Anwar Al-Awlaki

Case Study: Roshonara Choudhry

The Radicalization Process of Roshonara Choudhry
{War Studies Department, King’s College London}

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Anwar Al-Awlaki

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This paper examines Roshonara Choudhry as a case study in violent homegrown radicalization. Emphasis is placed on the processes of framing and collective identity construction – drawn from social movement theory – as facilitators of violent radicalization and mobilization in the absence of direct links to violent groups or networks. This paper proceeds in three parts; it begins with a brief summary of the Roshonara Choudhry’s transformation from gifted student and productive member of her community to a radicalized individual who adopted and then eventually acted on her belief in a violent extremist ideology. It then turns to a discussion of theoretical approaches drawn from social movement theory relevant to the process of violent radicalization. Finally, Choudhry’s case will be discussed with reference to the approaches developed in the preceding section.

Some of the terms used throughout this paper are ‘essentially contested concepts’, or concepts ‘whose meaning lends itself to endless dispute but no resolution’.[1] Thus, for the purposes of academic clarity, the following working definitions apply to this paper: the definition of Islamism is taken from Neumann and Rogers, and refers to a literalist interpretation of Islam combined with ‘revolutionary political ideology…proclaiming a global community of believers (the ummah) to be liberated and/or united under Islamic rule, and the belief that the most effective way of accomplishing this aim is through violence’ and not the religion ‘Islam’practiced by over a billion and a half people worldwide. [2]  The terms radical and extremist are sometimes used interchangeably, it is therefore important to clarify the distinction between the two. In this paper radical refers to an individual with a ‘deep-felt desire for fundamental socio-political changes’[3], whereas an extremist is a person who accepts political ideologies that are opposed to society’s core (constitutional) values and principles’.[4] Radicalization therefore refers here to the process through which individuals come to support the need for fundamental societal changes. Violent radicalization is the process through which individuals come to experience ‘changes in attitude that lead towards sanctioning and, ultimately, the involvement in the use of violence for a political aim’.[5] Violent extremism is the willingness to use violence in pursuit of extremist ideologies.[6]

FROM GIFTED STUDENT TO TERRORIST

The eldest of five children, Roshonara Choudhry grew up in East Ham, a suburb 12 kilometers east of London and was raised by parents of Bangladeshi background – though her mother was born in the United Kingdom.  Choudhry’s father was a tailor but had been forced to rely on benefits and money from his children after losing his job.[7] Friends of the Choudhrys described the family as ‘moderate Muslims’.[8] Roshonara was an excellent student throughout her academic career.  She earned straight A’s on her GSCEs, and received high marks at the Newham Sixth Form College.[9] After Newham, Choudhry attended King’s College London, choosing to study English and Communications in the hopes of becoming a teacher [10] – one of her lecturers, Dr. Alan Fortune of King’s Collect London, said that she was expected to earn first class honors.[11]

By all accounts Roshonara was a productive member of her community, but was shy, and inclined to keep to herself.  She provided private tutoring to children for £5 an hour at KnowledgeBox to help pay for her schooling.[12] Choudhry volunteered at West Ham United FC as a learning mentor, helping children with their literacy and numeracy skills.[13] Three years before her attempted assassination of Stephen Timms, she met the MP at a school outing to the House of Commons; during the event a fellow student repeatedly questioned Timms about his support for the war in Iraq. Choudhry admits that at the time she felt ‘embarrassed’ by the incident and thought the girl ‘should be quiet’.[14] According to one neighbor in East Ham, Roshonara ‘seemed like a normal girl’.[15]

According to Choudhry she had always been ‘quite religious’ but hadn’t been going to a mosque to pray, nor is there any indication given that she was directly linked with any radical imams or groups of radicalised individuals. During her interview with the police, Choudhry mentions the website revolutionmuslim.com, YouTube videos of the radical Islamist clerics Anwar al-Awlaki and Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, videos from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a series of downloaded Awlaki lectures as potential sources of radicalisation. Interestingly, Choudhry didn’t search out Awlaki; instead through YouTube’s related-videos algorithm Choudhry stumbled upon the radical Islamist cleric, who she credited with inspiring her to stab Stephen Timms, while watching the stories of Muslim converts she thought were ‘interesting’.[16] Between November 2009 and May 2010, Choudhry downloaded and listened to more than one hundred hours of Awlaki’s lectures.[17] Choudhry also visited revolutionmuslim.com and watched YouTube videos about ‘the resistance’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.[18]

A dramatic shift occurred in Choudhry’s thinking around April 2010; prior to then she had come to agree with Anwar al-Awlaki’s lectures, believing that Muslims had an obligation to defend other Muslims in places like Iraq, yet still wasn’t prepared to fight, thinking it was predominantly a man’s duty.[19]  However, several weeks before the attack, Choudhry watched a YouTube video of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, in which according to Choudhry, Azzam said that all Muslims had a duty to defend a Muslim land when they didn’t have the means with which to defend themselves.[20] Choudhry identifies Azzam’s video as the moment when she realized it was her duty to fight on behalf of fellow Muslims.[21]

The planning stages of Roshonara’s attacks were rather banal; most of the information necessary for identifying a target and planning the attack was conducted online using Google and open government websites. [22] Choudhry settled on Timms after finding out that he had a rating of 99.9% in support of the invasion of the Iraq war according to the website theyworkforyou.co.uk.[23]  Choudhry said that made her feel angry because the ‘Iraq war [was] just based on lies and he just voted strongly for everything as though he had no mercy’[24]

On April 27, 2010, after choosing Timms as her target, Choudhry dropped out of King’s College London.[25] This, according to one report, was the only indication her family had that something may have been wrong as she had purposefully kept her activities a secret in order to avoid implicating anyone else.[26]  After dropping out of King’s, Choudhry made an appointment to meet with Timms at 2:45pm on 14 May.[27] Shortly thereafter, Choudhry purchased two knives (in the event one broke during the attack), and hid them in a shoebox underneath her bed.[28]

On the morning of 14 May, dressed in all black, Choudhry paid off her student loan – to prevent her family from being liable for her debt – and emptied her bank account, ostensibly to prevent the UK government from confiscating the funds after her attack.[29] Choudhry then made her way down to the Beckton Globe community centre in Newham, east London to carry out her attack.  When she walked in to meet Timms he pointed for her to take a seat, instead Choudhry purposefully walked around the desk, reached out with her left hand as if to shake his, pulled a knife from her purse and stabbed him twice in the top of his stomach.[30] Choudhry was then disarmed by Timms’ assistant and arrested by police. Choudry’s trial began on 01 November 2010; during the trial she refused to enter a plea or recognize the legitimacy of the court.[31] On 03 November 2010, Choudhry was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for attempted murder. She is currently imprisoned at HM Prison Bronzefield.

THEORIES OF RADICALISATION

There are many theories available to explain Roshonara Choudhry’s radicalization and eventual commitment to carry out an act of terrorism in the West; there is however, no single ‘grand unified theory’ of radicalization and many theories fail to explain how a seemingly normal, healthy individual becomes a terrorist. Root cause explanations, for example, might posit that Choudhry’s behavior was a product of grievance or societal strain related to discontent over the war in Iraq or economic hardship caused by her father’s joblessness. Certainly, the war in Iraq was central to Choudhry’s personal narrative about the decision to stab Stephen Timms,[32] and her father’s unemployment may have contributed to a belief that Muslims in the UK were being persecuted by non-Muslims; however, many Muslims in the West were enraged by the war but only a minority have planned or committed terrorist attacks. Grievance and strain may create the conditions for radicalization and terrorism, but they fail to explain how individuals become radicalized, and how once radicalized, individuals’ grievances are mobilized into terrorist action.[33] Similarly, psychopathological theories of terrorism, which posit that terrorists are psychopathic or mentally unstable individuals afflicted by a pathological drive to commit violence, have enjoyed a sizable following, but are widely discredited and should be avoided as means of understanding violent radicalization[34] – all the more so, given that Choudhry exhibited no signs of mental illness.[35]

Social movement theory (SMT), from the field of sociology, is comprised of many overlapping frameworks that attempt to explain how social movements attract, socialize, and mobilize supporters. SMT assumes that individuals who engage in terrorism and political violence are rational actors rather than mentally unstable individuals afflicted by a pathological drive to commit violence; thereby moving focus away from individual personalities and towards the processes underlying mobilization for violence.[36] Scholarship from the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in SMT focuses on how social movements, their leaders and supporters attract, socialize, and mobilize supporters by rendering events meaningful through the dynamic processes of framing, and collective identity construction, and therefore provides a more applicable framework for analyzing Roshonara Choudhry’s process of violent radicalization. [37]

The process of framing involves the production, articulation, and elaboration of interpretative schemata (frames), which individuals, groups, and social movements use to ‘locate, perceive, identify and label occurrences within their life space and the world at large’.[38] When frames reference broad interpretative schemata shared by a number of (sometimes competing) movements or communities they are referred to as master frames.[39] Frames are produced via three ‘core’ tasks performed by frame articulators: diagnostic framing, which defines social problems as unjust and attributes blame; prognostic framing, which proposes possible solutions and strategies to confront those problems; and motivational framing, which provides a compelling rationale for mobilization.[40] Much of this framing is built around injustice frames, which establish particular social occurrences as unjust and intolerable.[41] Thus, frames highlight injustice, point towards a credible solution, and importantly, provide the motivation and justification for action.

