- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The attack outside Britain’s Parliament Wednesday came amid a yearslong struggle by British authorities to contain a small but persistent strain of Islamic extremism promoted by a clutch of radical preachers, including one who was sentenced in September for encouraging young men to join the Islamic State group.

As of Wednesday night, authorities had not publicly named any suspects in the incident, in which the driver of a large vehicle mowed down pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge and then fatally stabbed a police officer. The attack occurred on the anniversary of the Islamic State’s coordinated suicide bombings that rocked the Brussels subway and airport one year ago.

But authorities said their “working assumption” was that the inspiration for the attack was international terrorism.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials were scrambling to assess whether the one declared suspect, who was shot to death by police, had ties to the Islamic State and the extent to which there may be a connection to any known radical clerics operating in Britain.

Law enforcement sources say the most famous among those clerics is Anjem Choudary, who was sentenced to 5 years in prison in September, roughly two years after his name appeared on an oath that had circulated online declaring the legitimacy of the “proclaimed Islamic Caliphate State.”

The 49-year-old firebrand cleric, who was ultimately charged under Britain’s Terrorism Act, had gained attention over the years for headline-grabbing activities that provoked outrage but stayed within the fragile bounds of British law.

He headed groups under various names, including al-Muhajiroun, Islam4UK and Muslims Against Crusades, and was known for provocations such as protests outside the U.S. Embassy in London on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and burning memorial poppies on Britain’s annual Remembrance Day for slain service members.

People who had attended his rallies and events have separately been convicted of violent attacks in Britain, including a pair of al Qaeda-inspired killers who ran over and then fatally stabbed British soldier Lee Rigby in 2013.

Choudary’s supporters shouted, “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase for “God is great,” as his jail term was read out at Central Criminal Court in London.

Mistaken identity

The struggle to find connections on Wednesday, meanwhile, spilled onto British TV station Channel 4 News, which mistakenly claimed that Islamic hate preacher Abu Izzadeen was the attacker, although he was still in a British prison. The station later acknowledged its mistake.

Izzadeen is serving a two-year sentence on charges that he violated the Terrorism Act in 2015. The inaccurate references to him in British media on Wednesday briefly dragged back into the news the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, which was once known as Britain’s most radical place of Islamic worship.

The mosque was accused of hosting extremist preachers who played a role in inspiring such al Qaeda operatives as “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui.

Reid, a British citizen, was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences and 110 years in the United States for attempting to detonate explosives on an American Airlines flight in December 2001. Moussaoui, a French citizen known as the “20th hijacker” on 9/11, is serving six life sentences at a Colorado Federal Supermax prison.

British anti-terrorism police raided the Finsbury Park Mosque in 2003. The mosque was subsequently reclaimed by mainstream and moderate Muslims, including the Muslim Association of Britain. Last month, the mosque won an apology and damages from Thomson Reuters after being erroneously included in a report by the news organization on a global terrorism database.

While British media swirled with speculation Wednesday, intelligence officials were also analyzing the approximately 850 U.K. citizens known to have traveled in recent years to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State and al Qaeda forces.

According to a BBC News database and other government sources, roughly half have since returned to Britain.

Analysts say the situation exposed new depths of the problem.

“There are a number of guys like this in London,” said Bill Roggio, an editor of the Long War Journal, which tracks jihadi terrorism developments at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington.

“These are people who run groups that constantly change their names to evade crackdown by law enforcement, and some of them are hard-core Islamists,” Mr. Roggio said in an interview Wednesday. “Without a doubt, some of them are supporters of Islamic State or other Islamist groups.”

While he stressed that “it’s too early to tell whether there is a connection” between Wednesday’s attack and any radical preachers in Britain, Mr. Roggio said several are walking “around London and there’s no repercussions until they do something.”

“British authorities struggle to contain these radical preachers because they have free speech rights,” he said. “They can’t seem to get a grasp on these people. They can’t make the legal case to put them in jail — until they can, as was the case with Choudary.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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