Release of hate preacher Anjem Choudary poses major test
LONDON - The release of convicted British hate preacher Anjem Choudary from prison serves as an important, and dangerous, test case for how UK authorities deal with hate speech.
Choudary was convicted on terrorism charges in 2016 and sentenced to 5.5 years in prison for publicly inviting support for the Islamic State (ISIS). His release, after serving half his sentence, prompts a major security headache for British authorities.
Choudary took an oath of allegiance to ISIS in 2014 and his followers have included men who fought for ISIS, including Siddhartha Dhar (known as Abu Rumaysah); Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, who were responsible for the killing of off-duty Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013; and 2017 London Bridge attack ringleader Khuram Butt.
Choudary has been directly or indirectly linked to at least 123 Islamist terrorist attacks in the past 20 years and he was listed as a “specially designated global terrorist” by the United States last year because of his alleged connections to terrorist networks.
Founder of the banned Al-Muhajiroun group, Choudary will face tight restrictions on his post-jail activities and associations, including electronic monitoring, heavily restricted internet access and communications and a ban on associating with extremists or speaking in public.
Just days before his release October 19, Choudary’s assets were frozen as part of UN sanctions related to a list of ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorists that was officially adopted by the UK Treasury, imposing further restrictions on the convicted hate preacher.
“The foreign secretary pushed for Choudary’s designation under the UN sanctions regime because its asset freeze, travel ban and arms embargo have global reach,” the UK Foreign Office said.
“Britain is determined to use the full range of legal measures to destroy and diminish the threat from ISIS, including taking action against UK nationals and residents where necessary.”
Faith Matters, a UK-based counter-extremism network, described Choudary’s release as a “mistake” that would energise radicals -- both Islamist extremists and far-right anti-Muslim extremists.
The group warned that Choudary occupies a unique position in the United Kingdom, both as a “poisonous inspiration for young [Muslim] men who have gone on to murder and maim,” as well as a figurehead who has “fuelled far-right activism, as some people thought that his views represented all Muslims.”
“Both will use this opportunity, with Islamist extremists suggesting that Choudary has resisted the government and ‘stood up against them,’ while far-right extremist groups will once again make out that the government is not working for the general public’s safety and that the government is in cahoots with Muslims,” the group warned.
Adam Deen, a former member of Al-Muhajiroun who renounced Islamic extremism and joined the anti-extremist Quilliam think-tank, agreed. “It’s highly unlikely that he’s reformed and being out of prison he would definitely get lots of credence from his followers,” he told the BBC.
HOPE not Hate, an anti-racism and anti-fascist advocacy group in the United Kingdom, has described Choudary as “Britain’s most dangerous extremist” and a “terrorist ringmaster.” It warned that his release could “re-energise” Al-Muhajiroun, particularly as it coincides with other senior members of the banned group soon being released from prison.
“Despite the restrictions imposed on them, it is almost impossible for authorities to prevent them from having some contact with one another,” a statement from the group said.
“The far right are waiting for Choudary’s release with an equal dose of excitement and outrage,” HOPE not Hate said.
The far right has been on the rise in the United Kingdom, often in direct reaction to Choudary. The English Defence League (EDL), a far-right Islamophobic group, grew out of a counter-protest against Al-Muhajiroun in Luton in 2009.
Speaking to the Independent newspaper, former EDL organiser Ivan Humble said Choudary’s rhetoric, as well as his appearances on mainstream British media, helped radicalise Britain’s far right.
“My radicalisation was due to Anjem Choudary,” said Humble, who now focuses on counter-extremism work. “I bought into his interpretation of Islam because I didn’t see anyone challenging Choudary… The media weren’t going to ordinary Muslims to get their view. They were getting the most extreme views they could find.”
While it is certain that the legal restrictions on Choudary will prevent him from spewing his vile rhetoric publicly, it remains to be seen how much his mere release from prison and return to the headlines will re-energise British extremists -- on both sides.