Shiv Malik – The Gaurdian February 14, 2011
In November 2001 when Mohammed Junaid Babar made his television debut, it was clear what side he was on. “When the American troops enter we will kill them in Afghanistan,” he said. The tubby, bespectacled 25-year-old Islamist from Queens, New York, had flown out to Pakistan adamant that he was going to commit murderous treason. Staring into the camera, without any face covering, he told an ITN reporter: “There is no negotiation with Americans. When they’re coming in with the mindset to kill my Muslim brothers and sisters, I will do the same on the frontline. I will kill every American that I see.”
Babar’s chilling words, spoken with a New York twang, were broadcast around the world. His dedication to the cause of jihad could scarcely be doubted. Even though his mother, working as a secretary on the ninth floor of the twin towers, had only narrowly escaped with her life before they collapsed, he had determinedly flown out to Pakistan a little over a week later to do his “Islamic duty” and support al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Over the next 2½ years Babar met senior members of al-Qaida including its No 3, Abdul Hadi, and Omar Sheikh, the killer of US journalist Daniel Pearl, and provided them with money and equipment such as night vision goggles. He ran weapons, sent people into Afghanistan to fight US forces, planned to assassinate the president of Pakistan twice, and in summer 2003 set up a training camp in north-west Pakistan that provided lessons in bomb-making to young British jihadis including the leader of the 7 July cell, Mohammed Sidique Khan.
According to his own testimony Babar met Khan at Islamabad airport and took him to the training camp he had set up. There Khan learned how to fire machine guns, rocket-propel grenades and mix explosives – a crucial step towards making the London bombings the most deadly plot to have been carried out on British soil.
Now released after just a few years, Babar has paid a small penalty for his role in that atrocity. But, if allegations from a US terrorism lawyer are true, Babar may have been working for the US security services while pretending to be a jihadi – allegations that could imply serious failures to prevent the 7 July bombings. Babar’s story is the stuff of spy novels. One of the most dangerous home-grown Islamist terrorists the US has known was to become the world’s most formidable terror supergrass. Seemingly well embedded in the ranks of al-Qaida, in March 2004 he flew home to New York and moved back into his parents’ detached house in the Muslim area of Queens. US authorities have so far not explained why he was not placed on a no-fly list.
Instead, the official version of events records that a month passed before US authorities questioned him. As he walked to night school where he was training to become a taxi driver, three FBI and New York police agents asked Babar to accompany him to their car.
There was no shootout, no dawn raid, nor even a pair of handcuffs; just a tap on the shoulder. Instead of prison, the officers drove Babar to room 538 of the Embassy Suites hotel in downtown Manhattan. The two-bedroom suite had sweeping views of the Hudson river and was just blocks from the wreckage of the twin towers. Although he wasn’t under arrest, Babar almost immediately signed a document allowing his sworn enemy, the US government, to question him without a lawyer.
Five days later Babar began telling FBI agents everything he knew about his terrorist work, including highly detailed accounts of his dealings with dozens of jihadis around the world. As one lawyer who led a four-year investigation into Babar put it: “When Babar turns he gives the FBI extraordinary detail. Detail to the point where either you’d have to keep notes … or you have a photographic memory. It’s one of the two.”
Speaking for the first time on the condition of anonymity, law enforcement agent “A”, who stopped Babar on the street and subsequently spent over 500 hours debriefing him, described the five-day questioning session in the hotel as “very hard. Babar was very motivated … So he had a very hard time coming in and turning state’s witness. It wasn’t easy for him.”
On 12 April, two days after being formally arrested, Babar was brought in front of a judge at the southern district court in Manhattan, a dozen blocks from the hotel. The court document dealing with his appearance remains sealed but it is acknowledged that over the next eight weeks Babar hammered out a deal with prosecutors in which he agreed to act for the government and become its informant.
Then, until his release in December 2010, Babar spent the next six years flying around the world, helping to put nearly a dozen people behind bars in three countries and proving to be an invaluable asset. As district judge Victor Marrero heard from government representatives upon his release, Babar’s work as a supergrass was “exceptional” and “extraordinary. Mr Babar,” acknowledged Marrero, “worked with the FBI and foreign governments to assist in investigations of terrorism organisations, including al-Qaida, and of terrorist activities such as the London bomb plot … As a result of Mr Babar’s co-operation, multiple defendants were arrested, prosecuted, and eventually sentenced not just in the United States but in England and Canada as well.” Daniel Ollen, Babar’s defence attorney who is also speaking for the first time about the case, said that during Babar’s sentencing he had never seen a more glowing response from the government in 30 years of working in informant cases. “The government went to bat for Babar. They usually send a letter to the court, they remain mute, they say, ‘judge, we rely upon our submission’. But this prosecutor got up and told the court just how good a co-operator he was.”
