In a trial that passed with remarkably little fanfare last December, a jury in Manchester, England, convicted Rangzieb Ahmed and Habib Ahmed (no relation) on charges of being members of al-Qaeda. In a released statement, the Crown Prosecution Service described Rangzieb Ahmed as “an important member of al-Qaeda and in a position to direct some of its activities.”  Detective Chief Superintendent Tony Porter of the Greater Manchester Police went further, describing Rangzieb as “a very dangerous man,” whom he believed “was intent on masterminding terrorist attacks and would have considered mass murder part of his duty” (BBC, December 18, 2008).
By his own account, Rangzieb Ahmed was detained by security forces in Haripur in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province on August 20, 2006. For the next six months Rangzieb claims he was tortured in a Pakistani detention center and questioned by British and American officials.  At around the same time, in the northern English city of Manchester, Rangzieb’s future partner Habib Ahmed and his wife Mehreen Haji were detained in mid-2006 on a variety of charges. Habib was charged with “attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan” and of collecting “information, namely electronic records relating to potential terrorist targets and other information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.” His wife Mehreen was charged with funding terrorism (Manchester Evening News, 25 September, 2006).
At this point (again according to his account and supported by Human Rights Watch) Rangzieb Ahmed was detained by Pakistani security forces and repeatedly tortured and questioned by American, British, and Pakistani intelligence services for a period of about a year before he was placed on a plane back to the UK, arriving there on September 7, 2007 (Reuters, September 7, 2007). He was immediately detained upon arrival at Heathrow and did not appear in public again until all three were presented in court in late September 2008 (Manchester Evening News, September 24, 2008).
A First in UK Terrorism Prosecutions
The trial was significant as a milestone case with two individuals being convicted of being members of al-Qaeda (a first in the UK), but also in that it further showed the depth of interconnectedness between British extremist networks and al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan. The centerpiece of the prosecution’s case was a pair of notebooks in Habib Ahmed’s possession that Rangzieb Ahmed had given him for safe keeping. The notebooks appeared blank in parts, but in fact had contact information written in invisible ink for a number of al-Qaeda notables, including al-Qaeda’s reputed third-in-command, the Egyptian Abu Hamza Rabia, who was killed in a 2005 airstrike (BBC, December 18, 2008). Other names included Khalid Habib, al-Qaeda’s chief of operations for south-east Afghanistan; Mamoun Darkanzanli (a.k.a. Ilyas), said to be one of the financiers of the Madrid bombings; Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a radical Pakistani cleric who was killed in the Red Mosque incident in July 2007; and finally Maulana Shah Abdullah Aziz and Shah Mehboob Elahi, both members of the extremist Pakistani party Jamaat-e-Islami (Manchester Evening News, September 23, 2008). Prosecutors were unable to say exactly what the cell had planned in the UK, with speculation mostly focused around internet searches on Habib Ahmed’s computer. These included searches for the address of the then-Secretary of State for Defence, locations of British Army bases, and a document entitled “Who’s in bed with Tony [Blair]?” which mapped out the former Prime Minister’s personal connections (Press Association [UK], September 25, 2008).
According to the prosecution, Rangzieb Ahmed was initially part of a three-man cell with Mohammed Zillur Rahman and an individual known only as Imran. The three were on their way to carry out an undefined terror operation in South Africa when their immediate superior Hamza Rabia was killed while they were still in Dubai (Press Association, September 25, 2008). Rabia’s death in late November 2005 threw the plotters off, and while Rahman continued on to Johannesburg, Rangzieb stayed in Dubai and summoned Habib Ahmed to collect his notebooks (Manchester Evening News, December 18, 2008). Somewhere here British intelligence picked up the scent, and the men were overheard in their Dubai hotel talking in Urdu and Punjabi about “tons of jobs besides this” and referring to a “company” that the prosecution said was a coded reference to al-Qaeda. In one conversation, Habib says “I heard you’ve become a manager now,” to which Rangzieb replies “Yeah, higher even than a manager mate” and later that “the big ones called us down” – suggesting a command received from the higher echelons of al-Qaeda (Telegraph, September 26, 2008).
