Last week, British militant Islamist activist Anjem Choudary was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for providing support to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Choudary is best known as a radical, charismatic, and rabble-rousing Islamist preacher who influenced and inspired more than 100 Britons to carry out acts of terrorism or fight abroad. His true influence, however, is even more far-reaching, extending beyond his role as a source of radicalization of British Muslims and converts and beyond support for a single terrorist group. Choudary is a jihadist entrepreneur who has been instrumental in setting up an international jihadist movement. The so-called “Sharia4” movement epitomizes how present day terrorist actors cooperate in pursuit of militant objectives. Such cooperation involves an increasingly diverse array of actors, ranging from formal organizations to informal networks as well as terrorist entrepreneurs such as Choudary. Such new collaborative forms between terrorist actors pose both conceptual and policy challenges to the counterterrorism community.
After years of evading arrest, Anjem Choudary, a 49-year old London-born militant Islamist preacher of Pakistani origin, was sentenced on September 6 at the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court to five years and six months in jail. Choudary was found in violation of Section 12 of the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act 2000 by inviting support for a proscribed organization, ISIL.
Choudary has a long track record as a troublemaker who relishes in provocation and confrontation. Although he rose to jihadist stardom in the decade that followed the London bombings of July 7, 2005, his socialization into global jihadist activism began as a protégé to Omar Bakri Mohammed, a radical Islamist preacher and founder of the militant Salafist and jihadist Al-Muhajiroun movement. Al-Muhajiroun’s goal was to establish the Islamic caliphate, and the group adopted a highly visible strategy to achieve this aim. Like his protégé Choudary would do years later, Bakri drew much publicity by organizing highly visible and provocative events.
Shortly after the 7/7 bombings, Al-Muhajiroun was banned in Britain. Bakri fled to Lebanon and left as the movement’s emir, or leader, in the United Kingdom (Bakri continues to lead Al-Muhajiroun as its worldwide emir). Despite the official ban, Al-Muhajiroun continued to evolve through a steadily growing number of front groups that operated under various names but were largely run by Choudary and a small circle of associates. The group initially reconstituted itself under the names Al-Ghurabaa (The Strangers), as well as al-Firqat un-Naajiyah (Savior Sect, or Saved Sect). After these two groups were banned in July 2006, the group reemerged almost immediately as Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah. In 2008, Choudary founded the group Islam4UK, which gained notoriety, among other things, for its staged protests against returning British soldiers. After Islam4UK’s proscription in January 2010, the group resurfaced under the name Muslims Against Crusades (MAC). Choudary made no secret of this cat-and-mouse game, as he openly admitted that the names of these various front groups are “all us… we use different platforms depending on what we are dealing with.”
The various groups linked to Choudary and Al-Muhajiroun employed similar repertoires of action, which included provocative demonstrations, protests, and “street dawah,” which involved an attempt to spread Choudary’s uncompromising interpretation of Islam on the streets of European cities and villages. The main message of Choudary’s Al-Muhajiroun-linked movement was that Western countries, along with their political and value systems, are incompatible with true Islam and would eventually be replaced by Islamic governance in accordance with Sharia law. Choudary and his associates were deliberately provocative in the way they delivered that message. In 2009, for instance, he said that Buckingham Palace should be turned into the seat of the new caliphate. He was also behind the release of mock-up photos that portrayed a jihadist take-over of “The White Masjid,” a thinly veiled reference to the White House. Other photos depicted the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor draped by a burqa.
Building a Transnational Network: Choudary and the Sharia4 Movement
By 2010, Choudary began to systematically expand his network outside of the United Kingdom. His efforts would result in an international jihadist nexus known as the Sharia4 movement. Sharia4Belgium was the first “franchise” to appear. Choudary not only served as an inspiration to the Belgian network but offered more tangible services of cooperation that included strategic and operational guidance, financial support, and ideological training. The links were apparently initiated by personal contact between Choudary and Sharia4Belgium’s leader, Fouad Belkacem, aka Abu Imran. Choudary told journalist Ben Taub in March 2010 that Belkacem came to London to visit Choudary and asked him for advice on how “to start something in Belgium.” Sharia4Belgium was organized shortly thereafter and benefited from ongoing guidance, financial support, and ideological training by Choudary, which included remote training through video chat websites such as Paltalk.
