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Woolwich attack: 'Lone wolves’ who run with the pack

No British soldier has ever been killed like this – not even in battle, let alone in the London suburbs during the Wednesday lunch hour. But the reactions to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby followed a much more familiar pattern.

Journalists and analysts rushed to explain the attack as the work of “lone wolves”, “self-radicalised” online. Politicians demanded crackdowns on jihadi websites and the revival of the so-called “snoopers’ charter”, a Bill allowing the authorities to monitor the internet use of every person in the country, in the belief that the plot could somehow then have been detected.

But the parrot-cry that the most serious terrorists are radicalised in a vacuum, alone in their bedrooms, is almost never true. It is rather a large step to go out with a machete and murder in cold blood a total stranger. It is the culmination of a long journey between normality and fanaticism, usually (if not quite always) needing help from other people on the way.

For the main suspect in Woolwich, Michael Adebolajo, the evidence against the “lone wolf” thesis stared us all particularly hard in the face. Like no fewer than 28 Islamist terrorists – just under a fifth of all those ever convicted in Britain – Adebolajo had clear links with the radical group al-Muhajiroun and its central figures, Omar Bakri Mohammed and Anjem Choudary.

He was a familiar figure at their demonstrations, and those organised by their front groups after al-Muhajiroun itself was banned. The Sunday Telegraph today reveals new video of what appears almost certainly to be Adebolajo speaking at a Muslims Against Crusades rally against the Pope at Hyde Park Corner in September 2010.

“Your Pope is a paedophile,” he proclaims. “Embrace Islam and you’ll be safe. Embrace Islam, because if you don’t we give you the threat of Allah, the almighty. For us, our call is martyrdom or victory.”

At other rallies, Muslims Against Crusades held up banners actually calling for British soldiers to be beheaded. One could, in a sense, say that they announced this murder on YouTube.

The site of Wednesday’s attack was not random, nor in all probability was it chosen simply because there was a barracks nearby. Woolwich, as not many people seem to have realised, is one of the cradles of al-Muhajiroun.

Choudary grew up and lived in Welling, three miles away, and worshipped for many years at the main Woolwich mosque, in Plumstead Road, where Bakri Mohammed also preached two or three times a week. By Choudary’s own account, he and Bakri Mohammed actually met there. He “bumped into” him, he said, and was so mesmerised that he asked for help in studying Islamic law.

On March 3 1996, one of the group’s founding events was held at the mosque to mark the 72nd anniversary of the destruction of the Ottoman Islamic caliphate, the Muslim empire al-Muhajiroun seeks to recreate. Many al-Muhajiroun conferences at the mosque were to follow.

“I have known Anjem Choudary since childhood, and I could see what they were doing,” says Babubhai Master, a respected former Labour councillor in Woolwich and one-time elder of the mosque. “Al-Muhajiroun brainwashed people at our mosque. They had a class every week, targeting youngsters because they were vulnerable. They would tell parents their sons were being spoiled by the Western lifestyle and they would make them into good Muslims. But they were not making good Muslims.”

The Plumstead Road mosque now appears to be mainly free of extremism – though a talk with Khalid Fikry, who has supported convicted terrorists, was advertised there on December 26 last year.

Bakri left Britain in 2006. Anjem Choudary moved north of the river. The mosque, also known as the Greenwich Islamic Centre, spent £30,000 on legal action to exclude another key local al-Muhajiroun figure, Usman Ali; according to evidence presented in court, he was using the premises to show children videos of the 9/11 massacre, chanting “God is great”.

The Greenwich Islamic Centre strongly condemned the attacks last week.

But the extremists did not leave Woolwich when they were excluded from its mosque. What the reporters lining up outside to talk to wary congregants did not know was that there is another place of Islamic worship nearby, at the Glyndon Community Centre, in Raglan Road.

By no means everyone who attends the Friday prayer sessions here is an extremist – Mr Master worships at Raglan Road too – but this is also where Usman Ali and his friends now come. “I last saw him there about two or three weeks ago,” said Mr Master. “He was just like he always was.”

