Anjem Choudary at a rally outside Regent’s Park mosque in central London in April 2015. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
Vikram Dodd Police and crime correspondent and Jamie Grierson
Anjem Choudary and his extremist groups are believed to have inspired at least 100 people from Britain into terrorism, including organisations committed to campaigns of murder against the west, the Guardian has learned.
Choudary avoided serious criminal charges for years, but his own conviction for terrorism, agreed unanimously by an Old Bailey jury in July, can now be reported after legal restrictions were lifted.
Documents from intelligence sources say his groups were at the heart of the Islamist movement in Britain, which has been left facing a “severe” threat of jihadi attack.
Choudary and an acolyte, Mohammed Rahman, were convicted after they urged support for Islamic State and pledged allegiance to the group.
The conviction represents only a fraction of the jihadi mayhem to which the lawyer is linked.
People connected to Choudary and his groups who turned to terrorism include Michael Adebolajo, one of the men who murdered the soldier Lee Rigby on a London street in 2013. He is also linked to foiled plots to kill in the UK over a decade ago, youngsters who have fled to join Isis in Syria, leaving their families distraught, and the alleged inspiration of violence across Europe.
Choudary and his co-defendant, Mohammed Rahman, 33, told their supporters to obey Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis leader, who is also known as a caliph, and travel to Syria to support Isis or “the caliphate”.
On the ninth anniversary of the London terror attacks – 7 July 2014 – Choudary and Rahman posted an oath of allegiance online under their kunyas or Islamic names, Abu Luqman, used by Choudary, and Abu Baraa, used by Rahman, on an extremist website.
Choudary was a key figure for a succession of extremist Islamist groups. He was dismissed as a clown by some, while helping inspire youngsters to turn to terrorism in Britain and Europe, and enjoyed frequent media appearances.
He was a key figure in al-Muhajiroun before it was banned under terrorism legislation and relaunched itself as al-Ghurabaa, which again was banned under terrorism laws. Successor groups in turn were banned under terrorism legislation, such as Islam4Uk and Muslims Against Crusades.
Commander Dean Haydon, the head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, said his team had trawled through 20 years of Choudary’s statements to build the case against him. Haydon denied the extremist had been “allowed to run” so intelligence could be gained on the aspirant jihadis he attracted.
Haydon said of Choudary and Rahman: “These men have stayed just within the law for many years, but there is no one within the counter-terrorism world that has any doubts of the influence that they have had, the hate they have spread and the people that they have encouraged to join terrorist organisations.
“Over and over again we have seen people on trial for the most serious offences who have attended lectures or speeches given by these men.”
A conservative estimate is that no less than 100 people from Britain linked to Choudary or his groups have fought or supported violent jihad, according to counter-terrorism sources. The figures were supported by a leftwing anti-extremism group that has studied the influence of al-Muhajiroun and its successor groups.
That number increases on taking into account those in Europe who joined organisations such as Isis after being involved with extremist groups Choudary helped establish or inspire, such as in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Choudary’s influence in Europe was such that the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD assessed him to be a key influence in the spread of the jihadi movement in the Netherlands. A spokesperson for AIVD said it stood by its assessment of Choudary’s central role in the UK first, and then Europe, set out in a 2014 document: “Since the 1980s the UK has harboured an active Islamist movement propagating an anti-democratic, intolerant and sometimes explicitly violent ideology.
“At its heart is the now banned group Islam4UK, previously known as al-Muhajiroun, al-Ghurabaa and Muslims Against Crusades. Its most familiar faces are Omar Bakri (currently resident in Lebanon) and Anjem Choudary, who acts as its spokesman. Modelling itself closely on this British movement, Sharia4Belgium was active in Belgium for several years …”
The spokesperson for Dutch intelligence added that the fact Choudary operated publicly and could “step out of the shadows and into light” was an inspiration for others to do the same.
According to the European law enforcement agency Europol, Sharia4Belgium “engaged in organised indoctrination and recruitment of young people to participate in the armed conflict in Syria”. Choudary praised its leader after more than 40 of its members were convicted of terrorism.
The groups Choudary led were “the single biggest gateway to terrorism in recent British history”, says one study on his activities, details of which are published here for the first time, from the leftwing group Hope Not Hate. It said: “Over the last 15 years he has influenced and inspired over 100 Britons who have carried out or attempted to carry out terrorist attacks at home and abroad.”
According to research from Hope Not Hate, supported by a counter-radicalisation expert who has worked with al-Muhajiroun members, Choudary helped Isis gain British recruits.
Hope Not Hate said: “In the six months following the creation of the Islamic State, Choudary was its biggest cheerleader in the English-speaking world and the network he helped create became the largest recruiter for IS in Europe.”
Choudary’s ability to operate in plain sight, seemingly without legal sanction, raises many questions. Sources in Britain’s Muslim community say Choudary was reported to the police, with some in the UK’s Islamic communities left baffled about how he remained untouched for so long.
Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command had previously attempted to build criminal cases against Choudary, only to be rebuffed by the Crown Prosecution Service, which judged there was insufficient chance of gaining a conviction.
Haydon said of the conviction reported for the first time: “The oath of allegiance [made by Choudary to Isis] was a turning point for the police. At last we had the evidence that they had stepped over the line and we could prove they supported Isis.”
Between August and September 2014, Choudary and Rahman posted speeches on YouTube encouraging support for Isis. An audio clip, lasting one hour and six minutes and uploaded to Choudary’s YouTube channel on 9 September 2014, was played to jurors. Titled How Muslims Assess the Legitimacy of the Caliphate, the speech was played over the image of a map of northern Africa, the Middle East, north-west Asia and southern Europe. Choudary begins by setting out his views about the requirements of a legitimate Islamic caliphate, then explains why he sees Islamic State as meeting the criteria. “The lesson from this narration is that obedience to the caliph is an obligation, if they rule by the sharia. And to obey them obviously means they must be established,” Choudary said.
Estimates of how many people Choudary funnelled into violence range from 100 to 500. Hannah Stuart, of the Henry Jackson Society thinktank, said: “A quarter of all individuals convicted of Islamism-inspired terrorism and terrorism-related offences in the UK since 1999 had direct links with al-Muhajiroun (or its aliases), through public membership, al-Muhajiroun-linked activism or regular attendance at lectures and protests. One in 10 offenders had a proven personal relationship with Choudary in particular.”
British Muslims had complained about the media attention paid to Choudary and the impression given to audiences that he was representative of British Islamic thought.
Miqdaad Versi, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “Mr Anjem Choudary has long been condemned by Muslim organisations and Muslims across the country, who consider him and his support for Daesh [Isis] to be despicable and contrary to the values of Islam and our nation.
“Many Muslims have long been puzzled why this man was regularly approached by the media to give outrageous statements that inflamed Islamophobia.
One expert in counter-radicalisation said Choudary was useful for Isis in the early days, when it was looking to gain traction in the UK. But the likes of him are now needed barely at all because Isis’s reputation in jihadi circles and its online machine has grown so much. “They don’t need a middle man,” said the expert.
Choudary and Rahman will be sentenced next month and face a maximum of 10 years in prison.