On the morning of 19 October, Anjem Choudary, the UK’s most notorious Islamist preacher, was released from Belmarsh Prison, after serving half of a six-year sentence for “inviting support for Islamic State”. The relative triviality of the offence, however, and the accompanying sentence, belie the snarl behind Choudary’s smile – he has dominated the Islamist scene in Britain for more than two decades.
During that time, the 51-year-old has inspired a cadre of extremists who have caused destruction across the world. Michael Adebolajo, one of the men who killed Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south-east London in 2013, was a former associate of Choudary’s, having converted to Islam a decade before the attack. Another two acolytes, Abu Rumaysah and Abu Rahin Aziz, both skipped bail and travelled to Syria, where they joined Islamic State. They later met Mohammed Reza Haque, who was once referred to as Choudary’s bodyguard; he appeared as an Islamic State executioner in beheading videos released by the group.
The roots of Choudary’s pernicious influence can be traced back to the rise of an aggressive Islamist scene in the early 1990s. Two crucial events triggered the emergence of this movement.
The first was the conclusion of the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan War, which was relayed as a heroic victory for the mujahedin. The second followed Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which caused the Saudi government to enter a military alliance with the US in order to curtail Iraqi ambitions and restore the Kuwaiti monarchy. Saudi’s relationship with the US was galling for Islamists, who believed it amounted to a betrayal of Islam itself.
Among them was the Syrian cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed, founder of the extremist group al-Muhajiroun (“the emigrants”) and the man who reputedly radicalised Choudary. By the latter’s account, he “bumped into” Bakri at Woolwich mosque and was so inspired by the cleric that he asked him for help in studying sharia law.
Born in London in 1967, Anjem Choudary is the son of a Welling market trader and is of Pakistani descent. He enrolled as a medical student at the University of Southampton, where he was known as “Andy”, and became renowned for his womanising and alleged drug-taking (“I admit that I wasn’t always practising… I committed many mistakes in my life,” Choudary said in 2014). Perhaps unsurprisingly, he failed his first-year exams but later graduated in law from Guildford in 1991 before moving to London to teach English as a second language. In 1996, he married Rubana Akhtar, the former leader of the women’s section of al-Muhajiroun and the mother of his five children.
His trajectory thereafter was increasingly troubling. Together with Bakri, Choudary organised a “Rally for Islam” at the London Arena in 1996. The list of advertised speakers reads like a who’s who of international terrorism, boasting of video messages from Osama bin Laden and Omar Abdel-Rahman; the latter having been convicted of masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York. The event was eventually cancelled by London Arena management but the damage was already done.
Choudary, who is articulate, quickly became a leading figure in al-Muhajiroun and appeared often on television and radio. Following the 7 July 2005 terrorist attacks in London, in which 52 people were killed, he and his associates refused to condemn the atrocities, instead blaming Western foreign policy. For them, the true culprit was Tony Blair and his decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
Al-Muhajiroun was banned by the government shortly after the 7/7 bombings but quickly reappeared in a variety of new guises. As before, Choudary was the de facto leader.
When Islamic State captured territory and began committing atrocities during the Syrian crisis in 2014, Choudary refused to condemn the group and even lauded it. In his view, loyalty was ultimately owed to other Sunni Muslims, no matter how extreme their violence.
It was Choudary’s allegiance to Islamic State that finally led to his arrest in 2015 and his conviction in 2016. He had, a judge ruled, “crossed the line” between “legitimate expression” and “a criminal act”.
Until this point, the law graduate was savvier than others in the Islamist movement, tactically mindful of the limits of the law. The homegrown extremists that Choudary has inspired in Britain have proved more difficult to confront than extremists from abroad.
For now, Choudary is bound by numerous restrictions and cannot speak to the media. His movements, internet use and contacts are limited. But authorities know there is still power behind that beguiling smile, and he will continue to rally the faithful. Unlike those before him, Anjem Choudary is going nowhere.
This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash