Mashudur Chouhdury, last week became the first person to be convicted of terrorism related offences in connection with Syria. As two more convictions were handed down by the Courts today, Fahad Ansari asks whether prosecuting Mashudur Choudhury was truly in the public interest.
If there was ever a case where a public interest in bringing a prosecution was clearly absent, it was that of Mashudur Choudhury, the British Muslim convicted earlier this month at Kingston Crown Court for engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorist acts. Choudhury is the first person to be successfully prosecuted for Syria-related terrorism, although the label of ‘convicted terrorist’ conjures up far more sinister imagery of Choudhury’s activities then is actually supported by the evidence.
More fantasist than jihadist, Choudhury’s actions are demonstrative of escapist behaviour rather than a real desire or motivation to inflict harm on others, whether in Syria or the UK. The evidence presented to the jury was that Choudhury, plagued by severe debt and a troubled marriage, spun a web of lies to his family the crux of which was that he was suffering from stomach cancer which required treatment abroad. Having borrowed tens of thousands of pounds from his family, Choudhury spent the money on foreign holidays and other luxuries. Seeking atonement for his sins, he then embarked to Syria searching for martyrdom in the jihad against the regime of Bashar al Assad. Having trained in Syria for a fortnight, Choudhury returned to the UK whereupon he was arrested on suspicion on involvement in terrorism.
Unlike the popular narrative, the CPS did not even suggest that there was a risk of blowback from Choudhury, that he would engage in any acts of terrorism in the UK.
There are numerous problems with this narrative, the most obvious of which is that the CPS admitted in court that they did not know for sure what exactly Choudhury did during his time in Syria. To break this down further, there was no evidence that Choudhury trained with ISIS as has been implied. In fact, there was no evidence that he trained with any rebel groups in Syria, whether of the Islamic or secular type. Yet, based on a series of social media postings about jihad and online conversations he had with a friend from the UK who had joined a rebel group, it was assumed that Choudhury did in fact take part in training in Syria. Crucially however, as there was no evidence of this, the CPS could not charge him with training for terrorism.
Instead, the CPS brought charges against him for engaging in conduct in preparation for acts of terrorism. To convict on this, the CPS had to persuade the jury that Choudhury both intended to participate in acts of terrorism and then carried out some action in furtherance of that intention. The act of terrorism in the case was participating in fighting in pursuit of an ideological or religious cause, specifically the establishment of an Islamic state.
CPS admitted in court that they did not know for sure what exactly Choudhury did during his time in Syria…there was no evidence that Choudhury trained with ISIS as has been implied…there was no evidence that he trained with any rebel groups in Syria
While his intention was inferred from his online conversations with another rebel and from his bravado-filled social media postings about jihad, the mere action of travelling to Syria satisfied the second prong of the test. In essence, it was therefore irrelevant whether Choudhury actually trained with rebels or not or participated in any fighting. It was enough for him to fall foul of the law purely because of his travel to Syria after it was believed that he intended to fight there.
It is still very unclear why the CPS chose to prosecute Choudhury. Its case in court was that he had returned to the UK either because he had lost his nerve or because the fighters had rejected him. If either of these accounts is true, then it makes no sense as to why there was a public interest in prosecuting him. What this does suggest is that Choudhury was nothing but a fantasist who went to Syria to escape his many problems at home but on witnessing the brutal realities of war, he realized it was a million miles away from the comfort of virtual web-based jihad. Unable to cope, he returned home.
It is evident that Choudhury is a troubled man who needs help. Rather than prosecute him, convict him of terrorism and lock him up for many years, it would appear to be more logical to get him counseling and try to understand what drove him to go to Syria and to help him resolve his family problems. Unlike the popular narrative, the CPS did not even suggest that there was a risk of blowback from Choudhury, that he would engage in any acts of terrorism in the UK. Choudhury is not someone from whom there is a risk of causing harm to the public in Syria or in the UK. If anything, he is only a risk to himself. Viewed from a different angle, it could be said that the CPS and police missed a golden opportunity to use Choudhury as an example of why Muslims should not travel to Syria and that the reality on the ground is far more horrific and terrifying than the bravado propagated on social media.
In essence, it was therefore irrelevant whether Choudhury actually trained with rebels or not or participated in any fighting. It was enough for him to fall foul of the law purely because of his travel to Syria after it was believed that he intended to fight there.
So if there was little public interest in prosecuting Choudhury, then why did the CPS proceed with the case? One can only speculate but it appears that it was done to send a strong message to the Muslim community that anyone travelling to Syria who has previously expressed support for issues of jihad and the establishment of an Islamic State governed by shari’ah law, risks being arrested and prosecuted for terrorism, regardless of whether there is any evidence of any wrongdoing in Syria. Indeed, Assistant Chief Constable Brendan O' Dowda, who heads the south-east counter-terrorism unit, sent the following warning following the verdict: “Anyone thinking of travelling to fight jihad against the Assad regime, think again. You are likely to be killed or kidnapped and if you return to the UK you are highly likely to be arrested.”
The difficulty with comments like these and Choudhury’s conviction is that it effectively criminalises travel to Syria for any reason whatsoever for Muslims who are confident enough in their identity and faith to promote and defend their religious beliefs in jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state. Far from being marginal opinions, these concepts are core to the Islamic belief and held in the hearts of millions of Muslims in the UK. Those who express these opinions publicly however run a real risk of being convicted of terrorism for the mere act of travelling to Syria, even if for purely humanitarian reasons.
This criminalisation of legitimate activity is an eerie step in the Syria counter terrorism strategy and the ramifications of which are likely to be huge. Choudhury is not a terrorist. Nor is he a freedom fighter. He is just a troubled man.
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(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)