Another member of the local Muslim community said that Michael Adebowale, the second alleged killer, was an attendee at these sessions.

Usman Ali, like so many al-Muhajiroun people, says he is no longer a member of the group; instead, he has been closely involved in something called the Woolwich Dawah Network or Woolwich Dawah Forum, which organises weekly football games for young men, meetings – at the Glyndon Community Centre – with hardline preachers and an event called the “Belmarsh Iftar”.

For Woolwich is at the join of yet another extremist-related ley line. It is not just a major military garrison; it is not just one of the spawning-grounds of al-Muhajiroun; it is also, of course, home to the main Category-A prison where accused terrorists are held, and the main court, attached to it for security reasons, where terrorist trials take place.

The Belmarsh Iftar is an annual event during Ramadan where extremists gather outside the jail walls to break their fast in “solidarity” with the alleged and convicted terrorists inside. (Mr Ali was himself briefly a prisoner, held under terrorism laws for six days then released without charge).

And this is where it all starts to get even more interesting. Because not all the Muslim extremists at the Belmarsh Iftar, or elsewhere, have been kept outside the walls of the British state. Some have been legitimised, supported – and even funded – by it. Mr Ali, it turns out, doesn’t just worship at the Glyndon Community Centre, which is owned by Greenwich Council. In 2010, he was a member of its management committee, during which year it was paid £137,000 by the council.

The local hospital gave Mr Ali a job as its official Muslim chaplain, leading Friday prayers for staff and patients. The Greenwich Islamic Centre said it warned them about using Mr Ali, but was ignored until an undercover reporter filmed him inviting along a guest preacher who praised the Taliban.

Another big participant at the Belmarsh Iftar is the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis), the national organisation representing Muslim students and university Islamic societies. Its head of campaigns, Omar Hajaj, spoke at last year’s event.

Fosis has hosted numerous extremist and terrorist speakers at its annual conference and other events, including Azzam Tamimi, who supports suicide bombing; Haitham al-Haddad, who believes that music is a “prohibited and fake message of love and peace”; and Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda recruiter described as a key inspiration for three of the 9/11 hijackers and numerous later attacks.

Several convicted terrorists have been officers of university Islamic societies affiliated to Fosis and have attended its events.

Drummer Rigby’s alleged killers, Adebolajo and Adebowale, reportedly met when they were students at Greenwich University, down the road from Woolwich, whose Islamic society hosted events by extremist clerics (including Khalid Fikry), and distributed extremist literature at the university’s Freshers’ Fair.

In the month of April this year alone, according to the anti-extremism group Student Rights, there were at least 10 incidents on British campuses involving Islamic extremist speakers or the promotion of extremist views to students.

Fosis has been condemned by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, and Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, for its failure to “fully challenge terrorist and extremist ideology”. But less than two months ago, the minister for faith and communities, Baroness Warsi, endorsed Fosis at an event in the House of Lords.

That event was also attended by Nicola Dandridge, the director of the body representing all British universities, who praised Fosis for its work on “community cohesion”. Whitehall has even used Fosis events to recruit “fast-stream” graduates for the Civil Service, until prevented from doing so by Mrs May.

There is no suggestion that anyone in Fosis, or Mr Ali, is a terrorist, or that they knew what Adebolajo and Adebowale were planning to do. But the sorry tale of the British state’s engagement with such groups, catalogued over many years by The Sunday Telegraph, still helps explain what happened in Woolwich.

Britain’s key failing is that it has been tough where it should have been liberal, and liberal where it should have been tough. It has enacted sweeping, blanket measures such as extended detention without trial, mass stop-and-search and now, potentially, the snooper’s charter: measures that affect everyone and leave the entire Muslim community, most of which is completely blameless, feeling under attack.

At the same time it has been ridiculously tolerant and indulgent towards a small minority of Muslim extremists – with the result that they have come to exercise wholly disproportionate power over their community.

Thanks to Whitehall indifference, or even active support, a number of key Muslim institutions, above all schools, student Islamic societies and some powerful mosques, are controlled by groups which do not themselves support violence but which provide the intellectual foundations and rhetorical climate for it.

