The radical Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary, for years under the scrutiny of British security services, has been arrested in London along with eight other men on suspicion of belonging to a banned organisation and encouraging terrorism.
The controversial British preacher was picked up as part of an investigation into Islamist terrorism which saw police raid 18 properties in the capital and another in the northern town of Stoke-on-Trent. The men, aged 22 to 51, were being questioned at stations in central London, Metropolitan Police said.
In a statement the Met said the men were being held on suspicion of being members of a proscribed organisation, supporting a proscribed organisation contrary to Section 11 and 12 of the Terrorism Act 2000 and encouraging terrorism, contrary to Section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006.
Sources told Britain's Press Association that the arrests were made in relation to al-Muhajiroun, an extremist group which Choudary co-led but which disbanded in the face of an intended ban in 2005. It attempted a relaunch in 2009 - a bid documented in the VICE film Jihad Milkshakes - but was officially proscribed in 2010 along with Islam4UK, a successor organization also led by Choudary.
The British authorities have long been monitoring the activities of the outspoken cleric, who has openly praised the September 11 attacks and the July 7 2005 bombings in London and supports the creation of an Islamic caliphate and the implementation of sharia law in the United Kingdom. In January 2005, al-Muhajiroun urged followers at a clandestine gathering in central London to take up jihad against non-Muslims in the UK, a meeting which attracted the attention of Scotland Yard.
Vilified by the British tabloids, Choudary has however proved a difficult target for police. The only penalty he has ever faced was a £500 fine for organising an illegal demonstration outside the embassy of Denmark in London over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. In 2006, he was investigated, but not charged, after telling a rally that Pope Benedict should be executed for insulting Islam.
In June last year, Cressida Dick, assistant commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, told a parliamentary committee that Scotland Yard was "constantly assessing" whether Choudary's preachings broke the law. Even before he became prime minister, David Cameron singled out the cleric for attention, saying in January 2010 that he needed close investigation as his comments came "extremely close to the line of encouraging hatred, extremism and violence."
In a series of tweets before his arrest, Choudary railed against airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, describing the intervention as a war on the world's Muslims and decrying Arab states participating in the raids as "puppets of the US."
The British imam of Pakistani descent drew media attention in the United States in August when he was interviewed by Sean Hannity of Fox News, an appearance which turned into a ten-minute slanging match over the actions of the Islamic State and of the US military in the Middle East.
Pressed by Hannity over his support for the Islamic State, Choudary denied that the group had carried out atrocities in Iraq and insisted that sharia law was "coming to a place near you."
Choudary has also been accused of going beyond mere incitement to facilitate recruitment for jihadist groups in the Middle East. In November last year, a report by the anti-extremism organization Hope Not Hate, claimed that a network of groups headed by the preacher constituted the "single biggest gateway to terrorism in recent British history."
It said that the groups had "facilitated or encouraged" the recruitment of up to 80 British Muslims and up to 300 people from Europe as a whole as fighters for al-Qaida linked forced fighting the Assad regime in Syria.
The report said there was no evidence that either he nor his al-Muhajiroun co-leader Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohamed — a Syrian preacher who was barred from returning to the UK after a trip to Lebanon in 2005 - had ever directly instigated any terrorist plots. But it linked his groups to at least 70 people who had been convicted of terrorist-related offences or who had died fighting overseas. It also said that the 7/7 bombers and perpetrators of two major terrorist plots against London were associated with the network.
"While painted by some as a figure of fun, an extremist crackpot whose media stunts are rightly ridiculed, Anjem Choudary has become a serious player on the international Islamist scene," the Hope Not Hate report said. "Perhaps it is time to start concentrating on his role as a facilitator of terror."
At the time, Choudary dismissed the report as nonsense, but acknowledged that some individuals convicted of the terrorist plots concerned had in the past been involved with his groups.
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