The UK Metropolitan Police have prepared a set of 25 measures to contain Anjem Choudary’s activities following the extremist preacher’s release from prison today. These measures include asset freezes, a ban on him preaching and attending certain mosques, approval of his face-to-face meetings and supervision of his Internet use. The cost of funding this operation is believed to exceed £2 million ($2.6 million) a year—all to contain one man. But what about the ideology he has spearheaded?
Choudary was convicted in 2016 and is one of the most visible Islamist extremist figures in the UK. Along with convicted hate preacher Omar Bakri Muhammad, he led the al-Muhajiroun group, which the UK government proscribed in 2005 for glorifying and condoning terrorism. Choudary is accused of influencing at least 100 British jihadis, including the killers of British soldier Lee Rigby and several Britons who went to fight for ISIS overseas. A 2017 report by our Institute found that Choudary and Bakri were two of the central figures in inspiring known British jihadis.
Choudary was not shy about his desire to overhaul the British system of government and replace it with sharia law: al-Muhajiroun’s goal was to establish a global caliphate. At its most extreme, al-Muhajiroun’s ideology justified and glorified acts of terrorism against the West, with the group infamously referring to the 9/11 terrorists as the “Magnificent 19”.
Aside from its violent component, the group’s ideology had destructive implications for social cohesion, advocating a worldview that pits Muslims and non-Muslims against each other. Muslims were portrayed as the victims of a global anti-Muslim conspiracy by the West and the British government. Many Islamist activists in the UK continue to share this worldview.
Choudary is accused of influencing at least 100 British jihadis. A 2017 report by our Institute found that Choudary and Bakri were two of the central figures in inspiring known British jihadis.”
Choudary tiptoed the line for 20 years, but the evidence to prosecute him was always insufficient. He was eventually imprisoned for broadly encouraging support for ISIS, which is an offence under the Terrorism Act 2000, rather than for radicalising any individual terrorist.
Today he has been freed from prison mid-sentence, after serving less than three years. This raises questions about whether existing legal mechanisms are robust enough to combat the threat posed by extremists who do not commit acts of violence but inspire others to do so. As the former head of the Met’s counter-terror force, Richard Walton, has commented, the proposed new counter-terror bill has the potential to lower the threshold for convicting such offences and lengthen sentences for associated crimes.
Choudary’s short stay behind bars has not watered down his standing as one of the most influential extremist voices in Islamist circles in the UK and across Europe. And his release is likely to have ripple effects on Islamist extremism, despite the restraining conditions of his licence. He may not be able to propagate the message directly, but his ideas are still accessible through numerous videos of him that are available via YouTube. These are likely to experience renewed popularity in the wake of his release.
And while it appears unlikely that Choudary himself will be able to rebuild al-Muhajiroun without being sent back to prison, his acolytes could be inspired by the symbolism of his release. To supporters, his premature freedom also implies that the cost of spreading this brand of dangerous ideology is not particularly high. Pockets of his followers are believed to still be active throughout the country, and several al-Muhajiroun activists who have been imprisoned will be eligible for release in the coming months. Security services may be able to restrict Choudary’s movements, but parts of his network are still unaccounted for.
His release should make policymakers reflect on how to stop the next Choudary; his potential successor may learn from his mistakes and avoid making rabble-rousing public statements that fall foul of the law.”
Cutting the head off a proscribed organisation like al-Muhajiroun has been effective in driving recruits underground and reducing the overall visibility of the movement. However, it would be naive to think that containing Choudary as an individual—whether through a longer prison sentence or heightened surveillance after release—is enough to stop the spread of his ideology.
If anything, his release should make policymakers reflect on how to stop the next Choudary; his potential successor may learn from his mistakes and avoid making rabble-rousing public statements that fall foul of the law. Choudary 2.0 would probably be more tech savvy and take advantage of social-media channels such as YouTube and Twitter to reach a larger audience. Elements of al-Muhajiroun’s ideology could be repackaged to seem more palatable and appealing.
This is why it is crucial to tackle the messages themselves, not just the message carriers. To develop a cohesive society that is resilient to radicalisation and extremism, political leaders need to do much more at the national and the community levels to push back against the pervasive influence of these extreme ideologies. This includes implementing educational programmes to build resilience to divisive narratives from a young age.
It is crucial to tackle the messages themselves, not just the message carriers. To develop a cohesive society that is resilient to radicalisation and extremism, political leaders need to do much more at the national and the community levels to push back.”
Media outlets also share the responsibility to deny a platform to these extreme voices. Choudary has become a recognisable face because for years he was invited to appear on televised debates, interviews and documentaries. Instead of giving oxygen to figures of hate like Choudary, policymakers need to amplify positive community voices that can counteract the falsehoods that he propagates about Islam and Muslim communities.