In early October 2010, University College London (UCL) published its official inquiry into the radicalization of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is currently awaiting trial in the United States for attempting to destroy a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009. The inquiry concluded that “there is no evidence to suggest either that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was radicalized while a student at UCL or that conditions at UCL during that time or subsequently are conducive to the radicalization of students.”[1] To reach this conclusion, the report overlooked abundant evidence that Abdulmutallab had not only entrenched his extremist leanings while studying in London, but also actively sought to popularize such views among his fellow students.[2] The report, for instance, skimmed over the many web postings Abdulmutallab made during his time at UCL that showed his increasing theological rigidity and intolerance. It also did not mention that the campus’ Islamic society (ISoc),[3] of which Abdulmutallab was president in 2006-2007, regularly invited hard line Salafist and Islamist speakers to campus during this period, holding events which one student described as “brainwashing.”[4]

The UCL report is only the latest evidence that UK universities are still failing to understand, let alone seriously grapple with, the problem of radicalization of students at UK universities—more than 15 years since the first British university students graduated to the battlefields of international jihad. Indeed, since the report was published, another graduate of a British university, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, died in December 2010 while attempting to carry out a multiple bombing attack in Stockholm.[5]

During the 1990s, British university campuses played a key role in the evolution of international jihadist networks, providing extremist groups  a steady source of motivated and high-caliber recruits whose UK passports enabled them to move freely around the world. One of the earliest such recruits was Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British Muslim from a privileged Pakistani background, who was radicalized in the early-1990s while at the London School of Economics (LSE). After hearing Omar Bakri, the leader of the radical al-Muhajiroun group, speak on campus about the then-ongoing massacre of Muslims in Bosnia, he embarked on a career of jihadist action, becoming involved with militant groups in Bosnia, India and Pakistan.[6] In 2002, Sheikh was found guilty of leading the kidnapping and beheading of U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Since then, British universities have consistently acted as breeding grounds for extremism, with British university graduates joining jihadist movements in Iraq, Kashmir, Israel and elsewhere. Indeed, just one year after the conviction of Sharif, Omar Khan Sharif, a former student at King’s College university in London, took part in a suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv. Sharif, like al-Abdaly, the Stockholm bomber, is believed to have been pushed toward violence by the rhetoric of Hizb al-Tahir (HT), a radical but ostensibly non-violent Islamist group.[7] Other students recruited into HT at British universities have gone on to play leading roles in setting up HT branches in Pakistan and Bangladesh.[8]

At present, it is difficult to say whether British Muslims who go to university are any more or less likely to carry out acts of terrorism than those who do not. Current research shows that around 35% of British terrorist convicts have studied for a higher education qualification—not far off the national average.[9] That said, many university graduates seem to have played key roles in those terrorist attacks that come closer to “success.” For instance, the 2007 attempted car bomb attacks in central London and Glasgow airport, which failed only due to minor technical flaws in the bombs’ construction, was led by Kafeel Ahmed, who had studied engineering at several British universities including Queen’s University Belfast.[10]

Similarly, one of the leaders of the sophisticated 2006 plot to use liquid explosives to blow up transatlantic airliners was Abdulla Ahmed Ali, a graduate of London’s City University, of whose ISoc he had been president. Another of the plot’s leaders was Waheed Zaman, a graduate of London Metropolitan University.[11] Similarly, the two leaders of the successful July 7, 2005 London bombings, Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, had both attended Leeds Metropolitan University. These and other cases suggest that Abdulmutallab’s radicalization at UCL was not an outlier; it was part of a trend of university-educated radicals becoming involved in sophisticated terrorist plots.

A Case Study: London’s City University
A striking example of the radicalization currently occurring on British university campuses is the events of the 2009-2010 academic year at City University,[12] a college of 21,000 students in central London that has a large population of local and foreign Muslim students.[13] During this period, the university’s ISoc, which was led by mainly UK-born, South Asian-origin Salafists, created an atmosphere in which extremism could, and did, flourish. For instance, throughout the year, the ISoc’s leaders gave Friday sermons in which they defended the principle “defensive and offensive jihad,” denounced the “Western value system,” endorsed homophobia as “Islamic” and called for the killing of Muslims who intentionally missed prayers.[14] Other sermons given by ISoc leaders advocated the creation of an “Islamic state” in which adulterers would be stoned to death. The ISoc’s website re-published material by Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian al-Qa`ida theorist, and Ali al-Tamimi, a U.S. preacher convicted of terrorism (“May Allah hasten his release,” in the words of the ISoc website). Into early 2010, the website also re-published writings by Anwar al-`Awlaqi, the wanted Yemeni-American cleric, who the ISoc had attempted to host via video-link the previous year. When al-`Awlaqi was reported killed in an airstrike in December 2009, the ISoc posted a message of support, writing “May Allah protect him and the Muslims” and predicting “there are many others like al-Aulaqi [sic], and if he dies a hundred more like him will arise, alhamdulillaah [praise be to God].” During the 2009-2010 academic year, City University’s ISoc also invited radical speakers to give campus talks—some of which were canceled following pressure from civil society groups and activists.[15]

