Bottom Line Up Front
- On October 19, al-Muhajiroun co-founder Anjem Choudary was released from prison in the U.K. after serving over two years for inspiring others to join the Islamic State.
- Choudary is infamous for his support of terrorist groups and radical ideology, and is facing two years of strict parole with numerous conditions, to include some level of monitoring.
- He claims to have parted ways with the now-banned al-Muhajiroun network, which ‘inspired’ more than 100 people to travel from the U.K. to join the Islamic State.
- Choudary represents a frustrating and important limitation of combating terrorism in a democracy: countering effective messengers of hate who ‘toe the line’ of criminality, while still pushing individuals and small groups toward violence.
The release of Anjem Choudary, who has spent nearly 20 years ‘gaming’ the U.K. legal system he consistently vilified, has once again generated enormous concern over exactly how to deal with messengers of virulent ideologies that encourage individuals to join terrorist organizations. Choudary has long been among the highest profile espousers of ‘bin Ladenism,’ the odious narrative that serves as a driving force for groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (though there are real differences between those two groups, at their cores, the ideology of bin Laden is a common foundation). From praising the attacks of September 11, 2001 to heading a network that inspired more than 100 people to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State, Choudary has long wielded influence over a small, but dedicated group of staunch Islamists in the U.K.
Choudary was arrested in 2014 and then again in 2015 after authorities were alerted to videos of him, along with Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, pledging bay’ah, or allegiance, to the Islamic State, an illegal act in the U.K. Choudary had long hovered just shy of criminal support of terrorism; he did not plan attacks or call for specific acts of violence, although he did foreshadow an inevitable conflict between his interpretation of Islam (shared by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State) and the West, often parroting talking points of the now-deceased Yemeni-American cleric and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula figurehead Anwar al-Awlaki. Choudary’s call for conflict was not as explicit as Baghdadi’s call to terror, but it was inspiring enough that a sizable number of individuals involved in U.K. terror attacks or plots over the last decade were known followers of Choudary, influenced in some way by his teachings and radical sermons. Al-Muhajiroun was a feeder network for the Islamic State, encouraging Muslims to support IS in any way possible, without explicitly telling them to commit acts of murder in the group’s name.
Choudary became a symbol of the West’s difficulty in countering the IS narrative while still affording its citizens with freedom of speech and individual expression. To see him openly support the 7/7 Tube attacks in London that killed 52 people in 2005, and lavish praise upon the four bombers was an understandable source of anger and frustration for British citizens and their political representatives. The seeming inability to ‘counter’ Choudary eventually became a political issue, with calls to be ‘tougher’ on terrorism, even though Choudary himself had not committed criminal acts of terrorism. Still, several high-profile terrorist attacks in the U.K. were linked, to varying degrees, back to Choudary’s influence: Khalid Masood killed five people when he drove his vehicle into pedestrians in the Westminster area of London in 2017; he had been a member of Al-Muhajiroun. Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, the two men who murdered British soldier Lee Rigby on a street in Woolwich, were also connected to al-Muhajiroun.
Upon his release, Choudary will begin two and a half years of restricted parole, with six months in a bail hostel, or halfway house. He is forbidden to preach, cannot use the internet without monitoring or approval, must not be found in possession of more than one phone, and can only associate with certain people. These proscriptions are among the array of options applied to all people in the parole system in the U.K. The worry is that Choudary has not changed his behaviors or beliefs, a concern that Choudary himself advanced by refusing to participate in ‘de-radicalization’ programs while in prison. It remains to be seen how influential Choudary will be outside of prison; the hope of U.K. officials is that, by restricting his behavior it erodes his influence and facilitates his move toward irrelevance and obscurity. The main challenge will be to do this without elevating his stature or making him a martyr in the process.