If you believe, as many of these institutions teach, that the country you live in is diseased and decadent and that non-Muslims are inferior, it becomes much easier to harm them.

The new government did seem to understand this. It reduced some of the repressive laws, and in February 2011 the Prime Minister himself promised to “turn the page” on the “failed” policy, known as Prevent, which saw Whitehall engage with and fund “peaceful” Islamist groups in the hope they could divert people away from terrorism.

Mr Cameron said, in effect, that Muslim racists should be shunned by government and polite society as rigorously as white racists already are.

But, like so many of the Prime Minister’s promises, it never quite seemed to happen.

A few groups lost their money – but most did not. A body linked to the extremist sect Hizb ut-Tahrir, the public funding of which Mr Cameron condemned as long ago as 2009, is still receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds from taxpayers to educate small children in Hizb ut-Tahrir ideology.

The growing number of private Muslim schools, some of which teach separatist, anti-Semitic and extremist views, are now allowed to inspect themselves.

Inspections have been farmed out from Ofsted to something called the Bridge Schools Inspectorate, a private body co-controlled by the Association of Muslim Schools which includes a number of inspectors linked to extremism. Unsurprisingly, the inspections tend to be very positive about the schools they visit.

Two groups controlled by the extremist Islamic Forum of Europe, which works to change the “very infrastructure of society, its institutions, its culture, its political order and its creed from ignorance to Islam” in a global Islamic state under Sharia, got £750,000 of public funding last year. One of these, the East London Mosque, held a special media event last week to condemn – no doubt sincerely – the Woolwich attack.

But the mosque has also hosted numerous hate and terrorist preachers – including al-Awlaki, whose talk was advertised with a picture of Manhattan under bombardment – and continues to host them.

The Muslim Council of Britain also condemned last week’s killings. But it, too, has been heavily dominated by people from the Islamic Forum of Europe.

“The Government made very clear promises in the Prevent review, and they’ve broken them,” said Haras Rafiq, of the Centri anti-extremism think tank. “The answer to things like Woolwich is not attacking the symptoms. No amount of extra surveillance will be able to nip every terror plot in the bud. It is tackling the causes, draining the swamp in which hateful views grow.”

The elephant in the room is Anjem Choudary. Al-Muhajiroun may have been banned, but Choudary continues to operate freely, appearing regularly on television and never charged with any crime. In 2010, despite being a qualified solicitor, he refused to deny receiving £25,000 in welfare benefits or, as he termed it, “jihad-seeker’s allowance”. (£25,000, incidentally, is rather more than Drummer Lee Rigby would have earned at the time. Britain must surely be the only country which pays its enemies more than it pays its own soldiers).

In 2010, too, as The Sunday Telegraph reported, civil servants at the Department for Communities and Local Government even recommended building official links with al-Muhajiroun.

Given some of the things that Choudary has said, justifying and glorifying violence, it should be possible to build the foundations of a case against him.

“I think he is left alone in the belief that he is on balance more use outside prison than in,” says one person involved in counter-extremism (not Rafiq). “I think the security services believe he attracts other extremists, like flies to dung. But given the enormous number of plots his followers have been involved in, that balance ought to be reassessed.”

In the days after last week’s atrocity, the political classes seemed petrified by the thought that different communities would turn on each other. But just as after the attacks in New York, Madrid and on 7/7, actual physical violence has so far been rare to non-existent. Nobody usually panics after these events, except politicians.

On the airwaves, John Reid, Jack Straw and David Blunkett, some of the more neurotic members of the previous government, were out in force, urging tougher laws. But Adebowale and Adebolajo were arrested under the normal criminal law, not counter-terror legislation.

Eric Pickles, the communities and local government minister, cast doubt on the snoopers’ charter. The official response so far has been calm.

Ministers appear to have recognised that the primary purpose of terrorism is to terrorise. Its power does not lie mainly in what it can do to us, but in what it can make us do to ourselves.

For the moment, the killers look like being denied the official over-reaction they so clearly wanted. In a bad week, that must count as a victory.

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