Some observations on the stabber of Stephen Timms

Roshonara Choudhry, Islam, Iraq and terrorism.

Vikram Dodd, the Guardian's crime correspondent, has published extracts from the police interview with Roshonara Choudhry, the British Muslim student convicted this week of attempting to stab to death the former Labour minister Stephen Timms MP.

Conducted on 14 May 2010, about four hours after her arrest for stabbing Timms, in Forest Gate police station, the interview makes for a fascinating, if disturbing and depressing, read – and I've reprinted it below in full.

Some brief observations:

1) Choudhry is not the sharpest tool in the box. She comes across as a bit simple, a bit slow, unquestioning and someone who was easily brainwashable (is that even a word?). She is, for example, ignorant of the specific Quranic verses that she claims inspired her horrific and cowardly attack on Timms – "the main chapters about it are chapter . . . chapter eight and chapter nine, I think," she says, pathetically. In fact, there are no verses in the Quran which justify such brutal, vigilante attacks on innocent civilians. Suicide bombings for example, are un-Islamic.

2) Those who claim that our mosques are breeding grounds for terrorists and extremists should note the two names Choudhry cites as her influencers: Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdullah Azzam. She discovered both on the internet (on YouTube!), not at her local Islamic centre. Both, I hasten to add, lack the credentials and qualifications of mainstream Islamic scholarship; al-Awlaki has a PhD in human resource development (!) from George Washington University. Why on earth did she think such a person had the "Islamic" or moral authority to instruct her to carry out a murder, one of the greatest sins in Islam? Interestingly, most Islamist ideologues have tended to be non-scholars – Sayyid Qutb was a teacher; Abul-A'la Maududi was a journalist. Osama Bin Laden himself, of course, is an engineer and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri is a medical doctor.

3) She was clearly brainwashed by radicals on the internet BUT I'm intrigued by those who continue to claim that Iraq, and other foreign-policy issues, are NOT drivers of radicalisation. Really? Read the transcript below. She is obsessed with Iraq, for example: "When I realised that I have an obligation to defend the people of Iraq and to fight on their side, that's when it changed my mind and also just like the death tolls and the civilian, like casualties and the pictures from the prisons." So, should we ignore this? Pretend it had nothing to do with her crime? And let me be clear, before the online trolls try to misrepresent me: I believe her actions did NOTHING to help the people of Iraq and were disgusting and reprehensible. They cannot be morally justified. But it is absurd to pretend that Islamist radicals would be able to brainwash young, impressionable Muslims – even simpletons like Choudhry! – without the help of real-world and undeniable grievances like Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, etc, which cause so much anger, resentment and disillusionment.

4) One of the police officers interviewing her is called "Syed Hussain", a Muslim name. See, we're not all crazy, anti-western terrorists. Some of us are coppers . . . !

-----------------------

From the Guardian:

This interview was conducted four hours after Choudhry's arrest for stabbing Stephen Timms. Choudhry was interviewed by Simon Dobinson, a detective sergeant from Newham Police, with Detective Constable Syed Hussain. Choudhry says she was studying English and communications at King's College London, but dropped out on 27 April 2010, in her third year.

Simon Dobinson So what made you drop out of that?

Choudhry 'Cos . . . because King's College is involved in things where they work against Muslims.

Q OK. What sort of things?

A Last year, or the year before, they gave an award to Shimon Peres [Israeli politician] and they also have a department for tackling radicalisation . . . So I just didn't wanna go there any more . . . 'cos it would be against my religion.

Q OK, and when did you sort of make that decision?

A About a month ago.

Q OK. It seems quite a long time to be there and almost to the end of that course, you know, the end and just to let it go. Is there any . . . did you have any problems understanding the course?

A I was the top student.

Q Was you? OK and what did they say when you pulled out?

A They didn't want me to pull out.

Choudhry says after leaving her course, she worked at a tuition centre called KnowledgeBox teaching maths, English and science. She says she won't be working there any more.

Q Why's that then?

A Because of what I just did today.

Q Well, tell me about that then. Tell me what happened today.

A I stabbed Stephen Timms.

Q You stabbed Stephen Timms.

A Yep.

Choudhry gives details of the attack, as heard in her trial. She says she made an appointment to see him at his constituency surgery.

Q Why did you make that appointment?

A So I can do what I did.

Q So tell me what thought process you went through before you made that phone call?

A I thought that it's not right that he voted for the declaration of war in Iraq.

Q When did you start thinking about that?

A Over the last few months.

Q What's led you to start thinking about that?

A I've been learning more about Islam.

Q Where have you been learning that?

A Internet.

Q What websites you been looking at?

A I've been listening to lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki.

Q Anwar?

A Al-Awlaki.

Q Who's he?

A He's an Islamic scholar. He lives in Yemen.

Q And where have you been listening to these lectures?

A I downloaded it off of the internet . . . Explaining stories from the Quran and explaining about jihad.

Q And has that contributed to your decision to leave King's?

A Yes.

Q And where was the link there then?

A I thought that I should have loyalty to my Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine and so I should leave King's and that would show my loyalty to them.

