The jailing of Anjem Choudary is not the end of al-Muhajiroun, the extremist group of which he was the fulcrum. Whilst a process of attrition has seen a number of the group’s more prominent members in jail or disappearing into the conflict in the Levant, a number still remain in the UK. The question is which of them will be able to fill Choudary’s role as prominent and public speaker for the organization.
It is worth pointing out that it is in the first instance that membership of al-Muhajiroun is almost impossible to pin down. Given the absence of formal membership cards, all that can possibly be done is point out that a constellation of individuals persistently show up at each other’s events, and advocate the same message and are involved in similar activity. This in many ways constitutes a group, but it is difficult to talk about it in absolute terms with the organization staying largely amorphous and fluid, reflecting a regulatory environment that quite aggressively tries to clamp down on them.
Of those that are left, therefore, who might be identified as future spokesmen for the group’s message?
In an interview after Choudary’s jailing, Ricardo Macfarlane, also known as Abdul Hakeem, a man who was jailed for participating in ‘sharia patrols’ around East London, pointed out that Choudary’s incarceration ‘leaves big boots to fill.’ Macfarlane may have some history, but lacks the preaching charisma of others. Some, like Abu Haleema or Abu Waleed have some history with the community and have been advancing the message publicly for some time through various videos and online speeches.
But the reality is that one of the criteria for participation in the community is propagation and advocacy, which in many ways makes them all preachers. Some may be more articulate than others, but all of them are driven by spreading their violent message as much as possible. Consequently, they will all be filling his boots in different ways.
A policeman stands in front of devotees shouting 'Allah u Akhbar' during a 2002 'Rally for Islam' in Trafalgar Square, which was attended by around 400 Al-Muhajiroun devotees (Getty)
The reason that Choudary was able to elevate himself so far above the others was longevity and profile, along with an ability to deliver pithy messages to attendant audiences and manipulate any discussion to focus on the message he was seeking to deliver. Able to remain tone deaf to any counter arguments, and the fact he had been alongside Omar Bakri Mohammed since his early days of establishing al-Muhajiroun meant he was an excellent promoter of the group’s message. As his acolyte and now aspirant ‘jihadi john’ Siddhartha Dhar told him via text message after the announcement of the Caliphate by Isis, once Choudary gave his ‘Islamic verdict’ on the announcement, his ‘words would be gold on Twitter.’
In his absence, the group will not go away, but it may lose some of its public profile. This will reduce some of its magnetic power, as others lack his links and attention-grabbing power. The media will focus less on the others given their different personalities and loquaciousness. But the remaining figures will likely remain persistent features of investigations.
A survey of the eight different terrorist plots disrupted in the United Kingdom since the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013 that have shown up in courts show that at least five have clear links to the group, two with tenuous links, and a final one that may also be linked but the detail has yet to emerge. All of which suggests that security and intelligence agencies will continue to look at the community as one of the beating hearts of the terrorist threat that the United Kingdom faces, and has continued to face since the late 1990s.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists