Meet Mohamed Mahmoud, who, Western and Arab intelligence officials say, is an example of how supporters of jihadist ideas become more radicalised in prisons.
Mohamed Mahmoud, a 26-year-old Austrian, wears a traditional white tunic and a light-brown hat and keeps his hair long, as is the tradition in the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Only his camouflage vest and dark-blue sneakers place him in the modern world here in Europe, which he re-entered September 12 after serving a four-year prison sentence for joining and actively supporting al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
It is a world that he says he could easily leave again. “I want to send the message that I am ready to die for my religion any time,” he said in an interview last month, his first since his release. “I have nothing to lose in life. Today I know that demonstrations and protests don't help, and today I know that the West is lying about its freedom of speech and human rights.”
According to interviews with Arab, American and European intelligence officials, as well as investigative files, Mr. Mahmoud combines a gift for inspiring followers, a knack for tapping into the power of the Internet and a virtual Rolodex of Qaeda leadership connections, many made in prison or in training camps.
A wave of young heirs
In short, these officials say, Mr. Mahmoud represents a wave of young heirs apparent to take over the role of al-Qaeda's propagandist in chief from Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric turned militant leader who was killed by an American missile strike in Yemen in September.
“Mahmoud's aggressive re-entry into the jihadi mediasphere has garnered him significant attention among German-language jihadi adherents,” said Jarret Brachman, author of “Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice” and a consultant to the United States government on terrorism. “They seem to be smitten with his fiery lectures and are responding to the street cred [credibility] he gained from his time in prison.”
But Mr. Brachman, along with other American officials, cautioned against overstating Mr. Mahmoud's influence. “The German-language jihadi landscape is already crowded and colourful,” Mr. Brachman said. “He will have to keep pushing the envelope — both in terms of the extremism of his content and the creativity with which he leverages social media — if he wants to move to the head of that pack.”
Planning a new group
Out of prison, Mr. Mahmoud is now preparing to settle down in Berlin and has started a new group, called Millatu-Ibrahim, whose goals, he said, would be to “preach the word of Allah, fight for the better treatment and release of especially female Islamist prisoners.” He has already secured prominent supporters like Abou Maleeq, the former rapper “Deso Dogg.”
Arab, European and United States intelligence and counterterrorism officials say that Mr. Mahmoud is a known figure in the international jihadist scene. He had connections to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who after Osama bin Laden's death was briefly al-Qaeda's second-ranking official until he was killed in August.
For years Mr. Mahmoud was one of the leaders of the Global Islamic Media Front, which translated into German videos and messages of al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups. “I did it to support the mujahedeen,” he said. “We were like a media organisation; we just wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the words of the mujahedeen.” His importance to jihadist networks became clear in April 2008, when al-Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa called for his release from jail in Austria, in exchange for freeing two Austrian captives.
Intelligence officials say Mr. Mahmoud also has ties to militants who kidnap Westerners, including the British journalist Alan Johnston, who was held captive in Gaza for four months. He was also accused of having played a role in the kidnapping of a German woman and her son in Iraq. She was released, but the son's fate is unknown.
Mr. Mahmoud's lawyer, Lennart Binder, said his client had been in touch with the kidnappers in both cases because he wanted to play a role in the negotiations for the hostages' release.
While intelligence officials say it is likely that Mr. Mahmoud became more radical in prison, he had demonstrated an interest in the world of jihad by his teenage years, according to friends and others familiar with his life.
This led to clashes with his father, no stranger to militancy himself, according to security officials who say the father had been active in the Egyptian group Gamaa al-Islamiya. Ultimately, the father publicly denounced his son's views.
“I do respect my parents, but it is clear that we are two different generations,” Mr. Mahmoud said. “His generation is more afraid, and they only used to speak about an Islamic state, but my generation, we don't want to speak; we want to do it.”
Wars played a role
Mr. Mahmoud said that the wars in the Balkans and Chechnya played an important role in shaping his beliefs. “I used to watch the videos from there, how the mujahedeen killed the Serbs and Russian soldiers who had assaulted and killed my Muslim sisters and brothers,” he said.
In October 2002, when he was 17, Mr. Mahmoud said goodbye to his parents as he left for school one day in Austria. He was gone for eight months, heading south through Italy to Iraq, investigators say, where he was trained in a camp by Ansar al-Islam, a group that was responsible for many suicide attacks. “I was arrested two months before the war in Iraq started,” he said.
American and Arab intelligence services already had Mr. Mahmoud on their radar because he had studied with Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an imam in Milan better known as Abu Omar. Back in Austria by the end of 2006, Mr. Mahmoud had become a head of the media group, working with others, including his former wife, to translate videos and texts from Arabic into German.
In 2007, the authorities said, they became alarmed when Mr. Mahmoud started to buy ingredients for a possible suicide belt and the Media Front published a video threatening to carry out attacks in Germany and Austria if they did not withdraw their troops from Afghanistan.
On September 12, 2007, Mr. Mahmoud and his wife were arrested in Vienna. He denied that he had anything to do with the production of the video or that he had any plans for a suicide attack.
Western and Arab intelligence officials say the case of Mr. Mahmoud illustrates, again, how supporters of jihadist ideas become more radicalised in prisons. “They may have a good time or bad time in prison as for the treatment from the guards,” said Thomas M. Sanderson, deputy director of the transnational threats programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But the bottom line is that they have time for reflecting and become even stronger.” (Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.)
—New York Times News Service