A British Ex-Jihadist Reinvents Himself

Talha Ahsan once rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s foremost Islamists. Now an acclaimed poet, he wants Muslims to learn from his mistakes

A British Ex-Jihadist Reinvents Himself
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

By the time Talha Ahsan welcomed me into his home, more than six years had passed since his release from Northern Correctional Institute, a Supermax prison in Connecticut. Smartly dressed and well groomed, with a beard betraying shades of gray, he looked nothing like he used to. In one of his prison mugshots that can now be found on the internet, he stares out impassively at the camera; his hair is long and his beard unkempt, his clothing a standard-issue bright yellow prison uniform. The image fits comfortably with the media’s idea of a terrorist, but Ahsan has always defied convention.

Based on a simple reading of his life story, and that old photo, it would be easy to assume the worst of him. In 2013, he pleaded guilty in a federal court to charges of conspiring to provide support, and providing material support, to militants in Chechnya and Afghanistan. Earlier, he had drifted through war zones and rubbed shoulders with some of the word’s foremost Islamist ideologues, including a future leader of al Qaeda — experiences that helped him become an early bit player in the revolutionary world of online jihadism. He now lives in Tooting, South London, where I met him just after Christmas for a wide-ranging interview. It was clear from the start that our conversation would offer a remarkable insight into this thoughtful man and the brutal ideas he naively helped nurture.

Ahsan spoke quietly but warmly as he showed me into the terraced house he owns and partly rents out. There was a small office for a freight company at the front of the building and tenants occupied most of the rooms in the house. Ahsan keeps a sparsely furnished corner of the property for himself as a bedroom-cum-study. It was there that we settled down to talk. Books lined the walls, methodically organized and covering subjects from Arabic to psychology and history. Ahsan had even removed the bed to make space for more of them.

As a Ph.D. student at SOAS University of London and host of the Abbasid History Podcast, which has almost 5,000 followers on Twitter, Ahsan has plenty to keep his mind occupied. But it was soon apparent to me that he has no interest in living a quiet life on the margins of academia. Ahsan wants to use the lessons he has learned from his past, and the wrong choices he feels he has made, to ensure others do not commit similar mistakes. That is why he agreed to grant me a rare interview and open up on a number of sensitive subjects.

“It sometimes feels that the modern Muslim’s relationship with the past is hagiographic,” he told me. The right way forward, in his eyes, is “history, not hagiography.”

In his dissection of the events and ideas that have shaped his life, Ahsan focused much of his attention on Wahhabism, which he views as an aberration in Islamic thought and a pure distillation of the Islamic State group’s ideology. But even then his criticisms were not straightforward. He was deeply conscious of not wanting to play into any kind of sectarian agenda that might be used to pillory particular Muslim communities. Nor did he want to denigrate individual Wahhabis, including ex-prisoners, who might have embraced its austere and extreme teachings to give meaning and structure to their dissolute lives. In this and so much more, his views were layered and his words delivered carefully.

Ahsan does not talk to the media often and he agreed to meet me only because I am researching a book on the Islamist scene in London during the 1990s. While other figures from those days have rejected my attempts to document the past, Ahsan had already given me some of the paperwork from his court case and spoken to me on background before he agreed to go on the record last December. His decision to finally grant an interview struck me as odd until I went to his house and noticed a sheet of paper on his wall titled “Futuwwa or Islamic Chivalry: a Youth Code for Righteous Action.” As we chatted, it occurred to me that this long-lost Islamic tradition seemed to be a theme running through his life. Some of its principles are recognizable to any Muslim: be true to God, be truthful, aid your brother in distress, look after travelers. But point 31 seemed especially apt: “Always hold yourself accountable; check your behavior; repent from your sins and mistakes and constantly improve yourself.” I suspect that this same sense of self-reflection and desire for improvement compelled Ahsan to finally go on the record. He wanted to own his mistakes, rail against the historical revisionism prevalent among some of the more outspoken members of the Muslim diaspora and set an example for others. Ahsan stressed that his decision to speak out is “about taking responsibility for ourselves … and sorting out our own problems,” he said.

His role in the modern growth of violent international jihadism was relatively peripheral compared with the role of many of his peers. But he has come to understand that even his minor actions had major consequences. He refused to blame Babar Ahmad, his co-defendant in the long legal battle that preceded his extradition to the U.S., for his imprisonment. And even though I pressed him, he declined to name the men who facilitated the journeys he took to Afghanistan, which I will describe in more detail later. In his silence, Ahsan wasn’t adhering to some sort of jihadi omertà, he was following a chivalric principle encapsulated by Futuwwa. Indeed, it was this same belief in the importance of morality and honor that made the interview so challenging. Ahsan was constantly worried about betraying anyone because backbiting is regarded as a grave sin in Islam. As such he would talk carefully and methodically, as if he was constantly editing and calibrating his speech. Yet he still wanted to set the record straight and show the larger Muslim community that there are wolves in its midst.

