When the US assassinated one of its own citizens, Imam Anwar al-Awlaki on September 30, 2011 in a drone strike in Yemen, the world celebrated as if one of the leading terrorist leaders of the world had been eliminated. With fewer figures available to fill the bogeyman vacuum that had been left by the murder of “al-Qaeda’s finest,” the US and UK governments were in a pickle. How could they now justify, in the midst of an economic crisis, the expenditure of billions of dollars on weapons and security related matters to their civilian populations without a villain, a fifth element, or a personality that could capture the imagination of the people? Enter Imam Anwar al-Awlaki. Writes Fahad Ansari…
For many years, Imam Awlaki had been openly preaching and delivering sermons and lectures in the US and UK. The topics of his talks were immensely varied, covering issues as diverse as death and the hereafter, stories of the prophets and the first khalifahs, explanation of the Qur’an, current affairs and jihad. His audiences were even broader with his message reaching Muslims across the sectarian dimension. His knowledge, mastery of the English language, eloquence and charisma coupled with his courage to publicly discuss the political affairs of the Muslims and jihad, rapidly raised his profile among Muslims and the authorities.
Since his assassination, Awlaki’s bogeyman legacy has lived on through the appropriately named Inspire magazine. This is an online publication released on a quarterly basis that is allegedly produced by members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and initially by Awlaki himself. The first issue appeared in July 2010. Security officials claim that the magazine’s articles glorify al-Qaeda, provide justifications for the use of violence and practical advice on how to carry out such acts — all presented in an appealing form that, in terms of production value, rivals anything you would find in a regular magazine found on a news stand. The magazine is aimed at young British and American readers and provides translated messages from Osama bin Laden.
This magazine has been given such importance by the authorities that to find it has been given the same sense of danger as the discovery of semtex and an explosives belt. The mere possession of a copy of the magazine has become synonymous with terrorism with numerous defendants being convicted in court for possessing it in hardcopy or electronic form.
In May 2012, a British teenager, Mohammed Abu Hasnath, was jailed for 14 months after he admitted to being in possession of Inspire on a computer USB memory stick. This month (January 2013), the case of a 26-year-old Muslim man, Afsor Ali, will continue. Ali is charged with possessing four copies of Inspire. There have been several arrests and convictions in the US and Australia of Muslims found in possession of the magazine. In February 2012, Christian Edme and Robert Baume, two German nationals, were sentenced to 16 and 14 months respectively after four editions of Inspire were found on their laptops.
The latest “terrorist” to be convicted for possessing this magazine was Ruksana Begum, a 22-year-old newly married woman who admitted having two editions of the magazine on a micro SD card on her mobile phone. Begum, who graduated with a first-class accounting degree, was convicted of possessing a document likely to be of use to a terrorist, contrary to section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Begum’s two brothers were convicted in February 2012 of plotting to blow up the Stock Exchange. Begum’s stated defence for possessing the magazines was to understand the background and ideology that led to her brothers’ incarceration.
The judge appeared to accept her defence saying there was nothing to suggest that Begum was herself involved in terrorist activity. He added: “Instead, this defendant, with other members of her family, was devastated by the arrest and later imprisonment of her brothers for serious terrorist offences. She is of good behaviour and a good Muslim. Against this background, I accept on the evidence before me that this defendant gathered together the contents of the SD card in order to explore and understand the charges which her brothers faced. There is no evidence that she was motivated by their ideology or was preparing to follow them.” Despite this, the judge said the material could have aided a terrorist and sentenced her to one year in prison.
And so a young newly married bride, freshly graduated from university with a promising career ahead of her, has been condemned to a life of suspicion and mistrust, despite her defence being accepted by the court.
Rukhsana Begum’s conviction is most worrying because it renders it completely irrelevant what the purpose or motivation behind having the documents is. Following her sentencing, Metropolitan deputy assistant commissioner Stuart Osborne, senior national co-ordinator of counter-terrorism, said: “The public should be in no doubt that Inspire is a terrorist publication with the ultimate aim of encouraging attacks. Today’s sentencing reflects the fact that possessing a copy of a terrorist publication is a serious offence. Anyone caught in possession of this, or any other terrorist material, can expect to be brought before the courts.” This has grave implications for researchers, academics, students and even lawyers who may possess the magazine for purely innocent reasons.
