Trying the Suspect or the Government? The Media’s Approach to the Trial of al-Qaeda’s Canadian Operative

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 25

Momin Khawaja in a courtroom sketch

In the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 raids on New York City and Washington D.C., the Western media thundered damnation at the governments of the United States and its allies for having failed to take seriously the growth in post-Cold War national security threats from transnational Islamist groups. The media mercilessly attacked the “group-think” of Western governments for their continued focus on threats from nation-states—Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, etc.—and their on-again, off-again concern with the threat from al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies. The media’s bottom-line was accurate: The fall of the Berlin Wall had not been recognized by Western governments as the end of reliable peace under the umbrella of Mutually Assured Destruction and that the 9/11 attacks made it plain that the relatively peaceful, largely predictable Cold War-era was over for good.

The media’s post-9/11 argument was an essential wake-up call to those wielding power in the West, but it appears, in retrospect, to have been ineffective. Washington and many of its allies continue to focus on nation-state threats—witness the war in Iraq and the apparently nearing war with Iran—while addressing the transnational Islamist threat symbolized by al-Qaeda half-heartedly as if they had time to end the threat at their leisure. The current situation in Afghanistan is proving the fallacy—and perhaps the fatal arrogance—of this time-is-on-our-side attitude and it seems unlikely that the Western governments see the coming disaster in South Asia. Tragically, much of the Western media have dropped the message of a world utterly changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and resumed the insular, anti-government attitude that characterized them during the Cold War, when they often described the actions of Western governments as more dangerous than Soviet actions and intentions.

A terrorism trial that opened in Canada on June 23 is providing an excellent example of the media’s unfortunate reversion—one which is also occurring in the American, British, Australian, and other Western media—from heralding the grossly underestimated transnational Islamist threat to its traditional attack-dog role vis-à-vis government actions and policies. The trial in Ottawa involves the prosecution of Momin Khawaja, a 29-year-old Canadian citizen of Pakistani descent, for his alleged role with al-Qaeda-related terrorists who plotted to detonate bombs made of aluminum powder and ammonium-nitrate fertilizer at pubs, shopping malls, and facilities for the distribution of gas and electricity in and around London (Canadian Press, June 24;, June 26). The plot was discovered by British security services; they dismantled it on March 30, 2004 in a counter-terrorism operation named “Crevice.” The subsequent trial in London resulted in five individuals—all of Pakistani descent—being found guilty on April 30, 2007 and jailed for life (National Post, June 24).

Momin Khawaja, a professional software developer, is accused of designing and building devices capable of using radio frequencies to remotely detonate the bombs the British group planned to use. After six months of surveillance by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Khawaja was arrested in late March 2004 at his parents’ home near Ottawa. The police seized 50kg of ammonium nitrate, three assault rifles, cartridges, knives, electronic circuitry, computer chips, parts for the detonators, and $10,300 in cash. Khawaja was indicted on seven terrorism-related charges, and has pled innocent to each (Globe and Mail, June 23; Canadian Press, June 24; Toronto Star, June 25).

The information presented by the federal prosecutor underscores the seriousness of Khawaja’s work, and the ardent role he apparently played in the plot:

• The detonators built by Khawaja, according to the RCMP, would have worked and could be operated reliably at a range of up to 300 yards in an open environment. Khawaja embedded signal jammers and encryption codes in the devices to prevent premature detonation (Globe and Mail, June 23).

• Khawaja traveled to Pakistan in July 2003 and received training on AK-47s, RPGs and a light machine gun at a camp in that country. While there, he provided about 1,000 British pounds and an unknown amount of Canadian dollars to an associate of Shaykh Abu Munthir, an al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan’s tribal region (Globe and Mail, June 23; CBC, June 30).

• Intercepted e-mails from Khawaja showed he was in contact with “a wide circle of Islamic extremists in the United Kingdom and Pakistan” (Reuters, June 24).

• Khawaja traveled to the UK in 2003 and 2004 to update the plotters on his progress with the detonators; to provide them with cash and to allow the group to use a home in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, owned by his family (, June 25).

• Khawaja was inspired by the words of Osama bin Laden and the deeds of al-Qaeda. He spoke of the “virtue of jihad” and at one point wrote that “Osama bin Laden was the most beloved person in the world” (National Post, June 24).

Beyond these specifics, Khawaja’s trial is notable for several reasons:

• The Canadian government’s most important witness is a former al-Qaeda member named Mohammad Junaid Babar, who is the first former al-Qaeda informer to testify openly in court. Babar was involved in the UK-based plot with Khawaja and was active with al-Qaeda in South Asia. He has been convicted of terrorism charges in the United States and is cooperating with the FBI. Babar also cooperated with British authorities in their successful trial and conviction of the London plotters (National Post, June 24).

