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Al-Muhajiroun and the long tail of UK terror

The murder of two young people on London Bridge last year was the latest atrocity by a follower of al-Muhajiroun, the Islamist group given freedom by the British state to radicalise a generation of Muslims.

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On the afternoon of 29 November 2019, a convicted Islamist extremist out of prison on licence stabbed and murdered two people in a rampage that ended with his being shot and killed by police on London Bridge. He was a delegate attending an education and rehabilitation conference organised by Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology at Fishmongers’ Hall, on the north side of London Bridge. Jack Merritt, 25, a coordinator for the “Learning Together” programme, and Saskia Jones, 23, a volunteer, died from their wounds.

Just after midnight, the Metropolitan Police named the killer as Usman Khan. When I heard his name it occurred to me that, at some point, he must have been connected to al-Muhajiroun, an Islamist group whose influence I have been monitoring and investigating for 20 years. 

Al-Muhajiroun was a British extremist group that agitated for an Islamic state or caliphate in the United Kingdom. It wanted to end democracy and for Sharia law to be introduced by force. It turned out that Usman Khan, like so many terrorists before him, did indeed have a history of involvement with the network, as I suspected. 

While still a teenager living in Stoke-on-Trent, Khan became close to the group’s co-founder and sometime leader Anjem Choudary. He attended street protests and handed out aggressive Islamist propaganda from “dawah stalls” in 2006 when he was just 14 or 15.

As in towns and cities across the UK, Stoke’s Muslim community was dismayed by al-Muhajiroun’s street proselytising and its effect on community relations. Khan spoke of kuffar (non-believers) as “dogs”. Community concerns about his activities led the police to raid five houses, including his family home in 2008. 

After searching through 330,000 computer files in an investigation lasting 18 months, the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was no realistic chance of a conviction against Khan. It seemed that Khan’s mentor, Anjem Choudary, had taught him well: Khan had been careful to stay, just, on the right side of the law.

Khan denounced the raids. Using his Islamic name or kunya, Abu Saif, he told the BBC in 2008: “I’ve been born and bred in England, in Stoke-on-Trent”. He said “all the community knows me”, adding: “I ain’t no terrorist.” 

For 20 years Choudary used his training as a qualified lawyer to evade the grasp of terrorism laws. Counterterrorism officials were relieved when he finally slipped up in 2015 by inciting his followers to join Islamic State in Syria, a proscribed terrorist group. That was enough for a jury to convict Choudary and he was sentenced to five and a half years in prison. He was released on licence in October 2018.

For some al-Muhajiroun recruits such as Usman Khan, what started with opposition to democracy and hatred for the kuffar ended in violent terrorist attacks. In December 2010, the man once content to agitate on the streets of Stoke was arrested for a plan to set up a terrorist training camp on land owned by his family in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, from where he aspired to launch attacks in Britain.


Provocateur: Anjem Choudary (left) at a news conference on the third anniversary of 9/11, 2004. Credit: David Bebber/Reuters

Khan was a senior figure in a cell of Muslim extremists in Stoke. His group joined forces with other cells in London and Cardiff. In total, nine would-be terrorists were being monitored by MI5. On 12 December 2010, the security service was watching as Khan met a group of men at the Cwmcarn country park near Newport in Wales. They were recorded discussing how to advance plans for an attack. Standing in a circle, they read from pieces of paper. 

One of the documents is believed to have been a target list; this was later recovered when police raided the conspirators’ homes. Those on the list included Boris Johnson, then mayor of London; Graeme Knowles, the dean of St Paul’s  Cathedral; two rabbis; and the US embassy in London.

The cells in Stoke, London and Cardiff had different priorities for attacks in Britain but they were familiar with each other’s plans. The London and Cardiff cells wanted to place a bomb in the London Stock Exchange. Khan’s cell planned to attack pubs in Stoke used by far-right activists. On 15 December, MI5 was listening as Khan discussed making a pipe bomb by following instructions published in Inspire, an al-Qaeda online magazine. On 19 December, the London cell indicated it was experimenting with how to make a pipe bomb. MI5 assessed an attack was imminent and the network was arrested the next morning. 

The plotters pleaded guilty to terrorist offences at their trial in 2012. The judge said that Usman Khan, and his two accomplices in the Stoke cell, were “the more serious and effective terrorists” in the wider group. Anjem Choudary told the Daily Star that many of those convicted were well known to him. “Certainly the ones in London and in Stoke were students of mine,” he said. “They studied the Sharia with me and I knew them for quite a while.”

He went on: “Number one, that does not mean they were members of any kind of organisation because not everyone who studies with us is part of the organisation. Number two, we are not aware of anything outside our own activities, which are purely ideological and political struggle.”

