Terrorism and the British Academy
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.