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Terrorism and the British Academy

12:00 AM, Oct 22, 2010 • By ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS and MICHAEL WEISS
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Terrorism and the British Academy

Former UCL student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

One of the problems that Britain has faced in trying to wage a liberal intellectual campaign against radical Islam is that the British catechism of multiculturalism makes doing so all but impossible. This conflict is starkest in the academy, which tacitly acknowledges the threat of campus radicalization and yet refuses to deal with, or even acknowledge, one of its main causes—Islamist ideology. The result is that peculiarly English phenomenon: a hotbed of cold feet.

Over the last decade, more than a dozen students from British universities have either carried out or been convicted of terrorist offenses. Some of the more prominent of these include Omar Saeed Sheikh, the London School of Economics graduate who beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and more recently, Waheed Zaman, former president of the London Metropolitan University’s Islamic Society who was convicted earlier this year for plotting to detonate liquid explosives on board transatlantic airliners bound from London to the United States and Canada in 2006.  During this period, many British campuses have hosted, via their student-run Islamic Societies (ISOCs), countless “hate-preachers.”

Two recent reports published in London illustrate, on the one hand, the systemic menace posed by campus radicalization and, on the other, just how far universities will go to suicidally downplay or disregard this obvious fact. 

Last Monday, the government-sponsored Quilliam Foundation put out a case study of City University, London’s Islamic Society, which it has found to be a cynosure of Islamic radicalization and one which has already graduated a known terrorist, Ahmed Abdullah Ali, also convicted in that 2006 liquid bomb plot. Apart from posting to its website articles written by Abdullah Azzam, “intellectual godfather” of al Qaeda, and Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, mentor to former al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, City’s Islamic Society has also held regular Friday prayer sessions that disdain “man-made law,” applaud the murder of apostates and homosexuals, and endorse marital rape and wife-beating.

Contrast Quilliam’s alarming findings with what University College London has uncovered about itself. Once known as a redoubt of anti-clericalism, UCL has become internationally famous for graduating Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who tried to murder 278 people on board a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit last Christmas Day. Two weeks ago, the university published the findings of a months-long inquiry, which found “no evidence to suggest either that...Abdulmutallab was radicalised while a student at UCL, or that conditions at UCL during that time or subsequently were conducive to the radicalization of students.” 

The first thing to point out about the conclusion is that, as the report itself acknowledges, Abdulmutallab was the third UCL student to attempt a terrorist attack, which bespeaks a pattern not a series of coincidences. Samar Alami, a chemical engineering graduate, put her degree to use by blowing up a car outside the Israeli Embassy in London in 1994. Mohammed Abushamma matriculated in 2008 after he’d already been arrested on terrorism-related charges (UCL staff only realized something was up when he skipped so many classes to attend his court hearings).  

The second thing that warrants mention is that one of the panelists on the UCL inquiry was Dr. Muhammed Abdul Bari, chairman of the East London Mosque, which was frequented by Abdulmutallab himself, not that the conflict of interest is stated in the report’s introduction. The East London Mosque has also twice hosted Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda ideologue who has since admitted that Abdulmutallab was a student of his. Al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was recently designated for assassination by the White House because of his role in both the Detroit attack and in mentoring Nidal Malki Hassan, the Fort Hood murderer. In his first appearance at Dr. Bari’s mosque, in 2003, Awlaki ordered his audience never to cooperate with the police or security services under any circumstances. His second cameo, in 2009, was delivered via a pre-recorded video message, three days after a national newspaper had informed Dr. Bari that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had identified al-Awlaki as an ‘al-Qaeda supporter.’  Bari has dealt with such information by dismissing it and insinuating that an anti-Muslim bias was at the core of any complaint about his mosque’s guest sermonizers. 

If hiring Islamists to investigate Islamism strikes you as non-problematic, then you’ll no doubt be gratified to learn that Abdulmutallab’s time at UCL is described by Bari’s commission as an idyll among the dreaming spires. The report states earnestly that his application for admittance carried nothing that would be “cause for concern,” as though the Nigerian’s personal essay would have listed “crotch-igniting suicide bomber” among his prospective career choices. One UCL faculty member remembers Abdulmutallab as “modest” and “polite,” a big soccer fan. A student acquaintance says that young Umar never seemed the jihadist type because, well, his knowledge of the Koran was so extensive that he could out-argue any advocates of religious violence—a view that the panel recycles without questioning its theological presumptions.

What isn’t pointless is point-missing. Abdulmutallab’s much-scrutinized presidency of UCL’s ISOC is also treated as inconsequential. This student union, we’re told, is “one of the most efficiently run” on campus. It’s very good at paperwork, particularly when it comes to avoiding the university’s tepid guidelines for inviting controversial speakers to campus. Abdmutallab’s tenure coincided with the UCL ISOC’s “War on Terror Week” in 2006, about which one attendee had this to say to the New York Times: “When we sat down, they played a video that opened with shots of the Twin Towers after they’d been hit, then moved to images of mujahadeen fighting, firing rockets in Afghanistan... It seemed to me like it was brainwashing, like they were trying to indoctrinate people.” This statement is happily elided in a study that admits to relying on Abdulmutallab’s Wikipedia page for much of the background on his extracurricular activities.

Abdulmutallab oversaw another radical event as president of the ISOC, “Pearls of Wisdom Week,” which was held in 2007 and featured two Muslim clerics who had been secretly filmed at a Birmingham mosque for a well-watched Channel 4 expose that had aired earlier that year. Abu Usama was broadcast to millions of Britons, saying, “Allah had created woman deficient” and “Do you practice homosexuality with men? Take that homosexual man and thrown him off the mountain.” His co-sermonizer, Murtaza Khan, was shown calling Jews and Christians “enemies” whom “the wrath of God is upon.” Not only does the UCL report fail to even mention “Pearls of Wisdom Week,” but it laughably advocates vetting campus speakers by digging deeper than the first Google search result page for their names. Yes, turning on the television might also work.

Just as Abdulmutallab was being taken into custody, UCL’s president went on record as saying that the school was not a fertile recruitment ground for terrorists and that those arguing the opposite were guilty of “Islamophobia.” This bit of public relations maneuvering and self-apologetics has now been certified by a university whitewash. Meanwhile, how long before another jihadist with a British degree tries, and possibly succeeds, in committing mass murder?

Michael Weiss is the executive director of Just Journalism, a London-based think tank that monitors the British media’s coverage of Israel and the Middle East. Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is a PhD candidate and research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King's College, London.

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