Choudary argued that his was a purely “ideological and political struggle”. And yet, so many of his supporters have gone on to plan or commit terror attacks. Choudary has always said that he has never directed terrorist plots and that his followers, if involved in terrorism, were responsible for their own decisions. But if al-Muhajiroun has created a gateway to terror for a pool of impressionable, angry recruits, he is deliberately missing the point. The network has been a precursor to violent extremism and an incubator for terrorism in the UK.

This conclusion is strongly supported by a comprehensive analysis of all UK terrorist plots compiled by the terrorism researcher Hannah Stuart for the Henry Jackson Society. She concluded that at least a quarter of convicted UK terrorists have links to al-Muhajiroun. 

The London Bridge attack on 3 June 2017 fits the pattern. That summer night, during the general election campaign and less than two weeks after the suicide bomb attack at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena, three Islamists murdered two people by deliberately driving a van into them on London Bridge. They then jumped out of their vehicle and rampaged through  Borough Market, killing six more people while shouting “this is for Allah”.

One of the perpetrators, Khuram Butt, was a subject of interest for MI5 because of his associations with al-Muhajiroun. He had even appeared in a 2016 Channel 4 documentary, The Jihadis Next Door, during which he was filmed with people linked to the group.

While reporting on the 2017 London Bridge attack for BBC Newsnight, I discovered yet another link to al-Muhajiroun. After I visited the small private gym in east London where the attackers used to train, I found a document that recorded the name of the man who had applied for planning permission to convert the building into a gym. He was Sajeel Shahid. I knew the name because he was an al-Muhajiroun activist in the late 1990s. There is no suggestion that he knew anything about the London attack but the link with the old al-Muhajiroun network was striking.

***

Al-Muhajiroun was created by the extremist cleric Omar Bakri Muhammad, who was given asylum in Britain in 1986 after being expelled from Saudi Arabia for promoting the international Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which had been banned in the kingdom. Operating from his new home in Tottenham, north London, the self-styled “Sheikh” worked on Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ambitions to create a global caliphate. But the group’s international leaders grew tired of his relentless focus on British politics and a decade later he was expelled. In 1996, Bakri Muhammad formed his own group, al-Muhajiroun – “the emigrants”. Global domination remained the aim, but the revolution was to begin in Britain.

Right up to the London bombings of 7 July 2005, al-Muhajiroun openly recruited in towns and cities. Anywhere with a large Muslim population was of interest: London, Birmingham and Manchester, but also smaller towns and cities such as Luton, Derby, Slough, High Wycombe and Crawley.

Al-Muhajiroun’s recruitment drive in the late 1990s went largely unnoticed because the police and MI5 were preoccupied by Irish terrorism. Peter Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism at the Metropolitan Police, told me: “The Good Friday Agreement may have been signed in 1998, but the dissident republicans of the Real IRA were attacking targets on the mainland UK, including the BBC, until 2001. At that time Islamist groups were involved in  low-level criminality to raise funds to send back to political organisations in their countries of origin.”

For the security professionals, al- Muhajiroun was not a priority, even though there was anger in the Muslim communities of some towns about its activities. I was told of efforts to ban al-Muhajiroun activists from mosques and public spaces in Luton and Crawley. But in wider society and in the Labour government there was little understanding of the group’s toxic influence.

When Muslim sixth formers at a big Crawley comprehensive invited Bakri Muhammad to give a talk at their school, the headmaster allowed the event to go ahead. With admirable honesty, Gordon Parry, the former headteacher at Hazelwick, told me: “At the time our involvement with him was simply to promote religious tolerance and understanding and inclusivity. I will put my hand up now and say that was an utterly naive thing to do. But at the time I didn’t  understand what he represented.”

One of al-Muhajiroun’s early propaganda leaflets, called “The Islamic Truth”, would have given some clues. Printed in 1999, it urged supporters to travel to Chechnya to wage jihad against the Russians and to purchase high frequency radios for mujahedin fighters. Most tellingly, it stated: “For the average Muslim in Britain Tony Blair has already declared war against Muslims worldwide.” This, in effect, was the core al- Muhajiroun doctrine – that Islam was at war with the West. Bakri Muhammad inculcated a sense of victimhood and persecution that he knew would serve as a rallying call for young recruits.

***

The al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001 provided al-Muhajiroun with potent propaganda. Shortly after 9/11, my colleague Shashi Singh and I arranged to meet Bakri Muhammad at his Tottenham office. We were curious to find out if he would condemn an attack that had killed nearly 3,000 civilians. The answer was “no”, but he deployed a defence designed to keep the group’s supporters out of prison. He stressed that his followers were forbidden from attacking the UK because a “covenant of security” had been agreed; they were free to practise their religion and Britain was their host. It was a fig leaf, of course. But before the London bombings of 2005 this defence was a useful strategy for al- Muhajiroun while it groomed its recruits.

