By Houriya Ahmed
The Home Secretary’s Review of the Prevent Strategy published on Tuesday was an excellent rebuke to the failures of challenging extremist ideology on British universities. Theresa May criticised campus Islamic societies (ISOCs) and the umbrella group the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) on Tuesday for their failure to challenge Islamist extremism on campuses. She also criticised the ‘complacency’ that UK universities had demonstrated in dealing with extremism on campuses. She addressed the issue of campus extremism in the much-anticipated review of the Prevent Strategy for counterterrorism, which was implemented in the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 London bomb attacks.
For example, the review states:
We judge that FOSIS has not always fully challenged terrorist and extremist ideology within the higher and further education sectors. FOSIS needs to give clearer leadership to their affiliated societies in this area.
There are several examples of students engaging in terrorism or related activities while members of university societies affiliated to FOSIS. Such extremists must have no part in any organisation that wishes to be recognised as a representative body.
We also judge that some extremist preachers from this country and from overseas, not connected to specific extremist groups, have also sought to repeatedly reach out to selected universities and to Muslim students. There is evidence to suggest that some people associated with some Islamic student societies have facilitated this activity and that it has largely gone unchallenged.
FOSIS President Nabil Ahmed rejected this criticism:
We believe the accusation that FOSIS has been complacent on this issue is false and unjustified; FOSIS has consistently taken measured steps to engage with key stakeholders, including members of the government, on the issue of radicalisation on campus […]
The Home Secretary’s criticism of FOSIS, which was set up in 1963 by Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami activists, is not without merit. The organisation has invited controversial hate preachers to their conferences, and has failed to criticise such preachers when they have been invited by affiliated ISOCs. Perhaps the most alarming example of this practice was the invitation FOSIS extended to Anwar al-Awlaki in 2003 — presently a member of al-Qaeda in Yemen and the subject of a US kill or capture order due to his involvement in several terrorist plots against Western targets. At the time, FOSIS described al-Awlaki as a ‘distinguished’ guest of their annual conference at the University of Nottingham. ISOCs in SOAS, City, and KCL campuses have also previously advertised al-Awlaki as a guest speaker.
Concerns about extremism on UK campuses have been raised by the Centre for Social Cohesion, which recently merged with the Henry Jackson Society. After the attempted bombing of a US-bound flight by former UCL student and ISOC president Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day 2009, the Centre for Social Cohesion published a report detailing the ISOCs and individuals from universities who are known to have engaged in extremist activities. Another report that I co-authored last year, Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections, found that at least 31% of the individuals who were convicted of or committed an Islamism-related offence between 1999 and 2009 had attended university or a higher education institute. While problems of extremism are not evident on all campuses or ISOCs, some show signs of concern as a number of these individuals were involved in extremist activity while at university, and in some instances, while being members of their ISOCs. These include:
1) Kafeel Ahmed, who died as a result of his Glasgow airport suicide attack on 30 June 2007, is believed by security sources to have been radicalised while studying for a PhD in computational fluid dynamics at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.
2) Waheed Zaman, who was part of the 2006 ‘Transatlantic liquid bomb’ plot to detonate US bound flights mid-air, was convicted in June 2010 for conspiracy to murder. He was a biomedical science student at London Metropolitan University and president of its ISOC. Literature and audio cassettes from the radical group al-Muhajiroun were found in the ISOC’s office.
3) Mohammed Naveed Bhatti, who was part of the 2004 ‘Dirty bomb’ plot, was convicted on 18 April 2007 for conspiracy to cause explosions. At the time of his arrest, Bhatti was studying for a postgraduate qualification in finite-element modelling and analysis at Brunel University. Bhatti met the cell leader of the ‘Dirty bomb’ plot, Dhiren Barot, at the university’s prayer room in 2001.
4) Anthony Garcia and Jawad Akbar, who were part of the 2004 ‘Fertiliser bomb plot and convicted on 30 April 2007 for conspiracy to cause explosions, also engaged in extremist activity while at university. Garcia became radicalised between 1998 and 2003 after seeing videos at the University of East London ISOC depicting atrocities allegedly inflicted upon Muslims in Kashmir. Garcia went on to join al-Muhajiroun and Akbar attended al-Muhajiroun meetings while studying at Brunel University.
5) Mohammed Atif Siddique, convicted on September 2007 for disseminating terrorist publications and weapons training for terrorism, showed images of suicide bombers and beheadings to students at Glasgow Metropolitan College, where he was also a student.
Despite this evidence, FOSIS has consistently denied that any extremism problem exists on British campuses. For instance, in October 2009 FOSIS’ former president declared:
Since 7/7, since 2005, up to today, there has been not a single piece of evidence to suggest that universities or Islamic Societies are breeding grounds in any way, for radicalisation or extremism […] there hasn’t been a single case which suggests that a Muslim student has gone on to a university campus, studied there for three years, and has come out a terrorist.
With this record, it is clear that the Home Secretary was right to criticise FOSIS for its complacent attitude towards campus extremism. FOSIS has denied that this is even a problem, and accuses anyone who raises the issue of ‘fear-mongering’. The Home Office’s latest review of the Prevent strategy demonstrates that FOSIS are resolutely outside the mainstream on this issue. If they want to be taken seriously as an organisation dedicated to Muslim participation in student body politics, they should admit that Islamist extremism exists on campuses, and take positive steps to challenge extremism. Not inviting hate preachers to address students would be a good start.