On Friday morning, Britain’s most notorious hate preacher Anjem Choudary will walk out of the front door of Belmarsh prison a free man.
Despite being put under some of the most stringent restrictions ever, including not preaching or visiting certain mosques, and having no internet access or contact with his Al-Muhajiroun (ALM) friends and having only one mobile which is inspected regularly, Choudary will be able to breath fresh air, walk down the high street and be with his family.
Make no mistake, though. Anjem Choudary will remain Britain’s most dangerous extremist. Whatever his mild and polite mannerism, this is a man who has inspired dozens to commit acts of violence and murder.
He might not currently have the social media reach or the confrontational rhetoric of Stephen Lennon (‘Tommy Robinson’), but his influence and the damage his actions have caused are unparalleled.
As leader of the hardline Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun, Choudary has been directly or indirectly linked to at least 123 Islamist terrorists over the last 20 years. No other British citizen has had so much influence over so many terrorists as Choudary, which makes the fact that it took the police 20 years to finally catch him even more incredible.
A litany of terror
Many of the most infamous terrorist attacks in the UK were carried out by people linked to Choudary.
The 7/7 bombers, who killed 52 people on London transport in 2005, were linked to Choudary’s ALM network. So two were the killers of off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in 2013 and, more recently, two of the London Bridge attackers, who killed eight people, were also active members of the group.
Some, like Lee Rigby killer Michael Adebolajo, had been politicised by Choudary and the ALM network but then gravitated to even more extreme groups before carrying out his murder. Others were very much part of the network at the time of their terrorist act or arrest.
Mohammed Chowdhury, ringleader of the 2010 Christmas bomb plot, was a key Choudary lieutenant at the time of his arrest. In fact, only days before the police arrest Chowdhury and his nine co-conspirators – all of whom were linked ALM – he was filmed arranging a Skype call between Choudary and the group’s founder Omar Bakri.
In 2013, shortly after the murder of Lee Rigby, HOPE not hate produced a report into Choudary and ALM, Gateway to Terror. A ground-breaking report into Chourdary’s network, it listed 70 people linked to ALM who had been involved in terrorism or convicted of a terror-related offence.
Three years later, after the formation of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and the proclamation of the Caliphate, we produced another report updating the Al-Muhajiroun story, with a particular emphasis on how Choudary had become an important cheerleader for IS around the world.
We noted how he had been interviewed or quoted in dozens of TV programmes and newspaper articles, often endorsing IS as far as he could within the law.
Now, the clear extent of ALM’s support for IS has become clear. In our latest Rogues Gallery, we list 12 British ALM-linked supporters who have been killed in Syria and Iraq or are currently unaccounted for.
Three well-known activists have become suicide bombers and at least three have been killed in targeted drone strikes. Several others have been killed in action, including the two sons of ALM founder Omar Bakri Mohammed, both of whom were well known ALM activists in London.
Mohammed ‘Raza’ Haque, dubbed the jihad giant because of his imposing 6’ 7” frame, was Anjem Choudary’s personal bodyguard before slipping out of the country for Syria in 2014, where he became one of the infamous IS executioners, even beheading one supposed informer on video.
Siddhartha Dhar was organising most of ALM’s public activities when the Islamic State was created and before long he skipped bail and shocked the world by posting a picture on social media on him posing with a Kalashnikov rifle. Dhar, who goes by the Islamic name Abu Rumaysah al-Britani, became a pivotal part of the IS propaganda operation, producing manuals and literature to encourage others to join.
In January 2018, the US State Department categorised him as Specially Designated Global Terrorist, adding:
“He is considered to have replaced ISIS executioner Mohammad Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John.” Dhar is believed to be the masked leader who appeared in a January 2016 ISIS video of the execution of several prisoners ISIS accused of spying for the UK.”
His current whereabouts are unknown, though it is suggested that he may have been killed in a drone attack. However, that has not been confirmed.
Our list of 12 ALM activists in Syria is just the tip of the iceberg and the true figure is likely to be a lot higher. It is believed that 20-25 went from Luton alone, with some having already returned before the Caliphate collapsed.
Al-Muhajiroun’s European network, largely built up by Choudary over the previous few years, has probably dispatched more people to Syria than any other network in western Europe. Groups in Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Denmark sent hundreds of fighters between them.
A court in Belgium heard how Sharia4Belgium sent 59 people from the Antwerp region alone. Court papers show how Choudary played an integral role in setting up Sharia4Belgium, developing a 24-week political indoctrination course and even channeling money to the group.
A Dutch intelligence report cites Choudary and Al-Muhajiroun as the spark which helped create a militant jihadist scene in the country. Belgium has been the base of operations for a number of terrorist attacks in the 2010s. Further afield, a study found that Choudary was partly responsible for the rise in support for the Islamic State in Indonesia.
Jytte Klausen, who leads the Western Jihadism Project at Brandeis University, funded by the UK Home Office, told the BBC:
“By my estimate, based on my studies of Western Europeans who have gone to fight, about a third, if not more, are members of these affiliates, these groups.”
A destroyed network
Choudary will re-enter society to find Al-Muhajiroun in a much weakened and largely dormant state. The imprisonment of dozens of ALM activists, to say nothing of those who went to join the Islamic State, has left few active members still at large.
In London, ALM has units in Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, Newham and Redbridge, but they do little public activities and groups have largely collapsed in the rest of the capital.
