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British universities sometimes seen as breeding grounds for radical Islam

A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a trans-Atlantic airplane on Christmas Day as it descended toward Detroit's airport. The White House called it an attempted act of terrorism.

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By Karla Adam
Friday, January 1, 2010

LONDON -- The case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused in the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner, has reinvigorated a debate about whether British universities are being used as breeding grounds for radical Islam.

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For three years, Abdulmutallab made the short journey from his apartment in central London to an 11-story brown brick building at University College London (UCL), where he was enrolled as a mechanical engineering student.

Before him, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was convicted in connection with the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, attended the London School of Economics. British citizens Asif Mohammed Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif were enrolled at King's College London before launching a suicide attack in Tel Aviv in 2003.

While those cases -- and others -- hardly suggest that extremists have infiltrated Britain's campuses, experts say there is evidence that Muslims who adopt radical ideologies frequently do so during their formative years in college.

Abdulmutallab, now 23, was president of UCL's Islamic society. And according to Anthony Glees, a professor of security and intelligence studies at the University of Buckingham, he is the fourth president of a university Islamic society to be linked to terrorism-related offenses in recent years. One of the former presidents, Waheed Zaman, is being retried for his alleged connection with a plot to bomb transatlantic airliners in 2006.

Like many university organizations, Islamic student societies fill an important social role for students, said Usama Hasan, a former Islamic society president at three British universities and now a university lecturer. But he said that they can also foment fundamentalist ideas and can be aided by guest speakers who "are very narrow-minded and extreme."

Hasan said that Islamic societies have scratched off many of the most radical Islamic preachers from their speaking rosters. The voice of Anwar al-Aulaqi, for example, the Yemen-based cleric who has come under scrutiny in the Christmas Day plot, is banned from Britain. Even so, he can still be heard frequently on some British campuses via video link during conferences and other events.

"It's worrying," Hasan said. "He is charismatic, and some students listen to him."

Abdulmutallab graduated with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and business finance in June 2008. Less than a year later, he sought a second visa to study in Britain -- a course in "life coaching," according to British media reports -- but was turned down for applying to a nonexistent institution.

During his time at UCL, he organized a conference called "War on Terror Week" at the university. One event at the conference was billed as "a lecture on the Islamic position with respect to jihad and other issues."

It remains unclear when Abdulmutallab underwent an ideological transformation. He was far from being described as a firebrand radical, and his former teachers, classmates and acquaintances in London have expressed surprise about the allegations against him.

Malcolm Grant, the UCL provost, said in an interview that the school was "completely shocked" by the news. He said that he has spoken to Abdulmutallab's tutors, who "found it impossible to tell the difference between him and any other student." Abdulmutallab, in fact, was "well-mannered, quietly spoken, polite."


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