For two decades, British Islamic preacher Anjem Choudary stayed one step ahead of the law, until 2016, when he was jailed for encouraging others to join the ISIS terrorist group.
But Choudary was released on Oct. 19 after serving only half of his five-year sentence and, according to one organisation, his extremist ideology as still as “as hard as a rock.”
Walking the tightrope between free speech and terrorism, Choudary was never directly involved in any terror plots, but fanned the flames of extremism that spawned them.
Security and counter-terrorism expert Will Geddes said that Choudary is possibly the most influential extremist figure outside of ISIS itself—an assessment shared by other experts on the subject.
Choudary was linked to many individuals who went on to commit acts of terrorism, including the beheading of British Army soldier Lee Rigby, the 7/7 bombings that killed 52 people in 2005, and the London Bridge attack in 2017 that killed eight people.
He also helped radicalise hundreds of British nationals who went on to join ISIS.
Describing him as “horrifically influential character,” Geddes says that Choudary is more of a threat than hook-handed preacher Abu Hamza, who is currently serving a life sentence in the United States.
Starting Fires, Not Getting Caught
Under European rights laws, the UK is more restricted in how it can handle threats like Choudary.
Choudary faces strict controls as part of his parole, including a ban on internet use, a ban on preaching or attending certain mosques, and travel restrictions—effectively muting him.
“There’s not a great deal, in theory, that he can do,” said Geddes. “But it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he finds ways to circumnavigate those [restrictions].”
A trained solicitor, Choudary kept one step ahead of the law while he “set the fires” of extremist ideology under the cover of different organisations.
“As soon as the fire started getting out of control, the authorities would come over and stamp on it,” said Geddes. “He would then set up another fire, then authorities would stamp that out, extinguish it and he would move onto the next.”
“Each time, he was not close enough to the fire to be able to pin it directly on him.”
For example, Choudary founded al-Muhajiroun in 1996, dissolving it in 2004 just before a government ban came into play. He then went on to set up various aliases, including Islam4UK, Muslims Against Crusades, Call to Submission, Islamic Path, and London School of Sharia.
Choudary, married with five children, famously encouraged jihadis to follow his example and live off the British welfare system known as “job seekers allowance” something he dubbed “jihadi seekers allowance.”
Choudary was eventually found guilty of inciting people to join a terrorist organisation.
Ideology ‘Still as Hard as Rock’
Choudary was released automatically after serving half of his five-year sentence, following standard parole protocol. He will serve the remaining half under license.
Counter-extremism organisation Quilliam said that Choudary had shown no signs of softening his ideological stance.
“We didn’t see any development. His ideology is still as hard as rock,” said Salah al-Ansaril, a senior researcher at Quilliam, and a former imam of London Central Mosque.
Al-Ansaril is worried about what happens when the controls on Choudary are lifted.
He says that the only way to deradicalization the threat of Choudary’s narrative is through open debate about Islamic extremism —what he calls the “political ideology of Islamism.”
Al-Ansaril says communities should not shy away from the key role that ideology plays in driving extremism.
The threat of radicalisation is still the same as when Choudary went into prison two years ago, he says.
“The only difference is that ISIS and similar group are weaker, but their ideology is still attractive to some kinds of mentality. “
Last year, 36 people were killed in Islamic extremist attacks in the UK, including a suicide bomb at a concert in Manchester, northwest England, that killed 22 people.
Earlier this year, Interior Minister Sajid Javid said that 25 Islamic extremist plots had radicalization in the past five years, with 500 live operations, and 20,000 people on a watchlist.
The UK has the most pervasive surveillance powers in the Western world and a controversial de-radicalization program that requires some 400,000 front-line staff to report those who show signs of extremism.
Al-Ansaril says that deradicalisation can work, pointing out that several people within his own organisation are reformed extremists, including former director Adam Dean who once belonged to Choudary’s Al-Muhajiroun.