| Griff Witte |
LONDON – As British war planes arc through Middle Eastern skies and security services race to unravel terrorist plots at home, the nation’s most prominent propagandist for the Islamic State sits in a London sweets shop, laying out his radical vision between bites of dessert.
Iraq and Syria, Anjem Choudary says confidently, are only the beginning. The Islamic State’s signature black flag will fly over 10 Downing Street, not to mention the White House. And it won’t happen peacefully, but only after a great battle that is now underway.
“We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam,” says the 47-year-old, calmly sipping tea and looking none the worse for having been swept up in police raid just days earlier. “That may sound like some kind of James Bond movie – you know, Dr No and world domination and all that. But we believe it.”
With such grandiose proclamations, it is tempting to dismiss Choudary as a cartoonish hate preacher straight out of central casting. Many do. But harder to ignore is his record of inspiring impressionable young men to carry out violence in the name of Islam – both in Britain and overseas.
Counterterrorism officials and experts say Choudary and the many shadowy groups he has fronted have directly contributed to the indoctrination of dozens of people who have gone on to plan or commit attacks in the United Kingdom. His network, they say, has also become a vital facilitator in the flow of some of the thousands of Europeans who have swarmed to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, and who could return to carry out attacks in the West.
But even as a coalition that includes Britain and the United States wages war on the Islamic State, Choudary and other enablers remain free to spread their seductively messianic ideology on the streets of the United Kingdom and globally, through the Internet. They do so by taking advantage of the very rights they condemn as un-Islamic and by using their considerable charisma to lure lost souls.
“These guys are very good at knowing where the limits of the law lie,” said Richard Barrett, a former counterterrorism director with Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6. “They’re also very slick, very plausible and very persuasive.”
Their elusiveness helps explain why extremism continues to flourish in Britain despite more than a decade of concerted effort to stamp it out, and why security officials remain so nervous about what Prime Minister David Cameron has called the greatest terror threat the country has ever known. Britain has long been a locus of extremism, with its large Muslim immigrant communities and its tolerant approach toward those with radical views. In the late 1990s and in the years after the Sept 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks, north London’s Finsbury Park mosque became a critical way station for global terrorists.
But years of aggressive policing and intelligence efforts have shifted the extremist threat away from Britain’s mosques and into the hands of freelancers who are much harder to monitor and control.
Choudary – a lawyer by training, not a preacher or religious scholar – has proved particularly adept at staying out of reach of the authorities.
Late last month, police raided his home on the suspicion that he was involved in terrorism-related activities, and his passport, phone and laptop were confiscated. But authorities held him for only a night before letting him go.
Choudary has been, for nearly two decades, at the forefront of a succession of groups – including al-Muhajiroun, Islam4UK and Muslims Against Crusades – that have been outlawed for extremist activities. Once a group was banned, Choudary quickly set up a new one with a similar structure and many of the same members but with a new name.
The majority of Britons convicted of extremism related offences in the past 15 years have been members or supporters of Choudary’s network. Choudary himself, despite multiple arrests, has never been convicted of anything more than staging an illegal demonstration.
Days after his latest release, sitting in the sweets shop in the northeast London neighbourhood of Ilford, he is unbowed and almost dares the government to come after him.
“You need sufficient evidence,” he says, as numerous well-wishers stop by to vow their support. “And they have no evidence whatsoever.” Choudary, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan but who was born and raised in Britain, has a thick black beard that is turning as white as his spotless shalwar kameez – the traditional South Asian garment that is ubiquitous in Ilford, where Choudary lives. He wears rimless spectacles, speaks softly, and smiles often, even when delivering a blood-curdling message.
Choudary maintains that he has never directly encouraged young people to fight for the Islamic State but acknowledges his followers have a habit of “popping up” in Syria. What they do there he does not know, Choudary claims. He says he doubts they are there to fight because the Islamic State already has more than enough recruits.
“There are up to 1,000 people wanting to join the Islamic army every day,” he says approvingly.
As for the Islamic State’s execution of Americans, Britons and countless Syrians and Iraqis, Choudary insists that the claims are overstated and that those the organisation has killed deserved to die.
It’s that sort of dance – lauding a terrorist group, without actually inciting violence – that has kept Choudary out of prison.
The same cannot be said for his followers. According to the anti-extremism group Hope Not Hate, at least 80 people with ties to Choudary or his organisations have been implicated in terrorism cases ranging from the July 2005 bombings on the London transit system to last year’s killing and near-decapitation of a 25-year-old British soldier, Lee Rigby, on a London street. “If you look at the people who have been through Choudary’s organisations, it’s deeply worrying. And his role has been pivotal,” said Nick Lowles, Hope Not Hate’s chief executive. “There’s no evidence that he’s directly implicated in these plots. But he gives the ideological justification for war against the West. And around him are figures who are much more involved in sending people to Syria or encouraging people to go to terrorist training.”
Richard Dart is among those who found his way into Choudary’s orbit – and nearly became a killer.
Dart, the son of schoolteachers, was raised middle-class in the quaint English town of Weymouth. But he fell under Choudary’s spell while in his late 20s and soon converted from Christianity to radical Islam.
“People like Anjem know what it is that people like Richard are craving – identity, respect, empowerment,” said Dart’s step-brother, Robb Leech. “They push all the right buttons – make them feel special. And once you’re in the door, it’s like family. They all look after each other.”
Dart and other Choudary followers burned an American flag in front of the US Embassy on the anniversary of 9/11 and cursed British troops during their homecomings.
But Dart wanted to go further. He travelled to Pakistan for terrorist training and, upon his return, planned an attack in Royal Wootton Bassett, the British town through which soldiers’ remains have traditionally been repatriated. Police uncovered the plot before it could be carried out, and last spring, Dart was sentenced to six years in prison. Leech said he doesn’t think Choudary directed Dart to plan the attack. But neither does Leech think his step-brother would be in prison today without Choudary’s influence.
“Anjem was Richard’s role model – completely,” said Leech, who has made two documentaries about his step-brother’s conversion, arrest and conviction. “If Richard wanted to know something, he’d ask Anjem.”