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12.30.09

My Classmate, the Plane Bomber

The man who tried to blow up Flight 253 on Christmas allegedly turned toward al Qaeda at London University. Alum Venetia Thompson on going to school at terrorism's Ivy League.

When former University College London mechanical engineering student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a plane on Christmas Day, he became the fourth president of a student Islamic society to face terrorist charges in three years. Waheed Zaman, former president of the Islam Society at London Metropolitan University, is facing a retrial on charges that he was involved in the 2006 liquid-bomb plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners, and two others have been convicted of terrorist offenses since 2007. The government-funded Islam and Citizenship Education Project, which aims to encourage British citizenship to be taught in madrassahs, and even supplies teaching materials, clearly has a lot of work to do, as do British universities.

“Everyone knows London universities are full of would-be nutters honing their engineering skills whilst simultaneously becoming increasingly religious. It’s one hell of a dangerous combo when you think about it.”

When I was in my final year at UCL, the “Christmas undie bomber” would have been in his first year, a “fresher.” We may even have crossed paths in the library or Students’ Union. Like all freshers, he would have attended the annual Freshers’ Fair and signed up to various clubs and societies, probably ignoring the Ultimate Frisbee Society and the Wilderness Medicine Society and making a bee-line for the Islamic Society, which he would then go on to lead. Whilst I was getting drunk and becoming increasingly convinced I was going to fail my finals, somewhere nearby he was beginning to be radicalized.

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I had various encounters with the UCL Islamic Society, from the relatively innocent (constantly trying to get me to sign their anti-Israel or anti-Iraq war petitions, to wear one of their “Free Palestine” T-shirts, or to take one of their seemingly endless supply of leaflets promoting protests, sit-ins, and lectures by extremists) to the slightly more sinister (the friends I made in first year whom I gradually saw less and less of, and who even began dressing more conservatively as they became more involved with the society, or the girl I knew who told me she was warned against adopting “their”—as in our “Western”—culture by an older student she’d met during Freshers’ Week).

One former UCL student even says he was told whilst enjoying a pint in the union that it was his “duty” as a Muslim to attend society meetings and that he was frequently invited to Islamic study groups. He jokes that he was “probably seen as a sitting duck—I was even studying ‘bomb-making,’ as we affectionately referred to the Department of Chemical Engineering.”

He goes on to say: “Everyone knows London universities are full of would-be nutters honing their engineering skills whilst simultaneously becoming increasingly religious. It’s one hell of a dangerous combo when you think about it. We all used to joke about it back then, but it’s not quite so funny anymore.”

Sadly, the average 18-year-old arriving in London, having spent the last eight years locked up in a boarding school in the middle of nowhere, or worse, getting beaten up at the local state-run comprehensive, is going to be looking for more than the Ultimate Frisbee Society when they finally arrive at university. They want guidance, identity, friends, and protection—to feel that they belong. Therefore they are perfect fodder for religious fanatics lurking behind the scenes.

Of course most societies that scoop up lost “freshers” don’t encourage known extremists to come and give lectures to their impressionable members. Incidentally, no former presidents of other societies have graduated and gone on to try and blow themselves up or plot terrorist atrocities. It could be argued that this seems to be a problem specific to university Islamic societies and the people who are allowed access, or invited to speak at, study groups, and events that appear to be totally unregulated.

Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion, an independent U.K. think tank specializing in the study of radicalization and extremism in the U.K., tells The Daily Telegraph, “UCL has not just failed to prevent students being radicalized, they have been complicit.” Referring to Abu Usama, an extremist due to speak at UCL last month and known for preaching that homosexuals and apostates should be killed, Murray says: “If any other society at UCL invited someone to speak who encouraged killing homosexuals, that society would be banned immediately, but academics are afraid of taking action when it involves Islamic societies in case they are accused of Islamophobia.”

It is perhaps, therefore, unsurprising that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, during his time as president of the UCL Islamic Society, was able to launch what can only be described as an anti-Western propagandist YouTube video advertising the society’s “War on Terror Week” without any intervention from the university.

It isn’t just UCL in the hot seat. A student at the prestigious London School of Economics—incidentally, where Omar Sheikh, who helped in the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl back in 2002, studied—recalls the friends made in first year who during the course of their degrees “took a mysterious turn to the conservative, stopped coming out and drinking.” Then there are the “Death to Israel” T-shirts a Jewish LSE student tells me he has seen around the LSE campus, where, he says, “anti-Semitism is rife. There have been plenty of clashes between the Islamic Soc and the Israel Soc here. It’s only going to get worse.”

Kings College London, another top university, was where Asif Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif studied. They carried out a suicide bomb attack on a bar in Tel Aviv in 2003. Then there is City University, where Abdullah Ahmed Ali, the ringleader of the 2006 liquid-bomb plot, graduated from. It seems to be a struggle to find a London university without terrorist alumni.

A YouGov poll conducted in 2008, the only documented extensive study of British Muslim students to be published, found that 32 percent of the 632 students who took part believed killing in the name of religion to be justifiable in order to “preserve and promote that religion” or if that religion is “under attack.”

UCL has issued a typically frothy statement claiming that “during his time on the course Mr. Abdulmutallab never gave his tutors any cause for concern, and was a well-mannered, quietly spoken, polite and able young man.” The UCL president and provost, Professor Malcolm Grant is “deeply saddened by these events.” It is surely about time that he, and other university heads, stop their clichéd “but he was such a nice young man” denial and fulfill their duty of care by monitoring their students, university societies, and who is being invited to speak on their campuses more closely. They cannot rely on there always being a heroic Dutchman around to bring down the next “bomb-making” graduate who decides to blow himself up.

Venetia Thompson is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Spectator. Her memoir Gross Misconduct will be published in February by Simon and Schuster U.K. She lives in London.