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Pathways into terrorism

Statistically more than 30 per cent of people convicted of Al Qaeda associated terrorist offences in the UK between 1999 and 2009 are known to have attended university or a higher education institution. This is not to say that all such individuals were radicalised at a university, as Alan Cain, pictured, head of security at the University of Leeds, writes. As featured in the September 2013 print issue of Professional Security, he is taking a St Andrew’s University advanced certificate in terrorism studies.

PREVENT (the second strand of the United Kingdom’s CONTEST counter- terrorism strategy) acknowledges,

“Some students were already committed to terrorism before they arrived at university; others were radicalised when they were there but by people operating outside the university itself; a third group have been attracted to and engaged in extremist activity at university and have then gone on to commit acts of terrorism after they have left.”

This article seeks to examine the life and radicalisation of one such student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a graduate of University College London (UCL), serving life imprisonment at the ADX Florence ‘Supermax’ prison in Colorado, USA, on charges including the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, the attempted murder of 289 people, the attempted destruction of a civilian aircraft, placing a destructive device on an aircraft, and possession of explosives.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Abdulmutallab was born on December 22, 1986 in Lagos, Nigeria. The youngest of 16 children, he is the son of Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, the former Chairman of First Bank of Nigeria and former Nigerian Federal Commissioner for Economic Development. As befitting his father’s occupation, Abdulmutallab was raised in the affluent north Nigerian neighbourhood of Kaduna. He was educated at the Essence International School in Kaduna, and also took classes at the Rabiatu Mutallib Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies.

Following his schooling, Abdulmutallab moved to Yemen in 2004, and spent a year studying at the San’a Institute for the Arabic Language in Sana’a. He also attended lectures at Iman University.

In September 2005 Abdulmutallab moved to England to continue his education, enrolling on the BEng Engineering and Business Finance programme at University College London (UCL). His student record suggests that he was a satisfactory but not an academically outstanding student. He graduated with a 2:2 degree in 2008.

After graduating Abdulmutallab moved to Dubai, where he enrolled on the international business master’s degree programme at the University of Wollongong in January 2009. However, in July 2009 he quit the programme and returned to the Yemen, ostensibly to re-commence his studies in Arabic at San’a Institute for the Arabic Language.

Once he arrived in the Yemen, Abdulmutallab routinely skipped his classes at the Institute to attend lectures at Iman University. On September 21, 2009 he quit his course altogether. Although provided with an exit visa by the school, it appears he did not exit the country. Instead he appears to have stayed on until December 7, 2009, when he flew to Lagos via Ethiopia and Ghana.

On Christmas Day 2009, Abdulmutallab travelled to Amsterdam, where he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route to Detroit. Wearing plastic explosives that were sewn into his underwear he attempted (unsuccessfully) to bring down the aircraft during its final approach into Detroit.

Pathways into terrorism

Most academic studies point to the view that terrorists are generally remarkable for their sheer ordinariness. The futile search to date for a ‘terrorist personality’ has led academics such as John Horgan and Max Taylor to identify the need for an alternative approach, seeing involvement in terrorism (at least in psychological terms) as a process rather than a state.

This process begins with ‘becoming involved’, when a gradual socialisation into terrorism takes place, and culminates with ‘being involved’, when the individual is a fully-fledged member of the terrorist organisation. Although the exact point at which an individual crosses the line from ‘becoming involved’ to ‘being involved’ is a matter for debate, taking part in violent terrorist action would appear to be a crucial benchmark. The idea of ‘pathways into terrorism’ also implies that there may well be a corresponding pathway back, whereby the individual commits to ‘ending involvement’ in terrorism.

According to one of his cousins Abdulmutallab first began to take his religion more seriously as a teenager, becoming very pious as a Muslim. He condemned his father for being a banker, believing him to be “immoral” and “un-Islamic” for charging interest.

Following his schooling, Abdulmutallab moved to Yemen in 2004, and spent a year studying at the San’a Institute for the Arabic Language in Sana’a. SIAL specialises in teaching Arabic as a foreign language, as well as teaching courses in Arabic calligraphy, Islamic studies, and Yemeni culture. It is not known to be radical, and prior to Al-Qaeda’s attack on the American destroyer USS Cole in October 2000 attracted many US and British students.

Whilst SIAL would not appear to have contributed to Abdulmutallab ‘becoming involved’, he also attended lectures at Iman University. Iman University is a Sunni religious school founded in 1993 by Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, who is classified by the US as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist.’ The radical cleric Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been linked to Al-Qaeda, has lectured at Iman University and The Sunday Times, in an article entitled “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: one boy’s journey to jihad”, established that Abdulmutallab first met and attended lectures taken by al-Awlaki in 2005.

It was around this time that Abdulmutallab may have made online postings using the Internet username “Farouk1986.” The Washington Post reviewed 300 of Abdulmutallab’s online postings including one made on February 20, 2005, in which he wrote:

“Alright, i wont go into too much details about me fantasy, but basically they are jihad fantisies [sic]. I imagine how the great jihad will take place, how the muslims will win insha Allah and rule the whole world, and establish the greatest empire once again!!!”

It would therefore appear that it was during his time in the Yemen that Abdulmutallab began his travels along the pathways of radicalisation, ‘becoming involved’ in terms of both his fantasies of jihad and his association with Anwar al-Awlaki.

