In the United States, pro al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki has recently attracted the attention of mainstream media and counter terrorism commentators. His involvement with Fort Hood attacker Nidal Hassan has sparked a public interest in a man whose role in disseminating al-Qaeda ideology has been overlooked for far too long.
Nowhere is this complacency more acute than in the United Kingdom, where a number of organisations have openly promoted and supported Awlaki for years with impunity. As set out in a briefing for the Centre for Social Cohesion recently, the most active Awlaki promoters in the UK are a group called Cage Prisoners (CP), for whom Awlaki acts essentially as an emir (religious leader).
Since 2003, CP has campaigned on behalf of convicted terrorists, presenting almost any Muslim in prison as a victim of the supposed war on Islam waged by the West. As well as Awlaki, CP support other jihadists like Mohammed Hamid, who calls himself 'Osama bin London' and was convicted in 2008 for providing terrorist training and soliciting to murder. They crave legitimacy for their extremeist message and have so far successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of a number of mainstream organisations such as Amnesty International, and leading UK law firms such as Freshfields, who have both sponsored and endorsed CP's work.
The organization is headed by former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg, released by President Bush in January 2005, despite protests from the Pentagon and a number of his senior national security advisors that he still represented a threat. The Defence Department spokesman at the time, Bryan Whitman, said of Mr. Begg that "He has strong, long-term ties to terrorism — as a sympathizer, as a recruiter, as a financier and as a combatant." Mr. Whitman also told the New York Times in 2006 that Mr. Begg was "a sympathizer, a recruiter and a financier" for terrorists. It has been suggested that Mr. Begg was in fact the unwitting beneficiary of a political deal between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which, as a reward for his unflinching support for the liberation of Iraq, Blair was allowed to be seen as the liberator of Guantanamo's British detainees.
Although Mr. Begg has protested his innocence ever since his release, his organization's longstanding connections with Awlaki provide enough of a justification to question such claims.
The public relationship between CP and Awlaki began in 2006, when they organized campaigns appealing for Awlaki to be released from custody by Yemeni authorities. Referring to Awlaki as a "prominent Muslim scholar," CP urged their supporters to "Write to the Yemeni Ambassador to UK, Mohamed Taha Mustafa and urge him to work for the immediate release of Imam Anwar al-Awlaki," and "Write to the Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett to make representations to her Yemeni counterparts to work for Imam Anwar al-Awlaki's immediate release."
Upon Awlaki's release in 2007, CP issued a triumphant press release on their website, in which they suggested that they were in direct contact with Awlaki, telling readers that any messages of congratulations they had could be passed to the preacher through them.
Their first public showcasing of Awlaki was in September 2008, when CP broadcast a live message of his during a fundraising event. The CP website included this summary of Awlaki's appearance:
A big draw was our live lecture from Imam Anwar Awlaki. We had pre-recorded a backup a few days previously in case the live lecture failed, but fortunately it didn't, and our audience were treated to a live lecture from Yemen by Imam Anwar, an exclusive event for the UK, and something everyone was looking forward to.
The quality was not crystal clear but considering it was coming from a mobile phone in Yemen to a mobile phone in London and being played to a hall of 500 people, it was clear and audible. There was pin drop silence as Imam Anwar reminded us of the favours Allah had bestowed on the prisoners and their position with Allah and the power of du'a [prayer] for the prisoners.In August 2009, CP were the main organisers of an event entitled 'Beyond Guantanamo,' held in London's Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall. Awlaki (via video link-up) was billed as one of the event's star attractions and CP were only prevented from screening his video message after the local council threatened to shut down the entire event unless Awlaki's address were cancelled. Although CP complied, they also issued a statement afterward confirming their ongoing support for the preacher.
Cageprisoners (CP) is deeply concerned by the decision by Kensington and Chelsea Council to ban Imam Anwar al-Awlaki from addressing the CP annual Ramadan fundraising dinner on 30 August 2009.
[…]CP cannot comment on any other statements attributed to Imam al-Awlaki or other guests as we are unaware of their accuracy and furthermore, they are of limited importance to the remit of CP which is to focus on civil liberties and human rights.In October 2009, the group republished on their website a defence of Awlaki by CP member Fahad Ansari. In the piece, Ansari was highly critical of the council's decision to ban Awlaki and referred to him as "the inspirational Imam." As his connections with 9/11 and Fort Hood have demonstrated, Awlaki is indeed 'inspirational' but perhaps not in the way Mr. Ansari's usage of the word intended.
As well as containing details of their history of publicly promoting a jihadist preacher, the CP website also includes reproductions of a number of materials from Awlaki's official website, and currently contains at least 4 Islamic book reviews by Awlaki that originate from his site. In reproducing his work in such a way, CP not only endorse Awlaki's beliefs, but present him as a religious authority.
The primary 'root cause' of jihadist terrorism is Islamist ideology; organizations which promote this belief's most influential English speaking propagandist have so far had free ride in the UK. In the past, people have had to die before the threat of Islamist hate preachers was taken seriously by the British authorities; the same cannot be allowed to happen again.