Rangzieb Ahmed was born in Rochdale in northern England to a Pakistani family but moved back to the family home in Pakistani Kashmir when he was seven or eight. His father returned to the UK a few years later, but Rangzieb was left behind with a step-mother and apparently worked on a farm. A few years later, when he was 16, Rangzieb was arrested by Indian forces in Kashmir for illegally crossing the border and was imprisoned for seven years (Telegraph, December18, 2008). Significantly, during this period he received money from known Pakistani-British terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh, who is currently in prison in Pakistan for the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Upon his release from prison in May 2001, Rangzieb Ahmed returned to the UK but would travel back and forth to Pakistan, where presumably he was plotting with al-Qaeda’s core, or at least with Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, a proscribed Kashmiri terror group to which Rangzieb belonged (The Times, December 19, 2008).
The Manchester Cell
During the trial it also emerged that Rangzieb Ahmed had helped establish a terror cell in Manchester led by Abdul Rahman, a local “recruiting sergeant” who helped prepare and train individuals who went on to fight in Afghanistan (BBC, November 21, 2007). Police remain concerned about the whereabouts of some of the members of this cell, including Aslam Awan, Abdul Rahman’s roommate who is believed to be hiding out in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (Manchester Evening News, December 18, 2008). In a further connection, it was revealed after the trial that a mobile telephone belonging to Rangzieb was called in March 2005 by Yassin Omar, a young Somali who four months later went on to participate in the copy-cat bombings on London’s public transport system that followed two weeks after the July 7, 2005, bombings.
Habib Ahmed’s history is less adventurous. He was born in Bury in northern England and is of Pakistani-British heritage. At his sixth-form college (late teens), he met a young man called Hassan Butt and his brother Usman (Press Association, November 5, 2008). Butt is best known to an American audience for an interview he conducted with CBS show 60 Minutes (March 25, 2007), but has since been widely discredited in the UK after admitting in a Manchester police investigation that he had fabricated much of his supposed career as a well-connected radical Islamist (Channel Four News, May 21, 2008). For a while, however, he was the public face of angry young British Muslims and boasted in television interviews of having helped “hundreds” of British Muslims to go and fight with the Taliban. Habib followed the Butt brothers to Wolverhampton University, where they became affiliated with the Islamic revivalist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir before migrating to its radical off-shoot, al Muhajiroun, then run by now-exiled Syrian cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed. Al-Muhajiroun is now recognized as a major feeder for terrorist groups, with a number of former members appearing on jihadi battlefields around the world. Habib became very involved – while mounting posters for the group, he was arrested for covering traffic lights with posters. A picture shown during the trial showed al-Muhajiroun chief Omar Bakri Mohammed presiding over Habib’s wedding to Mehreen Haji, a wedding to which Hassan Butt was a signatory (Press Association, November 5, 2008).
On the stand, Habib claimed that he and Butt had attempted to pose as extremists who had attended a camp in Pakistan in order to extract monies from the British media (Press Association, November 5, 2008). During the trial, a Channel Four (a British television network) executive appeared on the stand and denied ever commissioning the pair to do any work for the network (Manchester Evening News, November 4, 2008).
Mehreen Haji was cleared of all charges, but Rangzieb and Habib were both convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Amid shouts from the public gallery that “he’s innocent” and men chanting “paradise is yours” in Arabic, Justice Saunders declared that Rangzieb specifically should “remain in prison until the authorities believe you no longer hold your distorted views about Islam.” What this means in practice is hard to ascertain, but the conviction of the men further confirms the existence of a clear network of radicalized British nationals who are deeply involved and connected with al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan.
What is less clear, however, is how degraded this network is. In a rare interview, MI5 Chief Jonathan Evans suggested that his agency’s success in countering such networks meant the terrorists were being obliged “to keep their heads down,” but admitted that individuals were still travelling back and forth to Pakistan. With obvious reference to this latest al-Qaeda prosecution, Evans also declared, “The strategic intent of the al-Qaeda core in Pakistan is to mount attacks in the UK, and their model is to use British nationals or residents to deliver the attacks” (The Times, January 7, 2009).
1. Crown Prosecution Service Press Release, December 18, 2008, http://www.cps.gov.uk/news/pressreleases/187_08.html.
2. Testimony of Rangzieb Ahmed, http://www.cageprisoners.com/downloads/RangziebAhmed.pdf.