war on the rocks

The Toxic Movement That Brought Terror to London Bridge

In the aftermath of the attacks on London Bridge, various British media outlets revealed Khuram Butt and Youssef Zaghba, two of the three men who killed at least eight people during their rampage, were part of the al-Muhajiroun network, one of Britain’s first, most influential, and most studied Salafi-jihadist movements. While its activities have been carried out under the banners of various groups, al-Muhajiroun is best understood as a network of likeminded and closely connected individuals with a physical presence in the United Kingdom and a number of European countries. It practices and preaches a specific brand of Salafi-jihadism that has found a way to survive and grow in Western countries. This is largely due to the savvy of its members, who have found ways to continue operating despite numerous bans on the groups they have formed around.

During its most active period, between 2007 and 2010, I spent time with and among members of the network, speaking to them, attending their rallies, and sitting in on lectures given by its then-leader, Anjem Choudary. That this movement served as the wellspring of two of the London killers, along with 25 percent of all of those convicted in the United Kingdom for jihadist-related offences between 1998 and 2015, should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed it closely. Along with Butt and Zaghba, other notable members of the network include Michael Adebolago who, along with an accomplice, killed British soldier Lee Rigby near his barracks in Woolwich in May 2013.

Set up in 1996 by Lebanese preacher and U.K. resident Omar Bakri Mohammed, al-Muhajiroun’s purpose centered around dawah, or proselytizing, for the Salafi-jihadist interpretation of Islam among British Muslims. It pursues its goals through a combination of preaching, provocative street protests calling for the establishment of Shariah law in Britain, and running “dawah stalls” in busy areas of major British cities where members try to convert passers-by to their ideology.

The group was later taken over by Anjem Choudary, the man who would lead it into the 21st century — turning it into the movement it is today and spreading its message beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. While it has attracted people from various backgrounds, in Britain it is largely made up of British citizens of South Asian descent and operates in some of the socio-economically deprived areas of the country where these communities are concentrated, in particular around east London and the town of Luton.

Survival Tactics

After being active for around 9 years, the original group known as al-Muhajiroun was disbanded in 2004 by Omar Bakri Mohammed. He did this to preempt a state ban, which was being considered by the government, and fled the country soon after the July 7 2005 al-Qaeda attacks in London. He was succeeded by Choudary, who established two offshoots — the Saviour Sect and al-Ghurabaa.  By simply changing the name of the organization, repeatedly, he sought to avoid legal consequences for himself and al-Muhajiroun members. And it worked. Despite numerous efforts, the authorities struggled for years to stop its activities. Choudary and his followers were able to operate under these names for nearly two years. The first official ban finally came in 2006. Both groups were proscribed by the Labour government for glorifying terrorism.

This did little to slow them down. Choudary and his followers continued to operate freely under the name Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah which had been established in late 2005 and was overlooked by the ban. The use of this name exemplifies the shrewdness of the movement: Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah simply means “the People of the Sunnah and Community” and is the Arabic term for Sunni Islam, making it virtually impossible to ban the group based only on its name. No action was taken against the rebranded group, even though two of its leading members, Sulayman (née Simon) Keeler and Abu Izzadeen (whose real name is Omar Brooks), were jailed in 2008 for funding terrorism and inciting terrorism overseas. Emboldened by an ongoing and successful circumnavigation of British law, Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah reverted to its original name, announcing the re-launch of al-Muhajiroun in 2009. It also adopted the name Islam4UK. The state, playing catchup, banned groups operating under those names too in 2010.

But this time the British Home Office went a step further. In a press release emailed to various stakeholders, it acknowledged that “an organisation which is already proscribed — under the names Al Ghurabaa and The Saved Sect — is operating under different names” and that now “a group cannot avoid proscription simply by changing its name.” Any reformulation of al-Muhajiroun under new names would be considered illegal and the government would “not hesitate to add new names to the [banned] list if necessary.”

After one final ban in 2011, this time of yet another offshoot named Muslims Against Crusades, no further legislative action was taken against the network. Unfortunately, while repeated proscription made the group less openly strident in its rhetoric, it did little to stymie the activities of its most zealous members. As long as they stayed within the law and avoided glorifying or taking part in terrorism, they were able to operate. Indeed, they have since demonstrated any clever radicalizer can achieve a lot in a country with free speech protections if they are subtle enough with their language.

The movement only received a significant blow to its operations in the United Kingdom after the state was able to jail or silence its most influential members. Keeler and Abu Izzadeen overstepped the mark and were sent down. Choudary survived a free man until finally being jailed in 2015 for five and half years after being convicted of inviting support for the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The case was based on a series of his videos on YouTube explicitly urging British Muslims to support the group and claiming that its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the legitimate Caliph. However, by the time Choudary was arrested, the damage was already done.

While senior group leaders have been jailed and its various iterations have been banned from operating in the United Kingdom, the wider movement has survived. It has spawned numerous upstart preachers who are both active on the streets of Britain and online through platforms like YouTube and Paltalk.