Q Who have you been watching these lectures with?

A I listen to them on my own.

Q So when did you decide: "From what I've learnt, I'm now gonna go and stab Stephen Timms?"

A A couple of weeks ago. It's three weeks ago, four weeks ago.

Q So it's quite recent?

A Yep.

Q Before you finished college? After?

A Before.

Q And that was 27 April, if I remember rightly, was it?

A Yep.

Dobinson How do you feel now about what you've done today?

Choudhry I feel like I did what I'd planned to do.

Q OK, do you want to tell me more? Tell me what you're thinking now? Tell me what your thoughts about what you've done today are.

A I feel like I've ruined the rest of my life. I feel like it's worth it because millions of Iraqis are suffering and I should do what I can to help them and not just be inactive and do nothing while they suffer.

DC Hussain Sorry, just before we finish, I've just a couple of questions that I've got to ask you. When did this interest of yours for Islam develop?

A I've always been quite religious and I started to listen to Anwar al-Awlaki lectures last year and then I started to get really into it and I listened to everything that . . . like all of his recorded lectures that he made and that would have been like since November. I've been listening to him since November.

Hussain How did you get introduced to Anwar al-Awlaki?

A He's quite famous and I've started to listen to his stuff.

Hussain How did you come across him?

A On the internet.

Hussain Was that from your own research or did someone recommend him?

A From my own research, but everybody listens to him and likes him anyway.

Q Do you go to a regular mosque?

A No . . . I just pray at home.

Q Who do you discuss your Islam with?

A In general I just talk about it to my brothers and sisters but I don't mention everything to them.

Q If you've got a question that you want to ask or you want answered, who do you ask?

A I don't ask anyone, I just listen to his lectures. There's no one to ask.

Hussain I just want to go over a little bit how your thought has gone from getting to religion to all of a sudden wanting some form of vengeance.

A Because as Muslims we're all brothers and sisters and we should all look out for each other and we shouldn't sit back and do nothing while others suffer. We shouldn't allow the people who oppress us to get away with it and to think that they can do whatever they want to us and we're just gonna lie down and take it.

Q Where did you learn that from?

A From listening to his lectures.

Q And that's caused you to do what you've done today?

A Yeah.

Q OK. Just a couple of other things. You bought the knives, you say, two to three weeks ago . . . Where did you keep 'em?

A Underneath the bed in a shoebox.

Q How did you feel about what you was about to do?

A I was a bit nervous about what I was gonna do but I felt like it had to be done and it's the right thing to do.

Q Having done it, how do you feel now?

A I feel like I did my best to fulfil my duty to the other Muslims.

Dobinson . . . What did you think was gonna happen once you'd carried out your intentions?

Choudhry I thought that I would either get arrested or maybe I would like get killed or something.

Q How would you get killed?

A Like, if the police came and they had guns.

Q [Inaudible] take me through your thought process about that then?

A Oh no, I was just thinking about the possibilities and I thought it's either getting arrested or being killed. But either way I knew I wasn't coming back home again.

Q What, what did you think about getting killed then?

A I wanted to die.

Q Why?

A I wanted to be a martyr.

Q Why's that then?

A 'Cos, erm, that's the best way to die.

Q Who told you that?

A It's an Islamic teaching.

Q Where did you learn that?

A It's . . . it's in the Quran and I learnt it from listening to lectures as well.

Q OK, what lectures are that?

A By Anwar al-Awlaki.

Q Al-Awlaki?

A Yeah.

Q OK, well, how did you find out about him?

A On the internet . . . if you go on YouTube there's a lot of his videos there and if you do a search they just come up . . . I wasn't searching for him, I just came across him . . . I used to watch videos that people used to put up about like how they became Muslim.

Q OK, why did you watch those videos?

A 'Cos I thought . . . their life stories were interesting . . . And as you watch videos that like a whole other list of related videos comes up and I was just looking through those and I came across it.

Q Anwar al-Awlaki?

A Yeah.

Q OK. So who put you, who guided down this path to, to look for, you know, the videos of people and how they become Muslim?

A No one, I just found them really interesting . . . I became interested in Anwar al-Awlaki's lectures because he explains things really comprehensively and in an interesting way so I thought I could learn a lot from him and I was also surprised at how little I knew about my religion so that motivated me to learn more . . .

Q What happened in November then?

A I downloaded the full set of Anwar al-Awlaki's lectures.

Q Yeah, what do you reckon the full set of his lectures are?

A More than a hundred hours.

Q And have you watched all those lectures?

A Yeah.

Q When did you finish watching them?

A The first week of May.

Q How often were you going on to the internet . . .

A First I was listening to like two a day, but then for a while I stopped because I had coursework to do and then I started back up again because I thought I need to finish listening to these.

Q Yeah. Apart from the lectures, what else were you looking at online?

A I was looking at YouTube videos about the resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Q What other sites, remember any particular internet sites you looked at?

A When I was doing research about MPs, I looked at one called theyworkforyou.co.uk [theyworkforyou.com] and I think another one was called publicwhips [the publicwhip.org.uk].

