Guest author: Richard Horton
I’m a former counter terrorism police officer who worked to prevent individuals being drawn towards violent extremist ideologies. The evolution of Anjem Choudary into the most infamous extremist recruiter in the UK was one of the issues that played out whilst I worked in this field. The impunity with which he seemed to evade the law and simultaneously court media publicity made it all the more satisfying when he was finally convicted for inviting support for a proscribed organisation in 2016. Last Friday, Anjem Choudary was released from prison after two years having been convicted for urging support for, and pledging allegiance, to Islamic State (IS)
The public discussions have continued. Why was he released early? Is he still dangerous? Is society safer if he’s in a prison rather than in the London neighbourhood and will he still be in a position to recruit more vulnerable people? These are just some of the questions being raised of the man described by the British prisons minister Rory Stewart MP as “genuinely dangerous.”
Some quick clarifications. He wasn’t released early due to good behaviour. He received a fixed term sentence of 5 years 6 months and was entitled to automatic release from prison having served just over 2 years which is a provision that applies to everyone.. He now has around 30 stringent restrictions placed on him which limits access to associates, the internet and not being able to travel outside of the M25. He has restrictions placed relating to internet use and mobile device ownership and he is banned from speaking to the media. In these circumstances we should at least welcome the unprecedented controls that have been put in place. The fact is that his imprisonment allows these conditions to be imposed – an option not available until he was convicted – and it shows a concerted effort by the UK authorities to address the problem and send a message to the wider public that his deeply flawed and cynical narrative will no longer be tolerated.
On the other hand, the sentence has again prompted questions about the ability of the justice system to deal with this dangerous individual. Indeed one could argue the case has some parallels with the outcry when it was proposed that John Worboys, the taxi rapist who preyed on vulnerable women, was released. How can these notorious individuals be released to potentially continue their activities? If we believe in a system that seeks to rehabilitate we need to invest the time, effort and money to ensure that we maximise our chance to achieve that. Shouldn’t offenders only be released when there is evidence of that rehabilitation no matter what conditions are imposed on that release? There are no reports to suggest that Choudary has come out a changed man and allegedly is someone who declined attending a prison de-radicalisation scheme.
His release comes at a potentially dangerous time in the UK. Reporting suggests that many supporters of Islamic State have returned to the UK, other extremists are also due to be released from the prison system and attacks from Islamist terrorists are on the increase. At the same time, we continue to see the rise of far-right movements seeking to exploit any opportunity to fuel hate. His freedom could prove the catalyst for both sides to make far more trouble. Choudary’s association with a number of individuals who have gone on to commit acts of terror is well documented, whilst the far-right feed off his polarising rhetoric to attract further support.
Of course, there will be those on both sides of the argument that will claim the measures are wrong because they are either too weak or too draconian. They will tell us that we should ‘throw away the key’ ‘deport him’ or alternatively that it is another Islamophobic measure from the UK government. Hopefully for the vast majority of our citizens the conditions will be seen as a proportionate and sensible response to a dangerous extremist in a country where the courts and indeed our judicial system decide punishment and not the politicians or vested interests – whilst acknowledging the need for a greater commitment to delivering a more comprehensive rehabilitation process.
What should be remembered is that by having a proportionate and balanced process and an independent judiciary the UK demonstrates the values that underpin our democracy. It differentiates us from totalitarian regimes where a minor infraction can result in a severe outcome with little judicial process. If we are to win the argument against terrorists these values are our most powerful weapon. Perhaps the bigger picture here is not whether one individual underpins the success and failure of our whole counter terrorism approach but how we need to be even more robust in our preventative approaches. How can we ensure young people are not attracted to extremist far right and Islamist messaging, and how can we equally deny the oxygen of publicity provided to people like Anjem Choudary and Tommy Robinson (due to appear in court for a separate matter of contempt of court) both on mainstream media channels and online? If we can win this part of the debate Choudary and perhaps those like him will become an irrelevance.
Richard Horton is a security professional specialising in counter terrorism and intelligence management.
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