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Tuesday, November 02, 2010 

Looking for answers which are almost certainly not there.

Our practice of not allowing photography in court does not always do justice to either the accused or those in the public gallery. The sketch of Roshonara Choudhry sitting in the dock during her trial for the attempted murder of the MP Stephen Timms is one of those occasions where the drawing seems to say everything yet also nothing about how she came to commit the crime. Sitting, seemingly unmoved by the machinations of a court which she doesn't recognise, she looks aloof, yet intense, her expression harsh and severe whilst also strangely unmoved. She looks for all the world exactly like someone capable of an act of icy political calculation. She doesn't however look like the one thing she most definitely is: a 21-year-old woman who has committed what on the surface seems to be a completely unexplainable and out of character act of violence. It isn't that it seems necessarily like something someone older would have done; if anything, her youth most likely contributed to her belief that she could achieve something by stabbing an MP who had voted for the Iraq war. It's more that the drawing almost seems to capture what you think her own mental image of herself probably is.

Why she decided to attempt to kill her MP, according to her own justification to the police as an act of vengeance for his vote for the Iraq war, is still very far from clear cut. We're told she isn't mentally ill, and wasn't at the time, whilst also being informed, both by "those close to" her as well as the police that she became radicalised as a result of watching the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the currently much sought after supposed "spiritual leader" of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. This explanation for her act has it that she was an avenging angel inspired by the specific advice of al-Awlaki and his group, which is to do something, do anything and to act alone. She does indeed seemed to have abided somewhat by the strictures suggested in AQAP's recent propaganda journal Inspire, which was very much a guide to a personal jihad in isolation. She had no links to known extremists, or to any such groups, and doesn't seem to have accessed the usual sources of jihadi material online, apparently watching al-Awlaki's video messages on YouTube.

How much of this is coincidence and how much is genuine heeded advice is impossible to tell. Certainly, self-radicalisation is not unheard of, yet most who find themselves in such a position tend to look for others for reassurance that they're not alone, and if they can't find this within their circle of friends or acquaintances, they tend to look for it online. There is nothing to suggest that Choudhry did this. The only real previous example in this country of someone ostensibly motivated by radical Islamist ideology to commit acts of violence who acted alone was Nicky Reilly, the young convert with Asperger's syndrome who singularly failed to hurt anyone other than himself, and he was, according to the police, preyed upon, although it was never established by whom. Self-radicalisation which doesn't lead to joining up with like-minded others, where companionship and the reliance on each other helps enormously with the level of conviction which is generally need to take action can be a dead end; equally, it can be the authorities' worst nightmare, someone completely unknown to them entirely self-motivated and taught, and incredibly dangerous as a result. At the same time, the internet is not the most reliable of sources, and their actions as a result, especially if they involve the use of explosives, could be as laughable as Reilly's were.

It is however very difficult to believe that al-Awlaki was the prime motivating factor here. Especially interesting and perhaps instructive is Choudhry's obvious loathing for the British state as she saw it. Very few convicted jihadists for instance have completely disdained the court system and refused to cooperate with it, although some will again claim that this is motivated through maintaining innocence in order to extract the maximum amount of cost from the proceedings. This doesn't seem to be something that would have simply developed overnight. We don't know how Choudhry at the time reacted to the Iraq war, when she would have been 14, yet it seems reasonable to assume that it at the very least exercised her. Dismissing completely that the attack had its genesis then would be dubious to say the least.

Regardless of all of this, attaching any sort of blame to al-Awlaki, jihadist ideology or designating the attempted murder as an act of terrorism is nonsense. This was and remains first and foremost a criminal act, even if there was as it seems a premeditated motive which intrigues as much as it baffles. Dave Osler suggests that Choudhry's underlying motivation was just as visceral, rage-fuelled and political as that of the hunger strikers in the Maze prison and the anarchists of the Angry Brigade and it's difficult to demur. The key difference is that Choudhry wasn't trying to change anything; she wasn't and isn't demanding an end to the occupation of anywhere, or even martyring herself for a cause. She had no intention of killing herself, and left no finger-pointing video, delivering a more expansive reasoning behind her action. In an age when we seek meaning so desperately, and when so many have their own vision for what the world should look like and are keen to share it with everyone else, Choudhry seems determined to remain anonymous, for her simple act of violence to speak for itself, almost as a warning for others as to what could happen to them. It's no wonder then that we seek enlightenment from a simple drawing of her, looking for answers which are almost certainly not there.

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