Q Yeah, anything else?

A There's a website called revolutionmuslim.

Q OK. Forgive me, I find it, I just find it a little bit strange that you're doing all this on your own and not speaking to anyone else about or . . .

A Because nobody would understand. And anyway I didn't wanna tell anyone because I know that if anybody else knew, they'd get in trouble 'cos then they would be like implicated in whatever I do, so I kept it a secret.

Q OK. When did the Iraq war start?

A 2003.

Q So how old would you have been then, 14? . . . Did you have any strong view feelings at that time when the war started?

A No, I was just against in general like everyone else, but not strong feelings.

Q And what changed . . . what made you get those strong feelings that you've obviously got now?

A When I realised that I have an obligation to defend the people of Iraq and to fight on their side, that's when it changed my mind. And also just like the death tolls and the civilian, like casualties and the pictures from the prisons.

Q OK, can you pinpoint the time when that changed or was it a gradual . . . was there one particular incident?

A Like, erm, after like listening to the lectures, I realised by obligation but I didn't wanna like fight myself and just thought other people should fight, like men, but then I found out that even women are supposed to fight as well so I thought I should join in.

Q Where did you find that out from?

A A YouTube video by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.

Q And what was he saying?

A He was saying that when a Muslim land is attacked it becomes obligatory on every man, woman and child and even slave to go out and fight and defend the land and the Muslims and if they can't handle like the forces they are facing, then it becomes obligatory on the people who live in . . . closest to that country and if those people refuse to fulfil their duty then it, then it becomes to the next closest people and the next closest until it goes all the way round the whole world and it's obligatory on everyone to defend that land.

Q OK, and when did you watch that YouTube video?

A That probably would have been a couple of weeks ago, like some point in April.

Q Was that before you bought the knives or after you bought the knives?

A That would have been before, I think . . .

Q . . . how soon after watching that video did you decide to put things into action? Or to make plans?

A It would probably would have been like a few days or something.

Choudhry says she was planning to leave the UK and live in Bangladesh. But she changed her mind.

Q Why didn't you go?

A 'Cos I thought if this is more important then I shouldn't just be running away.

Q You say "this is more important". What is more important?

A Fighting.

Q You at some stage since then decided that "I'm gonna kill Stephen Timms, the local MP"?

A Yeah.

Q OK, so explain to me again why, why him? Lots of people voted for the war in Iraq, lots of MPs.

A Yeah, erm, it's because . . . well, even the doctor asked me that: so like are you . . . were you gonna kill everyone? And I told him that I'm just one person and I did what I could.

Q I was asking you why Stephen Timms was picked on . . . Why did you pick an MP to carry out this attack?

A Because he was directly involved with the declaration of war, so he'd directly committed a crime.

Q How did you know that?

A Because years ago back, maybe 2007 or 2006, I went on a school trip to Westminster and to meet him and we sat . . . there was a group of us, like maybe about ten, and we sat with him for . . . like an hour maybe and spoke to him and one of my friends there she . . . we, we were all just asking general questions about what's it like to be an MP and what kind of work do you do and what are you doing at the moment, just general things like that. But there was this one girl there and almost the whole time we were there, she was having a go at him for . . . because he voted for the war in Iraq. She was questioning him about that.

Q OK, and what did you think about that at the time?

A At the time I was thinking that she should be quiet and that she's embarrassing herself and I didn't say anything to support her, I just sat there feeling embarrassed.

Q Embarrassed, what, for her or yourself or what, anyone else?

A I guess I respected her for having the guts to just say all these things to his face but like I wasn't brave enough to say anything, I just sat quietly.

Q Did you want to say something to him then?

A Not really.

Q So, have you carried out any research to . . . about Stephen Timms.

A Yeah, on . . . I looked up, I found, I googled him, I found out he had a website, I found a page about him on theyworkforyou.com . . . if you follow that link it shows information about how he voted on different things related to the Iraq war and the build-up towards it. I found out that . . . he very strongly agreed with the invasion of Iraq and they said very strongly because they worked out all his votes for everything related to that and it came up to something like 99.9 per cent support or something like that.

Q How does that make you feel?

A That made me feel angry because the whole Iraq war is just based on lies and he just voted strongly for everything as though he had no mercy. As though he felt no doubts that what he was doing was right, even though it was such an arrogant thing to do and I just felt like if he could treat the Iraqi people so mercilessly, then why should I show him any mercy?

Q What, what makes you think that it's your place to go and stab him?

A Because I'm a Muslim and all Muslims are brothers and sisters. So if he attacked them, then he's likely to attack me too.

Q So where in the Quran does it say that you should go and kill someone?

A Erm, the main chapters about it are chapter . . . chapter eight and chapter nine, I think.

Q What does that say, can you remember?

A Erm, it says to . . . it says to fight until there is no more oppression in the land. Because it's better to fight than to be persecuted.

Q What do you think about what you've done to Stephen Timms and all that?

A I think I've fulfilled my obligation, my Islamic duty to stand up for the people of lraq and to punish someone who wanted to make war with them.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear