Don’t let off your celebratory party poppers just yet! Anjem Choudary may be facing jail, but he is a slippery man – an ex-lawyer always careful to push the boundaries of the law he despised without breaking it – so don’t think he won’t try to play a bad hand to his advantage.
There’s a phrase about ‘never wasting a good crisis’. And I have no doubt that is precisely what Choudary will do. The judge could order him to be suspended, David-Blaine-style, in a glass box and he would probably find a way to radicalise people using semaphore.
A forthcoming study by The Henry Jackson Society think-tank has found that between 1999 and 2015, 23 per cent of all convicted Islamist terrorists in the UK had direct links with Choudary’s now proscribed al-Muhajiroun. And one in ten had a proven personal relationship with him.
Do we really think that in prison—a potential hotbed of radicalisation—his radicalising will stop? If we don’t go about this properly, Choudary could find himself with a captive audience behind bars. Many of those involved in the recent attacks in Europe had a background in petty crime and found themselves in prison at some point; Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the ring-leader of the Paris attacks and a prolific plotter for Islamic State, had a long history of petty crime and had allegedly been radicalised in jail.
With this in mind, we need to pause before our celebrations over Choudary’s conviction and ask ourselves, what next? We are going to need to take precautions when letting a wolf loose amongst captive sheep, and it will not be easy. A comparison with the malevolent figure Djamel Beghal is an instructive example of how Choudhary’s imprisonment could easily go pear-shaped if precautions are ineffective.
Beghal, like Choudary, had connections with numerous Islamists involved in plots and attacks. He was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for his involvement in the plot to bomb the US Embassy in Paris. After his release from prison, Beghal was then involved in plotting the jail break of another Islamist with two other men. Those two men were Cherif Kouachi, who gunned down the staff of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and Ahmedy Coulibaly, who attacked the Hypercacher Kosher supermarket in Paris two days later.
Kouachi and Coulibaly met Beghal in prison between 2005 and 2006, and Kouachi was reportedly radicalised by Beghal during that time. Beghal continued to associate with them after all three were released from prison; they visited him at his house in Murat, central France, on a number of occasions.
So Beghal’s threat wasn’t neutralised by his imprisonment or even by extra precautions. Beghal was in isolation, but the prison guards and other sources complained of overcrowding and that the guards were overwhelmed. The fact remains that Beghal, despite his isolation, managed to communicate with two men who went on to commit vicious attacks in Paris last January. This should be taking as a warning and an example of precisely what Choudary’s imprisonment must not be allowed to become.
We will be handing him a captive audience if he is allowed to mix with other prisoners, which he will, because to serve the whole of his sentence in isolation would violate his human rights. Even if he were isolated from other prisoners, prison staff would still need to be careful not to allow a repeat of Beghal’s story.
The Government are aware of the general risk, but it remains to be seen if they have the means or even the will to successfully act on it. A recent briefing paper on prison radicalisation in England and Wales cited evidence that in HM Prison Whitemoor certain ‘heavy players’ among that Muslim population used their faith status to establish power and influence within the prison. The same briefing also cited a 2010 study from King’s College London’s ICSR — it suggested that one of the reasons why prisons may be a ‘breeding ground’ for radicalisation is that they are a ‘place of vulnerability’ filled with ‘identity seekers’ and ‘rebels’ to a higher degree than the general population.
This is exactly the sort of environment in which Choudary’s mission could continue to thrive, and bite us later, if we don’t manage the risk properly. Choudary may seem like a comical ‘rent-a-gob’ but he is a cunning man; given the inevitability of his contact with other prisoners, if we are not very clever in how we manage his imprisonment, we may come to regret it.
Emma Webb is Research Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society