Human beings aren’t passive receptors of information, compelled to act based on simple inputs from external sources, they must be primed to accept new ways of thinking about the world.[42]  Quintan Wiktorowicz identifies the process of becoming receptive to new ideas and worldviews as a cognitive opening.[43] According to Wiktorowicz, cognitive openings can occur when a) a crisis (social, economic, or political) ‘shakes certainty in previously accepted beliefs and renders an individual more receptive to the possibility of alternative views and perspectives’ or b) when movements facilitate openings through outreach activities that produce a sense of crisis.[44] If individuals experience a cognitive opening, the frames with which they are presented must still be perceived as credible and salient, and must resonate with their lived experience.[45]

Collective identity construction refers to the way in which identities within social movements are defined, shaped, and constructed.[46] The process of identity construction is linked closely with dynamic framing processes, which not only bring social movement participants together ideologically but also play a role in the construction of collective identities.[47] Collective identities designate attitudes, commitments and expected behaviors, and delineate social affiliations to others.[48] They also establish protagonists, antagonists, and neutrals or fence-sitters in the context of contentious politics.[49]

Central to identity construction is boundary activation[50], the process of increasing the salience of particular social boundaries in order to differentiate the ‘in’ group from the ‘out’ group, and divide ‘us’ from ‘them’.[51]  In activating boundaries, social movements politicize and amplify those identities which fit the movement’s goals while suppressing those that don’t.[52]  As boundary activation increases so does importance of the identity around which the boundary is being activated, and thus individual and group activity is increasingly organized around the evermore salient collective identity. [53]

The Violent Radicalization of Roshonara Choudhry

Framing and collective identity construction outlined in the section above, offer a valuable framework for understanding Roshonara Choudhry’s process of violent radicalization because unlike many cases, Choudhry had no direct links to organizations that promoted violent extremism. Choudhry’s only know window to violent extremist ideologies was through the videos she watched and the websites she frequented.  In the following section, the SMT framework elaborated above will be applied to the sources of radicalization identified by Choudhry herself – namely the lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki – to demonstrate their role in her decision to commit an act of terrorism.

Police transcripts confirm that Roshonara Choudhry perceived Anwar Awlaki as a credible religious authority and frame articulator during her process of violent radicalization. When asked where she had been learning about Islam and what websites she had been looking at, Choudhry answered that she had been listening to downloaded lectures from Anwar al-Awlaki that explained the importance of jihad and the Quran.[54] In the transcripts Choudhry admits to being motivated to learn more because she was ‘surprised’ by her lack of knowledge about Islam and that she felt she could learn a lot from him.[55]  This surprise may have also provided the initial fuel leading to a cognitive opening, making Choudhry more receptive to Awlaki’s message. Choudhry also states in the police interview that Awlaki is a ‘quite famous’ ‘Islamic scholar’ and that ‘everybody listens to him’.[56] Choudhry says her interest was piqued by Awlaki because his explanations were interesting and comprehensive.[57] When asked by police where she went to have her questions about Islam answered Choudhry stated ‘I don’t ask anyone I just listen to [Awlaki’s] lectures. There’s no one to ask’.[58] Choudhry even attributes her decision to leave King’s College London to Awlaki’s lectures.[59]

We know that after watching some of Awlaki’s lectures on YouTube Choudhry downloaded his entire series, listening to at least one hundred hours of lectures in all. In his lectures Awlaki proffered convincing frames that clearly resonated with Choudhry. These frames provided an explanation for the contemporary problems facing the Muslims, promoted a sense of injustice, proposed solutions drawn from the Quran and the past experiences of Jihadists, gave convincing motivations to act, and helped to develop a collective Muslim identity (embodied by the ummah), in opposition to the West.