• Khawaja was employed as a computer contractor in Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). He used a DFAIT computer to send e-mails to his associates in London; he used DFAIT credentials to travel to the UK; and he was considering the use of the department’s courier system to move the detonators to Britain (National Post, June 24). To date, open-sources have not said if Khawaja was passing classified Canadian data to his Islamist colleagues in Britain or to al-Qaeda.

• Canadian security authorities were unaware of Khawaja’s activities until they were informed by their British counterparts (, June 24).

While the Canadian media published these details, they have done so in a matter-of-fact manner and then quickly moved on to focus on the fact that Khawaja’s trial is “the first test case” of Canada’s 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act, which has been the target of several constitutional challenges. After only a week, for example, the trial is being described as having highlighted “a number of cumbersome Canadian criminal-justice procedures, [such as] protracted pretrial debates … [and] haggling over document disclosure.” Canada’s security services and court system have also been compared unfavorably with the FBI and the structure of the U.S. court system. Since 2004, moreover, the Canadian government’s prosecutors have abided by a gag-order requested by Khawaja’s lawyer and issued by the court. They kept pre-trial silence about Khawaja-related evidence to ensure a fair trial, but they are now being criticized for their prolonged silence because “society should have the right to know the blow-by-blow of such allegations much sooner” (Globe and Mail, June 23). The media have repeatedly highlighted the argument of Khawaja’s lawyer that Babar is testifying against his client to win a shorter sentence in the United States and that the case is largely composed of hearsay material. “The evidence is prejudicial and unfair,” the attorney said after the first day of the trial. “Ninety-five percent of Babar’s evidence against Mr. Khawaja is hearsay” (Canadian Press, June 24).

The media has augmented its criticism of the government’s legal modus operandi by using an inexplicably popular social-science theory that holds, in part, that the best way to defeat Islamist extremism is to understand the radicalization procedures through which young Muslims become violent and then to adjust existing legal systems to prevent this. Marc Sageman, an American social scientist who champions the commonsense-less approach to understanding the Islamist threat called the “leaderless jihad,” advances this argument as follows:

“The gag orders imposed on the media and authorities by the judiciary in [Britain, Canada and other Commonwealth] countries prevent the authorities from informing the Muslim community about the scope of the terrorist threat because the evidence against the subjects cannot be disclosed until the trials are over… The gag orders have contributed to broad public and especially Muslim skepticism about [terrorism cases]. The idea that the public can suspend judgment about such dramatic arrests as arrests and wait for three or four years to discover the evidence runs against human nature. The public fills in the gaps and this can potentially turn against the authorities” (Globe and Mail, June 23).

This argument seems to boil down to saying: “Damn the defendant’s rights to a fair trial, let’s amend centuries of proven and reliable legal procedures in order to test a trendy social science theory.” Realistically, no social science theory is needed to understand what radicalizes Muslims. Radicalization does not occur because young Muslims are alienated from society; have time on their hands because they are unemployed; are immaturely searching for fame and glory; or because of any other such glib psychological factors. Radicalization occurs, quite simply, because U.S. and Western foreign policies and their impact in the Muslim world are nearly universally assessed by Muslims as an attack on Islam and its followers. Thus, change policies and radicalization slows; change legal systems and chaos reigns in Western courts and radicalization continues without pause. An American historian once wrote of the great Protestant divine Cotton Mather: “When Mather comes in the door, truth flies out the window.” And so it might be said in paraphrase: “When the social scientists take charge of counter-terrorism, hope of victory flies out the window.”

In sum, much of the Canadian and Western media seem to be reverting to their pre-9/11 role as first and foremost critics of their governments. This is, of course, an essential and invaluable part of the media’s role in democratic societies, but it is not the whole of the media’s responsibility. By stepping away from the commendable, fire-bell-in-the-night role they played after 9/11 by describing how Western leaders had vastly underestimated the Islamist threat, the media have done their readers and countries a disservice. By resuming a tight focus on condemning, for example, the Canadian government’s prolonged silence about evidence against Khawaja; the UK government’s quest for a longer period in which terrorist suspects can be held; and the U.S. government’s admittedly bumbling, often disingenuous efforts to deal with the serious issue of what to do with prisoners of war who probably can never be released, the media is doing part of their job. They are, however, also causing readers to resume navel-gazing and become more focused on over-wrought, often-uneducated analyses of government misdeeds rather than on the growing threat in the West from educated Islamists, some of whom—like Momin Khawaja—have penetrated sensitive departments of Western governments, are detected only because of sheer good luck and are associated with or inspired by al-Qaeda.