Northwest Bomber Case Throws Spotlight on U.K. Mosques and Universities

Are U.K. colleges and mosques breeding grounds for extremist Islamic ideology?

LONDON, Dec. 31, 2009 — -- The case of Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused of attempting to set off a bomb on a Detroit-bound plane, has thrown a spotlight on British universities and mosques and what some critics claim is a failure to quell the growth of Islamic radicalism on British campuses.

University College London, where Abdulmutallab studied, rejected the criticism. In an opinion article published today on the Times Higher Education Web site, UCL provost Malcolm Grant said the suggestion that the failed bomber was radicalized during his time at the college was a "spectacular insinuation ... without so much as a shred of evidence in substantiation."

Grant also announced plans for a "full independent review of Mr. Abdulmutallab's time at UCL" and said the college would take "appropriate action" after the review.

Calling for the media to take "a sober and thorough assessment" of the case, he said, "There is a narrow line that we must walk between securing freedom of speech on the one hand and safeguarding against its illegal exercise on the other, such as in the incitement of religious or racial hatred. There is nothing unique in this for universities."

Meanwhile, representatives of student Islamic societies in the U.K. bristled at suggestions that Islamic extremism is rife on U.K. university campuses and were quick to brush off any association with Islamic extremists.

"Islamic societies across the country continue to play a crucial role in engaging Muslim students and building positive cross-campus relations," read a statement by Faisal Hanjra, a spokesman for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) in the U.K. "There remains no evidence to suggest that Muslim students are at particular risk of radicalisation or that university campuses are vulnerable to people seeking to recruit to this extreme ideology."

But political commentator Douglas Murray said British universities "have to admit there is a problem."

"University authorities are not even aware of the types of people being invited [by Islamic societies] to speak on campus," Murray, the director of the London-based Centre for Social Cohesion, told ABC News. "They are much too naive about the problem. And now, they bear a huge burden of responsibility."

Details about Abdulmutallab's years in London paint a portrait of a young man who bemoaned his loneliness in Internet postings, but whose closest friends at university apparently knew little about his despair.

They also suggest he may have visited a mosque already under fire for hosting radical Islamic speakers.

And Murray suggests students such as Abdulmutallab, UCL Islamic Society president from 2006 to 2007, might have access to radical speakers without even leaving their universities.

"The striking thing about the Islamic society at UCL and at other universities is that they choose to repeatedly invite speakers who openly say people should be killed ... speakers like the homophobic Abu Usamah, who spoke at UCL at the beginning of this academic year and then was invited there again to speak this month," Murray said.

"And the universities have no particular concern about it," Murray added. "They are more scared of being accused of Islamophobia than protecting their students, both Muslim and non-Muslim students."

Universities Doing Enough to Tackle Extremism?

Qasim Rafiq, president of the Islamic Society at UCL from 2005 to 2006 and a close friend of Abdulmutallab's, defended the society's decision to extend invitations to controversial speakers like Abu Usamah.

"Universities are bedrocks of academic freedom," Rafiq said. "I don't necessarily agree with what Abu Usamah says, but I don't think he should be banned from universities."

In an interview with ABC News, Ahmed Nadil, vice president for student affairs at the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, said, "What we should be asking ourselves is if that debate and if that discussion is not taking place on campus then where is it taking place? The risk we run if we were to shut down barriers to freedom of expression is to create a culture where [if] debate and discussion [on] controversial but non-violent issues is not happening above the ground [then it] happens underground, and that's not a culture we should breed."

But Murray argued, "It's not a question of freedom of speech. These speakers break laws by inciting violence and hatred. You only have to look at the frequency of the invitations extended to such speakers to know there is a problem."

He added that the lack of restrictions imposed on Islamic student organizations puts the majority of Muslim students in a tough situation when faced with extremist views. The societies, he said, "are hijacked by extremist elements, people who focus on politics not religion. Their focus is less spiritual and more political. And other Muslim students feel compelled to get involved in these activities."

"When I was speaking to Majid Nawaz," Murray said, referring to a former member of the extremist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, "a young Muslim man came up to him and said, 'You don't remember me, but we were at the same university, and you used to continually hurl abuse at me for not being Muslim enough.' That sort of thing puts pressure on moderate Muslim students."

But so too does the media's focus on radical Islam and its alleged presence on British campuses, Rafiq said, as he repeatedly insisted that Abdulmutallab "was not radicalized in London."

"It's unfortunate that he is being used in the media as an example of how Muslims are radicalized in London," Rafiq said. "I mean, the first event I held as Islamic Society president after the July 7 bombings in London was called, 'Islam Versus Terrorism!'"

But a year later, during Abdulmutallab's stint as president of the UCL Islamic Society, Rafiq organized a conference termed "The War on Terror," a promo of which has attracted attention in the British media recently.

"We wanted to remove some of the hysteria surrounding the jihad," Rafiq said. "The essence of university life is debate ... as long as it doesn't incite violence. Whether the majority agrees or disagrees is irrelevant. We need to encourage discussion or it goes underground."

As Nadil put it, "It's important that ... all that debate takes place above ground ... [so these views] can be challenged as well."

Mosques' Open-Door Policy Under Question

As authorities try to understand what led Abdulmutallab, the son of a leading Nigerian banker, allegedly to attempt mass murder aboard Northwest Flight 253, the spotlight on mosques in the U.K. has only intensified and the open-door policy practiced by them has come into question.

In the immediate aftermath of the failed attack Abdulmutallab is charged for, the U.K. newspaper The Independent reported that the 23-year-old had visited the East London Mosque at least three times during his time at UCL.

The mosque was also responsible for hosting Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based radical cleric with links to the alleged Fort Hood attacker, Maj. Nidal Hasan.

That video conference was organized by the independent group Noor Pro Media on Jan. 1, 2009 and advertised with a disturbing poster that shows New York City under attack, with the tagline "The End of Time ... A New Beginning."

Mohammad Shakir, the press spokesman for the mosque, told ABC News that the subject of al-Awlaki's lecture was "the afterlife."

When ABC News asked officials if they remembered Abdulmutallab visiting the mosque, Ayub Khan, the mosque's secretary responded with a statement saying, "The mosque is open for the public to use on a daily basis. We have no membership like a church and therefore cannot comment on whether this individual came to East London Mosque."

"It goes without saying that the East London Mosque condemns in the strongest possible terms the alleged attempt to blow up a transatlantic airliner in the USA. The mosque has consistently spoken out against such acts, and will continue to do so. It is not the policy of the mosque to invite speakers who are at variance with this policy, and we try to ensure that those who hire out our facilities adhere to this principle."

This Friday, the mosque will host another series of lectures. The line-up will include Yasir Qadhi, a preacher who claimed to be on the U.S. Terrorist Watch List in an August 2006 interview with The Houston Chronicle.

Joanna Devane and Jim Sciutto contributed to the reporting of this story.