The last time I briefly spoke to my former schoolmate Talha was just after we completed our A-Level exams in the summer of 1998 at the prestigious private school Dulwich College in southeast London.
There was a brief exchange of pleasantries and a summit-firm handshake between us to wish each other well for our future lives after school. Little did I know that our directions would be so different from that moment onwards.
After spending nearly six years in a British jail awaiting extradition to America on terrorist charges, Syed Talha Ahsan from Tooting in southwest London has now faced extradition to America after losing his appeal at the European Court of Human Rights, alongside four other terrorist suspects including the radical preacher Abu Hamza.
Born in 1979 in London, Talha, a graduate of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), was arrested by British police acting on a US search warrant in July 2006.
US prosecutors allege that both Talha and his friend Babar Ahmad ran a radical website from south London, and they should be prosecuted on American soil because that website was hosted on an American internet service provider.
It is claimed they used the now defunct site - Azzam Publications - to upload extremist videos, raise funds for the Taliban and support other insurgents in Chechnya and Bosnia.
The pair were also allegedly communicating with a naval enlistee on the destroyer USS Benfold in the straits of Hormuz during the summer of 2001 and were given classified plans of the battle group.
The charges claim Talha provided support to terrorists and engaged in conspiracy to murder, kidnap, maim or injure, or damage property in a foreign country. It is also alleged by the Americans that Talha fought in Afghanistan.
Their website, with its material about “holy war” in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya gives an insight into their activity and much of the material is still on the internet.
If convicted in the US, then Talha, who allegedly suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, could face the rest of his life in solitary confinement in ADX Florence in Colorado, a so-called Supermax prison where he has claimed conditions amount to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment.
His supporters, who have set up an ambitious ‘free Talha Ahsan campaign website’, claim that Talha deserves a fair trial in the UK rather than in the US.
The 2003 Extradition Act has been the subject of on-going campaigns in Britain, most notably but the alleged hacker Gary McKinnon, who won his right not to be extradited to the US. Opponents say it is unjust and a represents a loss of sovereignty.
My former class fellow, who was being held alongside Babar Ahmed at the high security Long Lartan prison in Worcestershire, was known to pass time by writing poems. He denies any involvement in any terrorist activities.
Like most of the chaps that went to school with Talha, my initial reaction on reading his name in the newspapers in relation to terror charges was one of utter shock and just disbelief.
'Surely it can't be our Talha?’ was the question on the lips of those who knew him well from his days at school. It’s just something that you don’t expect to read about from a guy who has been privileged with an elite education, softly-spoken personality, and a middle class background.
I would never have imagined on that summer’s day in 1998 while taking the sixth-form leavers photo shoot at Dulwich that I was standing two feet away from a guy who would one day become one of the world's most wanted terror suspects.
At school I fondly recall him being highly intelligent, highly studious and very intellectual. He was a man with a polite and disciplined demeanour, who came across as shy and profoundly faithful to his religion but also a fantastic bloke who got along with everyone.
In the first indication of his strong beliefs around Islam, he started growing a wispy beard during the sixth-form but he possessed a shrewd personality that was enough to prevent, deferentially, questions of a too-private nature.
Alongside that came along a supernatural calmness in his manner combined with absolute respect for whatever his teachers and peers asked of him. He most certainly was not the eccentric type and definitely not vocal or aggressive.
I was not his close friend, but we attended some classes together and we shared a few jokes like most kids do at school.
Everyone in the school knew who he was, especially those who followed Islam because of his active leadership of the school’s ‘Society for the study of Islam’.
As a young man he was perhaps the most religious in the whole school at that time and as he grew older, Talha became more influenced by Islamic ideologies.
But he came across as a true scholar who threw himself into the articles of his faith, rather than organised fundamental religion. More often than not he could be seen walking with a text book clutched tightly in his hand, or studying in a corner seat of the school’s library at lunchtime.
He wasn’t a macho figure in any way, rather the opposite with a short yet athletic physique. During the latter years of his schooling, he seldom took part in any physical sports, instead focusing on spending his spare time either studying in the school’s library, or organising community service trips to nearby hospitals and care homes for the elderly.
So how could someone with such glittering credentials end up being wanted for global terrorism charges? Could it be that his naïve competency have led Talha to become an easy target for those who wanted to use his educated mindset? Or could he have been brainwashed and swindled into a downward spiral where he ended up becoming socially incompetent and engaged with the wrong personalities? Maybe.
It’s difficult to know, and the sad fact is that we may not know real truth for a very long time.
Maybe something or someone outside school influenced his approach. Though not politically motivated he was keenly engaged when prominent political personalities visited the school.
A particular moment sticks out. When the former UK Foreign Secretary Lord Douglas Hurd gave a speech at the school’s Great Hall in 1997, Talha fired a barrage of questions relating to Kashmir, and the border disputes between Israel and Palestine.
The subject seemed to be very close to his heart. Bearing in mind that this all happened years before 9/11 happened, and at a time when global security was not as serious a threat as it is nowadays, at that time I did not give a second thought. Now I am not so sure what to think.
Very little is known about what happened to Talha after he left Dulwich except that he went to SOAS and graduated with a first class honours degree in Arabic Studies. At the time of his arrest in 2006, Talha was actively looking for jobs as a librarian.
Former schoolmates have mentioned that both Barbar Ahmad and Talha used to attend the Balham mosque, and that’s where their friendship blossomed.
The pair attended different universities - Ahmad went to Imperial College to study Aeronautical Engineering – but both men were involved in their university Islamic societies.
Whatever the circumstances, both Babar’s and Talha’s case is a stark reminder of the confused and conflicted identity of some young Muslims in Britain who are drawn into radicalism at some point in their youth.
Talha’s transformation from being a gifted scholar to a global terrorism suspect would, in my view, have happened at university rather than at school.
It all echoes the words of the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who told The Daily Telegraph in 2011 that universities were not taking the issue of radicalisation seriously enough and that it was too easy for Muslim extremists to form groups on campuses “without anyone knowing”.
Since the early 1990s, the growth of radicalism among students has led to quite a number of cases in the past where gifted university students have shocked the world by leading double lives as terrorists.
Examples in recent years have included Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, a UCL student who attempted to blow up a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 with a device in his underpants, Yassin Nassari, a University of Westminster graduate who was jailed for three years in 2007, and Kafeel Ahmed, a Queen’s University Belfast graduate who died of horrific burns after driving a Jeep packed with gas canisters into Glasgow airport in 2007.
Talha and Babar Ahmad were both born in Britain, and both had a privileged childhood, but it’s perhaps not as shocking that their paths at university have led them to such fundamental radicalism.
That is to say, they both appear to share the thoughts of young British Muslims, who are longing to belong, but are struggling to find anything in British society with which they could strongly identify.
Whatever may have happened to him after school, one thing is for sure is that every time I see that school photo the thought keeps coming to my mind, could this chap I used to sit next to at school really have become one of the world’s most wanted terrorism suspects?
I clearly remember his complements just after that school photo was taken. ‘Keep in touch. I’ll probably see you in 10 years time at a school reunion or somewhere similar,’ said Talha.
It is a disastrous turn in his life that he has ended up like this. What could possibly have triggered this man to go from the dreaming spires of Dulwich to the humiliation of a rotting prison cell? If anything, Talha’s life is nothing short of stuff made out of novels.
- This article was first published on the Huffington Post online blog: HERE.
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