e-Qaeda: The Rise of a Radical Webmaster
Briton Used Internet As His Bully Pulpit
Monday, August 8, 2005
Second of three articles
LONDON -- Babar Ahmad, a 31-year-old computer whiz and mechanical engineer, was hailed as a big catch by U.S. law enforcement officials when he was arrested here one year ago on charges that he ran a network of Web sites that served as a propaganda and fundraising front for Islamic extremists, including Chechen rebels, the Taliban militia and al Qaeda affiliates.
Since then, Ahmad has been locked up inside British prisons as he fights extradition to the United States. But the imprisonment has done little to silence the British native of Pakistani descent. Rather, it has given him an even bigger megaphone as he continues to churn out anti-American manifestos and post them on the Web, turning him into a minor celebrity in Britain.
His case shows how a well-educated engineer operating in London could allegedly use the Web to project a message of Islamic extremism to a global audience. While an earlier generation of radicals might have led protest rallies, Ahmad found a way to make the Internet his bully pulpit, magnifying al Qaeda's reach far beyond the handful of radical mosques that had previously propagated Osama bin Laden's message.
Since his arrest, Ahmad, working through relatives and other supporters outside prison, has created a simple but polished Web site, www.freebabarahmad.com/ , to drum up publicity. According to the site, more than 10,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the British government to block his extradition. Hundreds have appeared at public rallies. The BBC aired an entire documentary about efforts by Ahmad's elderly father to secure his release, titling the show, "A Terror Suspect's Dad."
In his bid to avoid prosecution, Ahmad has relied on the technical and communications skills that U.S. prosecutors said he honed for a decade as a pioneering webmaster for Islamic extremist causes. He has also cultivated the support of others who see the Internet as a potential equalizer in what they describe as a battle between Muslims and the West.
"The war is not just a legal war or a military war, but it's an information war and you've got to fight it through the press and the Web as much as anything else," said Bilal Patel, a spokesman for a British Web site called Stoppoliticalterror.com, which has publicized Ahmad's case and worked on his behalf. "The most effective military jihad these days is to use the Internet to spread your ideas, and to use the power of words."
Today, portraying himself as an innocent victim, Ahmad has generated sympathy by arguing that extradition to the United States would violate his rights as a British citizen. Playing to widespread misgivings over the Bush administration's tactics in its self-proclaimed "war on terrorism," he has predicted that he will wind up at Guantanamo Bay or on death row if he is handed over to the Americans, even though the U.S. government has pledged otherwise.
"I know, and God knows, that I am not a terrorist and that I have not done anything wrong or illegal," he wrote in January. "We live in an era where countries go to war, destroy homes, create orphans and kill thousands of people, based on reasons that turn out to be lies. Do you think that it is beyond such people to imprison a handful of individuals based on lies? They are capable of anything."
A Savvy Recruitment Tool
In late 1996, while a 22-year-old undergraduate at Imperial College in London, Ahmad launched a Web site dedicated to promoting Islamic fighters in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan, according to U.S. federal prosecutors. Dubbed Azzam.com, in honor of Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who served as bin Laden's spiritual mentor, the Web site rapidly became a prominent and influential English-language platform for Islamic militants.
According to U.S. prosecutors and terrorism analysts, Ahmad enabled radical jihadists to deliver their message to a global audience by connecting to Azzam.com and several of his sister Web sites, including Qoqaz.net and Waaqiah.com. Although the sites were shut down in 2001 and 2002, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the United States, Justice Department officials trumpeted his arrest by British police last August as a major victory in their efforts to target tech-savvy Islamic extremists.
Ahmad's azzam.com catered to English speakers, featured snazzy graphics and couched its radical politics in a moderate tone by posting firsthand news reports from amateur correspondents around the world. International news organizations, including the BBC, often cited dispatches from Azzam.com and its sister Web sites when reporting on events in Chechnya and Afghanistan.