One of the more frequent diagnostic frames in Awlaki’s lectures is developed from the ‘War on Islam’ master frame.[60]  Throughout his lectures ‘The Dust Will Never Settle Down’, ‘The Battle of Hearts and Minds, and ‘The Constants of Jihad’ a consistent diagnosis is given explaining the troubles of the ummah: the West is at war with Islam, they are murdering Muslims indiscriminately, they are humiliating Muslims, and things are getting worse.[61]  In ‘The Dust Will Never Settle Down’, for example, Awlaki says in reference to the release of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad:

And this affair that is happening now, is one of the worse events, there are incidents of cursing Muhammad (P.B.U.H). In fact it might be the worst in our history…[62]

In ‘Battle of the Hearts and Minds’, Awlaki further develops this diagnosis:

[W]e see this happening all the time, to the extent that now it is imprinted in the minds of people, that Muslims are violent people who have no regards what so ever, for the rights of innocent human beings. Why? Because this is a fallacy that has been spread by the Western media, this is the agenda of the West; it is to put the Muslim in such a light. But any decent human being, with the least amount of intelligence, would be able to see, that it is the US now who is killing innocents in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Somalia, and elsewhere throwing bombs indiscriminately in areas of Muslim population.[63]

Not only did these lectures serve to provide diagnostic framing of events, they also constructed a sense of collective identity through mechanisms of boundary activation, which may have crystallized Choudhry’s strong identification with her Muslim self.  For example, in ‘Battle of the Hearts and Minds’ Awlaki draws on the life of the Prophet Muhammad during a time of war to establish and harden the boundary between Muslims and kuffar (non-believers):

When the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) passed with his army next to Diyar Thammud…some of the Sahabas wanted to go in, the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) did allow them to. Why? So that they should not be impressed with what they see…It should be taken as a lesson…This is to establish a barrier between us and these Kuffar.[64]

In ‘The Life and Times of Umar bin Khattab’ Awlaki employs boundary activation mechanisms, using the concept of al wala’ wal bara’ or the separation of rightly-guided Muslims from deviants others.[65] Awlaki claims that Muslims must recognize they can no longer trust Western society, and that they need to separate themselves from the kuffar.[66] In ‘Constants on the Path of Jihad’ Awlaki engages in similar boundary activation, stating that ‘there are some people who claim to be Muslims, but they have the opposite of this…they are willing to stand alongside the kuffar to fight against Muslims. So they represent the opposite though they claim to be Muslim’.[67] These examples shed light on how Awlaki’s lectures may have influenced Choudhry’s interpretation of the world around her, dividing the world between Muslims and non-Muslims and transforming her from an integrated Muslim woman to living in nearly total isolation in a relatively short period of time.

In ‘Constants on the Path of Jihad’ Awlaki provides powerful prognostic and motivational frames, building on his diagnostic frame of the ‘War on Islam’ arguing that the West is engaged in a religious, political, cultural, economic, and media war against Muslims.[68] He presents jihad or hijrah as the two possible alternatives to Muslims to combat the threat.  The first, hirjah, requires that Muslims migrate from the land of the kuffar if they have the means to do so, separating themselves from non-Muslims.[69] The second option, jihad, requires that they participate in armed struggle against the kuffar in defense of Muslims. Awlaki sanctions jihad saying:

Allah says ‘Fighting has been prescribed upon you and you dislike it…But Allah knows and you know not’…fighting is prescribed upon you, so it is a fard, it’s an instruction from Allah.[70]

He offers further motivation for attacks in the West in defense of Muslims everywhere saying:

Jihad is global. Jihad is not a local phenomenon. Jihad is not stopped by borders or barriers.[71]

Awlaki buttresses his prognostic and motivational frames with incentives for action, saying that those willing to fight will triumph, and that they will earn the love of Allah.[72]

Awlaki’s framing work and identity construction weren’t enough to convince Choudhry to engage in jihad in the West. Additional motivational framing was needed to credibly establish a basis for attack.  According to Choudhry this additional ‘push’ came from a YouTube video of the deceased Sheikh Abdullah Azzam in which he stated that it was the duty of all Muslims to defend Muslim lands. It was after watching Azzam’s video that Choudhry states she realized it was her duty as a Muslim woman to ‘fight’.[73]

The prognostic and motivational frames articulated by Awlaki and Azzam are mirrored in Choudhry’s police transcripts, demonstrating their centrality to her process of violent radicalization, decision to leave school, and eventual resolution to commit an act of terrorism. Choudhry reveals her commitment to Awlaki’s hijrah prognosis stating she left school because continuing to attend ‘would be against my religion’.[74]  Choudhry also says that she feels that she has shown loyalty and fulfilled her duty to Muslims in Iraq and Palestine by attacking Stephen Timms and that her actions may have ruined her life but that they are ‘worth it because millions of Iraqis are suffering and I should do what I can to help them and not just be inactive and do nothing’.[75]

Thus, following her seemingly accidental introduction to the lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, Choudry adopted the frames proffered by the radical cleric – namely that of a war against Islam in which jihad, hijrah and the clear division between Muslims and non-Muslims were considered realistic solutions and duties incumbent upon all Muslims.  Furthermore, through listening to Awlaki’s lectures and watching videos of the ‘resistance’ in Iraq, Choudhry came to identify with a collective – the ummah – to which she owed allegiance and on behalf of which she felt compelled to commit at act of terrorism.