The group largely targeted the children of first-generation immigrants, but it also found and cultivated vulnerable, troubled non-Muslims, often involved in drugs and crime. I was filming at one event at which a drink- or drug-addled man was being converted to Islam by an al-Muhajiroun leader. He was barely coherent but just about managed to repeat the shahada – the Muslim profession of faith. Al-Muhajiroun’s latest recruit told me how grateful he was to have “a billion brothers” in his new life.

Al-Muhajiroun revelled in causing outrage. On the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2003 its posters hailed the terrorists as “the Magnificent 19”. Largely untroubled by the British state, the group and its propaganda were becoming ever more extreme. In April 2004 I was making a film for Newsnight about a young man from Crawley called Simon Keeler, who had converted to Islam and changed his name to Sulayman after joining al-Muhajiroun. Keeler, who was later convicted of terrorism offences, had invited our film crew to attend a meeting in a community hall in Weavers Fields in the East End of London. I sat in the audience as a man in white robes at the front of the hall took the microphone. He launched into al-Muhajiroun’s favourite topic, the attacks of 11 September 2001.

“When Tony Blair came out, George Bush came out at the same time and he said: ‘Are you with us or you’re with the terrorists?’ What did we Muslims say?”

He paused for effect.

“‘We’re not with you, we’re with the… terrorists.’”

The audience finished his sentence for him and cries of “Allahu Akbar” echoed around the room.

The next speaker was Sajid Sharif, also known as Abu Uzair, an engineering graduate from Manchester.

“When the two planes magnificently run through those buildings… people say, ‘hang on a second, that is barbaric. Why did you have to do that?’ You know why? Because of ignorance… for us it’s retaliation.”

I raised my hand to object.

Abu Uzair answered, jabbing his finger at me. “It can’t be right according to you. According to Islam it’s right. Do you not kill innocent civilians in Afghanistan?”

Six months after I had filmed this meeting, al-Muhajiroun’s leaders publicly wound up the organisation to avoid a ban under counterterrorism laws. This was the first move in a cat and mouse game to stay one step ahead of the authorities. In reality the network persisted under different names. Al-Ghurabaa and the Saviour Sect both emerged in 2005 as splinter groups. Other names included Muslims Against Crusades, Islam4UK, Shariah4UK, Call to Submission, Islamic Path, the London School of Sharia, and Need4Khilafah. All these groups can be considered part of the al-Muhajiroun network.

***

Where does all this leave us today? Al-Muhajiroun and its successor organisations have radicalised hundreds of British Muslims. The list of terrorist plots linked to the group is long (see box). The number of active supporters probably measured in the low hundreds, but the impact has been far greater than that amount suggests. Bakri Muhammad, and Anjem Choudary after him, succeeded in creating a narrative that Islam was at war with the West, and that jihad, by way of terrorist attacks, could be theologically justified. And, in a pattern that has so often been repeated, association with al-Muhajiroun was often the first step towards joining openly violent groups. The head of the July 2005 London suicide bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, had his terrorist training in Pakistan set up by al-Muhajiroun, and while there he met serious al-Qaeda operatives.

In the late 1990s, Bakri Muhammad sent some of his most trusted men to Lahore to launch a new branch of the group. Pakistan was considered strategically important and there were many fighters there who had fought jihad in Afghanistan against Soviet troops in the 1980s. Plus, it was a nuclear power. Al-Muhajiroun’s network in Pakistan set up a terrorist training camp in a remote area of the North West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) near the town of Malakand. In 2003, Mohammad Sidique Khan trained at the camp along with what amounts to a roll call of British jihadists, including the leader of the 2004 fertiliser bomb that targeted the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London and the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent.

It’s a similar story with the most recent London Bridge attacker, Usman Khan.  He grew tired of al-Muhajiroun’s equivocation on supporting (publicly at least)  violence in Britain and the so-called covenant of security. While he was associated with the group, he joined a US-based online platform called Revolution Muslim, which posted talks by the al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki and the Jamaican extremist convert Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal. Khan and his associates were found with copies of the al-Qaeda magazine Inspire when they were arrested.

Awlaki was one of the most influential preachers aligned with al-Qaeda. He was killed in Yemen by a US drone strike in 2011. Sheikh Faisal was deported to Jamaica from the UK in 2007 after serving a prison sentence for soliciting the murder of Hindus and Jews. Both al-Awlaki and al-Faisal had no time for any notion of a covenant of security, and urged followers to attack British targets. And both men were sought out by Khan after he had graduated from al-Muhajiroun.
So, if al-Muhajiroun has been a gateway to violent extremism, was the threat it posed to security underestimated? 