In September 2005 Abdulmutallab moved to England to enrol on the BEng Engineering and Business Finance programme at University College London (UCL). He was a member of the UCL Union’s Islamic Society (ISoc) throughout his time as a UCL undergraduate and became its President during his second year (2006-07). Abdulmutallab organised an ISoc ‘War on Terror’ week during the year of his presidency, as well as activities such as martial arts training and paintballing.

An Independent Inquiry Panel subsequently reviewed a wide range of documents and interviewed some 27 past and present members of the UCL community as part of its investigation into whether there were at UCL at that time conditions that might have led to Abdulmutallab’s engaging in acts of terrorism. Whilst identifying a number of areas of UCL and/or UCL student union operations where scope for strengthening current processes existed, the paper concluded that,

“… the inquiry panel has found no evidence to suggest that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was radicalised while at UCL.”

However in a Sunday Times article entitled “MI5 knew of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s UK extremist links” the journalist David Leppard reported that during his time at UCL Abdulmutullab ‘crossed the radar screen’ of MI5, both for his radical links and for his ‘multiple communications’ with Islamic extremists. Taken together these two apparently contradictory statements appear to confirm that Abdulmutullab was already ‘becoming involved’ in terrorism in the Yemen prior to his arrival at UCL.

After graduating Abdulmutallab moved to Dubai in January 2009, where he enrolled on the international business master’s degree programme at the University of Wollongong. He subsequently tried to return to Britain, however the United Kingdom Border Agency denied his visa application, having concluded that he was attempting to attend a fictitious school. At this point he was placed on a UK Home Office security watch list, although this status was based on the risk of his committing immigration fraud rather than for national security purposes.

After his UK visa was refused, Abdulmutallab quit his master’s degree and returned to Yemen, ostensibly to re-commence his studies in Arabic at SIAL. As with his previous studies at SIAL, he spent much of his time attending lectures at Iman University.

It is probably around the time of this second visit to Yemen that Abdulmutallab crosses the thin line between ‘becoming involved’ and ‘being involved’ in terrorism. Intelligence officials suspect that Anwar al-Awlaki may have directed him to Yemen for Al-Qaeda training. A video of Abdulmutallab taken at this time shows him training in a desert camp, firing assault weapons at targets including the Jewish star, the British Union Jack, and the letters “UN”.

On Christmas Day 2009, Abdulmutallab travelled to Amsterdam, where he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253. During the approach into Detroit he spent about 20 minutes in the bathroom mixing PETN with TATP, both ingredients having been concealed in a six-inch packet which was sewn into his underwear. He then returned to his seat and attempted to detonate the device, but only actually succeeded in setting his trouser leg and the wall of the plane on fire. He was subdued by a fellow passenger, and flight attendants used fire extinguishers to extinguish the flames.

Causes of Terrorism

To answer the question “what causes terrorism?” scholars from a variety of disciplines such as political science, social science, anthropology and divinity have all looked at the ‘root causes’ of terrorism. Tore Bjorgo, Professor of Police Science at the Norwegian Police University College, categorises ‘root causes’ into structural causes, facilitator or accelerator causes, motivational causes and triggering causes.

Structural causes can be defined as those which affect people’s lives at a rather abstract level, such as poverty, inequality, and illiteracy. Abdulmutallab was the son of the former Chairman of First Bank of Nigeria, raised in the affluent north Nigerian neighbourhood of Kaduna, and benefited from a graduate education at a Russell Group University. Thus poverty, inequality and illiteracy were unlikely to have served as a ‘root cause’ of Abdulmutallab ‘becoming involved’ in terrorism.

Facilitator or accelerator causes are those causes that make terrorism attractive without being prime movers, such as the evolution of modern news media, transportation and weapons technology. With both a blog and a Facebook page, Anwar al-Awlaki has been described as the “bin Laden of the internet”. Despite being banned from entering the UK in 2006, al-Awlaki spoke via video-link in 2007–09 on at least seven occasions at five venues in Britain. It is likely that Abdulmutallab attended one or more of these events.

Transportation was both a facilitator and a target for Abdulmutallab, as was weapons technology in the form of a binary mixture of PETN and TATP.
Motivational causes are the actual grievances of people at a personal level, prompting them into action. Signs of such personal grievances include Abdulmutallab condemning his father Umaru Mutallab for being a banker, believing him to be “immoral” and “un-Islamic” for charging interest.
According to Bjorgo (2005), triggering causes or triggering events are the direct precipitators of terrorist acts,

“They may be momentous or provocative events, a political calamity, an outrageous act committed by the enemy, or some other events that call for revenge or action. Even peace talks may trigger opponents of political compromise to carry out terrorist action in order to undermine negotiations and discredit moderates.”

Born on December 22, 1986 the “momentous or provocative event” in Abdulmutallab’s early life is likely to have been President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ‘War on Terror’ response to 9/11, at which time Abdulmutallab would have been 14. Former head of MI5 Stella Rimington described the response as a “huge overreaction”, mentioning specifically Guantánamo Bay, the practice of extraordinary rendition, and the invasion of Iraq. In particular she challenges claims, notably made by Tony Blair, that the war in Iraq was not related to the radicalisation of Muslim youth,

“Well, I think all one can do is look at what those people who’ve been arrested or have left suicide videos say about their motivation. And most of them, as far as I’m aware, say that the war in Iraq played a significant part in persuading them that this is the right course of action to take.”

In the final analysis it seems likely that the failure of George Bush and Tony Blair to understand that ‘terrorism’ is not an enemy but a tactic and Anwar al-Awlaki’s lectures at Iman University in the Yemen both did far more to radicalise Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab than anything he may have learnt or done at University College London.


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