The spiritual leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, Anwar al-Awlaki, has featured heavily in the coverage of the latest Islamist bomb plot against the West. He also radicalised Roshonara Choudhry, the East London Bangladeshi who has today been convicted of attempting to murder a Labour MP in protest at the Iraq war.
These are just the latest in a series of acts of Islamist violence and terrorism inspired by Awlaki. He met and was in email correspondence with Major Nidal Hassan, the alleged perpetrator of the Fort Hood massacre, whom he praised as a “hero.” He was visited by, and trained, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged underpants bomber. He was named as an inspiration by Faisal Shahzad, the attempted bomber of Times Square. Above all, he has been named by the US government as the inspiration for three of the 9/11 hijackers. They attended his sermons; two of them met him repeatedly and privately; and the US authorities believe he may have had foreknowledge of the attacks.
Some of the latest coverage has noted that Awlaki “lived in London” for a time – but with only one exception, yesterday’s Sun, the media has steered surprisingly clear of his close links with that well-known home of tolerance and moderation, the East London Mosque, and those self-proclaimed “democratic Muslims,” the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), who control the mosque.
Awlaki spoke at the East London Mosque, by video link and live telephone Q&A, as recently as 1 January 2009. The event, organised by Noor Pro Media, was advertised with a poster showing New York under bombardment. He gave a sermon in person at the East London Mosque on December 26, 2003, (video here) urging Muslims never under any circumstances to report fellow Muslims who they suspected of terrorism to the police (“you don’t hand over a Muslim to the enemies.”)
Awlaki also spoke at the ExpoIslamia (“Islam for Europe”) event, organised by the IFE, on 12 October 2003.
On 5 November 2008, the IFE’s community affairs co-ordinator, Azad Ali, described Awlaki as “one of my favourite speakers and scholars… I really do love him for the sake of Allah, he has an uncanny way of explaining things to people which is endearing.” (Mr Ali added that he disagreed with Awlaki’s views about not voting – but didn’t express any disagreement with his views about violence.)
Later, Mr Ali again praised Awlaki on his blog, saying: “Reading his blogs, one cannot help but feel his frustration at the constant denial of legitimate Islamic principles. Worse is the complete incompetence of some Muslims to distinguish between Jihad and acts of murder.” This post was the now-famous one in which Mr Ali endorsed the killing of British troops in Iraq.
Perhaps the coverage has avoided mentioning all this because of the East London Mosque’s systematic and blatant campaign of lying about its links with Awlaki – abetted, who knows, by threats from its favourite hair-trigger libel lawyers?
In a letter to The Times on 11 November 2009, the mosque’s assistant director, Shaynul Khan, stated: “Anwar Al-Awlaki did not give a lecture via video link at an event held at the East London Mosque on 1st January 2009.” This is completely untrue. In the letter, the mosque made a false semantic distinction between the East London Mosque and the London Muslim Centre. In fact, they are the same place; the London Muslim Centre is physically part of the mosque complex and is owned and managed by the mosque. The mosque’s hiring conditions make clear that it must approve all speakers and that “all publicity materials for the event must be submitted for approval” to the mosque.
In the East London Mosque’s response to my Dispatches programme on them and the IFE, it finally admitted that he had spoken there, but rolled out a new line of defence: that “there was no credible evidence at the time of the event that Awlaki might be an extremist.”
This statement is, again, transparently false. More than two months before the January 2009 meeting at the East London Mosque, Awlaki was described in a public speech by Charles Allen, the US under-secretary for intelligence, as the “spiritual leader to three of the September 11 hijackers,” an “al-Qaeda supporter” and “an example of al-Qaeda reach into the [US] homeland.”
Awlaki was on a US terror watch list as early as 2002. As early as 18 December 2003, he was named in the House of Commons as being “reportedly wanted for questioning by the FBI in connection with the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.” He regularly featured in US media reporting, including on network TV news, as a terror suspect after this time. He was reportedly banned from the UK for his extremist links as early as 2006. In 2008, he praised the Somali terrorist group, al-Shabaab, on his website.
Incredibly, the chairman of the East London Mosque, Mohammed Abdul Bari, who is also a former president of the IFE, continues to defend hosting Awlaki. As recently as two weeks ago, he described the decision to host Awlaki as an act of “fairness and justice.”
There could be no clearer illustration of why the East London Mosque and the IFE should be beyond the pale of democratic politics. Yet these are the people who provided backing for the man who is now mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman.