When it emerged last May that Stephen Timms MP had been stabbed by a young woman wearing a hijab, most people dismissed it as an isolated act by a deranged individual, rather than any indication of a broader trend. As Roshonara Choudhary’s case has now drawn to a close, it has become clear that this assessment was flawed. According to informed accounts, she was a well-adjusted and prize-winning student who spent her weekends as a volunteer at a local Islamic school and who, by the end of 2009, had become an admirer of al-Qaeda’s newest roaming ambassador, Anwar al-Awlaki.
Less than half a year later, she had dropped out of her course at King’s College London and begun to plan an al-Qaeda-inspired assassination attempt on a British politician. In her police interview, she claimed that her inspiration to carry out this act came about after she began to “learn more about Islam”, and found the works of Awlaki on the internet. This suggests that she fits the mould of the “religious seeker”, a phrase coined by social movement theorist Quintan Wiktorowicz. The term is used to refer to young Western Muslims who, unable to relate to their parents’ seemingly outdated and unappealing practice of Islam, can, in their quest to find other expressions of their faith, become vulnerable to the appeal of Islamism.
Cue Awlaki, a man whose candid and colloquial style has managed to export the Salafi-jihadist version of Islamism to the West more successfully than many of his English-speaking predecessors. He has given himself the task of selling these ideas to Western audiences, and does so by making them relevant to their everyday lives. Thus, according to him, the invasion of Iraq or the rise in arrests of Muslims under counter-terrorism laws are in fact part of an age-old war on Islam and Muslims, orchestrated by an alliance of Crusaders and Zionists. Violent jihad against these forces is, as he puts it, the “pinnacle of Islam”.
There is a strategic dimension to Awlaki’s thinking. Unlike many other such ideologues, he has called on Muslims significantly to reduce their ambitions when planning attacks. Instead of looking to a spectacular operation along the lines of 9/11, they should aim lower and act alone, thus reducing their chances of detection and increasing the likelihood of a successful attack. What terrifies Western security services about cases such as Choudhary’s is how difficult it is to pre-empt something on such a small scale. They also fear that if more people answer Awlaki’s call we could see similar attacks on a relatively regular basis.
The specific details of Awlaki’s operational role within al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remain unclear. What is beyond any doubt, however, is his role as one of the heads of a diffuse but ideologically connected global insurgency determined to kill as many Westerners as possible, and one in which Choudhary — Britain’s first female assassin — is unlikely to be the last participant.