godfather of internet jihad?

July 17, 2014

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.

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. Living and being brought up in an increasingly secular post-religious Western British environment. Many 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.

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.”

One of the tapes produced by Azzam Publications 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.

“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” Babar Ahmad says.

Ahmad’s former friend Usama Hasan now works for the Quilliam Foundation which advises governments on how to combat extremism. He says the intellectual and religious struggle that Babar Ahmad faced is being repeated today over Syria. He says today’s militants need to hear from Babar Ahmad. “He can help in peace and reconciliation – in guiding the next generation of British Muslims in a positive direction, just as IRA terrorists have done that – served their time in prison and realised that violence is not the ultimate path.”