Several steps need to be taken to curb extremism's influence in Britain, writes Rachel Bryson
How six Islamist ideologues shaped jihadi activity in Britain
Recent research by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change examined the lives of 113 men who have shaped or been shaped by the British jihadi scene to see how they made their way into jihadism – as perpetrators, supporters or abettors. Even though our sample was diverse – from straight-A students to drug dealers, from the very rich to the poor, from those raised in Muslim households to converts – six ideologues repeatedly cropped up in our analysis of their networks.
In total, 67 per cent of our sample had links, either via their cell, through other radicalisers linked to the ideologues, or directly, to one or more of Abu Hamza, Abdullah El Faisal, Abu Qatada, Omar Bakri, Hani Al Sibai and Anjem Choudary. In Britain and further afield, these six have contributed to leading, guiding and justifying the movement’s ideological and strategic activity. Between them, they have praised those who have carried out violent acts and simultaneously inspired others to do the same. The influence of these six should not be underestimated.
Anjem Choudary, the co-founder and leader of Al-Muhajiroun who is imprisoned for urging support for ISIL, has been in the spotlight recently for his connections to the perpetrators of the London Bridge attack and the teenager who plotted to attack an Elton John concert, among others. While his name has been bandied around as a key influencer on jihadi actions in Britain and abroad, the other five ideologues in our analysis have received less attention, even though they have played crucial roles.
Abu Hamza sits at the centre of our web of connections. Nearly 70 per cent of the individuals in our sample had links to him. Otherwise known as Mustafa Kemal Mustafa, he is currently serving two life sentences in the US for committing various jihadi activities. He inspired and had connections to individuals involved in London’s 7/7 bombings and the 21/7 plot in 2005; Richard Reid, the failed shoe bomber; and copious others. He also has a global reach to jihadi leaders, with links to the founder of the modern jihadi movement, Abdullah Azzam, for example.
Between them, Abu Hamza and Anjem Choudary are directly linked to 12 of the 13 plots that our sample launched in or against the UK.
As for Omar Bakri, he has joined several Islamist organisations in his time. Two of his sons joined ISIL in Syria and were then killed, one by being executed by the group. Omar Bakri joined the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria before being expelled in 1977. He then travelled to Beirut and joined the international Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. In the 1980s, he formed Al-Muhajiroun in Saudi Arabia and then arrived in the UK after the Saudi government expelled him for his Islamist activities. In the UK, he built up the Al-Muhajiroun network, eventually splitting entirely from Hizb ut-Tahrir in 1996. In our sample, at least 50 per cent were connected to an Islamist organisation, the majority to Al-Muhajiroun or one of its splinter groups.
Abdullah El Faisal, another of the six ideologues, was imprisoned in the UK for inciting terrorist violence. He was later deported but was connected to the 7/7 attackers and the 2004 Operation Rhyme plot. After being influenced by Osama bin Laden’s teaching in Riyadh, he travelled to the UK and started preaching at the Salafi Brixton Mosque but was expelled a year later after falling out with the mosque’s leadership. He then conducted preaching tours around Britain.
Hani Al Sibai is suspected of being involved in the radicalisation of Mohammed Emwazi, otherwise known as Jihadi John. He worked as a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, has reportedly served as the head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s media committee, and has appeared on TV stations including Al Jazeera following 7/7, expressing his support for 9/11. He is also on the UN, US and EU sanctions lists for his support for Al Qaeda. He denies any such links and allegations.
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In the early 1990s, Abu Qatada travelled to teach Afghan refugees in Peshawar and it was during this time that he is said to have met Ayman Al Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qaeda. Years later, in October 1999, he made a speech in London praising attacks on Americans and calling for the killing of Jews. Individuals such as Abu Qatada demonstrate how the international jihadi scene has helped shaped that movement in Britain, with connections and ideas filtering down from the top, through well-travelled ideologues, to those who perpetrate or plot attacks. Individuals in our sample were influenced ideologically by other global leaders such as Anwar Al Awlaki, the Yemeni ideologue who fought for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Abu Abaida Al Masri, a senior Al Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These six profiled ideologues have all emerged as individuals with a noteworthy influence on the movement over the last 30 years. Their teachings and speeches influenced many who have engaged in jihadi activity, whether perpetrating, supporting or abetting violence.
To curb the influence of Islamist ideologues on Britain, several steps are necessary. Schools and colleges need to better equip their students to grapple with a battle of ideas. Teachers should encourage environments where ideas can be challenged and debated. Just as totalitarian ideologies have been challenged in the past, so totalitarianism in the name of religion must be challenged now.
As for dealing with extreme ideologues themselves, action is needed in mosques and religious centres. Our sample revealed that several ideologues imposed themselves on mosques by taking over boards of trustees. In these cases, members of local Muslim communities are victims of such action. Not only should the authorities investigate mosques and religious study centres when links are found to multiple jihadis, but regulators should also harness the registration of charities’ trustees to build an alert system for suspicious wholesale changes in governing bodies, to trigger an investigation into intimidating or unethical practices in elections or appointments.
Rachel Bryson is a researcher at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, researching into extremism with a particular focus on global incidents of violent and non-violent extremism