Within a few years, additional informal networks similar to Sharia4Belgium emerged in Europe and elsewhere and became collectively known as the Sharia4 movement. They included, among others, Sharia4Holland, Shariah4Andalus in Europe, Sharia4USA, Sharia4Australia, Shariah4Southafrica, and Sharia4 Pakistan outside of the continent. At times, these networks adopted names that did not contain the Sharia4 prefix, such as Forsane Alizza in France, Straatdawah (Street Dawah) in the Netherlands, Kaldet til Islam (Call to Islam) in Denmark, or Profetens Ummah (Prophets of the Ummah) in Norway. The movement also included networks that functioned mostly online, such as Sharia4Bangladesh, a YouTube channel as well as websites such as International Sharia Movement or Salafimedia.com.
Sharia4Belgium and its real or virtual counterparts are better understood as informal networks than as formal organizations. As Lorenzo Vidino observed, they were mostly “spontaneous and fluid formations of like-minded individuals without a clear leadership and structure.” Nevertheless, Choudary and a small circle of acolytes attempted to absorb them into a centrally steered movement. Many of the websites associated with these networks were hosted by the same U.S.-based web hosting company, where these sites enjoyed the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.
The Sharia4 networks cooperate among three key domains. The first is the ideological domain, which is based on an ideological affinity shared by these groups that involves the propagation of a highly political and activist form of Salafism. Its goal is the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate as the remedy to the perceived predicaments facing the global Islamic community of believers. In the process, Western states and their perceived corrupt and un-Islamic values, which stand in the way of achieving that goal, must be shunned.
Ideological cooperation involves common branding — the adoption of the “Sharia4” prefix in many, although not all cases — and the use of similar logos. These logos usually display black Islamist flag superimposed on a map, in order to signal the impending reign of Islam over that particular territory. Ideological cooperation also involves the sharing and cross-posting of ideological content, especially on the various Internet platforms associated with these networks.
The informal networks of the Sharia4 movement also cooperate in the logistical domain, adopting joint strategies and tactics. Here, too, examples abound. Even the smaller networks, for example, have a strong Internet presence on all social networks and professional websites and they post videos of major events. The websites are also replete with videos in which representatives of one group address their counterparts in another, offering guidance and support. Choudary and Bakri serve as logistical hubs of the movement, as evidenced by the fact that their names appear in the contact pages of many associated websites, such as that of Shariah4USA.
Finally, the various informal networks cooperate in the operational domain through joint activity. For example, Choudary and some of his British supporters traveled to the Netherlands, where Choudary lectured to members of both Sharia4Holland and Sharia4Belgium about the “methodology to overthrow the [un-Islamic] regimes.” Operational cooperation frequently involves joint protests, demonstrations, and other publicity stunts. Social networking platforms are the main means to organize these events. In April 2011, for example, Jamaat al- Tawheed, a French network linked to Choudary, invited him and two of his colleagues to participate in a Paris march to protest the French ban on the public wearing of the niqab. The group also invited other prominent members of the Sharia4 movement to the demonstration, including Sharia4Belgium’s leader, Belkacem, who attended the event and was promptly arrested by French authorities.
The Sharia4 Movement’s Ties to Terrorist and Insurgent Organizations
The Sharia4 movement’s associated networks not only have ideological, logistical, and operational ties with each other, but have also inspired over a hundred convicted terrorists, facilitated foreign fighter movement to various conflict zones, and cooperated with formal terrorist organizations. As far as inspirational influence goes, a 2013 Europol report assessed that the Sharia4 groups glorify jihadist terrorist groups and the perpetrators of their terrorist attacks as heroes, thereby “exposing vulnerable individuals to radical ideas” and contributing to the foreign fighter phenomenon. As far as logistical and operational cooperation is concerned, several Sharia4 networks have encouraged their members to travel — and facilitated that travel — to conflict regions such as Syria, Iraq, Mali, or Yemen to join insurgent and terrorist organizations active there.
Sharia4Spain, for example, has been actively involved in the “recruitment of fighters for jihadist groups in Mali.” Members of the Danish Sharia4-linked group Kaldet til Islam have traveled to Syria, where members of the group, including its head Shiraz Tariq, were killed fighting on behalf of ISIL in 2013. Members of the France-based Sharia4-linked network Forsane Alliza have served as recruiters for Jabhat al-Nusra in France and even led French brigades in Syria. In the Netherlands, the General Intelligence and Security Service noted that members of Sharia4Holland and Behind Bars/Street Dawah were forming the core of Dutch citizens who traveled to fight in Syria. And Norwegian Security Services said that much of the movement of Norwegian foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq was organized by Propheten’s Umma, a group with strong ties to Anjem Choudary.
