A British court convicted Tuesday a Pakistan-born dental assistant who planned to fight against US and British troops in Afghanistan, sentencing him to 4-1/2 years in jail. UK security forces arrested Sohail Qureshi in 2006 on the basis of Internet conversations in which he vowed to "kill many" in revenge attacks. Prosecutors said he had boasted of training in Al Qaeda camps in Pakistan in the 1990s and raising money for mujahideen operations in Afghanistan.
Mr. Qureshi's conviction is the first under the UK's 2006 counterterrorism law that makes it an offense to prepare for an act of terrorism, even if the plans are in a premature stage. He pleaded guilty to the offense and two other charges of possessing illegal materials.
Qureshi's arrest had led to a conviction last year of a British Muslim woman, who worked at London's Heathrow Airport. Samina Malik, who wrote poems praising Osama bin Laden and called herself the "lyrical terrorist," emailed tips to Qureshi about security at the airport.
The Daily Telegraph reports that Qureshi was detained at Heathrow Airport in October 2006 as he prepared to board a flight to Islamabad. Police discovered he was carrying thousands of dollars in cash and a CD-ROM containing snapshots of family life as well as executions and the 9/11 attacks on the US.
Also among his luggage was £760 of military-style equipment including an optical "night sight", two metal police-style batons, two sleeping bags, two rucksacks, medical supplies and a removable computer hard drive which included a cache of US Marine and Canadian forces combat manuals.
When police searched his home in Forest Gate they discovered a number of photos of him posing with Kalashnikov assault rifles.
They found he had anonymously posted an eight-page "al wida" [farewell] on an Islamic website in which he wrote: "If I am to become a shaheed [martyr], then cry not and celebrate that day as if you celebrate a happy occasion."
Reuters reports a separate online exchange by Qureshi on a militant website in which he described a "two- or three-week operation" that prosecutors said referred to his plans to join the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Prosecutor Jonathan Sharp told London's Old Bailey court that Qureshi also had fighting and first aid manuals, theological notes justifying terrorism, a book he had written called "My Dad the bomb maker" detailing how he had become a militant, and CD-Rom pictures of him brandishing an M16 rifle.
"There were also appalling pictures and videos of mutilated corpses and videos of executions and the 9/11 atrocity," Sharp said. "He was taking it on the trip to keep his mind focused on his terrorist goal."
Qureshi was born in Pakistan, the youngest of five children, and spent most of his childhood in Saudi Arabia where his father worked as an engineer, says The Times (London). He later moved to Russia and completed a degree in dentistry before moving to Britain in 2004. During the trial at London's Old Bailey court, the presiding judge said that Qureshi's offenses were at the lower end of scale of terrorism, the Times said.
Police and prosecution sources also raised concerns that the judge had imposed an apparently lenient sentence in the first conviction, under the Terrorism Act 2006, for preparing for the commission of terrorist acts. Allowing for 14 months spent on remand and the normal remission of half his sentence, Qureshi will be freed from prison in just over a year.
The Mirror, a London tabloid, said there was "fury" over the "soft sentence," describing Qureshi as a "hate-filled fanatic" who plotted to kill British soldiers. It quoted an unnamed anti-terror source who called the sentence "very disappointing" given the potential threat posed to UK troops by a convicted man who will likely be freed next year.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reports that Ms. Malik's job as a newsstand clerk in Heathrow made her a useful contact for Qureshi. Police believe the two never met in person, but exchanged e-mails on airport security procedures.
In an October 2006 email, Qureshi asked Malik for an update on security. "Is the checking still very harsh? Or have things cooled down a bit - Delete after read!" wrote Qureshi.
Malik replied at 4am detailing the security measures, including searching of shoes and checks on liquids. She signed off with a nom de guerre and the line, "A stranger awaiting martyrdom."
Last November Malik received a nine-month suspended sentence after a jury in London convicted her of possessing material that terrorists may find useful, based on a stash of extremist literature found at her home, according to the BBC. She wasn't charged with abetting Qureshi, and was acquitted of a more serious possession charge.
The Guardian at that time reported that Malik's trial was criticized by some observers for criminalizing "thought crime." A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said the decision to prosecute was bizarre and showed how broadly the Terrorism Act could be applied to Muslims who download unpalatable online materials.
"The fact that this case went to court sends a very worrying signal that if you are Muslim and you are downloading from the Internet you may be judged to a quite different standard from others. Fortunately the judge has been sensible about this. The wider Muslim community must be relieved that she hasn't got a custodial sentence."