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The Terrorist That Wasn’t
Talha Ahsan was today sentenced in a federal court in Connecticut for terrorist acts committed in and against the United States. This despite having never set foot on American soil until he was extradited from the UK in 2012. Federal District Judge Janet Hall sentenced Ahsan to time served, surprising family and friends who had gathered at the New Haven courthouse, and perhaps also the U.S. government, which had requested 15 years.
Time served is a significant sentence, however, since Ahsan has spent a full eight years without a trial in prisons on both sides of the Atlantic. He will be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported to London, where he will be free. His co-defendant, Babar Ahmad, received 12½ years, of which he has already served ten.
Ahsan, 34, a British citizen of Bengali descent, is an award-winning poet, a scholar and translator of medieval Arabic writing. He has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. He was raised by immigrant parents who were practicing Muslims, but not unusually devout. As a young man he became engrossed in the history and teachings of Islam, including the concept of jihad—the religious duty of Muslims to “struggle in the way of Allah.”
In 1999, when he was 19 years old, Ahsan travelled to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where he was reportedly something of a washout in military training. He later briefly did administrative work for an Islamic fundamentalist website run by Babar Ahmad.
According to his family, Ahsan’s interests shifted toward Sufism, a mystical, contemplative aspect of Islam. He was planning on pursuing an advanced degree in philosophy and had applied for a job as a librarian in July 2006 when he was arrested at his family home in London by Scotland Yard, at the request of the United States government.
What happened next is a study in America’s ability to ride roughshod over Europe’s sovereign governments and its international human rights apparatus. It also showcases the U.S. justice system’s willingness, in its prosecution of terrorism cases, to rewrite history, distort Islam, inflate evidence, and manufacture threats where they quite clearly do not exist.
Although the fundamentalist web operation for which Ahsan worked, Azzam Publications, was based in London, it briefly utilized a server in Connecticut. This fact was key to the extradition of Talha Ahsan, who had never been to the United States.
Also key was the existence of a 2003 treaty between the U.S. and the UK, which made it possible to transport Britons to the United States to stand trial without any prima facie evidence. In fact, the UK apparently lacked enough evidence to convict Talha Ahsan of anything under British law. But it also ordered his extradition to America, where standards were likely to be less exacting.
The case was appealed to the High Court of England and Wales, to the House of Lords, and finally to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which simultaneously considered the extraditions of four other terrorism suspects, including the far more notorious Abu Hamza. Under consideration by the Court was whether conditions in the U.S. supermax prisons where the men were likely to be held, violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Convention clearly prohibits prisoners from being tortured or subjected to “cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.” And the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, has stated that “indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement, in excess of fifteen days, should be subject to an absolute prohibition.” But despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the ECHR accepted a series of grotesque misrepresentations from the U.S. government claiming that life in an American supermax was not really solitary confinement, and not really all that bad.
Meanwhile, the extradition aroused controversy in the UK, where resistance was spearheaded by Talha Ahsan’s younger brother, Hamja. Some opponents saw it as evidence of the vilification of the British Muslim community—especially after the UK refused to extradite accused military hacker Gary McKinnon, who was also diagnosed with Asperger’s. Other opponents felt it threatened national sovereignty, and demanded “British justice for British citizens.” At one point, Parliament went so far as to debate the matter and the underlying extradition treaty.
But other Britons no doubt concurred with the Daily Mail, which described the Muslim terrorism suspects as “unwanted guests” despite the fact that several were British citizens. The Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron–and especially his Home Secretary, Theresa May, who signed the extradition order—apparently agreed. “Wasn’t it great to say goodbye – at long last – to Abu Hamza and those four other terror suspects?” May said at a Conservative Party Conference days after Ahsan left Britain for the United States.
At the time of his extradition in October 2012, Talha Ahsan had already been held for more than six years in high security prisons in England. He was closely watched, but was permitted to congregate with a small number of other prisoners, and had weekly visits from his parents and brother. He passed the time by reading mostly English literature, translating Tenth Century Arabic poetry, and writing poetry of his own—including a sonnet to Teresa May and a sestina called “Extradition,” which begins:
Five years ago they brought me to a cell
and ever since a waiting game plays here.
As they decide on sending me away,
my parents grow so grey and sad at home.
How will they manage visiting me there
or must they wait until the end of time?
In the United States, although a federal prisoner, Ahsan was housed in Northern State Prison in Connecticut—the state where the server that had housed Azzam.com was located, and where he would presumably be tried. He was in solitary confinement—23 hours in a cell alone, with one hour to exercise alone—but unlike many supermax prisoners, he was permitted to call his family. According to his brother, he has written another volume of poetry while in solitary.
Talha Ahsan was by no means the first Muslim terrorism suspect to be held in solitary confinement while awaiting trial. Opponents of the practice point to evidence that solitary is a form of torture that leads to psychological anguish and breakdown, and argue that it becomes a form of coercion, pressuring the accused to agree to a plea bargain.
The track record of terrorism trials in post-9/11 America—where the accused are virtually always convicted, and sentences are harsh—also weigh in favor of plea bargains. On December 10, 2013, Talha Ahsan pleaded guilty to offering “material support” to terrorists.
The sentencing memo provided by Talha Ahsan’s defense team also notes: “Throughout these proceedings, the government has insisted that Mr. Ahsan’s case is about ‘jihad’”—defined as “the use of violence including paramilitary action” against perceived enemies of Islam. Ahsan’s defenders assert that the broader definition of jihad, as simply a religious duty to struggle that takes many forms, applies in his case.