On the YouTube page of one of the network’s affiliates — Izharudeen, for example — they are careful to note they “are not with any group just individuals enjoining good and forbidding evil.” Enjoining the good and forbidding evil is a reference to a Koranic teaching about a Muslim’s duty to have knowledge of what is both obligatory and forbidden in Islam. The interpretation of this concept by al-Muhajiroun has manifested into an aggressive and confrontational demand for the establishment of Islamic law. It has also prompted them to attempt to enforce their socially conservative views in their local areas. In 2014, al-Muhajroun members were filmed conducting ‘sharia patrols’ around areas of London, harassing homosexuals and women deemed to be immodestly dressed.

Moving Beyond Blighty

Since 2011, the movement has also influenced extremists in Europe, with semi-official wings being formed, sometimes with the help of Choudary or his associates, using a similar naming formula as Islam4UK. These include groups such as Shariah4Belgium, Shariah4France, and Shariah4Holland. Using identical tactics to the parent organization, these affiliates in some cases became major hubs of extremist activity in the countries they were based. At least 59 Shariah4Belgium members, for example, have travelled to join ISIL in Syria.  Zaghba himself is believed to have been associated with an al-Muhajrioun offshoot in Italy, where he lived before moving to the United Kingdom.

Al-Muhajiroun made its way across the Atlantic as well. In 2007, a group of American jihadists founded Revolution Muslim, a website that acted as the platform of the main hubs of jihadist radicalization in America. The group was directly inspired by al-Muhajiroun, presenting itself as its American offshoot, with British members even acting as administrators for the site for a time. A number of Americans convicted of terrorism-related offenses have been linked to Revolution Muslim. For example, Zachary Chesser infamously used the website to suggest that “South Park” writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone should be killed due to a satirical depiction of Mohammed in their show.

More recently, during the trial of Mohamad Khweis, one of the few American’s who joined ISIL and returned to the United States, two pieces of evidence linked to the al-Muhajiroun network were revealed by the prosecution. The first was a picture recovered from Khweis’ phone depicting the jailed Sulayman Keeler giving a lecture. Secondly, and more significant, was that he had tried to reach out directly to one of the network’s most influential members and active members, Abu Baraa, whose real name is Mizanhur Rahman. Unbeknownst to him, by the time Khweis reached out, Rahman was already in prison having been convicted along with Choudary for inviting support to ISIL. The fact that he tried to connect with Rahman might not seem important, but it demonstrates the ongoing extent of the movement’s influence.

Ideology

The careful way members of the movement have expressed Salafi-jihadism has also helped ensure many avoided prosecution for years and continue to operate today. The al-Muhajiroun ideology differs little from that of global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL. Indeed, its members promote the works of many of the same key ideologues. There is a strong focus on the importance of establishing and living under Islamic law, on the legitimacy of waging jihad to remove Western militaries and secular governments from Muslim countries, and on criticizing Muslims who had deviated from the “correct” path. However, they espouse a version of the ideology which, on the whole, is able to be preached without always breaking the law.

Since its early days, the movement has formulated and adopted a doctrine that differentiates it from groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL. Referred to as the “covenant of security,” it was explained in a 2010 press release authored by the network’s members:

[A]s Muslims in Britain, we live among you under a covenant of security; in return for our lives and wealth being protected we are not permitted to attack the lives and wealth of the non-Muslims with whom we live.

This did not stop them, however, from expressing general support for jihadist endeavors overseas while glorifying acts of terrorism in the West. The first time al-Muhajiroun gained national attention was in 2003, after members had handed out flyers advertising one of their events and referring to the 9/11 hijackers as “the magnificent 19.”

One of the key concepts which the movement promotes among its members is the Salafi notion of al wala’ wal bara’ — or, loyalty and enmity. It is applied by Salafi movements in order to define and activate boundaries between what they see as “rightly guided” Muslims who one must be loyal to, and “deviant” sects as well as non-Muslims who are to be rejected and hated. Originally formulated by 13th Century Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya, its purpose is to preserve the purity of Islam as defined in the Koran and Hadith, and create a devoted and ideological group of followers. Joas Wagemakers, a leading expert on Salafism, identifies al wala’ wal bara’ as a means used by modern day Salafis, and jihadis in particular, to clearly convey the war on Islam concept because it “establishes such a clear dichotomy between ‘pure’ Islam and everything else that it lends itself perfectly to the frequent attempts by Salafis to frame Islam as being under attack.”

The doctrine lends itself well to the creation of a cult of victimhood. al-Muhajroun’s interpretation of Islam obligates them to establish a theocracy. Anything that gets in their way, including the values of liberal secular states, is taken as a gross attack on their faith. Members come to feel under constant siege, either from the criticism of liberals or the security authorities trying to curtail their activities.

