A radical Islamist hate preacher regarded as Britain’s most dangerous extremist was released from prison Friday, sparking fears it could fuel jihadi and far-right activity.
Anjem Choudary, 51, was released on automatic parole after serving half of the five-and-a-half-year sentence he received in 2016 for urging support for ISIS, despite a warning from British Prisons Minister Rory Stewart that he remained “genuinely dangerous” and security services declaring him a continued threat. Under British sentencing laws, prisoners can become eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence.
Choudary, a former lawyer who led the now-banned extremist group Al-Muhajiroun, which had inspired more than 100 radicals to join the Islamic State group, will be subject to the strictest monitoring conditions placed on a British parolee, in order to curb his influence.
Among the restrictions on him now, he’s banned from making any public statements or speaking with the media, preaching or organizing meetings, associating with known extremists, leaving the Greater London area, or using an internet-enabled device without permission. The surveillance will continue for 15 years, at a cost of about $2.6 million a year.
Choudary has also been added to a United Nations sanctions list, placing him under an asset freeze and travel ban.
Choudary’s network has been blamed for radicalizing many of Britain’s most notorious terrorists, including Khuram Butt, one of the fanatics who carried out the 2017 London Bridge attack; Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, who murdered British soldier Lee Rigby on a London street in 2013; and the alleged ISIS executioner Siddhartha Dhar. He’s also inspired extremist groups elsewhere, such as Belgium’s Sharia4Belgium movement.
But despite his long track record of provocative statements, and key role in extremist networks, Choudary managed to stay just on the right side of British law — until 2014, when he and an associate recorded oaths pledging allegiance to ISIS which were circulated on social media. Prior to that case, British police had unsuccessfully tried to convict him 10 times.
Despite the stringent parole conditions that Choudary faces, observers fear his release could fuel extremism— both among Choudary’s Islamist networks, and the far-right, Islamophobic movements that have sprung up in response to Choudary’s provocations.
“No other British citizen has had so much influence over so many terrorists as Choudary,” said Nick Lowles, head of anti-racist group Hope Not Hate.
“His release is likely to breathe life back into the extremist movement he once led,” he said, adding that outrage over his release was also likely to motivate Britain’s rising far-right street movements, which are mobilizing around their opposition to militant Islam. Choudary’s release was a topic of outrage on social media Friday, with right-wing provocateur Katie Hopkins tweeting a photo of the London property to which he had been bailed. “We only want the best for our Beardy Weirdo Extremists in the U.K. when we release them from jail early,” she wrote.
Choudary’s early release has also fueled frustrations at a judicial regime that will allow a dangerous extremist back on the streets without demonstrating he has renounced his radical views, at a time when the country faces an elevated terror threat.
A conservative think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, said in a report that the case showed that offenders convicted of terror-related offenses should not be considered eligible for early release.
But others have cautioned against the dangers of overstating Choudary’s significance, arguing that the high-profile media platform given to the firebrand cleric over the years had only helped him recruit followers to his extremist network.
“At the end of the day, he is a pathetic groomer of others,” Mark Rowley, Britain’s former head of counterterror policing, told the BBC Friday. “I think we have to recognise that radicalizers look to generate a profile, look to prey on the vulnerable, and we need to be thoughtful about how we report their activity.”