An American who pleaded guilty to U.S. terrorism charges has been released after serving just a few years of a possible 70-year-sentence, even as his testimony helped authorities put away his Canadian accomplice for life.
Mohammed Junaid Babar was sentenced to time served in December and ordered to pay $500 by a New York judge, who found that his "exceptional co-operation" with police began even before his 2004 arrest. Mr. Babar ended up serving four and a half years in jail, and had been released on bail for the past two.
In Britain, where this sentencing deal was first reported by The Guardian, the release has drawn comparisons to the case of convicted mass murderer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan found guilty in Britain of plotting the Lockerbie bombings but who was released to his homeland on compassionate grounds two years ago.
Mr. Babar, a Muslim of Pakistani heritage raised in the New York borough of Queens, travelled to Pakistan to train as a terrorist in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
There, Mr. Babar got to know a who's who of eventual terrorists - including Mohammed Siddique Khan, the ringleader of the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings in London that killed 52 commuters. He also became close to a half-dozen other British Muslims who ended up failing in a prior scheme to bomb London targets, including dance clubs and a shopping centre.
Through the latter group, Mr. Babar befriended a Canadian computer programmer, Mohammed Momin Khawaja, who travelled to Pakistan to take paramilitary training and then built remote-controlled detonators for the British cell from his Ottawa home. The resulting landmark case, R. versus Khawaja, proved prosecutions under Canada's new antiterrorism laws viable - and much of the evidence hinged on the testimony of Mr. Babar, who was brought in to testify against Mr. Khawaja from an undisclosed U.S. location.
This sort of co-operation resulted in the lenient U.S. sentence Mr. Babar was handed shortly before Christmas.
"The defendant has testified previously at four different trials involving numerous terrorism defendants, three trials in the U.K. and one in Canada," U.S. prosecutors said at the Dec. 10 sentencing hearing, according to a transcript now posted on The Guardian's Web site.
"Both governments and prosecutorial arms of those governments have made clear that they determined that Mr. Babar's testimony in that case was not only credible, but critical to the ultimate convictions secured in those cases."
The transcript adds that "from virtually the moment he was approached by law enforcement and even before he was placed under arrest, Mr. Babar was credible, forthright and detained in the information that was asked of him."
It's unclear what is meant by the reference to what happened "before" Mr. Babar's arrest.
His own mother nearly died in al-Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the World Trade Center in New York. Yet this was the precise time that Mr. Babar began professing an adherence to violent jihadism and embarked on travels to meet likeminded extremists in the United Kingdom and Pakistan.
Speculation that Mr. Babar may have always been an U.S. informant, however, is not borne out by his sworn testimony in court.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation spent several days quizzing him in a hotel room in 2004, before charging him with the terrorism offences and extracting promises of a light sentence in return for his co-operation.
Such plea deals have broken down in similar U.S. terrorism cases in which FBI handlers have milked suspects to the point of exhausting any goodwill. And yet the deal with Mr. Babar appears to have been copasetic for all involved.
"I take full responsibility for my actions. … I have also learned that I might disagree with some people, but it doesn't mean I have to turn to violence," Mr. Babar told the New York court in December.
"I see now after being married and after taking care of my daughter the responsibility that I have," he said, adding that "I plan on finishing school and taking care of my family."
In his testimony in Canada and Britain, Mr. Babar recounted how he helped set up a training camp in Pakistan for radical Muslims from the West who wanted to force NATO forces from Afghanistan.
The Canadian suspect, Mr. Khawaja. was found guilty of travelling to Pakistan to take paramilitary training in Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
The Ontario Court of Appeal recently increased his sentence to life in prison, noting how Mr. Khawaja was convicted of building a potentially deadly detonation device known as the "Hi-Fi Digimonster."
It seems unlikely that the circumstances of Mr. Babar's U.S. deal - which was being actively pursued by defence lawyers in Canada and the United Kingdom at the time of terrorist trials - could force judges to reopen any of the individual cases.
That's because the courts did not rely on Mr. Babar's testimony exclusively. Police and spies in Britain had amassed a trove of surveillance evidence and e-mail intercepts involving the suspects with whom Mr. Babar had been in contact.
With reports from Jill Mahoney