If Anjem Choudary had been the two-dimensional, cartoon villain that he is commonly perceived to be, he might have gone to jail a long time ago.
He cracked jokes and sought controversy as if self-amusement was his priority; during his trial he even raised a few laughs from the Old Bailey jurors deciding his fate. But to dismiss him as a harmless, hapless loud-mouth - to measure ‘Britain’s most vocal Islamist extremist’ purely in decibels - is to ignore the skill he used to mesmerise young extremists.
According to new research carried out by the anti-racism group ‘Hope Not Hate’ and released to ITV News, 100 British citizens with some connection to Choudary and his groups have gone to Syria to fight – around one in eight of the total number of Brits thought to have travelled to join groups such as IS. Researchers who carried out the study call Choudary’s network “the single biggest gateway to terrorism in recent British history”.
He has been the country’s most prominent propagandist for Islamist extremism for more than a decade - but he has proven to be elusive, bedevilling the British authorities with his always-inflammatory-but-rarely-illegal rhetoric. “Everyone should understand, I’m no stupid Bond villain,” he once told me.
Choudary is smart - very smart. He trained in commercial law at Southampton University, where he was known as cider-loving ‘Andy’. It was his legal training that would give him an important sense of where the line of the law lay. Unlike dozens of his followers, he frequently chose not to cross it. For all his apparent defiance of the British establishment, Islamist extremism was not a cause that he was happy to go to jail for.
Many of his admirers did go to jail: Michael Adebolajo, one of the killers of Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, and Brusthom Ziamani, a 19-year old who was jailed for trying to replicate the killing. Their young minds were fertile ground for Choudary’s brand of indoctrination. They were naive, confused and radicalised at an alarming speed. But Choudary was always two steps away from any of these crimes. Although he has been ‘linked’ to many convicted terrorists, there is no evidence that he initiated any of their plots.
Choudary was an acolyte of Omar Bakri Muhammed, who he met at a mosque in south-east London after graduating from university. At first he asked the cleric for help studying Sharia law. Soon he would be one of his deputies in al-Muhajiroun - a proscribed group which celebrated the September 11 attacks and campaigned for the implementation of Sharia law in Britain. The organisation is said to have been linked to as many as 23 planned terrorist attacks over 15 years. It was banned in 2010.
But as Choudary's British groups, such as Islam4UK, were pushed back at home, he helped to establish sister organisations abroad. It was under his guidance that Sharia4Belgium was launched. Last year, in the largest-ever trial of its kind, 45 members of the organisation were found guilty of terror-related offences. Only seven of the accused were in court for the ruling - most had gone to Syria to join groups like IS.
From Luton to Ilford, Belgium to Indonesia, Choudary has done more than almost anyone in Britain to spread Islamist extremism and to make his ideology a major UK export.
He loved media exposure. ‘Chat Show Choudary’ was a Salafi superstar who, in my experience, rarely turned down a request for an interview. He was a self-publicist. A few months ago he told me that if he ever moved to the Islamic State caliphate he would organise a pre-flight press conference at Heathrow Airport to give reporters “the shots and the soundbites they needed”. The need was all his - a need for attention, notoriety and celebration.
Last December, as he prepared for his courtroom defence, he telephoned me offering what he described as “an opportunity”. Incredibly, he asked me to give evidence at his trial. He argued that his conviction would somehow threaten the freedom of speech that journalists enjoyed. He made similar calls to other reporters, but none took up his offer.
His career of media-courting and hatred-spreading is over – for now, at least. The loud voice which helped to turbo-charge Islamist extremism in Britain has been silenced. The conviction of Anjem Choudary represents the silencing of the messenger, but not the message. There are many propagandists willing to fill the gap that he has left.