Next month the Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary will be released from prison, having served just half of his five-and-a-half-year sentence. He was jailed for his role in encouraging Muslims to join Islamic State. At the time of his sentencing in 2016, the judge described the hate preacher as ‘calculating’ and ‘dangerous’.
The Justice Secretary, Rory Stewart, echoed that verdict earlier this month, calling Choudary ‘deeply pernicious’ and a ‘destabilising influence’. His views remain the same; his status as a martyr — at least in the eyes of his followers — is assured; and his hatred of Britain is more ferocious than before. He will emerge as a greater menace than when he was locked up.
Choudary also has a new determination never to slip up again. This has nothing to do with remorse. For years, Choudary — a trained lawyer — toed a delicate line. He indoctrinated his followers while ensuring that he never did anything illegal. Over two decades, his influence grew and so did his online following. But there was nothing the police or the security services could do about him. They watched his every word in a futile attempt to try and catch him out.
In 2014, he finally slipped up. A video emerged of Choudary proclaiming Islamic State to be the true Muslim caliphate. He had thought he was protected by referring to the group as a political concept rather than a terror organisation. A jury disagreed.
During his time in jail, Choudary has been kept in isolation to prevent him from speaking to other inmates — with good reason. The list of those who have fallen under Choudary’s spell is extensive. Name a British terrorist and you can be sure Choudary’s influence is not far away: Khuram Butt, one of the London Bridge terrorists who murdered eight people last year, was among his disciples. Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, who killed the British soldier Lee Rigby in 2013, were also followers.
So too was Mohammed Reza Haque, Choudary’s bodyguard. He was last seen on camera in Syria beheading a man. ‘In every plot I have ever researched, someone in it was linked to Choudary,’ says David Videcette, a former detective who investigated the 7/7 attacks in London.
Adam Deen, a former extremist who was once a member of al-Muhajiroun, the banned jihadist group Choudary helped to set up, says the appeal of his former leader is obvious: an unwavering dedication to the cause. Choudary remains desperate to atone for his misspent youth, when he was a beer-guzzling dopehead known as Andy who flunked his exams at Southampton university. His acolytes, many of whom are also disaffected and feckless, are likely never to have met anyone who is so driven in the pursuit of a cause, however misguided.
Choudary’s silence during his years of imprisonment has done little to diminish his appeal. At Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park — most Sundays the setting of tense clashes between Christian and Muslim preachers —his supporters have been gathering in recent weeks, eagerly anticipating his release. In one video posted on the internet, a young follower defends Choudary as a ‘Muslim brother… who has the balls to say stuff’.
Choudary may soon walk free — but some of his gullible followers are not so lucky. Many of them will remain in prison — in the case of at least one of the Woolwich killers, for the rest of his life — or have died in Syria. ‘A good portion of them have gone abroad and been killed,’ says Deen, now the executive director of Quilliam, an anti-extremism organisation. ‘There was an exodus. They have been relatively quiet since Choudary’s imprisonment. So I don’t think there are many of them left — there is just a handful of them. But the question is: when Choudary comes out, will that recruitment drive start again?’
The answer, indubitably, is yes. And this is where there might be something the security services can usefully do after Choudray’s release. Anjem Choudary is too wily and too worldly to blow himself up — but on past form he’ll soon attract those prepared to do so on his behalf. It is a safe bet that anyone praising him is worth keeping tabs on. The authorities should be watching his new disciples even more closely than they watch Choudary himself.