The hard line Salafi-jihadi ideology propagated by City University’s ISoc had immediate effects on campus. Jewish and homosexual students on campus reported being harassed by students suspected of being from the ISoc.[16] A police investigation into an attack on Muslim students by local youths collapsed after the ISoc discouraged Muslim eyewitnesses from assisting the “kuffar” police service.[17] The ISoc also sought to forcibly impose its views on Muslim students. For instance, in early 2010 the ISoc attempted to order female Muslim students to leave campus at 4 PM every day, while students also reported that some female Muslims had been forced to wear the hijab. The ISoc also prevented Muslims from using an “interfaith prayer room,” a practice which they believed was haram (forbidden). Instead, they began holding Friday prayers in the university’s main courtyard, a deliberately confrontational gesture that disrupted the university’s academic work and is credited with increasing tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim students. ISoc members also sought to intimidate two university lecturers and students who had sought to draw public attention to their activities.[18] One lecturer was so frightened by the ISoc’s behavior that she considered contacting the police.

These events, which took place on a central London campus during the 2009-2010 academic year, illustrate the dangers that radical Islamists pose on British university campuses—both in terms of disrupting relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and in terms of increasing the risk of radicalization toward terrorism. They also show the challenges of preventing radicalization. For instance, although the ISoc’s repeated promotion of extremism has undoubtedly increased the chances of terrorism, the police or the security services could do little to intervene as no laws were broken. Such “sub-criminal extremism” is inherently difficult to tackle—not least because until a student commits an act of terrorism, their radicalization is generally only more or less hypothetical.

Official Reaction
Despite the mounting evidence that British universities remain a crucible of extremism, the UK government has been slow to act. For instance, even after the 2005 London bombings, universities were largely excluded from the government’s “Preventing Violent Extremism” program. Simultaneously, university vice-chancellors are struggling to face up to campus radicalization. “We all used to be radicals…Radicalization can be a good thing,” this author was told by the vice-chancellor of one London university whose alumni have recently been involved in a number of terrorist plots.[19] Alarmingly, some universities have not only turned a blind eye to such extremism, but have actively defended such extremists. For instance, in early 2010 the national British media reported that Friday sermons in the campus prayer room at the London School of Economics were being given by a prominent member of HT, who is also a Ph.D. student and part-time lecturer at the university, who was using this platform to promote the group.[20] In response, the university issued a statement defending the HT member on the grounds that he had not said “anything unlawful during sermons at Friday prayers.”[21] The student union also issued a press release in his defense, stating that “no-one should be subject to a media witch-hunt” and that “we stand with students and staff united in opposition to Islamophobia and racism on campus…and are united in opposition to the victimization of our colleagues.”[22] Since then, Muslims attending LSE Friday prayers have said that this HT member still regularly uses his Friday sermons at LSE to advocate HT policy, promote HT events and even denounce critics by name—despite HT’s documented involvement in several instances of university radicalization.[23] Many British universities appear to regard Islamist radicalization primarily as a public relations problem.

