LONDON — On the same day that the notorious Islamic State executioner “Jihadi John” was revealed to be a graduate of London’s University of Westminster, his alma mater was due to host an address by a radical Islamist preacher who has called for Israel’s elimination and described gays as “a scourge.”
The Thursday appearance was abruptly postponed when 26-year-old Mohammed Emwazi was unmasked by The Washington Post. But the event underscores what students, professors, policymakers and analysts say is a troubling undercurrent of extremism at British universities — Westminster in particular.
Although it is still not known exactly how or when Emwazi was radicalized, he would not have had to travel far from the university’s bright and modern classrooms in the heart of London to find inspiration.
The university has regularly sponsored visits by speakers whose pronouncements echo Islamic State ideology, and its campus has been a recruiting spot for groups that are known to funnel fighters to Syria.
Four years ago — not long after Emwazi’s 2009 graduation — the student body elected a president and vice president who were reportedly associated with a banned group that supports the restoration of the caliphate, a core Islamic State objective.
“We shouldn’t be surprised” that Emwazi was a university graduate, said Haras Rafiq, managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based counterextremism group co-founded by a former campus radical. “Universities have been a hotbed for these kinds of views.”
Indeed, a number of high-
profile terrorists in recent years have studied at British universities.
Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, the man who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with a bomb concealed in his underwear, had been president of the Islamic Society at University College London. Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale met as students at Greenwich University before dropping out and teaming up to murder a British soldier with a meat cleaver on a London street two years ago. Like Emwazi, a number of former British university students have joined the Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria.
The university backgrounds of many Brits who have become involved in terrorism reflect a recruitment drive by radical groups that increasingly focuses on educated, middle-class young people who are the sons and daughters of immigrants but who themselves grew up in the United Kingdom.
Emwazi’s family moved to London from Kuwait when he was a young child, and he was raised in a leafy and ethnically mixed area of West London. He studied information systems and business management at Westminster, and was known by peers to be somewhat reserved.
Sky News on Friday published what it claimed was the first image of an unmasked Emwazi as an adult and said the picture had been part of his student record at Westminster.
The photo shows Emwazi with a wispy goatee and what appears to be a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap.
Within weeks of Emwazi’s graduation from Westminster, he traveled with two friends to Tanzania for what he claimed was a safari. But security services intercepted him. He later told an advocacy organization that Britain’s domestic intelligence service, MI5, suspected him of attempting to travel to Somalia to join a militant group.
The 175-year-old Westminster has several campuses across the city hosting 20,000 students from more than 150 countries. At the glass-fronted Cavendish campus, where Emwazi studied, accents from around the world can be heard amid the bustle of students rushing to and from classes.
The university released a statement Thursday saying it was “shocked and sickened” by the news that Jihadi John had been one of their own. The statement also said that the university was “working to implement the government’s Prevent strategy to tackle extremism.”
The planned appearance of Haitham al-Haddad, a controversial preacher who is a regular on the university lecture circuit in Britain, was postponed hours after the revelation of Emwazi’s identity. The university cited “increased sensitivity and security concerns.”
Students had been campaigning for weeks for Haddad’s invitation to be rescinded, citing apparently anti-gay and anti-Semitic comments made by the preacher. Haddad has commended laws criminalizing homosexuality, has called for Jews to leave Israel and has spoken about the “proper” way to perform female genital mutilation.
Haddad has defended himself, saying that he’s been quoted out of context.
On campus on Friday, several Muslim students said they did not believe the university had an extremism problem.
“All of the students here are normal. We are all in this program which has nothing to do with jihad,” said Thufayel Bashar, 20, a computer science student. He described the scuttling of Haddad’s visit as “an overreaction.”
Westminster, he said, is a place where “everyone gets along — whites, blacks, Asians, we all get along.”
But recent graduates have said the university could be an intimidating place for those who did not share the radical views of a certain segment of the population that dominated several student organizations.
Chris Dehn, who graduated in 2011 and overlapped with Emwazi for a year, said he was interested in participating in student debate groups when he first arrived on campus. But he said the climate was inhospitable.
“They didn’t really want to debate in an academic sense,” said Dehn, who described his own views as moderate to liberal. “They just wanted to stay bigoted in their views and spread their propaganda.”
Britain’s Parliament is expected to soon give final approval to legislation that would give universities greater responsibility to crack down on extremism. The measure requires stricter vetting of guest speakers and puts the onus on the university to prevent students from being drawn into terrorism.
This month, more than 500 professors signed a letter contending that a “draconian crackdown on the rights of academics and students will not achieve the ends the government says it seeks.”
But Rupert Sutton, director of the anti-extremist group Student Rights, said universities also have the obligation to protect students from indoctrination by militant groups that prey on susceptible young people.
“There’s this idea that hearing radical views is something you should be doing on campus,” said Sutton. “Unfortunately, extremists have exploited that.”
Correction: The name of the Quilliam Foundation was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. This version is correct.