Ahsan is in his early 40s now, the penultimate son of four siblings. His father, a retired civil servant and businessman, is from Calcutta but emigrated to Dhaka after Partition in 1947. His mother was a science graduate from the University of Dhaka who worked as a community worker and lab technician. They settled in the U.K. in the 1960s, with Ahsan growing up in a household that loved books and encouraged critical thinking. Unlike many British-Bengali families, where Islam is taught from the cradle, he was allowed to learn about the religion at his own pace and in his own way. While Ahsan has always considered himself to be a Muslim, he began to take his faith more seriously when he was 13. It was then that he discovered Wahhabism, which was very different from the Hanafi school of jurisprudence practiced by his family. He read the “Description of the Prophet’s Prayer” by Sheikh Nasir al-Din Albani, a seminal text for Wahhabis, and was keen to find similar work. A naturally obsessive and inquisitive character, Ahsan threw himself headlong into learning more.

Ahsan’s religious awakening came at the same time as a succession of global events that would ignite the global jihadist movement at the end of the 20th century: the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989, the 1990-91 Gulf War and, most important for Ahsan, the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict. By the age of 16, Ahsan was profoundly aware that Bosnian Muslim civilians were being slaughtered in a war that was just a two-hour flight from London. A little farther away, Chechens were sharing the same fate at the hands of the Russians. Ahsan felt duty-bound to help in their defense and, thanks to new communications technology, he realized he could do this without taking up arms. “My life is parallel to the growth of the internet,” he told me — neatly summarizing the coincidence that would prove to be his making and his undoing.

Ahsan joined “Upon Sunnah,” a Kuwaiti jihadist web forum and, later, “at-Tibyan,” a forum run by American, Canadian and British Islamists. But it was his involvement with the website and publishing house azzam.com that would transform his life. Azzam.com was more than just a forum for idealistic and bored youth to air their grievances — it sold hard copies of Islamist propaganda and was one of the first online news forums for jihadists. Named after the Palestinian jihadist ideologue, Abdullah Azzam, the site was aimed at encouraging Muslims to fight in God’s cause. It posted videos of insurgent operations in Chechnya and made heroes of militants who would otherwise have remained obscure, like the Saudi known as Emir Khattab. One of the most enduring audio tapes it marketed was the “Hearts of Green Birds,” about volunteer Muslim fighters who had died in Bosnia. Another VHS video, “The Martyrs of Bosnia,” closed with an image of Osama bin Laden — still a relatively unknown figure among the wider non-Arab Muslim community at the time.

Azzam.com was run by Babar Ahmad, a charismatic and intelligent Briton who had fought in Bosnia. Ahmad was far ahead of his peers in realizing the internet’s potential as a key tool for international jihadism. Back then, websites like his could operate freely and legally, meaning men could follow calls to arms with no real fear of arrest as long as they were fighting outside their own home countries. Ahsan was attracted to azzam.com after buying audio and video cassettes distributed by its activists in front of mosques in London. He then got involved directly, albeit in a small way, collecting mail orders for other impressionable young men from a P.O. Box address in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

As his involvement with the U.K.’s Islamist scene deepened, Ahsan began to look beyond the limits of virtual jihad. He was determined to go to Afghanistan, a land that had turned into something of a mystical utopia for Islamists ever since the mujahedeen’s victory over the Soviets in the 1980s. Too young to fight in Bosnia and Chechnya during the early 1990s, Ahsan sensed an opportunity to experience the fruits of combat under the first Taliban government. Even then, however, he did not rush recklessly ahead. Ahsan was wary of the Taliban because they were not Wahhabis, but he admired the society they were trying to create — a place where Muslims could live on their own terms. In the end, he gave them the benefit of the doubt. Ahsan had just graduated from Dulwich College, a prestigious public school in South London, when he decided to follow through on his idealism. Having deferred an offer to study for an Arabic degree at SOAS University of London, in 1999 he informed his family that he was traveling to Damascus to study there instead. From Syria he flew to Pakistan and crossed by bus into Afghanistan. Arriving in Taliban territory, he was immediately shocked by the poverty and harshness he found. But he was also impressed with the piety of the Afghans he met — even if their understanding of Islam was rudimentary at best. He journeyed from the border town of Spin Boldak to the outskirts of Kabul, settling in a guest house for foreign fighters at a base camp called al-Ghuraba. It was there that he came across one of the most important Islamist ideologues of the modern age.