Wagemakers also describes al wala’ wal bara’ as a doctrine which is used to “set up boundaries between groups and create divisions” which in the West “can be used as a bulwark against successful integration into society.” It is, however, interpreted in a number of different ways among the various strains of Salafism. In the version of this doctrine adopted by al-Muhajiroun, members are taught it is an article of faith to hate non-Muslims. In one lecture, a senior member of the group known as Abu Waleed tells his audience that Muslims must have “complete hatred for the kuffar [non-believers].”

While ostensibly a doctrine based on hating other religions, among al-Muhajiroun members it also feeds into a more general cultural disgust which, while overtly sectarian, is also quasi-racial. At an event in East London in 2009, one member told me that, “these gora [an Urdu term for a white person that can be derogatory depending on the context], you know they don’t even clean themselves after using the toilet?!” This was just one time of many that I heard about non-Muslim British people being physically, and not just ideologically, unclean.

They have also developed their own sort of jihadi slang based around this doctrine — an important ingredient for any cult-like movement. Among the favored terms I came across was “koofs.” This is a shortened version of the derogatory reference to non-Muslims as “kuffar.” I attended one of Choudary’s lectures, the first half of which was a closed “Muslim-only” event and the remainder was a press conference. When he first entered the room he asked, to the delight of his followers, “are there any koofs here yet?” He then launched into a lecture on Shariah law.

They do not, however, reserve their hate-slang for non-believers. Al-Muhajiroun members target fellow Muslims who they see as having adopted the ways of non-Muslims through accepting liberal secular values and voting in a democratic system. Turning again to Abu Waleed, he was among the first to use the term “coconut Muslims,” which is now very popular among Islamic State supporters in the West. During the same lecture on al wala’ wal bara’ he attacked Muslims who, while critical of idol worship (shirk), nonetheless maintain friendly relations with the mushrikeen (idol worshippers):

[W]hat people [Muslims in the West] do today is, they say we hate the shirk, but we love the mushrik. How does that work out? This man coconut Muslim. This man doesn’t know what kind of deen [religion] he’s following.

The use of the word coconut is also racial, suggesting that these deviant Muslims are “brown on the outside but white on the inside.”

Turning to Terrorism

Alongside teaching theocracy, hatred, and division, there is also a sustained effort to shift members’ attentions to the afterlife. After the London Bridge attacks, The Daily Telegraph revealed Butt had featured in a British documentary about al-Muhajiroun called “The Jihadi Next Door.” In one scene, Butt and other followers are shown listening to the speech of a senior member named Mohammed Shamsuddin in which he urges them to focus on the afterlife and how to get to heaven, while criticizing those who place too much value on their earthly existence: “the real life is the life of the akhira [afterlife], not this life…this is a passing time for us”. The physical world (referred to as the dunya), is presented as holding little value to a Muslim beyond ensuring they do what is needed to enter heaven. One of the simplest paths to the akhira offered by al-Muhajiroun is, of course, martyrdom. Die fighting for God and you are guaranteed heaven, no matter what else you have done in your life up until that moment. It is easy to see the appeal of this fast-track to the afterlife, and for many members who live unglamorous lives with few prospects, it is something of a golden ticket.

The activities and ideology of al-Muhajiroun, while usually avoiding explicit support for terrorism and mass murder, are nonetheless a key part of the radicalization of followers who have gone on to commit acts like we saw in London. Not only do we see a devaluing of life itself, but a glorification of martyrdom and jihad combined with an effort to dehumanize non-Muslim fellow citizens and a victimhood mentality. All of this combined can create a very dangerous person, and it becomes easier to understand how someone can commit the types of horrific acts we have now become all too accustomed to.

Shortly after the attacks, British Prime Minister Theresa May set her sights on the Internet and technology companies, calling on them to be held to account for providing platforms for extremist propaganda. While this is undoubtedly an important issue, and many of the biggest companies have made huge strides in this regard, the role of the Internet should not be overstated. Networks like al-Muhajiroun and their impact on local recruitment are a reminder of the importance of real-world networks and what they offer. Not only do they help connect people to charismatic recruiters, but they also offer something which is missing the lives of many members.  Observing them action, one soon picks up on the comradery and sense of brotherhood offered by being part of a something like this. They are a tightly knit band of brothers willing to fight for each other while being assailed on all sides by a Western secular culture they believe is trying to destroy Islam.

Greater policing of the Internet will therefore not be enough, and al-Muhajiroun are perhaps the best modern example of how extremists can radicalize individuals while remaining (somewhat) within both the law and the terms of service of mainstream social media platforms. While both of these restrict them from calling for and glorifying terrorism, neither can stop a preacher from arguing that it is the duty of Muslims to establish Shariah law in Europe and support likeminded groups abroad. Nor does one necessarily break the law when they preach either the legitimacy of jihad or intolerance and hatred of non-Muslims.

If done carefully, most of the ideological pillars of Salafi-jihadism can be expressed while remaining within the letter of the law. This is understandably difficult for many to accept, but in free societies no idea can be completely stamped out, and total security cannot be guaranteed. Realizing this may be the first step towards truly understanding what our options are when seeking to confront the ideology and its most effective communicators.

 

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is Research Director at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

Image: Gareth Davies, CC