In acknowledgement of his service Babar earned a dramatic reduction in prison time from a possible 70 years behind bars to “time-served” which amounted to just 4½ years, a good proportion of which was spent outside of the regular prison system as he testified in three UK trials and one in Canada. He has also spent the last two years out on bail, walking the streets of the US, settling into a new life under his real name. Ollen confirmed Babar was no longer in the witness protection scheme.
It is a remarkable outcome for a man once considered a highly dangerous terrorist, especially in a country frightened even by the security implications of terrorists being imprisoned and tried on American soil.
From lawyers, to police officers, to journalists, to his former associates, those involved in scrutinising Babar’s case agree his transformation from terrorist to the most successful jihadist supergrass of all time was amazing. But now, those people along with the families of those bereaved by the 7 July bombings, are beginning to ask if his story has been all too amazing.
For the many lawyers defending their clients against Babar’s accusations, there have always been glaring holes in Babar’s official story. The basic biographical details are not disputed. He was born in 1975, in Nowshera, north-west Pakistan, but moved to the US when his family migrated when he was two. He told a Boston Globe reporter that he grew up listening to the songs of Whitney Houston. He finished high school at Lasalle Military Academy, a Catholic school that by the mid-1990s had dropped all its formal military associations apart from an ethos of heavy discipline. After leaving Lasalle, Babar studied pharmacy at Queens-based St John’s University but dropped out after a year because, as he explained in one trial: “I didn’t see the point of finishing my education.”
A year before 9/11, Babar met and hosted British members of the radical British Islamist group al-Muhajiroun as they attempted to set up a US branch of the organisation led by the bombastic Sheikh Omar Bakri.
It is after September 2001 that Babar’s story begins to fray at the edges. What kind of person would fly to Pakistan to support the Taliban just after an al-Qaida operation nearly killed their own mother? As one lawyer in a 2006 British terrorism trial put to Babar while he was in the witness box: “Someone who does that either is so appalled by the acts of al-Qaida that they are going to go and spy for America on jihadis – or they are a very hardline jihadi indeed.”
There are also questions about how he was able to fly from the UK to Pakistan and then on to the US without being stopped or questioned, even though his ITN interview about killing Americans, which offered US security officials plenty of identifying details, had been syndicated on television stations around the world.
During the various trials at which Babar made an appearance, it was also revealed he was able to visit a US consulate in Pakistan many times and apply for a green card for the Pakistani wife he married while on jihad duty in 2002, without a question being asked.
Again, why on earth did he fly back to the US in 2004 without warning and for what purpose? Even descriptions of his character are contradictory. Agent A described Babar as “dedicated”, “motivated” and “fun” to be with. Former jihadi associates have described him as a bit slow-witted and “chronically lazy”, often skipping morning prayers to have a lie-in. Ollen said Babar was “very smart and engaging” but also “very difficult” and took a number of years to “mellow”.
One of those publicly asking questions about Babar is Khurrum Wahid, one the most experienced terrorism lawyers in the US. Wahid has run more than a dozen terrorism cases since 9/11 and believes that Babar’s story does not add up. Four years ago he was given the brief of defending a client against Babar. Going through thousands of secret documents, he said that alarm bells began ringing when he read the sealed notes from the hotel questioning session.
“The notes of that discussion did not read like he was pressured all that much. I have a lot of clients that have gone through a lot worse and still held out more than Junaid did. If on the one hand you claim to be this hardcore jihadist … that doesn’t mesh with flipping after five days in a hotel in New York with a couple of FBI agents. It’s not like you were having your nails pulled out in Pakistan … he seemed to be rolling over really quickly.”
In testimony, Babar acknowledged he wasn’t “under pressure” from the FBI. They provided him with a toothbrush and change of clothes, and Babar spent most of his five days at the hotel lying in bed or watching TV.
Wahid also said it had never been explained why Babar flew back to the US to start a new life as a taxi driver a few months after meeting one of al-Qaida’s highest-ranking operatives. “To me the weirdest action is you go on TV and you say you’re a supporter of al-Qaida then you deliberately get on a plane at the height of the anti-terror scare in the US and fly into New York City. It just makes no sense to me at all. For what? To get caught.”
Getting caught is exactly what Hassan Butt, a Manchester jihadist who spoke to Wahid, says Babar wanted to happen. Butt and Babar were once close friends. They met at al-Muhajiroun’s offices in Lahore, Pakistan, when Babar arrived just after 9/11. Butt introduced Babar to the British reporter from ITN and helped set up that first interview. Butt also gave the same reporter on-the-record interviews about his desire to get involved in the jihadist struggle.