Abu Musab al-Suri, or Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar, was a Syrian exile who had fled his homeland after the regime of Hafez al-Assad brutally crushed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. He lived in Spain and the U.K. before moving to Afghanistan. Compelling evidence has recently emerged to suggest that Suri was killed in 2011 in Saydnaya, the Syrian prison infamous for housing radical Islamists. But his influence on the global jihad was profound and Ahsan witnessed it firsthand in Afghanistan. While he didn’t know who the red-haired Syrian was, he soon found himself impressed by his intellect and foresight, regarding him as one of “the smartest people” he had ever met. “The guys I was with were very superficial in their knowledge, they almost had an aversion to knowledge and styled themselves as a vanguard,” Ahsan recalled. In contrast, Suri even talked to him and the other recruits about global warming. Ahsan had never met anyone quite like him. A Norwegian biographer of Suri, Brynjar Lia, gives a similar portrait of his beguiling personality. Suri had an encyclopedic memory, versed in literature, classical music, history, politics and sciences “far beyond the standard curriculum of an average jihadi,” he writes in his book “Architect of Global Jihad.”

Turning up at al-Ghuraba, Ahsan went to the tired-looking compound where Suri lived with his Spanish wife in a small house. Al-Ghuraba was used by aspiring jihadists as a training camp, but Ahsan found the drills he was put through “disorganized and haphazard,” often involving the shooting of a few handguns taught by a Kuwaiti known as Nasser Emirati. Suri, however, was not too concerned about the basic facilities; in his opinion, modern warfare required only a rudimentary understanding of weapons. The jihadist ideologue was more focused on indoctrinating recruits with what Ahsan described as his “grand vision for the Muslim world.” Suri wanted the Arab contingent to follow his more patient approach to armed jihad rather than be seduced by the immediate, spectacular results bin Laden sought. His vision was to stay loyal to the Taliban, using Afghanistan as a base to grow in strength before gradually unleashing terror in the West. In contrast, bin Laden seemed intent on buying the Taliban’s acquiescence as he pressed ahead with his own singular and short-term tactical aims.

Ahsan recalled an unnerving duality to Suri’s personality. He could be highly empathetic, showing concern for him by bringing him blankets when he shivered in the cold. Yet in his teaching he was utterly “indifferent to murdering ordinary people or setting forests on fire and all that kind of stuff.” Suri wanted to recruit criminals who were willing to kill indiscriminately, not public school conformists like Ahsan who were constantly worried about the morality of their actions.

Suri’s relationship with al Qaeda was complicated and tense. But necessity meant it was also cooperative, and he shared men and facilities with bin Laden’s group. The international jihad was not yet the fractious, diffuse movement it would later become, and there was a certain degree of solidarity even among these ideological and strategic competitors. For this reason, Suri sent Ahsan to Khaldan, an Afghan camp run by al Qaeda. Barely out of high school, the young Briton was getting sucked deeper into a disaster of his own making. In just a few years he had gone from being a delivery boy for an obscure jihadist website to a soldier of sorts training for battle under the guidance of a ruthless terrorist organization. Although he did not realize it yet, he was in over his head.

It is important to stress that Ahsan was never formally affiliated to al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, at Khaldan he was still glad to be somewhere that tested him physically. After all, he had come to Afghanistan for military training not indoctrination. The men in the camp were organized according to nationality. Most of the Arabs were Yemenis, while the emir wore his hair in braids and looked like the spitting image of Snoop Dogg. When he shot off a round into the Afghan mountains, it seemed to be his equivalent of gin and juice.

One day a friend of Suri’s turned up at Khaldan. His name was Mohamed al-Bahaiya, or Abu Khalid, and he would go on to play a significant role in the Syrian conflict as the co-founder of Ahrar al-Sham before being killed by the Islamic State group. But that was still far into the future. Back then, Ahsan felt an almost childish excitement about the prospect of experiencing combat, and he listened attentively as Abu Khalid asked if any of the men at Khaldan wanted to take part in an offensive against Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance commander leading the resistance against the Taliban. By this point in 1999, opinion about Massoud was sharply divided. Some jihadists believed he was a war hero who had betrayed them after helping the mujahedeen defeat the Soviets. Others thought he was an infidel. Young and desperate for a taste of war, Ahsan agreed to join the offensive on the town of Charikar, north of Kabul. The decision nearly cost him his life. Massoud lured the Taliban’s convoys into a trap, catching Ahsan and the other foreign fighters in the crossfire. A British Egyptian recruit was shot dead, with his blood and bits of brain splattering onto Ahsan. But even that did not shake him from the conviction of his cause. Ahsan felt a strange sense of serenity in the chaos of the retreat. Arriving back at Abu Musab al-Suri’s compound, he simply washed the bloodstains from his clothes and returned to the business of training for jihad.

