*** How far are we willing to go in the name of "free speech" ? MS ***
Ban on U.K. Radical Islamist Group al-Muhajiroun Raises Free Speech Questions
The British Home Office finally proscribed the radical Islamist organization al-Muhajiroun (The Emigrants) and a number of its successor organizations on January 14. The ban included the best-known offshoot of al-Muhajiroun, Islam4UK. Described by the Home Office as a sort of “cleaning up” following the proscription in July 2006 of two predecessor organizations, al-Ghurabaa (The Strangers) and the Saved Sect, the order awakened a heated debate in the United Kingdom about whether the government was taking responsible security measures or criminalizing dissent and persecuting Muslims. U.K. Home Secretary Alan Johnston cited al-Ghurabaa and the Saved Sect in his defense of the proscription of al-Muhajiroun in a letter to the Guardian, which had been critical of the move:
"Prior to its proscription in 2006, those two organizations called for readers of its websites to "kill those who insult the prophet," praised the terrorist actions of Osama bin Laden, and advised that it was forbidden to visit Palestine "unless you engage in the main duty of that place, i.e. jihad." These are not views that are merely provocative – they are designed to encourage violence and legitimize violent acts in the name of religion. They are vehemently opposed by the vast majority of Muslims."
"Anyone living in a democracy has to accept that freedom of speech gives people the right to say things that others find offensive. But all democracies have to set reasonable limits. Freedom of speech, cannot, by definition, be extended to those who use this right to incite hatred or violence – to curtail the rights of their fellow citizens to life, liberty and security (Guardian, January 19)."
For many, the actual proscription of al-Muhajiroun may come as something of a surprise, given the general perception it had been banned years ago. This incorrect assumption was borne out of the fact that the British government had previously proscribed the predecessor groups, without bothering to add the name al-Muhajiroun to the official list of banned organizations since the group had officially disbanded in October 2004. The group claimed the decision to disband was made as in the wake of 9/11 as, “there is nothing left except that the sincere Muslims who fight with their lives, flesh and wealth unite for the sake of Allah.” Analysts have instead speculated that there was growing concern in the organization about a schism between the Pakistani and British branches, and the fact that earlier in 2004 a group of individuals linked to the organization had been arrested as part of a major police counterterrorism investigation codenamed Operation Crevice.
According to group founder Omar Bakri Mohammad, al-Muhajiroun was established on March 3, 1983 in Saudi Arabia. At the time Bakri Mohammed was an on again-off again member of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which he was then having difficulty with as they disapproved of his activities in Saudi Arabia. He was duly arrested and expelled by Saudi authorities and landed in the United Kingdom in January 1986. He spent the next decade establishing Hizb ut-Tahrir in the U.K., making it into the most public face of the “Londonistan” phenomenon. However, his brash pronouncements (including a declaration that Prime Minister John Major would be a target for assassination) attracted increasingly negative attention and in the end resulted in his falling out with Hizb ut-Tahrir. In January 1996, he announced the “reformation” of al-Muhajiroun, taking only two loyal followers with him.
Unfettered by Hizb ut-Tahrir’s politically wary global leadership, Omar quickly steered al-Muhajiroun deep into the radical fringe. While already known before 9/11, the group achieved even greater notoriety afterwards by hosting events honoring the “Magnificent 19” [the 9/11 suicide bombers] and became a focus for counterterrorism investigators. While initial attention focused on the more overt jihadi preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri (currently in a British jail fighting deportation to the United States), over time it became increasingly apparent that al-Muhajiroun figured prominently in the background of a number of terrorist suspects and cells. The group regularly rejects links to terrorism; the standard denial is that the people concerned were not members when they were involved in terrorism, but this is something very hard to prove or disprove given the opaque nature of al-Muhajiroun’s official membership. Nevertheless, it is hard not to note the group’s presence on the British jihadi fringe for much of the late 1990s and 2000s. Aside from the group arrested in Operation Crevice, there has been evidence linking the rest of the organization to numerous terrorist networks in the U.K.. Looking abroad, members or former members of the group have been present on the battlefields of Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine and Afghanistan, both before and after 9/11. In late 2000, al-Muhajiroun founder Omar Bakri Mohammad claimed responsibility for recruiting Britain’s first suicide bomber, Mohammed Bilal (a.k.a. Asif Sadiq), who blew himself up and several Indian soldiers in Kashmir on Christmas Day, 2000 (Asian Age, December 30, 2000; Dawn Weekly, January 6, 2001).
Within the U.K., however, the decision to ban the group was seen by many in a very different light. Early this year, the group announced that it was planning a protest march in Wootton Bassett, a village in southwest England which has become famous for honoring fallen British servicemen whose remains pass through after repatriation at nearby RAF Base Lyneham (Times, January 2). Al-Muhajiroun’s plans met with universal opprobrium, including that of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who declared the plans “abhorrent and offensive” (Guardian, January 4). At the same time, in the town of Luton, a group of five local men tied to al-Muhajiroun were convicted of using “threatening, abusive or insulting words and behavior likely to cause harassment and distress” (BBC, January 11). The men had protested a march through Luton by servicemen of the Anglian Regiment returning from Iraq by waving placards denouncing the troops as the “Butchers of Basra.” Thus when the Home Secretary made the announcement that the group was to be proscribed on January 12, the events were naturally linked. This opened up a debate about whether it was proper to proscribe groups for expressing distasteful opinions.
The government’s response was to point to a just completed (and confidential) Joint Terrorism Analysis Center (JTAC) report commissioned after the group announced its “reformation” in May of last year (BBC, January 12, 2010). Naturally this was received with some skepticism, and when the renewed attention brought to “Londonistan”—in the wake of revelations that Christmas Day “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab may have been in part radicalized in London—was factored in, the belief was that the government needed to take visible action and this group was the target (Times, December 29, 2009).
The actual impact of the ban is very hard to measure. Al-Muhajiroun co-founder Anjem Choudary remains a very public figure (he did numerous public interviews in the wake of the proscription) and has not given any indication that he is going to curb his calls for Shari’a in the U.K. As he pointed out, “unless the Government can prove that you are ostensibly exactly the same organization, doing the same things at the same time, it’s very difficult to clamp down” (Times, January 16). More likely, the group will go relatively quiet for a while before re-emerging under a new name – as it did when some of its predecessor groups were proscribed. This cycle will likely continue to repeat itself until enough of the senior leadership receives heavy prison sentences for infringing terrorism legislation – something that is unlikely given Choudary’s background as a lawyer and the care with which the extremists make their inflammatory statements.
Raffaello Pantucci is a Consulting Research Associate with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and an EU Science and Technology Fellowship Programme (China) Research Fellow.
1. For the official proscription order and complete list of the proscribed al-Muhajiroun off-shoots see: http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2010/uksi_20100034_en_1.
2. Omar Bakri Mohammed, “An official declaration dissolving Al-Muhajiroun,” http://www.almuhajiroun.net, October 8, 2004.
3. For a comprehensive history of the genesis of the group, please see: Quintan Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West, (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).
4. For a complete overview of the group’s links to terrorism, please see the forthcoming Raffaello Pantucci, “The Tottenham Ayatollah and the Hook Handed Cleric: An examination of all their jihadi children,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 33(3), March 2010.