Butt and Babar worked in the al-Muhajiroun office to help process people as they arrived there to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Between 2002 and 2004, as Babar flew back and forth from the UK to Pakistan while plotting terrorist activity, he stayed at Butt’s house in Manchester. The pair kept up their association until Babar’s arrest.
As with all his other former radical Islamist friends, Babar also turned against Butt. In 2007 Babar gave Greater Manchester police a lengthy statement about Butt’s activities indicating that “Butt was heavily involved in terrorist activities while in Pakistan and in the UK”. However, unlike others accused by Babar, Butt would never be charged.
While Wahid was investigating Babar on behalf of his client, he went to see Butt in the UK. After a lot of questioning, Butt told him about a pact he and Babar had allegedly devised as a way of getting out of Pakistan. In mid- to late 2002, Butt said, the pair had become disillusioned with their work for al-Muhajiroun. They believed that the British Muslims who had arrived in Pakistan to fight jihad had very little idea about what they were doing. The office was totally disorganised, people were using money raised for jihad for their own personal purposes, and young British jihadists were getting killed in Afghanistan for no real end.
Butt and Babar wanted to get out but since they had both given public TV interviews, there was no way of reintegrating themselves into normal society. So they decided that they needed some other way of extracting themselves.
“Hassan and Junaid get disillusioned to the point of trying to figure out an exit strategy that is still lucrative, that would still give them, for lack of a better term, a career,” said Wahid.
Wahid said they came up with a plan to sell themselves to the intelligence community in the UK and the US and perhaps then go on to become pundits on television or in the media. But before they did this they attempted to build up their credibility and so they became more deeply involved within the network of British and foreign jihadists in Pakistan. “Hassan told us that [from around late 2002] his plan was to posture and pretend to be something big and come back and somehow become a part of intelligence.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Butt refuted any suggestion he intended to get people in trouble. He said that “it was a money-making scam. Like myself, [Babar] wanted to get out because we realised that we’d put our necks on the line. We both wanted to get out and we thought we’d make the best out of a bad situation.” Around late 2002 or early 2003, Butt said he turned to MI5 in the UK and not only began to tell them about himself, but also about Babar, as Babar had himself requested.
“Junaid said look, if you meet the British, make me out to be some big jihadi player,” said Butt.
Butt said Babar’s training camp where the 7/7 cell leader experimented with bomb-making, was all about furthering this end of “building himself up”. When it was time for Babar to turn himself in to the security services, he could show that this was how serious a player he was. It had little to do with global jihad. After Butt himself began co-operating with the UK security services in late 2002, Butt said he did not then discuss with Babar what he would do but assumed that Babar’s trips to the US consulate in 2003 were part of his work with US agencies. However, Butt added, the plan “never involved trying to get people in trouble. Junaid did [get people in trouble] and I never, that’s the difference”.
The line from Babar’s sentencing last December, in which the judge spoke about Babar’s co-operation with US authorities, “even before his arrest” seems to back up this suggestion. Wahid said that version of events was backed up by confidential emails between Butt and Babar, the content of which he is unable to fully reveal due to the US’s classified information procedures act.
What he can say is this: “There were email communications between them that seemed inconsistent with what Junaid is saying with the whole group. So he’s talking to the whole group about, you know, that about him staying in Pakistan, saying, ‘burn them all’. But communications he’s having with Hassan are more along the lines of, ‘I want to get married and get back to the US’. So it just didn’t match.” Until his client pleaded guilty last spring, he was planning to put Butt in the witness box. This new narrative – that Babar had secretly begun co-operating with the US authorities long before his return to New York – would help explain why Babar, despite all his public notoriety across television networks, was able to get on planes without being stopped by the UK or the US.
It would also explain how in 2003-04 he was able to apply for a green card for his wife in his own name without being arrested or questioned. It might also help to explain how the information he gave US prosecutors was so detailed. If he knew he was going to turn himself in he would be far more likely to keep notes and register specific information.
The police convoy sped through the streets of London towards to the Old Bailey. Outriders cleared the roads and a police helicopter kept watch in case agents of al-Qaida tried to take their revenge. Inside one of those police wagons, handcuffed to an FBI agent, was the star witness in the 2006 Crevice trial, in which six defendants were charged with planning to blow up a shopping centre and nightclubs.
For more than three weeks in 2006, Babar spoke from the witness box and explained to the world that six of his former associates were guilty of plotting an attack that could have killed hundreds had it not been stopped. If the allegations about Babar’s real provenance turn out to be true Babar’s credibility in that trial and others would be thrown into doubt.
Lawyers close to the 2006 trial believe that these questions about Babar, including the admission from the sentencing judge that Babar had co-operated with US authorities before his arrest, could result in at least one conviction going straight to appeal.
But most important are the implications for the families of the bereaved of the London bombings.
Graham Foulkes, a magistrate from Greater Manchester, lost his 22-year-old son David on 7 July, when Mohammed Sidique Khan detonated his rucksack full of explosives. That Babar could have been working with US authorities before 2004 has left him feeling “horrified” and “unwell”.
Foulkes added: “There’s a hint from one or two of the sentences that do strongly suggest the co-operation was going well beyond his official arrest. And it looks as if the Americans may well have known in detail what Babar was up to in Pakistan [at the time] and that is a very, very serious matter. I’m really horrified and upset. It seems to me that the Americans were tacitly supporting a major international terrorist who set up and ran a training camp which Khan attended. Khan then went on to kill my son and [the cell] went on kill dozens and seriously injure many, many people.”
Those questions about whether Khan, the 7/7 cell leader, should have been identified and arrested well before the bombings will be asked during the next phase of the 7 July inquest beginning this week.
What is publicly acknowledged is that Babar knew the bomber Khan by the pseudonym “Ibrahim”. He gave US and British law enforcement information about Ibrahim years before the fateful day in London, including that Ibrahim was from West Yorkshire.
However, when law enforcement agents showed Babar a surveillance photo of Khan, Babar could not identify him and the connection between Ibrahim and Khan was not made until after 7 July when pictures of Khan appeared in the press. When it comes to answering new questions about Babar’s possible earlier involvement with US intelligence, there is a shroud of silence.
Asked whether Babar was working for the US government before April 2004, the official response is “no comment”. Even those previously willing to talk about the case suddenly become reticent and terminate conversations. Twenty-two documents out of 30 on the public court docket remain sealed even though Babar has been sentenced. One US official stated that these court documents are likely to remain sealed “forever”. A further 25,000 pieces of documentary evidence relating to the wider case remain classified.
When the office of Judge Marrero was asked to clarify what he meant by his remark that Babar had co-operated with US authorities “even before his arrest”, it refused to comment. When the US attorney’s office was given a list of 11 questions about Babar’s activities including if he had ever worked with US authorities before his detention, its first response was: “Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there’s any additional information in the public record that we can give you to help you with these questions.” When asked further questions over the phone, the response was again a long silence followed by “no comment”.
When agent A was asked whether Babar had co-operated with the US authorities before his arrival in the US in 2004, he replied: “I know I’m being elusive but I really can’t speak about this stuff. I mean, not without the authority of the government. And I could really help you out but I don’t know what’s proper to be released.”
When agent A was asked whether Babar gave enough information about Khan for the intelligence community to identify him well before the London bombings in 2005, he said: “It’s not that I don’t have that information, it’s just that I can’t answer that question.”
When these same questions were put to Daniel Ollen, he replied that he was unlikely to know the truth of the matter. “They don’t clue the defence attorney in on a lot of it, especially if you’re not going to trial. If you go to trial you’re privy to a lot of the secrets. But when you’re co-operating from the get-go, you don’t get discovery,” he said.
Foulkes believes that the foreign secretary, William Hague, should meet the families. “The foreign secretary has a duty to intervene now on behalf of us to try and get to the heart of this,” he said. Foulkes also believes that the terms of reference of the inquest are too narrow to deal with such questions and thinks that it should be suspended while they are re-evaluated.
“You can never describe how losing your son in such circumstances feels. To know that [it was] at least potentially preventable if the Americans had been more co-operative with sharing this information [from Babar] really is very sickening … We should consider suspending [the inquest] because the scope is too narrow [to deal with] this alarming new information.”
There is of course one person who knows the definitive truth, Babar himself. His defence lawyer said he did not know of his client’s whereabouts. “I have intentionally stayed ignorant of all that … I don’t want to know. Wouldn’t you want to know where a mafia was? No. If somebody puts a gun to my head, I go, ‘I don’t know where he is’.”
At Babar’s family house – a small, wooden, detached home, on a street not far from the subway in Jamaica, Queens – Babar’s cousin, who said she was house-sitting for Babar’s mother while she was in Pakistan, said she did not know where Babar or his wife were.
The trail is not entirely cold. A few months ago as he was being sentenced Judge Marrero invited Babar to add a few words. Almost a decade later, he was no longer the man who proclaimed death to Americans, steadfast in his hatred and objectives. Instead he was full of regret, and voiced more conventional ideas about his future.
“I take full responsibility for my actions in the past, and I have no one to blame but myself for the current predicament. I have also learned that I might disagree with some people. But it doesn’t mean that I have to turn to violence … As far as my decisions in the past, I can’t go back and change them. I regret the decisions that I made. Hopefully in the future I can just finish school and stay with my family.”