After the debacle at Charikar, Suri sent Ahsan to Darunta, a camp situated on a dry river bed between Kabul and Jalalabad. There, he was received by Abu Khabbab al-Misri, a rotund Egyptian bombmaker operating a school for budding jihadists, assisted by his son. The training at Darunta was disorganized and exhausting; one of the most memorable aspects for Ahsan was being made to eat locusts which tasted like burnt potatoes. But there was a seriousness to the recruits that belied the sometimes amateurish exercises they were put through. At Darunta, Ahsan was able to spend time with men who would go on to become household names in the early years of the “War on Terror.” They included the likes of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker in the 9/11 plot, the shoe bomber Richard Reid and Saajid Badat, Reid’s accomplice turned informant. As they hung out together, Ahsan realized he had already met these men back in the U.K. Reid and Moussaoui had attended the Tooting Circle — an Islamic studies group for jihadists in South London — and mingled with the influential cleric Abu Qatada in North West London.

Out in Afghanistan, Reid in particular left a lasting impression on Ahsan. A petty criminal from London with English and Jamaican heritage, he had converted to Islam in prison. He went on to become radicalized at Finsbury Park mosque, under the tutelage of Abu Hamza al-Masri, another notorious British jihadist. Reid was one of the instructors at Darunta. Ahsan found him immensely intelligent, with obvious leadership qualities. He also had the kind of audacity that Suri so liked. Despite his lack of formal education, Reid was able in Arabic to teach recruits how to make bombs. However, Ahsan did notice that he was unable to write out the chemical formulas for the explosives correctly.

Looking back, Ahsan regards Reid as one of the most extreme figures he ever met. The shoe bomber had no hesitation about saying it was permissible for a Muslim to kill or rob his own father if he was an infidel; such acts could only be judged based on maslaha — whether or not they benefited fellow Muslims. But Ahsan told me Reid’s love of violence was a result of “the pernicious effects of Wahhabism,” not some kind of pathology. He drew a comparison between Reid’s behavior and a hardware problem on a computer, “meaning something’s been placed on your motherboard, which means you can never process information correctly until [it is] physically [removed].” In Reid’s case, he “went back to Islamic sources and particularly Wahhabi sources to justify these things.”

Ahsan returned to the U.K. in September 1999 to enroll for his university Arabic course at SOAS. Then, in July and August of the next year, he traveled to Afghanistan again, where he was to interview people for azzam.com. Ahsan wouldn’t say who assigned him to that role, but he was perhaps one of the first jihadist content creators of the social media age. On that trip, he traveled with another jihadist from Tooting, a pharmacist whose nom de guerre was Suraqa al-Andalusi. In comparison with Ahsan’s previous sojourn, this second visit was relatively uneventful. He again met up with Saajid Badat and Zacarias Moussaoui, who were mixing with the upper ranks of al Qaeda by then. Ahsan himself had a cup of tea with al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Kandahar. The Egyptian doctor was polite but standoffish, and took umbrage when Ahsan referred to the fight between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as a civil war. To Zawahiri, the Northern Alliance leaders were out of the fold of Islam and had to be subdued. If this hinted at Zawahiri’s ruthlessness, so did his reaction to one of al-Qaeda’s earliest attacks against an American target. On Oct. 12, 2000, jihadists rammed a skiff packed with explosives into the USS Cole, a U.S. Navy destroyer, in Yemen’s Aden harbor. The attack killed 17 American sailors, but Zawahiri was annoyed that the carnage had not been caught on film. The cameraman assigned to the task, it turned out, had overslept.

As he traveled around Afghanistan, it became clear to Ahsan that something even bigger than the Cole operation was being planned. At one point Andalusi told him, “Any moment now our brothers are going to do something,” and Kandahar and Kabul were buzzing with the rumor that a spectacular attack was imminent. Ahsan left Afghanistan without ever learning of the details of the 9/11 plot, but Andalusi stayed on and would later die fighting U.S. forces at Tora Bora.