Perhaps nowhere are the links between the Sharia4 networks and terrorism clearer than in the case of Sharia4Belgium. The Belgian network not only facilitated the movement of domestic foreign fighters to Syria, but Belgian foreign fighters who returned home later leveraged their existing and newly acquired networks of contact for additional foreign fighter recruitment and fundraising efforts. Sharia4Belgium also facilitated the movement of other, non-Belgian jihadists to Syria and Iraq. Finally, Sharia4Belgium and other informal networks associated or influenced by Choudary and Al-Muhajiroun were involved in online cooperation with groups such as ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra.
The above discussion enables terrorism analysts to place Anjem Choudary’s activities in a broader context. There is no doubt that Choudary is a hate preacher, but a more dispassionate analysis of the impact of his activities suggests that Choudary was, at least until his arrest, a jihadist entrepreneur who invested significant amounts of energy to spawning an international Salafist and jihadist movement, with deadly consequences.
The above discussion also sheds light on the evolving nature of terrorist cooperation. When examining how terrorists cooperate, existing studies on this topic, including my own previous work, have focused almost exclusively on formal terrorist organizations as the main unit of analysis. As the above discussion shows, however, formal terrorist organizations no longer have a monopoly when it comes to terrorist cooperation or, for that matter, to the planning and execution of acts of terrorism, if they ever did. In recent years, the types of actors capable of effecting transformative change by supporting, planning, or executing acts of terrorism have multiplied. We can identify both informal actors along this spectrum, such as terrorist entrepreneurs and informal networks, as well as more formal organizations, such as ISIL or the former Jabhat al-Nusra. As a result, states and communities targeted by terrorism today face a highly intricate web of terrorist relationships. Studies focusing exclusively on cooperation between formal terrorist organizations capture only a slice of the complex web of terrorist connections.
It appears that contemporary cooperation between this diverse set of terrorist actors is abetted by the ongoing role played by jihadist ideology but also by the profound impact of the Internet and social media as a main medium of cooperation. Additionally, new and ongoing armed conflicts offer ample opportunities for militant actors to collaborate in various ways on the ground.
Conceptually, the above analysis suggests that scholars examining cooperation among terrorist actors should broaden the scope of analysis of the problem of terrorist cooperation. Contemporary terrorist cooperation comprises more than collaborative activities between formal terrorist organizations. Analysis of contemporary terrorist cooperation must extend to include foreign fighters, Salafist networks, and online jihadist entrepreneurs as much as it does formal terrorist organizations, and perhaps even more so.
The changing nature of terrorist cooperation affects counterterrorism policy as well. Counterterrorism practitioners face new challenges because of the international character of many contemporary terrorist actors. While this is not an entirely new problem, it is a problem that has become more common in the wake of globalization. The ease with which terrorist entrepreneurs can travel, for example, presents law enforcement agencies with challenges in prosecuting terrorism due to jurisdictional ambiguities. Similarly, many of the informal networks described above have participants in different countries — a fact that greatly impedes governmental efforts to monitor terrorism suspects. For all these reasons, countering contemporary terrorist cooperation requires stepped up international cooperation, especially among intelligence services of those states most affected by this problem
Counterterrorism practitioners also face a challenge because violent terrorist actors increasingly interact with radical elements that may not rely on violence or have not yet crossed the threshold to violence. The various Sharia4 organizations illustrate this problem well. Even if most of these Salafist networks have not crossed the threshold to terrorism, they are playing an important role as real or potential interlocutors between their participating members and actual terrorist actors. Furthermore, even if most of these Salafist and jihadist networks remain largely within the boundaries of legality, they clearly attract individuals that are predisposed to adopting radical ideologies. Consequently, these networks can function as “conveyor belts” that can facilitate the transition toward illegal activity, including terrorism. Therefore, governments that face stronger Salafist activity ignore these movements at great peril. To address this problem, governments should rely on the processing of information about participants using surveillance, where justified. In addition, governments, especially in the West, must establish relationships of trust with local Muslim communities. These relationships should be grounded in the understanding that jihadism threatens non-Muslims as well as the vast majority of Muslims alike, for only a small portion of the Muslim population identifies with the Salafist and jihadist stream of Islam.
Assaf Moghadam is an Associate Professor at IDC Herzliya and Director of Academic Affairs at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT). He is also a nonresident fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (CTC). His forthcoming book Nexus of Global Jihad: Understanding Cooperation among Terrorist Actors (New York: Columbia University Press), is due to appear in the spring of 2017.
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