The answer is undoubtedly yes. For almost a decade, from the creation of the network in the mid-1990s, al-Muhajiroun was allowed to grow in strength and influence. Several counterterrorism sources have told me that, at the time, there was an assumption that the group was led by fools who had little capacity to endanger the public. One source who used to advise government on counterterrorism said he heard the term “blowhard” being used about al-Muhajiroun’s leaders – people who talked a good war but would not fight it. And, in a stance that raises serious ethical questions, the British state was apparently content to wait and watch so long as al-Muhajiroun’s focus was on attacks overseas. 

Peter Clarke told me that he never heard the term “blowhard” being used. He pointed out that by 2004, the UK security threat from Islamist terrorism was clear. An intercepted electronic communication about perfecting the ingredients for a huge fertiliser bomb prompted Operation Crevice, the counterterrorism investigation into the Crawley terror cell by the police and MI5. This was followed a few months later by another investigation, Operation Rhyme, to foil a second Islamist bomb plot.

“There was a race to investigate these plots,” Clarke told me. “These were both intercepted as a result of intensive investigation by MI5 and police, and preceded the 7/7 attacks. So it is not right to say that the Islamist threat was ignored.”

***

But, in truth, the seeds of the problem were sown much earlier, in the late 1990s. There was a scramble to catch up after 2004 but, by then, much damage had been done. As Paul Lever, the former diplomat and chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 1994 to 1996, told me after the London bombings of 2005, there was a “failure of imagination” in understanding the consequences of allowing al-Muhajiroun and its followers the freedom to radicalise hundreds of young Muslims. And today, every time a new attack is perpetrated by someone who has links to al-Muhajiroun we are given a sad reminder of that. 

 

Timeline: The dangerous legacy of al-Muhajiroun

2003: Suicide bombing attack on Mike’s Place bar, Tel Aviv, Israel
On 30 April, British al-Muhajiroun supporters Asif Hanif, 22, and Omar Sharif, 27, entered Mike’s Place bar wearing suicide vests. Hanif detonated his vest, killing three people and injuring more than 50. Sharif’s vest failed to explode. His body was later found washed up on a nearby beach. Asif Hanif had attended lectures by Omar Bakri Muhammad, the founder of al-Muhajiroun.

2004: Fertiliser bomb plot 
A plot by five British extremists led by Omar Khyam from Crawley, West Sussex to detonate a huge bomb made from ammonium nitrate fertiliser was foiled in April 2004. Targets discussed included the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, the Ministry of Sound nightclub in south London, and the National Grid. In the late 1990s, al-Muhajiroun events drew the five into extremism.

2005: Machine gun plot
Kazi Rahman bought three Uzi sub-machine guns and 3,000 rounds of ammunition from undercover officers at South Mimms services on the M25. He was also trying to buy a surface to air missile and rocket-propelled-grenades. Rahman attended the Malakand terrorist training camp in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province in 2003.

2005: London bombings
The leader of the four bombers who murdered 52 people in London on 7 July trained with explosives and guns at a camp in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province in 2003. The camp, near the town of Malakand, was set up by al-Muhajiroun’s Pakistan branch, which was created in the late 1990s when Bakri Muhammad sent some of his most trusted men to establish an overseas office in Lahore.=

2013: Murder of Lee Rigby
One of the British soldier’s killers, Michael Adebolajo, was a follower of al-Muhajiroun. In 2007, he was filmed by the BBC standing behind Anjem Choudary at a demonstration in London. Like others before and after him, he sought out more extreme groups, and tried to join the al-Qaeda subsidiary al-Shaabab in Somalia in 2010.

2014: Suicide bombing attack in Syria 
Abdul Waheed Majid was one of a group of extremists from Crawley – some of whom were involved in the fertiliser bomb plot. Majid was the first Briton to carry out a suicide attack in the Syrian conflict.

2014: Beheading plot by Brusthom Ziamani
The teenager was caught on his way to behead a soldier in London. In his bag was a 12-inch knife, a hammer and an Islamic black flag. He was radicalised by al-Muhajiroun after his parents threw him out for converting to Islam. He was convicted in 2015. In January, Ziamani was allegedly involved in a knife assault against prison staff at HMP Whitemoor.

2017: London Bridge attack
Khuram Butt, one of the three terrorists who murdered eight people in June 2017, openly associated with extremists from al-Muhajiroun. 

2019: London Bridge attack
The attacker, Usman Khan, had close links with Anjem Choudary and had his personal mobile number stored on his phone. 

This article appears in the 21 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics