WASHINGTON – A terrorism suspect arrested in Britain this week was in Internet contact with a U.S. Navy reservist and had detailed information about the sailor’s San Diego-based battleship carrier group, including its classified travel plans and its vulnerability to attack, British and American prosecutors said Friday.
Babar Ahmad, a 30-year-old college employee arrested by British authorities Thursday, was described as a cousin of suspected al Qaeda member Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan – whose recent arrest in Pakistan triggered a spate of terror alerts last weekend in New York, New Jersey and Washington.
Ahmad appeared in a London court Friday as U.S. prosecutors seeking to extradite him unveiled charges that also described him as a fund-raiser and propagandist for the Taliban and for Muslim separatist fighters in Chechnya. He faces a possible life prison term if convicted in the United States.
Ahmad was arrested at the request of U.S. prosecutors on charges that include conspiracy to fund terrorists, conspiracy to support the Taliban, soliciting violent crime and conspiracy to launder money for terrorists who are planning murder.
The detailed plans on the U.S. naval group dated to early 2001 and never resulted in an attack. British police found a floppy disk at the London home of Ahmad’s parents that contained a document discussing the U.S. aircraft carrier Constellation and its battle group – with details on its companion ships, the specifications and assignments of each ship, their movements and a drawing of the group’s formation, according to an arrest warrant issued in Hartford, Conn., by U.S. Attorney Kevin O’Connor.
The information noted that the battle group, which at that time was assigned to enforce sanctions against Iraq and undertake operations against al Qaeda and Afghanistan’s Taliban government, was scheduled to pass through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, on April 29, 2001, according to the warrant. Navy officials confirmed to U.S. prosecutors that the battle group’s plans in Ahmad’s possession, which were classified at the time, were accurate.
“They have nothing to stop a small craft with RPG (rocket-propelled grenades) etc., except their Seals’ stinger missiles,” an entry on the document, possibly an e-mail message, said. It ended, “Please destroy this message.”
The file was last modified April 12, 2001, six months after the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole by a small boat bearing explosives.
It was unclear whether the computer file was an e-mail message from an unnamed Navy reservist on active duty in the Middle East, now retired, who was then stationed on the U.S. destroyer Benfold, part of the Constellation battle group.
However, a man describing himself as a sympathetic enlisted sailor on the Benfold exchanged a number of e-mail messages with a jihadist Internet site called Azzam Publications, which investigators say was operated by Ahmad. In one message, the man praised the attack against the “American enemies” on the Cole and voiced support for “the men who have brought honor this week … in the lands of jihad Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, etc.”
Federal investigators in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency of the Department of Homeland Security and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service are continuing to investigate the former sailor, who has not been charged.
“Obviously he’s a central figure at this point, and we’re continuing to investigate,” O’Connor said in an interview. “And if appropriate, we would bring charges. At this point we’re still actively investigating the matter.”
Evidence offered by federal prosecutors in Connecticut indicated that Ahmad had ties to Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayav, who has claimed responsibility for attacks on Russian civilians, including the 2002 Moscow theater siege.
U.S. officials confirmed that Ahmad is a cousin of Khan, the Pakistan-based computer specialist arrested last month on suspicion of sending coded messages to a vast network of al Qaeda operatives.
In connection with Ahmad’s arrest, investigators continue to investigate a number of people in the United States who conspired with him to fund Islamic warriors, according to the charges. During the probe, federal agents raided the New Jersey home of an unnamed administrator for www.qoqaz.net, one of the duplicate Web sites for Azzam Publications, and found phone numbers for Ahmad and Azzam, according to the affidavit.
Federal prosecutors in Connecticut are handling the Ahmad case because a Web site that he allegedly operated, www.azzam.com, was run through a Trumbull, Conn.-based Internet service-provider from 1999 until 2001.
Ahmad was charged Friday with offenses under Britain’s Terrorism Act and ordered held for a week. Ahmad told Judge Christopher Pratt, when asked if he understood the charges, “Not really, I’m a bit confused.”
Ahmad’s lawyer, Caroline Guiloff, said that Ahmad was an educated professional with no prior convictions who had lived in Britain all his life.