Ahsan came of age in the 1990s amid news of the genocide in Bosnia where Muslims were attacked and killed by foreigners on their own soil, right in Europe itself. He believed, according to the sentencing memo, that “Islam requires adherents to prepare oneself for the possibility of self-defense and the defense of others.” In pursuit of this goal, he joined several thousand British Muslims in traveling to Taliban-led Afghanistan for training—an act that was, at that time, not illegal under UK law.
Ahsan’s presence in Afghanistan—and that of many other “holiday jihadists”—was reported by an informant. But by all accounts he was a terrible military trainee, and returned home chastened, convinced that violence, even in self-defense, was “not his jihad.” Ahsan never had any contact with Al Qaeda on this or on a second trip to Afghanistan in mid-2001 for study, which was cut short when he became ill. And in fact, Ahsan was indicted for nothing having to do with the trips to Afghanistan.
Instead, all charges stem from Talha Ahsan’s work for Azzam Publications. The family of web sites was named for Abdullah Azzam, an Islamic scholar from Palestine and a major figure in the battle against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, which he considered a jihad. It was operated in large part by Babar Ahmad.
According to the sentencing memorandum, “Mr. Ahsan played a minor role in the operation of the website…Mr. Ahsan never edited, proofread or in any way contributed to the content placed on the websites.”
He was one of the website’s “mailmen” for only six months, between March and August of 2001. That was the beginning and the end of his involvement with the website. The website offered books and videos for purchase. Some of the books – like those written by Abdullah Azzam – were widely available in libraries and bookstores, including the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies. Some of the videos provided a perspective on the Second Chechen War that was not featured in mainstream media. Those accessing the website could print out an order form and mail it to a Post Office box. Mr. Ahsan’s sole job was filling the orders. He was provided with a box of Azzam Publications materials, envelopes, and postage, and provided instructions on how to proceed: send the customers what they ordered and save an electronic copy of any written correspondence sent to the mailbox.
Many other volunteers also worked for Azzam, and they were duly investigated, but never charged. “What separates Mr. Ahsan from the many known individuals with far greater responsibility for the website, its contents, and its message is that he—unlike any of them—received a letter sent to Azzam Publications post office box by a man calling himself ‘Hassan Abu-jihaad.’”
This was a letter that arrived out of the blue in the mail box which “purported to describe the port of call schedule of a group of US naval ships sailing from the United States to the Persian Gulf.” No one has claimed that the letter was solicited. It is clear that Ahsan received the letter “in the normal course of his limited duties as a mailman.” He typed it up and saved the file on a floppy disc, but “nothing was ever done with the electronic document. It was never, in any way, disseminated.”
According to the memo, “It is undisputed that Ahsan did not in any way aid or encourage Hassan Abu-Jihaad to break the law and, moreover, his actions were neither intended to nor led to any harm whatsoever.” Abu-Jihaad was a naval officer sending out classified material, and was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison—less than the 15 years the government sought for Talha Ahsan.
Beyond the handling of the naval letter, Talha Ahsan is supposed to have provided “material support”—a catchall charge that resurfaces again and again in federal terrorism cases. This took place through his clerical work at Azzam, which supported and encouraged other to support not only the Taliban, but also for Muslim independence fighters in the Second Chechen War.
Richard Haley, a British activist, points out in his introduction to a booklet of Ahsan’s poetry: “The British government has never branded the Chechen separatist forces as terrorists. No Chechen separatist group has been place on Britain’s list of proscribed organisations.” A Chechen resistance leader is based in Britain and the British have blocked his extradition demanded by the Russians. “If the leader of the Chechen resistance can operate from Britain, how can it be criminal for a British citizen to show support for the Chechen resistance?’’ asks Haley.
In fact, the Chechen separatists became something of a cause célèbre in the early 2000s among American neo-conservatives, who hoped support for the rebels might result in a further diminution of influence of the former Soviet Union.
As for Afghanistan, throughout the 1990s the Pakistani secret service, the ISI supported the Taliban, and the United States generously supported the ISI, providing Pakistan military aid and intelligence. As late as June 2001, unofficial representatives of the Taliban traveled freely about the United States, speaking in public and soliciting support from the State Department in return for which they promised to turn over Bin Laden.
Nothing that Talha Ahsan is accused of doing took place after September 11, 2001. Nothing he is accused of doing had anything to do with Al Qaeda or with any act of terrorism against the United States or U.S. citizens.
Talha Ahsan seems to have encountered one piece of good fortune in his dealings with the U.S. justice system—a reasonable judge. In most similar cases where defendants are accused of providing “material support” to terrorists, judges have handed down the sentences requested by the government, or even longer ones. For example, Fahad Hashmi, an American college student who pled guilty to conspiracy to provide material support, got 15 years. His crime consisted of allowing an acquaintance to stay in his apartment with suitcases containing socks and rain ponchos meant for Al Qaeda.
Judge Janet Hall, appointed by Bill Clinton, is Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court in Connecticut. In a pre-sentencing hearing yesterday, she questioned both the U.S. attorney and the defense team sharply regarding the actual evidence that Ahsan, via Azzam Publications, had provided material support to terrorists. (At one point, the government pointed out that “Azzam.com published bin Laden’s declaration of war.” The judge replied, “So did the New York Times.”)
Hamja Ahsan, who has devoted the past eight years of his life to his brother, said after the sentencing, “the judge exposed both the U.S. and British governments as liars. There was no evidence of any terrorism.”
James Ridgeway and Jean Casella are co-editors of Solitary Watch (www.solitarywatch.com).