Conclusion

This paper has sought to apply key insights from social movement theory to offer a partial explanation of Roshonara Choudhry’s radicalization and embrace of a violent extremist ideology. Emphasis was placed on the role of framing and collective identity construction processes in the absence of direct links to violent groups.Roshonara Choudhry’s path from gifted student to terrorist is important because it presents a unique case in which concepts from social movement theory can be applied directly to the study of terrorism and the processes of violent radicalization.  It should be noted that Choudry is a rare and special case; many so-called ‘lone wolf’ terrorists are actually linked, if only in a superficial manner, to radical communities and organizations that espouse violent extremist ideologies. Choudhry, however, represents a true lone wolf.  This paper therefore does not claim to offer a useful framework for understanding all cases of homegrown terrorism; instead it points towards the necessity of adapting and applying available tools from diverse disciplines – like sociology – to highly specific contexts.

Despite being lacking generic applicability to all violent extremists, at the level of theory we can observe that processes described by social movement theorists are indeed critical in explaining Roshonara’s radicalization. This provides grounding for the practical application of social movement theory to the processes of radicalization that lead to violent extremism. Moreover, it reinforces the notion that a diverse knowledge of available theoretical frameworks is necessary in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of homegrown radicalization and violent extremism.

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Photo Credit: Magharebia

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[1] Weinberg (2001)p.2

[2] Neumann & Rogers (2007)p.7

[3] Dalgaard & Neilson (2010)p.798

[4] Neumann &.Rogers (2007)pp.12-13

[5] Neumann & Rogers (2007) p.6

[6] Neumann & Rogers (2007)p.6

[7] Dodd, Vikram ‘Profile: Roshonara Choudhry’ The Guardian, 02 November 2010; Gordon and Bingham ‘Stephen Timms stabbing: how internet sermons turned a quiet student into fanatic’ The Telegraph, 02 November 2010

[8] Ibid; Ibid

[9] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’

[10] ‘Profile: Roshonara Choudhry’

[11] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’

[12] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’; Dodd, Vikram ‘Roshonara Choudhry: Police interview extracts’ The Guardian 03 November 2010

[13] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’

[14] ‘Police interview’

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’

[29] ‘Profile: Roshonara Choudhry’

[30] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’

[31] Ibid

[32] ‘Police interview’

[33]Tore Bjrgo (2005)pp.256-264; Neumann & Rogers (2007)p.7; Tarrow (2011)pp.22-23

[34] Silke (2008)pp.103-105

[35] Dodd & Topping ‘Roshonara Choudhry jailed for life over MP attack’ The Guardian 03 November 2010

[36] For an argument in favour of applying social movement theory to terrorism Gunning (2009)pp.156-177

[37] Tarrow (2011)pp.141-156; Snow and Benford (1992)pp.133-152

[38] Snow and Benford (2000)p.614

[39] Snow and Benford (1992)pp.133-152

[40] Snow and Benford (2007)pp.123-132; Della Porta and Diani (2006)pp.73-87

[41] Tarrow (2011)p.145

[42] Wiktorowicz (n.d.)

[43] Wiktorowicz (n.d.); Wiktorowicz (2005)pp.20-24

[44] Wiktorowicz (2005)p.20

[45] Benford and Snow (2000)pp.619-622

[46] Tarrow (2011)p.143

[47] Snow, Benford and Hunt (1994)p.185-186

[48] Friedman and McAdam (1992)p.157

[49] Ibid

[50] Meleagrou-Hitchens (2011)p.117

[51] Tilly (2004)pp.211-236; Wiktorowicz (2004)p.xi

[52] Tarrow (2011)p.151

[53] Tilly (2004)pp.223-224

[54] ‘Police Interview’

[55] Ibid

[57] Ibid

[58] Ibid

[59] Ibid

[60] Meleagrou-Hitchens (2011)

[61] Awlaki (2008); Awlaki (2005); Awlaki (2008)

[62] Awlaki (2005)

[63] Awlaki (2008)

[64] Ibid

[65] Meleagrou-Hitchens (2011)p.17

[66] Ibid p.48-51

[67] Awlaki (2005)

[68] Meleagrou-Hitchens (2007)p.60-62

[69] Awlaki(2005); Awlaki (n.d.)‘al-Hijrah’

[70] Awlaki (2005)

[71] Ibid

[72] Meleagrou-Hitchens (2011)pp.63-64

[73] Ibid

[74] ‘Police interview’

[75] Ibid

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