Outside London, ALM only has functioning units in Luton and Derby. The convictions of Tahir Aziz and Mohibur Rahman in 2017 largely put an end to the group in Stoke-on-Trent, while the media publicity and police crackdown following the killing of Nasser and Aseel Muthana has caused the Cardiff group to collapse, or at least go inactive. There is the odd supporter in Birmingham, Leicester and Slough, but even these appear to have dropped out of any activities.
Al-Muhajiroun’s cause was not helped by the man designated as the ‘emir’ (leader) after Choudary was imprisoned. Mohammed Shamsuddin was less than impressive and struggled to get the respect of his fellow members.
Another leading member, Abu Haleema, who earned quite a following on social media, not least for his running commentary about how he styled his beard, was banned from YouTube in 2017 and had to flee his Birmingham home after Stephen Lennon found his address and threatened to confront him.
However, even before Choudary’s release there are signs that the ALM network has been stirring back into action.
Several leading activists have been released from prison over the past year. Trevor Brooks (aka abu Izzadeen) has re-emerged on Twitter; Anthony Small (aka Adbul Haqq) has begun making videos again; and Ricardo MacFarlene (aka Abdul Hakeem) has repeatedly been seen at Speaker’s Corner in recent months. Two al-Muhajiroun activists also engaged in a verbal confrontation with Rebel Media’s Ezra Levant outside Stephen Lennon’s last court hearing at the Old Bailey.
While Choudary himself will not be able to have any contact with any of his old ALM associates, his release will obviously act as a spur for others. The media attention surrounding his release will increase interest and knowledge in the group and so encourage his followers to step up their activities to tap in to the renewed coverage.
There is also concern that Choudary’s release will encourage younger, emerging leaders like McFarlene to become more active in order to impress their ‘Emir’.
And let’s also not forget that Choudary will obviously be able to have contact with his wife, Rubana Akhtar, who is herself a leading ALM activist and a leader of the increasingly important women’s group within the organisation. As the authorities began to crack down on ALM after the murder of Lee Rigby and the formation of the Islamic State, the wives of leading activists came more to the fore, passing messages and even involvement in facilitating people to go to Syria.
A number of other prominent ALM activists are also coming out of prison over the next six months. Next week, Mizanur Rahman, who was convicted alongside Choudary, will also be released from prison. While he does not have the same national media profile, many see him as more radical and confrontational. While he too will be released on license, his conditions are believed to be less stringent than those being imposed on his leader.
Others coming out include several key ALM activists from Luton, who were convicted in 2016 and 2017. Among them is Mohammed Istiak Alamgir, also known as Saifal Islam, who has led the group in the town for the past 12 years, during which time over 20 al-Muhajiroun activists have been convicted of, or linked to, terrorism.
The 10 ALM terrorists convicted of a plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange, including ringleader and close Choudary associate Mohammed Chowdhury, are eligible for release in February 2019.
While all these people will be on strict conditions, the mere fact that they are out will add to the growing excitement in the wider group that the movement is being re-energised. And, despite the restrictions imposed on them, it is almost impossible for the authorities to prevent them from having some form of contact with one another.
The far right & the media
Two external factors could also play a big part in the future fortunes of Al-Muhajiroun: the reaction of the far right and the media.
Anjem Choudary, and ALM more generally, are long time (and go-to) hate figures for the British far right. The English Defence League was launched as a result of Luton ALM protesting against the Anglian Regiment’s homecoming parade in the town in 2009. The EDL’s two largest spikes of support came after ALM burned poppies on Armistice Day in 2010 and the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, which was carried out by two Al-Muhajiroun supporters.
The Football Lads Alliance (FLA) was formed in the aftermath of the 2017 terrorist attacks, two of which were carried out by ALM-linked extremists.
Now, the far right are waiting for Choudary’s release with an equal dose of excitement and outrage. The re-emergence of Choudary’s supporters at Speaker’s Corner has been noted by many of these far-right activists and it is clear that they are spoiling for a fight.
There will clearly be a rush to locate and confront Choudary after he is released, especially in the age when so many far-right activists can earn money from well-watched videos. A confrontation, especially one that turns violent, could re-galvanise Choudary’s network and bring in sympathy from a wider group of Muslims, which clearly does not exist at the moment.
With Lennon possibly going back to prison for contempt, the chance to be the first right winger to confront Choudary might be too much to pass up for Britain First leader Paul Golding.
Likewise, a return to public activity from Choudary’s supporters is likely to be met with a response from the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA), and affiliated hooligan groups, Britain First and the English Defence League. This could bring more ALM supporters back out in a cycle of cumulative extremism, to say nothing of how local Muslims will react to far-right activists invading their neighbourhoods.
The authorities are acutely aware of this threat and this will shape much of their initial handling of Choudary release’s as much their desire to keep him away from his Al-Muhajiroun friends. Whether they succeed will largely depend on the behaviour of the media.
There might well be a desire amongst some journalists to locate and confront Choudary as well, just as sensational reporting could – as with the actions of the far right – have the unintended consequence of bolstering Choudary’s ‘victim image’, re-galvanise his network and bring in new supporters.
Anjem Choudary’s release marks a new chapter in the history of Al-Muhajiroun and extreme Islamism in this country. Following a period where it was largely demoralised and dormant, his release is likely to act as a spur for renewed activity. Whether Al-Muhajiroun can really rebuild its operation could – in the end – be determined by the actions of the far right and the media.
Nick Lowles is chief executive of HOPE not hateNext: Media Mistakes Of The Past