The Man Who Knew Anjem Choudary

13th September 2018

This is a cross-post from The Telegraph the original can be viewed here.

Anjem Choudary is to be released from prison in October from a sentence of five years and six months, following his conviction for inviting others to support ISIS. It is a cause of concern that a man who has perhaps done more to encourage opportunist jihadists than anybody else in the past decades, will soon be returning to his old habits. In the region of 18 per cent of jihadist convictions in Britain in the last decade have involved individuals with links to al-Muhajiroun and its successors, a jihadist group which Choudary has run since 2005.

Perhaps Choudary has reformed in prison. It seems most unlikely. But I still maintain the faintest of hopes that a man I used to regard as a friend will one day recognise the immense damage he has done to Britain, and British Muslims in particular. The Anjem Choudary who I used to go drinking with in my university days would have been horrified by the man he has become.

Many will have seen the lurid pictures of him leering besides an open copy of a porn mag. Those photographs didn’t come from me, I should add: my pictures of Anjem are in my memory, and they are fond ones.

Anjem – known then as Andy – was a sweet and friendly guy. When we studied law together at Southampton in the late 1980s, he was one of a group of kids who lived together in a shared house, in the red light district of the city. His digs were reminiscent of the Young Ones or Animal House. There was a sofa in the living room which was gradually disassembled into its component parts during the course of the year. Mysterious graffiti used to appear on the walls.

London born Anjem wasn’t tremendously hard working. The British prize “effortless superiority”: the art of giving the impression that you have attained the highest degree of academic success with the minimum of work. It is a sleight of hand which requires you to study hard, undetected. But Anjem didn’t really do much work at all.

One of Anjem’s greatest skills, these days, is self-presentation. He knows how to play the media by looking the part. Back in his university days, though, he was a mess. Most of our contemporaries got a haircut, donned a sober suit, and walked into a job at a city law firm. Anjem looked like a slob, sporting an unkempt semi-bleached perm. But what I really remember about Anjem was how kind and likeable he was. Always pleased to see you, never snarky: there was no maliciousness to him.

Neither was he tremendously political. He was part of a group of students who were chummy with a young, fun, criminology lecturer, Penny Green: now a professor at Queen Mary. Penny was an activist in the far Left Socialist Workers Party, and much of her work these days consists of campaigning against Israel. Islamists and Communists share a preoccupation with Zionism: but I don’t remember the subject ever really coming up with Anjem. It wasn’t the conflicts in the Middle East that radicalised him.

There was one issue which greatly upset him, however: the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988. At the time, I was editing a student law magazine, in which I had written a defence of the book, which appeared to me not to be an attack on Mohammed and his family, but rather an exploration of the themes of cultural displacement and the loss of faith.

I had to ask another writer to make the case against Rushdie because I couldn’t get Anjem to put pen to paper. What struck me about his anger over the book, however, was how out of character it seemed. He told me that the insult he felt was akin to being told by a stranger that his mother was a prostitute. Nothing I could say to him shifted his conviction that the book was deeply wicked.

But I don’t think that it was anger at Salman Rushdie that turned Anjem from a pleasant drinking companion to a cheerleader for murder. Perhaps it was something altogether more prosaic. While all his friends went off to start successful careers as lawyers, he was left kicking his heels, feeling that failure had finally caught up with him. Unemployed, disappointed, he fell in with the charismatic Omar Bakri Muhammad, who gave his life meaning and direction and rose through the ranks of Hizb ut Tahir, and with whom he would found al-Muhajiroun.

I lost touch with Anjem, and didn’t see him until the week of September 11, 2001, when he appeared, dressed in flowing white robes, praising the actions of Osama Bin Laden on the BBC. A week later, I heard that one of my school friends had died when the second plane hit the World Trade Centre.

That moment shaped both our lives. It sent Anjem down the path of terrorism, and started me on a journey which resulted in my agreeing to work at Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank. I would like to think that, if we met up again, I’d be able to find traces of the Anjem I liked so much, thirty years ago.

Friends who work in deradicalisation tell me that extremists fall into three categories: the foolish, the easily led, and the true believers. The first two categories are the easiest to reform: the last the most difficult.

We shouldn’t give up hope. Many former supporters of jihad, some of them now my close friends, have been persuaded that democracy and liberty is better than totalitarianism and theocracy.

But sometimes, for some people, you have to accept that there is really no way back.

David Toube is director of policy at Quilliam