Jihad, justice and the American way: is this a model for fair terrorism trials?

The government stokes fear and fails to understand the Muslim world. But inside at least one courtroom remains an unusual precedent: context can be served

July 17, 2014

Sitting and waiting in US District Court here on Wednesday, you got the undeniable sense that something unusual was about to happen.

Here was the end of a terrorism trial with two men who had already pled guilty – the British citizen Babar Ahmad to providing material support for terrorism by way of administering a website that called on Muslims to devote themselves to jihad, which he did, and the British-born Talha Ahsan to helping him, despite being a mailman for the site for five months in 2001 – but both of whom still looked nervous in that familiar shackle-and-jumpsuit uniform of so many Muslim foreigners in this country over the past 13 years.

Here was the final hearing for two men who had already spent two years in a US supermax prison – under the kind of no-contact conditions Edward Snowden refuses to come home for, in what Ahsan’s brother described to me as “solitary confinement torture” – before they even got a fair trial. By the time they arrived for sentencing on Wednesday, Ahmad and Ahsan had already sat and waited in prison for 10 and eight years, respectively.

Yet here was a terrorism trial about non-operational terrorism – about a website, and Ahmad’s visit to an Afghan training camp in 1999, and ultimately about over-aggressive prosecutors seeking 25 and 15 years, respectively – and here it was coming to a close not under the specter of xenophobia so much as all-American common sense.

No, Judge Janet Hall was not willing to entertain the Fox News-ification of terrorism. “There is no way to rationalize the sentences” the government had recommended, she said, at least not based on claims that two men promoted “violent jihad” and provided what is known as “material support” for terrorists. “In my view,” the judge said, “jihad does not equal terrorism. In a perversion of what Islam teaches, terrorists have misappropriated the concept of jihad from its true meaning – struggle. But jihad is not what happened on 9/11.”

But allegations of terrorist activity almost always lead to perceptions of guilt rather than even partial innocence, and too often it’s the government stoking that perversion of such a basic principle of justice. In this case, the judge found that extensive research by government lawyers ultimately led them to make little more than connections that didn’t exist. She gave Ahmad 12 years and handed Ahsan eight years, for time served.

“I’ve had to witness the agony in my mother’s voice every day,” Ahsan’s brother, Hamja, told me moments after learning the verdict, which will leave Talha in the custody of US immigration officials with the prospect of returning home to Tooting in London. (With time served and good-time credits, Ahmad has approximately 13 more months left on his sentence, at least some of which he will serve back in the UK. ) “I’m going to fight for the rest of my life to ensure that no other family goes through what we have gone through.”

I’ve written about the grueling extradition process of these two men and the uniquely American extreme conditions of detention they faced once they arrived, two years ago, at Connecticut’s Northern Correctional Institute, the notoriously harsh facility that also houses death-row inmates. On Wednesday, after a decade of incomplete justice and what Ahsen called “the best possible outcome”, context was served.

Of course, Dick Cheney and lawmakers like Congressman Peter King would rather forget, but in the mid- to late ’90s, around the time a 19-year-old Ahsan made his pilgrimage to Afghanistan, thousands of British Muslims were making similar journeys to fulfill religious obligations. Those obligations were made more urgent by the Bosnian War, and so an 18-year-old Ahmad traveled to Bosnia to assist Muslims who were being slaughtered in Srebenica while the international community looked the other way.

The vast majority of these “holiday jihadists” did not become radicalized. They just got trained in the real meaning of jihad – “struggle”, not “holy war” – and returned home.

Now Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan finally face the prospect of going home earlier than jingoist prosecutors wanted them to – much earlier. Next time, let’s understand the broader context of the Muslim world – and the basics of our own justice system – much, much sooner than that.

Briton Babar Ahmad given 12-year US prison term for aiding Taliban

Ahmad, who could be freed in a year because of time served, pleaded guilty to providing material support to the Taliban

July 16, 2014

Babar Ahmad, the British citizen who was extradited to the US two years ago, has been sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for providing material support to the Taliban at a time when they were harbouring the al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Ahmad, 40, will be returning to the UK to serve the remainder of his sentence, which was issued by a federal court in New Haven, Connecticut. The 150-month sentence was substantially less severe than the 25 years US prosecutors had been seeking for him.

Judge Janet Hall also gave the Briton credit for the eight years he already spent in detention without trial in the UK, and the additional two years he has been held in solitary confinement in Supermax facilities in the US. The reduction for time served means that with good behaviour he stands to be released in 13 months.

He will now be sent to the metropolitan correctional center in Manhattan, before being eventually sent back to the UK, from where he was extradited in 2012.

Stephen Reynolds, addressing the court on behalf of the US government, had tried to secure a lengthy prison term for the defendant, on the grounds that he might reoffend. He alleged that Ahmad, through jihadist websites, had actively supported Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, and had shown no remorse.

But the judge pushed back on the accusations, pointing out in earlier hearings that even the government’s main co-operating witness had denied that Ahmad had helped al-Qaida. “Your own witness doesn’t support that. Fighting against US forces doesn’t necessarily equate to support of al-Qaida,” Hall said last week.

Ahmad pleaded guilty last December to providing material support to the Taliban and Chechen mujahideen by using websites to raise money, recruit fighters and provide equipment for the movements.