Ahsan returned to his studies thinking little of what the “something big” might be until much later. His course at SOAS took him back to Damascus, where he spent a year. There, he stayed with Mobeen Muneef, another Tooting resident who would go on to achieve notoriety when U.S. forces detained him during the Iraq War for smuggling weapons to insurgents. In 2006, Baghdad Central Criminal Court, as a warning to aspiring jihadists, sentenced Muneef to 15 years in prison for visa violations.

Ahsan heard about the 9/11 attacks on the BBC World Service. The next day he saw a Syrian shawarma maker using his hands to imitate a plane flying into a gyro. He rushed to a café showing CNN to see the footage for himself. While Syrians seemed to carry on as normal, Ahsan was shocked. He understood the reasoning behind the attacks, but flying two planes into the Twin Towers went against his moral core and his chivalric spirit. He is convinced the attacks were not so much a reaction to America’s foreign policy but a product of Wahhabi teachings. “We often pay attention to the puddle on the floor, trying to wipe it, but forget the water leaking from the ceiling,” he told me.

Ahsan had already begun to drift away from jihadism when he returned to the U.K. in 2003, and for a time it seemed that his past might not catch up with him. He had finished his undergraduate degree at SOAS and started an MA in Linguistics when four coordinated suicide attacks hit London’s transport network on July 7, 2005. More than 50 people were killed. Then, just over a year later, on July 19, 2006, Ahsan was finally arrested. For the next six years he found himself in legal limbo. He and azzam.com founder Baber Ahmad were detained to comply with a U.S. extradition order, but neither man had done anything obviously illegal under U.K. law. Without facing charge or trial, they were kept in high-security prisons alongside Salafi jihadists like Abu Qatada and a friend of Abu Musab al-Suri’s, Abu Doha, who was linked to the 2004 Madrid bombings.

As the years passed, Ahsan became embroiled in one of the longest extradition cases in British history and a cause célèbre for critics of the “War on Terror.” Writers and academics like Noam Chomsky and A.L. Kennedy demanded a resolution to his case, and so did Sadiq Khan — then the member of Parliament for Tooting and now the mayor of London. Ahsan was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome; critics drew parallels between his treatment and that of Gary McKinnon, a Scottish systems administrator also diagnosed with Asperger’s. McKinnon had avoided extradition to the U.S. despite carrying out an enormous hack into American military computer systems to look for evidence of UFO activity. It was hard to believe that Islamophobia and racism did not play some part in the different way their cases were treated.

Ahsan and Babar Ahmad were eventually extradited to the U.S. in 2012, even after Ahmad received tens of thousands of dollars in compensation from the London Metropolitan Police for the violence and abuse officers subjected him to during his arrest. Both men were held in solitary confinement in a U.S. Supermax prison while awaiting trial. Rather than crack under the strain, Ahsan remained resolute. He spent his time behind bars translating Arabic texts, and in 2012 he won two Koestler Awards, one of them for his poetry collection “Grieving” and another for his poem of the same name. After his initial plea of not guilty to all charges left him facing the prospect of spending much of his life in jail, Ahsan understandably struck a plea deal for his release. He pleaded guilty to the charges of conspiring to provide, and providing, material support to terrorists, including funds and physical items. His sentencing judge, Janet Hall, acknowledged his relatively minor role as a jihadist, describing him as a mere “mail clerk for Azzam publications” with a “nonviolent … outlook in life.” Ahmad pleaded guilty to the same charges as Ahsan and both men were released between 2014-2015.

Ahsan’s story is one of resilience, reinvention and redemption. In many ways it is not so different to that of men throughout history who have made terrible mistakes in their youth and learned from them with age. But he is the first to acknowledge that his story should also serve as a warning about the continuing dangers posed by the fusion of violent Islamist ideologies, impressionable young minds and new information technology. The websites he used in the 1990s were forerunners of the slick media machine of groups like the Islamic State, marking jihadism’s early tentative steps toward becoming a global phenomenon in the English-speaking world. The 7/7 bombers in London read the literature their websites produced. So did the ISIS executioner Mohammed Emwazi — better known as “Jihadi John.” Ahsan did not kill anyone or advocate terrorism, but he was part of a group that created a fertile climate for the likes of Emwazi.

And so he returned to the U.K. in August 2014, shunning the media spotlight and trying to piece his shattered life together as he started on a new journey of chivalry that sits better with his bookish temperament. As he sifted through the Arabic texts on his shelves, it was clear that he is now intent on a different kind of struggle. Armed with a Ph.D. in Abbasid history, he hopes to be able to pour cold water on the Muslim community’s attachment to Wahhabi teachings and show that it is an aberration from normal Sunni practice.

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