Many questions remain unanswered following an attempted attack on a Northwest Airlines flight on its way to Detroit on Christmas Day. Among them: When, where and how did an intelligent, prosperous young Nigerian with an engineering degree from a world-class university make the transition from devout Muslim to suspect in a failed suicide bombing?
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's teachers at University College London say he was a well-mannered, well-spoken and able student in the Department of Chemical Engineering. He was president of the campus Islamic Society for about a year, but to the group's knowledge never expressed any extremist views.
To Anthony Glees, a professor at Brunel University, that is a cause for deep concern.
"What is worrying in the case of University College London is the absence of evidence about it previously," Glees says.
In 2005, Glees wrote an influential paper about the radicalization of Muslim students at a handful of British institutions. UCL was not on the list.
"It's not been a site previously associated with al-Qaida-inspired attacks," Glees said. "Therefore, we need to be looking, not at places we've looked at before, just, but also at places we wouldn't have thought of looking before."
Didn't Fit Mold
Two years ago, the British government quietly launched a program called Prevent. Its aim was to stop young British Muslims from becoming terrorists. The program included extra resources for pastoral care to those Muslims deemed most vulnerable.
Britain's experience with homegrown Islamist terrorism has suggested these are young men of South Asian or Middle Eastern extraction, often undereducated and living well outside mainstream, multicultural Britain. But Abdulmutallab didn't fit into any of those categories: He was African. He was rich, living in a posh apartment near London's Harley Street. He was sophisticated, and he'd had the best education money and merit could buy.
"In many ways, it is the bright, articulate individuals that are most susceptible to the ideological message that groups like al-Qaida preach," said Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London security think tank. "The particular outfit that's been linked to Abdulmutallab, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has become quite sophisticated in planning plots that are designed to evade airport security."
British investigators are still trying to trace Abdulmutallab's movements in the country to see if any of the contacts he had at UCL or at the East London mosque he frequented could have brought him to the notice of a terrorist cell.
The British Federation of Student Islamic Societies confirms Abdulmutallab led its UCL chapter between 2006 and 2007, but it insists it heard nothing to suggest he supported illegal acts. In fact, a spokesman says, during his tenure the society worked to forge closer ties with student groups of all faiths and no faith.
Universities Under Scrutiny
There was one other facet to the Prevent program: Provosts were encouraged to ban speakers who preached hatred or advocated violence, but they were also exhorted to engage and challenge extremist views in campus debates — a potential contradiction no one seems to have noted at the time.
British universities are now in the spotlight, accused in some quarters of failing to adequately monitor potential radicals in their midst.
However, UCL Provost Malcolm Grant says, universities of UCL's stature must do nothing that could compromise academic freedoms and freedom of expression, and they cannot and should not screen incoming students that way.
"We're a highly competitive institution," Grant says. "We admit our students wholly on merit; we make no reference to their political, racial or religious background or belief.
"That's fundamental to what we do, so we can't, as it were, vet students in any effective way at that point."
British Home Secretary Alan Johnson says he agrees that the high reputation of Britain's universities rests in large part on freedoms that the authorities do not want to curtail.
"Yes, there's an issue about radicalization, which is why the Prevent part of our counterterrorism strategy is so important in terms of ensuring young people are not radicalized in this way," Johnson said.
The problem with relying on a policy such as Prevent to keep universities free of radicalizing elements is implicit in its very name: How do you know if a program designed to prevent something from happening really is doing so?