Conclusion and Outlook
The presence of radicalizing forces on British university campuses is clear. What is less clear is whether any action will be taken to combat it. Although the British prime minister has recently spoken of the need to “de-radicalize our universities,” the barriers government must overcome are formidable.[24] For a start, even the most radical students rarely break the law, meaning that the police and security services are largely powerless to take action against such radicalization, even if it might ultimately lead to terrorism. Simultaneously, the left-leaning nature of British academia means that a right-leaning government has few natural allies on campus. At the same time, however, moderate students opposed to extremism, including many Muslims, have not yet found a way to stand up to campus radicals, particularly ones who control ISocs, have a monopoly over Friday sermons and, as in the case of LSE, are openly backed by university authorities. Moreover, once radicals have seized control of an ISoc or a prayer room, problems tend to self-perpetuate as this leadership appoints or grooms equally radical successors each year. There is also no official mechanism for taking radicals out of such leadership positions since ISocs are independent, student-run organizations.[25]

As a result of these trends, it is hard to see radicalization at British universities lessening any time soon. This will not only affect the security of the United Kingdom—individuals previously radicalized at British universities have beheaded American journalists in Pakistan, carried out suicide bomb attacks in Israel and, most recently, Sweden, aided radical movements through South Asia and elsewhere, and attempted to bomb U.S.-bound airliners. Ongoing radicalization at UK universities is not just a British problem, but a global one.

James Brandon is Head of Research at the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think-tank based in London.

[1] “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: Report to UCL Council of Independent Inquiry Panel,” University College London, September 2010, available at

[2] For the most complete account of Abdulmutallab’s radicalization, see Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens and Jacob Amis, “The Making of the Christmas Day Bomber,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 10 (2010).

[3] In the United Kingdom, a campus “Islamic Society,” or “ISoc,” is an independent university organization funded and run entirely by students. They are generally seen by university administrations as the de facto “representative” of Muslim students.

[4] Adam Nossiter, “Lonely Trek to Radicalism for Terror Suspect,” New York Times, January 16, 2010.

[5] Duncan Gardham, Marcus Oscarsson and Peter Hutchison, “Sweden Suicide Bomber: Taimur Abdulwahab al-Abdaly Was Living in Britain,” Daily Telegraph, December 12, 2010.

[6] Personal interview, eyewitnesses, October 2010.

[7] Shiv Malik, “NS Profile – Omar Sharif,” New Statesman, April 24, 2006.

[8] For instance, Dr. Nasim Ghani, a graduate of a London medical college, is now a leading organizer of Hizb al-Tahrir in Bangladesh.

[9] Robin Simcox, Hannah Stuart and Houriya Ahmed, Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections (London: The Center for Social Cohesion, 2010), p. 329.

[10] Steve Bird, “Profile: Kafeel Ahmed, Glasgow Attack Terrorist Who Burnt to Death,” The Times, December 16, 2008.

[11] “Profiles: Airline Plot Accused,” BBC News, September 7, 2009.

[12] The following material is partly drawn from a briefing paper co-written by this author. The paper is based on recordings of ISoc sermons, open-source material and interviews with a wide range of staff and students at City University. For the full paper, see “Radicalisation on British University Campuses: A Case Study,” Quilliam Foundation, October 2010.

[13] The university does not keep statistics on the percentage of Muslim students, but this is estimated by staff at between 10-20%. For more details, see ibid.

[14] “‘Taliban Rule’ at British University,” Sunday Times, October 17, 2010. Much of this data was also available on the ISoc’s website, which has since been removed.

[15] “Muslim Students Continue Street Protests,” Times Higher Education Supplement, March 16, 2010.

[16] Jennifer Lipman, “London Campus was ‘Launch Pad for Islamist Terrorism,’” The Jewish Chronicle, October 21, 2010.

[17] For full details of these incidents, see “Radicalisation on British University Campuses: A Case Study.”

[18] A sample of these problems can be seen in the following article in City’s student newspaper, as well as in the comments that follow it: “City Islamic Society Defends Radical Preacher and Threatens the Inquirer,” The Inquirer, January 2, 2010.

[19] Personal interview, vice-chancellor, anonymous London university, January 2010.

[20] Sean O’Neill, “Senior Member of Extreme Islamist Group Hizb ut-Tahrir Teaches at LSE,” The Times, January 15, 2010.

[21] “Statement on Mr Reza Pankhurst,” London School of Economics, undated, available at

[22] “Statement from the Students’ Union Regarding Recent Media Attention,” February 15, 2010, available at

[23] Personal interviews, anonymous students, London, March-April 2010.

[24] William Maclean, “Britain Admits Security Lapses After Sweden Blast,” Reuters, December 15, 2010.

[25] Although ISocs feature heavily in accounts of campus radicalization, this is not necessarily because of any intrinsic problem with ISocs. Rather, it is likely because radical groups often focus on taking over these societies and making them into vehicles for their own ideology; in effect, making them hubs of campus radicalization.

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