But his defence lawyer, Terence Ward, told the judge that only a few of the 4,000 articles he had posted mentioned the al-Qaida leader. The defendant was “horrified” by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he said.

The case was heard in Connecticut because Ahmad, and his co-defendant Syed Talha Ahsan, who has been released into the custody of US immigration officials pending possible deportation, used an internet service provider in the state to base one of their websites.

The sentencing follows the protracted battle Ahmad fought to avoid extradition to the US. In an article in the Guardian in October 2012, he argued that “as a British citizen who has lived since birth in Britain, studied, worked full-time and paid taxes, if I am accused of any offence here in Britain I expect at the very least to face trial here in Britain.”

He was awarded £60,000 in March 2009 as compensation for having been physically abused by Metropolitan police officers at the time of his initial arrest in December 2003.

French jihadists in Syria and Cyber-indoctrination

April 24, 2014 

Rising number of French nationals in Syria is more about teen angst than genuine religious convictions.

On April 23, the French government unveiled a dozen proposals aiming at limiting the number of French citizens travelling to Syria with the intent of fighting among Islamist radical groups. This text, which encompasses a large series of initiatives to reduce cyber-recruitment from violent “jihadist” movements, had been in the works for several months but became even timelier following the release of four French journalists kidnapped in Syria since June 2013. Part of the information discovered during the journalists’ debriefing was that several of the kidnappers spoke to the hostages in French and were likely French nationals fighting with radical groups in Syria.

The last few months have been marked by a surge of propaganda videos from exiled combatants originally from France or Belgium, posted online to attract new recruits. They showcase heavy military arsenal and the most horrendous crimes. It is estimated that between 500 and 700 of them have now joined the fighting in Syria, more than doubling their number over the last four months.

This phenomenon is not limited to France as every European country is concerned, but the new French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls – who developed the law proposal during his tenure as interior minister – is the first European head of government to implement a comprehensive legal and preventive arsenal against nationals leaving for Syria. This includes travel restrictions for minors out of French territory without parental authorisation, increased interaction between parents and police, judiciary measures against citizens “who have committed crimes in Syria… brutalities, acts of torture, acts of decapitation, or murder” and the dismantling of online jihadist networks usually targeting minors, following the model currently in place to fight human trafficking and pornographic material.

If the measures are reminiscent of those targeting child abductions and organised crime, it is due to the very young age of some of those “jihad candidates” which include some as young as 14 years old, who are motivated more by teenage angst amplified by violent video games than serious religious convictions.

Their knowledge of the conflicts in the Middle East is filled with biases and a desire for short-lived glory under the pretext of a religious war that most do not comprehend. Their understanding of Islam and the conflict in Syria is in most cases the result of a very recent indoctrination, devoid of any solid mastering of the holy texts and historical facts. This incongruity was reaffirmed by experts gathered at the Arab World Institute during the inauguration, on April 22, by French President Francois Hollande of an exhibition dedicated to the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Contradictory profiles

What is also striking is the fact that the profiles of those foreign combatants contradict most prejudices. While the populist extreme right party led by Marine Le Pen has, as always, been quick to link this phenomenon to the immigrant population in France from North Africa and the French policy towards Syria, testimonies prove the opposite.

According to the Centre de Prevention Contre les Derives Sectaires Liees a l’Islam (CPDSI), a research centre recently created by anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, a former member of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, most French nationals volunteering to fight in the so-called “jihad” in Syria are actually not originally from traditional Muslim families. Two-thirds of them have been raised in family circles that did not dispense any religious teaching with parents describing themselves as atheists, with 80 percent of them being French nationals for more than three generations. Only 20 percent of the “jihad candidates” were raised in traditionally Muslim families, most of them not attending Friday prayer services, while 80 percent of those indoctrinated are below the age of 21.

Additional statistics show that more than one fourth of the candidates come from Seine St Denis, one of the 100 French departments known for its high rate of unemployment and family breakdown. Far from representing a radicalisation of Islam in France, the increasing number of French nationals in Syria is an epiphenomenon resulting from the enhanced capacity of transnational groups to entrap weak minds who have been dejected by the lack of economic growth in France over the last decades.

French ideals of revolution

As Mathieu Guidere, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toulouse, puts it, the candidates for insurgency in Syria have to be analysed as a new wave of answers to the French ideal of revolution in which “each generation aims to wage its own”.

In the 1970s, dozens joined Fidel Castro or Che Guevara in South America against “American imperialism”. Yet today, in the absence of new revolutionary ideologies to counterbalance the often unegalitarian and ostracising meta-structure, armed conflict in the Middle East is perceived as the stage to wage one’s revolution.

Faced with this ideological vacuum, the idleness felt by the French youth and the surge of online indoctrination propaganda, the contributions of the French imams are essential to moderate the teaching of the Holy texts, confront the biased arguments of radical zealots and prevent the rise of terrorism inside and outside France. The problem is that the Muslim faith in France still suffers from its lack of institutionalisation.

The French model of secularism, which prohibits any collusion between religions and the French state, also prevented French governments from supporting the construction of much-needed mosques or financially contribute to the training of the Muslim establishment. This void has been easily exploited by transnational radical movements. The prevention and repression measures submitted by Valls’ government will only be effective if they are accompanied by additional support to the structuration efforts of the Muslim community.