The UK has already witnessed gross miscarriages of justice where academics have been arrested for terrorism offences for possessing documents that are likely to be useful to a terrorist. In 2008, Rizwaan Sabir was researching terrorist tactics for a master’s degree at the University of Nottingham when he was detained under the Terrorism Act and accused by police of downloading an al-Qaeda training manual for terrorist purposes. Sabir had downloaded a manual from a US government website for his research which could be bought at WH Smith, Waterstones and Amazon as well as the university’s own library. After seven days and six nights in police custody, Sabir was released without charge or apology. Sabir eventually brought legal proceedings against the police for which he was awarded £30,000 compensation. In the years that followed, it emerged that the police had fabricated key elements of the case against Sabir but that his arrest continued to be mentioned in a report, cited and disseminated by the Home Office, called Islamist Terrorist Plots in Great Britain: Uncovering the Global Network.
The question inevitably arises that should Sabir be found in possession of a copy of Inspire, will he be prosecuted and convicted? The magazine is not that difficult to obtain. The US Northeast Intelligence Network: Pursuing the truth to preserve our nation hosted by an unofficial Homeland Security website makes available a pdf file of the entire January 2011 issue stating “This issue also contains instructions of various methods to destroy buildings, although all of the ideas and methods suggested was determined to be easily accessed on open sources. From a counter-terrorism prospective, the article provides specific insight into what various suspicious activities and items that law enforcement officers, landlords, building managers and ordinary citizens should be looking for.” The open access website says: “The Northeast Intelligence Network is making the issue available for download. Simply use your mouse to RIGHT CLICK here for the PDF file to save it to your computer.” The only warning given to internet surfers is that “This is a large file – 13 M.”
It is also possible to download several editions of the magazine from The Foreign Policy blog with no warnings against downloading them. However, it is unlikely that such organisations will be prosecuted for possessing and disseminating such literature. The situation may differ for Muslim think-tanks.
Essentially all of this is possible due to the manner in which Awlaki has been presented in recent years as an al-Qaeda leader of such influence that his words and writings or anything attributed to him, truly or falsely, need to be proscribed. The reality is that Awlaki was never an al-Qaeda mastermind that the governments made him out to be to justify his assassination. The point was explained in detail by the human rights group Cageprisoners in a report released on the anniversary of Awlaki’s assassination last September — Unnecessary and Disproportional: The Killings of Anwar and Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki. Among the documents obtained from Bin Laden’s base in Abbotabad was a letter which he wrote after the US Justice Department released a memo providing the legal justification to assassinate Awlaki. The letter in part read “How excellent would it be if you ask brother Basir to send us the resume, in detail and lengthy, of brother Anwar al-Awlaqi, as well as the facts he relied on when recommending him… and how excellent would it be if he gives us a chance to be introduced to him more…” What slight knowledge Bin Laden did have about Awlaki would most likely have come, ironically, through the media. As such, being a relative unknown coupled with lack of operational experience, Awlaki’s tasks, if any, were to be restricted to what he knew best. The communiqué continued: “…regarding what brother Basir mentioned relating to Anwar al-Awlaki, it would be excellent if you inform him, on my behalf in a private message to him, to remain in his position where he is qualified and capable of running the matter in Yemen.”
His “qualification” of course lay in his penchant for learning and imparting Islamic knowledge, not in planning and executing attacks on and off the battlefield. Another reason why Awlaki could not have been a senior al-Qaeda member is that although some of his views might have reached the leadership, the al-Qaeda leadership didn’t actually know what his vision was in any detail: “…thus I hope that brother Basir writes me his vision in detail about the situations and also asks brother Anwar al-Awlaki to write his vision in detail in a separate message…” Awlaki may have been recommended to Bin Laden for a role in al-Qaeda but not only was the al-Qaeda head unacquainted with Awlaki’s vision he was not convinced by recommendation alone regarding someone he knew next to nothing about. “How excellent would it be if you ask brother Basir to send us the resume, in detail and lengthy, of brother Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as the facts he relied on when recommending him…”
Awlaki is automatically associated with directing the Fort Hood shooting by US officer Nidal Hasan, the attempted Christmas Day “underwear bomb” by Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, and the cargo bomb plot. However, although direct contact can be proven between the perpetrators and Awlaki, there is no credible evidence from this correspondence to demonstrate that he had an operational role in any of the attacks. Consequently, the only offence that can be linked back to Awlaki is that he inspired these attacks. As a result, magazines such as Inspire that are allegedly linked to him, are also as dangerous as the man himself and therefore possession of such documents should be criminalised irrespective of one’s motive.
The spate of recent convictions is by no way indicative of the terrorism threat facing Britain at the moment. Nearly all defendants convicted of possessing Inspire have pleaded guilty rather than fight the charges with the incentive of getting a shorter sentence. After all reasonable excuse for possession of the document seems to be of little relevance now. However, without a full analysis of the nature of the magazine in court and why it is deemed dangerous, the future sadly looks like it will be filled with similar convictions like that of Rukhsana Begum, whether she was inspired or not.