LONDON, England — The era of Londonistan may be over. A series of dawn raids at addresses across the capital on Thursday appeared to signal an abrupt change in Britain’s policy towards the radical Islamic figures that have operated in London for years.
Among those seized by Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism officers was Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most outspoken Islamist, who said this week that he had no sympathy for Alan Henning, the latest hostage to be threatened ISIS. Choudary, a lawyer and preacher who has been linked to around 70 people with convictions for terror-related offenses, has been accused of inciting violence and working with banned pro-terror groups for more than a decade—but his public proclamations have always remained on the right side of the law.
At a briefing earlier this year, a senior Scotland Yard official explained that Choudary had been monitored intensively but his clear grasp of anti-terrorism legislation meant it would be difficult to bring a successful prosecution against him. Britain’s stance has changed, however, since it became clear that hundreds of British citizens were fighting for ISIS, including the hooded executioner seen in their most despicable videos.
On Friday, the British parliament will vote in favor of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, reflecting a shift in the mood of the public who were previously wary of intervention in the Middle East. The authorities are also showing a renewed aggression towards extremists. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, recently proposed a change to British law so that Choudary’s extreme rhetoric would be criminalized. Meanwhile, Thursday’s arrest of nine men in London, all with alleged links to the banned radical Islamist group al-Muhajiroun, suggested a different approach to the current terror legislation.
“David Cameron and the security community see an opportunity to stamp on these people. It’s clear that the volume has been turned up,” a former government security advisor told The Daily Beast. “There is a clear perceived national danger in letting people like Choudary get away with incitement, when there are already British Muslims fighting for the Islamic State. This is a real threat; not a worry about what might happen.”
In the hours before his arrest, Choudary took to Twitter to denounce airstrikes against ISIS. “The war being waged by the US/UK & co is a war against Islam & Muslims,” he wrote. “The Islamic State could not wish for a better rallying call for Muslims worldwide to join them than for the USA to start bombing again.”
Speaking to The Daily Beast about three weeks ago, Choudary insisted that none of his statements ever amounted to incitement to violence or encouraging terrorism, both of which are illegal in Britain. “I'm not encouraging anyone to do anything quite frankly,” he said. “I would never encourage anyone to go abroad, I would never encourage anyone to undergo military training.”
Many of Choudary’s former acolytes have gone on to commit, or attempted to commit, acts of terrorism, including Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, who murdered and tried to behead off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in a daylight attack on the streets of London.
Both of those convicted killers had been seen at protests and events with members of al-Muhajiroun, which was co-founded by Choudary. According to an investigation by anti-extremist group Hope Not Hate, 75 British citizens associated with al-Muhajiroun or one of its front organizations have subsequently been convicted on terror charges or carried out suicide attacks.
“We welcome these arrests,” said Nick Lowles, chief executive of HOPE Not Hate. “Since our own extensive investigations into Anjem Choudary and his disciples, we’ve been saying that more must be done to curb this hate-supporting and recruiting organization.”
After raids on 18 properties in London and one in Stoke, a Scotland Yard spokesman said that the nine men had been arrested on suspicion of being a member of a proscribed organization, supporting a proscribed organization and encouraging terrorism.