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Umar Farouk and Londonistan

04/01/2011

The revelations that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab may have been in part radicalized in the United Kingdom are not entirely surprising. He was in the UK while he was a student, traditionally a young person’s most fecund period of political activism. Furthermore, there is the unfortunate reality that while the more overt forms of extremism and training offered by individuals like Abu Hamza al-Masri, Abdullah el-Faisal or Abu Qatada may have died down (or gone beneath the radar), many elements of what has been termed “Londonistan” do remain active. Put simply, London remains a place where extreme elements and ideas are easy to find for anyone seeking them.

But nonetheless, we need to be wary of sparking off some sort of overreaction to this. That Abdulmutallab, like a number (according to the Times count, a further three) of previously convicted terrorists in the UK, may have been the President of the University Islamic Society and organized conferences on subjects related to Islam and the war on terror cannot in itself be read as some sort of marker of his later terrorist action. How many have been through these roles and gone on to nothing remotely related to terrorism? To watch all of these individuals would doubtless be tough for already stretched services, and to ban all such groups and conferences would merely drive them underground and raise all sorts of fearsome debates about freedom of speech.

Unlike some friends, I would also contend the argument that the University of London is somehow the connective tissue – while a number of convicted British terrorists have passed through these hallowed halls (about 10 if I recall a count over drinks the other night) – innumerable others have passed through harmlessly (including most contributors to this blog). Compared to other Universities, it may seem like a high concentration (though I have not seen an absolute count yet anywhere making this an unsubstantiated assertion), but then again, consider how many students have passed through University of London: according its own count,there are currently 120,000 enrolled. The most likely explanation for these similarities is that extremist recruiters seeking warriors for Al Qaeda’s cause are probably hidden amongst London’s diverse community, and they are fishing in the pools nearest to them.

Maybe a more disturbing link should be drawn through the Yemen-UK connection. Back in late 1998, seven British Muslims (two of whom were related to Abu Hamza) were picked up and incarcerated for their part in plotting a bombing campaign and kidnapping alongside a local Islamist group. In 2000, following the death of a young Briton in a incident involving a firearm at a madrassah north of the capital Sanaa, the British Ambassador went to investigate and was shocked to discover 30 British students at the school. Since then I have heard stories of journalists coming across young Britons, amongst other foreigners, seeking jihadi camps in Yemen. Furthermore, the presence of fabled extremist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, means that these youngsters can find a teacher there who speaks a language they understand.

What really stands out, however, is the familiarity of all of these connections. The fact they are not that novel highlights the fact that the ideological battle is nowhere near won. Here we are almost a decade since 9/11 and we are still seeing suicide attackers on airplanes, having passed down a path that is not unknown. This is both a break-down in security, but also a sad indictment that the stream of young men seeking martyrdom has not diminished.

Here are a few links if you want to dig deeper:

News from Nigeria
Britain turned him away
Organized “terror conf”
AQ “groomed” him in London
His time at UCL
Unis “complicit” in his radicalization
Con Coughlin “when will we wake up” 
NYT long piece on London links
NYT piece news on his contacts and family background
CNN with interviews with London friends, and that he became more radical in London
Farouk “not radicalized” at UCL
THES article by UCL head